“It is therefore quite significant, a structural element in the realm of human affairs, that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable. This is the true hallmark of those offenses, which, since Kant, we call a ‘radical evil’ and about whose nature so little is known, even to us who have been exposed to one of their rare outbursts on the public scene. All we know is that we can neither punish nor forgive such offenses and that they therefore transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Last Friday afternoon, Dylann Roof appeared in court for arraignment through a closed-circuit television, all the while flanked by law enforcement officers. The protection of the blue screen seemed a testament to the degree of his offence: murdering 9 people during a Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The scene was made more surreal for viewers who listened to the disembodied voices of the victims’ family members address Roof directly, confronting him with their suffering and pain and offering their forgiveness. The daughter of one victim, Ethel Lance, said: “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me and I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” The words of forgiveness were so remarkable even President Obama tweeted: “In the midst of darkest tragedy, the decency and goodness of the American people shines through in these families.”
In an era defined by pervasive mass mediation, what role might intimacy—a relation of closeness and familiarity with another person—play in the realm of politics? Most of us are familiar with the town hall meetings, living-room campaign events, and other highly publicized yet simultaneously face-to-face interactions that now play a prominent role in this country’s electoral campaigns. Most of us also recognize the ways that Obama and other recent Presidents have presented the nation with stories of individual tribulation in order to “give a human face” to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the spiraling costs of health care, or the most recent school shooting. To be sure, cynics might argue that political figures stage such moments of (supposed) intimacy merely to evoke and harness constituents’ sentiments in the service of their policies—or to lend themselves an air of human approachability. There is probably some truth in these claims. But I believe such skepticism also underestimates the varied motives that prompt leaders to mobilize the rhetoric of intimacy. It also skirts the diverse reasons why ordinary citizens might seek out—or refuse—those leaders’ expressions of empathy and solidarity.
I was led to these reflections by last week’s meeting between German Federal President Joachim Gauck and the relatives of the ten people murdered by the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, between 2000 and 2007. The NSU was a small but committed group of violent neo-Nazis that initially coalesced in Jena, a university town in the former East Germany, over the course of the 1990s. In the years that followed, the NSU’s core members ranged across the Federal Republic of Germany to target and fatally shoot nine small business owners of migrant backgrounds (eight of them Turkish, one of them Greek). They also shot two police officers, one of whom later died of her injuries, and injured twenty-three additional people in two separate bombings.
The NSU managed to evade detection and arrest for years due to competition between German law enforcement and security agencies, structural barriers to communication, and the evident negligence of investigators on the local, state, and national levels. Perhaps most egregiously, the Federal Office of Constitutional Protection sought to avoid public scrutiny and censure of its actions in late 2011 by deliberately destroying files that documented its long-standing contacts with another right extremist group closely related to the NSU. During these years of bungling, many of those in law enforcement and public security failed to take the possibility of right-wing political violence seriously. Instead, investigators long operated on the premise that the victims had died at the hands of relatives, drug dealers, or other criminals in the underground immigrant milieu. In this manner, law enforcement officials wittingly or unwittingly bought into reductive stereotypes that link people of migrant backgrounds with violence and crime.
On February 18th, Federal President Gauck invited the victims’ families to his offices in Berlin to express his commitment to the full investigation of the murders and the institutional shortcomings that failed to prevent them. This meeting was a particularly delicate one for Gauck since he has struggled to strike a consistent and publicly palatable tone on matters of immigration. In 2010 he awkwardly defended the anti-immigrant populist Thilo Sarrazin and his book Deutschland schafft sich ab, and later that same year he distanced himself from former Federal President Christian Wulff’s claim that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Gauck also appeared distinctly ill at ease during an earlier memorial gathering with the victims’ families in 2012. On the whole, Gauck’s public statements have tended to emphasize the “foreignness” of Muslims and post-war migrants, not their integral and self-evident membership in German national life.
Perhaps in response to his earlier public statements, last week Gauck promised the families that he would invest his full “personal involvement” in the ongoing government-led inquiry. This striking formulation implied a level of engagement on his part that extended beyond the strictly “professional” concern that might be expected of him as Germany’s Federal President. In addition, Gauck insisted ahead of the meeting that it would be small in scale and familiar in tone, and members of the press would not be allowed to attend the proceedings. These conditions would allow him, he contended, to hold personal and private conversations with all of the attendees. In short, Gauck set considerable store in interpersonal intimacy as a means to engage with the surviving family members, acknowledge their loss and mistreatment, and restore at least some of their confidence in German legal and political institutions. He probably also hoped to rehabilitate his own public image to some degree, but I suspect that this motive was not the overriding one during this particular meeting.
Many of the surviving family members accepted Gauck’s invitation, and several of the seventy total attendees contributed in their own fashion to this performance of political intimacy. Ismail Yozgat, father of murder victim Halil Yozgat, arrived with a photograph of his son as a six-year-old hung around his neck, and when he tearfully called on state authorities to “give me my son back,” Gauck wrapped his arm around his shoulders.
But many of the other attendees pointedly refused to speak at length with the Federal President, and some later expressed irritation that Gauck had not lingered with them, but had instead departed promptly at 2 p.m. to attend to other business. Others were troubled by the fact that Gauck had shared his opening remarks with media representatives rather than reserving them for the families alone. And still others had not accepted the Federal President’s invitation at all and remained distant from the gathering. One family worried that the group would actually be too large for Gauck to have a personal conversation with them. A few others, meanwhile, justified their absence on the grounds that the Federal President’s office had not honored their requests for their lawyers to be present. In the words of Angela Wierig, representative for Ayşen Taşköprü: “true empathy would have recognized that my client would have liked me by her side.”
In short, the families of the NSU murder victims were well aware of the intimacy that Gauck had hoped to invest and mobilize in their meeting with him, and they negotiated his framing of the event in diverse ways. While some consented to the terms of Gauck’s invitation, others detected a distinct lack of sincerity in his proclaimed “personal involvement.” Others feared that the gathering would not in fact be intimate enough, while still others refused the offer of intimacy and instead sought to place the meeting on a squarely legalistic, guarded, even confrontational footing.
All of these responses point to the ways that human closeness is not an inevitable or natural state of affairs, but rather a contingent condition that can only fashioned amid varied and often trying circumstances. Moreover, they suggest that intimacy may not be the only or even the best means to redress moments of pain, injustice, and mistrust.
For no small number of the people affected by the NSU murders, rigorous accountability for law enforcement incompetence—not offers of solidarity from the Federal President—offered the most promising route forward.
This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.