This past Memorial Day, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the throat of an African-American, George Floyd, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Seventy-five years ago, an American pilot dropped an atomic bomb on the civilian population of Hiroshima. Worlds apart in time, space, and scale, the two events share three key features. Each was an act of state violence. Each was an act carried out against a defenseless opponent. Each was an act of naked racism.
The first two features—the role of the state and the impossibility of self-defense—probably require little elaboration. Each was an act of state cruelty: In one case, the agents of the state acted on home ground and in the other, on foreign ground. Each was carried out against a defenseless opponent: George Floyd’s hands were handcuffed behind him; he was not resisting arrest or putting the police officers at risk or even verbally challenging them; he used his voice merely to plead that he be permitted to breathe, then called out to his dead mother, whom he soon joined. Nor could the long line of executed black Americans who preceded George Floyd defend themselves: Breonna Taylor’s work as an emergency medical technician entailed, on a daily basis, protecting both herself and her patients, but she could not, fast asleep in bed, carry out any self-defense when Louisville police, without warrant, burst through her doors after midnight and shot her eight times.
The now widely shared recognition that police racism within the United States is not just the practice of individual officers but is instead systemic entails the recognition that African-Americans, in their interactions with the police, have ceased to have the right of self-defense, the right that arguably underlies every other right. Persons of color in the United States—including Native Americans, whose rate of death at the hands of police is the highest of any racial group— cannot defend themselves. Seeing that one is about to be slain, one may try to resist (to run, to refuse handcuffing, to flail out with arms or weapon), but that resistance will then be retroactively used to justify the slaying that was already underway. One’s only choice is to comply or to resist—in other words, to be slain or to be slain.
Self-defense was not an option for any one of the 300,000 civilian inhabitants of the city of Hiroshima, nor for any one of the 250,000 civilians in Nagasaki three days later. We know from John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima that as day dawned on that August morning, the city was full of courageous undertakings meant to increase the town’s collective capacity for self-defense against conventional warfare, such as the clearing of fire lanes by hundreds of young school girls, many of whom would instantly vanish in the 6,000° C temperature of the initial flash, and others of whom, more distant from the center, would retain their lives but lose their faces. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki initiated an era in which—for the first time on Earth and now continuing for seven and a half decades—humankind collectively and summarily lost the right self-defense. No one on Earth—or almost no one on Earth—has the means to outlive a blast that is four times the heat of the sun or withstand the hurricane winds and raging fires that follow. [Continue reading…]