Three Killings: California, Florida, France
The note left next to the bloodied body of Shaima Alawadi read “go back to your country, you terrorist.” Alawadi, who died on Saturday after being taken off life support, was an Iraqi-born mother of five living outside of San Diego. Someone had delivered a similar note to the family earlier in the month. It was likely the same person who returned with a tire iron and struck her repeatedly on the head. Alawadi had lived in the United States for 17 years. Several family members reportedly provided cultural training to U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East. In a very sad coda, Alawadi is indeed going back to her country – to be buried.
There were no notes that accompanied Trayvon Martin’s death at the end of February. But he was also killed for a perceived trespassing. An African-American teenager, Martin was guilty of “walking while black” as he carried iced tea and Skittles through the Florida community of Sanford. The self-appointed head of the community’s neighborhood watch, George Zimmerman, identified Martin as a threat. Zimmerman didn’t wait for the police to arrive. He chased after the young man and, in circumstances still very murky, shot him dead. Because of the “stand your ground” law that permits shooting in self-defense, the police did not arrest Zimmerman.
In the middle of March, Mohamed Merah went on a killing spree in Toulouse, France that left seven people dead. The victims were a rabbi, three Jewish children, and three French soldiers. Two of the soldiers were Muslim. Merah, who identified with Islamic extremism, specifically targeted Muslim soldiers for being “traitors.” The French-born Merah better fit the profile of a serial killer than a political extremist. But his Muslim victims are an important reminder that ordinary, everyday Muslims, even more so than Jews or Americans, figure as the most potent threats to the worldview promoted by al Qaeda and its ilk. The overwhelming majority of al Qaeda and Taliban victims are Muslims.
These deaths are, on the face of it, quite different: a hate crime, a serial killing, and an act of vigilantism. But underlying these three tragedies is a notion of violated borders, of trespass. The message behind all three is this: you should not be here, you are not one of us, and your death shall serve as a warning.
Trespass is originally an economic term intimately connected to evolving concepts of public and private space. In the late medieval period in England, wealthy landholders began to fence off common lands to increase the pasturage for their flocks of sheep. This enclosure movement, privatization avant la lettre, created a new class of dispossessed, of those who did not belong. The word “trespass” – to enter private property without permission – comes from this period of late Middle Ages. Fences marked off the newly enclosed property. You could not enter without the permission of the owner or his agents. And scaffolds appeared throughout England to punish those thrown off the land who were forced to steal because they had no other means of subsistence.
In his captivating book The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt describes how the violence and oppression of this system drove theologian Thomas More to create his famous “utopia” of commonly held property.
“Utopia begins with a searing indictment of England as a land where noblemen, living idly off the labor of others, bleed their tenants white by constantly raising their rents,” Greenblatt writes, “where land enclosures for sheep-raising throw untold thousands of poor people into an existence of starvation or crime, and where the cities are ringed by gibbets on which thieves are hanged by the score without the slightest indication that the draconian punishment deters anyone from committing the same crimes.” Greenblatt cites the statistic of 72,000 thieves hanged during the reign of Henry the VIII, when More was composing his tract.
We too are living at a time of gibbets and enclosures, of death penalties and gated communities, of state violence and privatization. The United States has become a country of wealthy enclaves, neighborhood watches, and charter schools. Widening inequality has directly contributed to the deterioration of any sense of the public good. The drive for minimal government has reduced the capacity of public servants to ensure basic services and security. The erosion of the middle class has not only reduced the tax base, it has weakened political support for programs that aspire to universality. “Ill fares the land,” wrote Oliver Goldsmith in his 1770 poem “The Deserted Village,” “to hast'ning ill a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”
Colorado Springs, a sort of anti-Utopia, is a case in point. There, the city council responded to state and federal budget cuts by radically reducing public services. In its place, the city set up an extortion racket. If you want the electricity restored to all the streetlamps in your neighborhood or the Parks Department to take care of your local park, you have to pony up the dollars yourself. Most disturbingly, as a recent This American Life episode on Colorado Springs detailed, residents are willing to pay more money to maintain services in their own little patch of earth than they would have paid in additional taxes to keep the services running for everybody in the city.
Trayvon Martin was killed in a modest gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando hard hit by the recession. The name of the community, tellingly, is The Retreat. As in Colorado Springs, the residents of Sanford must band together to compensate for what a diminished public sector fails to provide. The Retreaters, who live in townhouses priced around $100,000, have recently been concerned about a rash of burglaries. According to one resident, there had been eight cases in 15 months, and the culprits were mostly African-American males (or so he said). There are no signs at The Retreat that read: No Poor People or No African-Americans or No People Wearing Hoodies. The rules regarding trespass are unstated, shaped by fear and subject to the worst kind of stereotyping. Trayvon Martin was a victim of profiling but also of the insecurity that accompanies the decline of the middle class, an insecurity that especially plagues those of modest means, for they cannot afford all the perquisites of the wealthy. Vigilantism is the byproduct of a failed state. And the austerity measures promoted during our current mean season result in such a failed state.
Shaima Alawadi and her family recently moved from Detroit to the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, home to the second-largest Iraqi community in the country. Alawadi, like so many Iraqis living in El Cajon, took refuge in America from the human rights violations and the subsequent sectarian violence of Iraq. But they also found themselves in a city close to the Mexican border and therefore on the frontlines of the immigration debate in the United States. The economic crisis has produced a spike in anti-immigrant sentiment: “they” are taking “our” jobs; “they” are a burden on “our” city services; “they” are not assimilating into “our” culture. Hate crimes against immigrants have been on the rise. Alawadi was not only an immigrant. She wore a headscarf and so was identifiably Muslim. As such, she was a target for all those who conflate Islam with terrorism. Religious freedom and respect for ethnic diversity are still core American values. But a certain tribalism has crept into American discourse. A tribe of xenophobic Christians is fearful that demographic shifts and economic malaise will undermine their precarious cultural status. A small but growing minority within this tribe will resort to violence to maintain this status.
The politics of immigration, multiculturalism, and Islamophobia take on a very different character in France. In this election year, President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to steal the fire from an unabashedly xenophobic right wing. He has stated that there are “too many foreigners” in the country. He has strenuously backed the French ban on the hijab. He has gone after halal meat (which has also raised concerns in France’s Jewish community that Kosher food will likewise be stigmatized). What had once been on the margins of French debate is now in the very mainstream. Muslims are somehow under suspicion for challenging a mythical unitary French identity through what they eat, what they wear, and how they pray. Mohamed Merah, meanwhile, believed that some Muslims had become too French and should be punished for their transgression. French Muslims find themselves in an increasingly difficult position. They trespass on French culture if they attempt to retain their identity. Or they trespass in the imaginations of religious extremists if they identify too closely as French — by, for instance, joining the army. If France and the European Union were enjoying an economic uptick, these culture wars would retreat into the background. As it is, Muslims have become a convenient scapegoat.
The European Union was supposed to be a borderless space. But the old dream of an ever more prosperous and economically equitable regional arrangement has come up hard against economic downturn and polarization. The United States was supposed to be a country without the class barriers of feudal Europe. But the old dream of a growing middle class and the relatively stable politics that accompany it cannot survive in the austerity liberalism and anti-government conservatism of the 21st century. When our notion of the common good, of commonwealth, begins to disintegrate, all that is left are tribes defending their turf, standing their ground, enclosing their land.
We are living now in a new world of enclosures. We are building our fences ever higher. We are patrolling our borders with ever more sophisticated weaponry. And we are punishing any and all who trespass. The victims of these recent killings are the collateral damage of these border wars.