George Floyd and American foreign policy

By Robert Wright, Jun 28 2020

In early June, small groups of demonstrators gathered in Israel and the West Bank to protest the killing of two men. One was George Floyd and the other was Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who on May 30, while making his daily trek to a school for people with special needs, was killed by Israeli police. Protesters held signs that said #BlackLivesMatter and signs that said #PalestinianLivesMatter.

Are these two cases really comparable? Does the moral logic behind America’s Black Lives Matter protests naturally extend to a country 5,000 miles away?

Yes is just the beginning of my answer. Comparing the cases of George Floyd and Eyad al-Hallaq can be the first step toward a broad re-examination of American foreign policy. The George Floyd moment is an excellent time to ask why, in various countries, the United States routinely contributes to the killing, brutalization, and oppression of so many people—and why pretty much all those people are people of color.

It’s easy to point to differences between the cases of Floyd and al-Hallaq. Al-Hallaq, like all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had faced discrimination of a more formal kind than Floyd faced. He didn’t, for example, get to vote in Israeli elections, even though the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territory on which he lived.

Still, both men had been born and raised in circumstances that translated ethnicity into injustice, circumstances that tended to foster antagonistic encounters with authorities—including armed authorities who, by virtue of that ethnicity, viewed these men warily. The Israeli police who killed al-Hallaq said they’d mistaken his cell phone for a gun.

And there’s another parallel: In both the Floyd and al-Hallaq cases, the US government helps sustain those circumstances. Many Palestinians, including boys in the West Bank who gather and throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers occupying their territory, have been killed with US weapons, sometimes weapons paid for by US taxpayers. (To say nothing of the bigger pieces of US military hardware that every so often are used to kill Palestinians on a much larger scale in Gaza, which is suffocating under the pressure of an economic blockade imposed by Israel with America’s approval.)

America’s role in oppressing Palestinians goes beyond supplying Israel with arms. International attempts to condemn the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank (which violates international law) have more than once been thwarted by America’s use of its veto in the United Nations Security Council. And thanks to an executive order issued by President Trump, American colleges that let students criticize Israel in specific harsh ways could lose federal funding.

This and the various other forms of US government support for the status quo in Israel are sometimes attributed to the “special relationship” between the two nations. And it’s true that their bond is sui generis. But America aids and abets violence and repression in other Middle Eastern countries as well.

Egypt is ruled by a US-backed dictator who in a single day killed more than 900 peaceful protesters. (They objected to his having seized power via a coup that the Obama administration insisted wasn’t a coup.) And by “US-backed dictator” I mean a dictator who is lavishly supported with American weapons and other forms of aid.

So too with Saudi Arabia’s semi-deranged crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whose most notorious crime—having a journalist he found annoying dismembered via bonesaw in Turkey—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s no telling how many Saudis he’s had tortured or killed. And then there are the thousands of Yemenis he’s killed—with American logistical support and often with American weapons—since 2015, when he launched one of the most ill-advised military interventions in recent history.

And then, of course, there are the cases where America has done the killing itself—most notably the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the Libya intervention of 2011.

Note that most of the victims of the above mayhem—the people who have been killed, tortured, or oppressed in the Middle East either by America or with America’s help—are people of color. Which is something they have in common with the people America continues to kill outside the Middle East, via endless aerial strikes in Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

To be sure, in some of these cases, the brutality directed at people of color is being perpetrated by people of color. There is, for example, the Arab-on-Arab violence, done with a little help from Uncle Sam. But that doesn’t mean words like “bigotry” and “racism” have no place here. Would the average American taxpayer be so unperturbed by the carnage America sponsors if the victims were thought of as white? Or, at least, if the victims couldn’t be cast as part of an alien religion or a strange and exotic culture? 

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I don’t claim they’re easy to answer. Certainly America’s use of force isn’t always governed by ethnic or cultural affinity. Twice in the 1990s the US intervened against Christians (Bosnian Serbs in the mid-nineties and Serbs in the late-nineties) and on behalf of Muslims (Bosnians and Kosovans, respectively). But that kind of thing happens rarely, and it hasn’t happened in a while.

At a certain level of abstraction, the Black Lives Matter protests are about how America treats marginalized people, particularly people who aren’t white—how these people can be brutalized and even killed, day after day, without all this violence rising above the level of background noise until a particularly egregious instance of it goes viral.

Well, America’s foreign policy could be described much the same way. We participate in the killing, brutalization, and oppression of typically nonwhite, marginalized people, and it passes without notice except when some particularly grotesque snafu makes it newsworthy. (This time the brown people I don’t know who were killed by a missile my tax dollars paid for were at a wedding! That’s unconscionable!)

One of the admirable things about the much-derided “social justice warriors” at elite American colleges is that many of them are agitating on behalf of categories of people they don’t belong to—poor people who face incarceration, for example. So too with the Black Lives Matter protests, which have featured lots of people who will never know what it’s like to be black.

Well, American foreign policy offers an opportunity for all Americans to engage in such protest; they can protest the systemic brutalization of people in whose shoes they will never be.

PS: Rep. Barbara Lee, a peacenik of impeccable credentials, has started a movement to “defund the military”—not entirely (which even I think would be excessive!) but considerably. The activist group Win Without War has the details

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