This weekend, in an Oxford lecture titled “Travelling Texts in a Time of Emergency”, Morton demonstrated that the British “practiced” techniques for repressing populations in their colonies. His conclusions are deeply relevant, not just to a British colonial or post-colonial reality but to the American “Homeland.”
He looked at an essay by Walter Benjamin, the “Eighth Thesis on the Philosophy of History.” It is a 1933 essay — very important timing — in which Benjamin, who was watching the consolidation of European fascism, began to say: don’t believe the language about “terror”; don’t be fooled into the propaganda that the need for “a state of emergency” is an aberration, a response to genuine dramatic threats. Don’t be taken in by it. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches that the “state of emergency” is a permanent historical tradition. The “state of emergency” exists permanently as a state of lawlessness — it is not the exception but the rule.” In other words, Benjamin saw clearly in 1933 that the German discourse of “Oh my God, things are really unstable, we need to suspend certain civil liberties for the sake of national security” was a hoax — a historical constant always used by elites and always for the same reasons.
Prof. Morton went on to trace this practice — of manipulating the words “terrorist” and propagandizing a need for states of emergency that lead to preventive detention, torture, suspension of constitutional rights and so on — to many places in the British colonial regime. He noted that “terrorist” was a term the British often applied to local populations that were fighting for — yes — freedom from oppressive British rule. He pointed out that the “Bengal Suppression of Terror Act” of the 1900s, for instance, was aimed at local freedom movements. (The word “Terrorist” was first coined in reference to the French Revolutionary state.)
Legal scholar Albert Venn Dicey pointed out in 1883 that martial law is “anomalous to the law in England” and a sign of a totalitarian state or a terrorist state. In spite of this ideology that Britain is a constitutional democracy, Morton said that British Colonial governments have all used emergency legislation to suppress colonial uprisings. They allowed the Colonial governors to develop torture, preventive detention, the maintenance of “order” by force, the denial of rights to subjects. The “state of emergency” operated “as a traveling concept for global counter-insurgencies, reiterated in different colonial authorities” around the world. Even more disturbingly fascinating, he made the case that British authorities would “practice” certain kinds of repression on Ireland between 1900 and 1922 — and then “export” these practices overseas. So in Ireland at that time, “subversive” material was criminalized in newspapers, and so on. The “state of emergency’ in that period — for Ireland, not for Britain as a whole — “was the rule, and the application of the Constitution the exception.”
Morton went on to say that the “causative” emergencies for the “state of emergency” were often manufactured, for example in Malaya; that the ostensibly “dramatic character of these emergencies made them appear spontaneous rather than systemic”; and the strategy was the same for the imposition of Martial Law.
I’ve looked, as readers may know, at various fascist and totalitarian regimes, to get a handle of what the US was up to in terms of the erosion of our civil liberties. But I did not look at British colonialism in relation to the systemic development of the deployment of “state of emergency” policies to suspend US Constitutional rights, and I should make that connection now. It seems clear to me from this lecture and from other research that the architects of the suppression of our rights have probably studied British colonial rule as well as other repressive regimes.
Why would this historical source be especially useful for them? Because Britain, like America, as a putative constitutional democracy, can’t just say, “Okay, now we are a police state, and we are suspending the Constitution.” Britain in that period, like the United States today, needed to maintain its own ideology as a “free” nation, an exporter of human rights and democracy, around the world, to all these benighted brown peoples. So Britain needed to develop a discourse of rationale — hence the “state of emergency” discourse and the reliance on whipped-up “dramas” to justify a seeming exception to constitutional democracy that is actually the rule.
I think we should pay close attention to what Walter Benjamin tried to tell readers in 1933 — and really take in what Professors Morton and Boehmer are alerting us to today: “states of emergency” have a long historical record of being manipulated by elites, for repressive purposes that have nothing to do with the always “dramatic” rationales that are used to justify them; and British colonial rule was a laboratory of the very tactics and the same soundbites that we are seeing at home now in the United States. The past is prologue.”