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Nation Building at Home

September 19, 2011

As the United States discusses “nation building here at home” more and more, it is worth remembering that this is hardly a unique concept. What is somewhat unique, in the American formulation, is the entirely misleading and sanitized application of the term.

The truth is that nation-building, itself a misleading term encompassing everything from the increase of state capacity to the forging of unifying identities.  Both of these developments frequently involve violence by the state against its own populace. These developments serve a dual purpose to enshrine the state and its machinery of control as the locus of internal and external power. The results are often ugly.

In Brazil, there are certain relationships between segments of the Brazilian population and the Brazilian state that might be best described as one of outright war. Whether that war has manifested itself as full-blown counterinsurgency and occupation or simple raiding has changed over time. Co-blogger and friend Adam Elkus was kind enough to put on a viewing of the hit Brazilian film Tropa de Elite, which is the film adaptation of a semi-fictionalized book about BOPE, a special operations force within the Brazilian Policia Militar.

I’m by no means an expert on Brazil, but it was striking to view it after watching the beginning of the occupation of major Rio de Janiero favelas in November 2010. Over Thanksgiving break, it had been possible to stream Brazilian television broadcasts which had live helicopter footage of what was essentially a war. The goal of the operation was to pave the way for an “occupation” of slums anticipated to be problematic during the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Tropa de Elite was set in the lead up to the Pope’s visit in 1997, during which he elected to stay at the home of a Bishop adjacent to a large slum. Consequently, BOPE increases the pace of its raids into the favelas to make sure the Pope is never woken by the sound of gunshots. While most films tend to sensationalize the degree of violence common in police operations, it is fair to describe the BOPE “killing machine” as having its reputation depicted as relatively sanitary, even though the film shows BOPE officers beating and torturing women and children. After all, it still depicts the killing power of BOPE as a precision instrument, even though the outfit receives frequent criticism for barreling into slums in armored cars. It also ignores accusations that BOPE members plotted to assassinate Rio’s socialist governor.

This is, after all, an organization whose symbol is a skull impaled on a knife, and armored cars nicknamed “big skulls” (caveirãos) full of black beret-wearing shock troops. But BOPE is just a narrow segment of the kind of violence often associated with the construction of modern states. The law enforcement apparatus of a state not fully capable of governing its own territory tends towards either corruption or militarization.

When normal law enforcement, where the primacy of the state cannot maintain even the illusion of a monopoly on force, accommodates itself to the existence of these malign “ungoverned spaces” through corruption, it is no surprise that other elements of state power militarize in response, or that the military takes on an increasing burden of domestic security concerns.

Nor is it any surprise that much of the language surrounding the night raiding tactics ISAF employs in Afghanistan is strikingly similar to the complaints of Brazilian favela residents and activists. That civilians feel caught between armed warlords who live among them, with whom they must make accommodations, and the raiding teams whose prolonged absences make them impossible to trust. The solution to this dilemma, for the Brazilians, has been the deployment of Urban Pacification Police to occupy the favelas.

An examination of any given human rights report on Brazil reveals a litany of other ways in which the violent machinery of the state is still being employed to forge the Brazilian nation. Beyond the hills of Rio, the vast Amazon basin is also the site of a vast internal struggle to expand and entrench the power of the Brazilian polity over its recognized territory. During the military dictatorship, Brazilian general staff members dabbled in geopolitics (and what South American officer didn’t, in those days), and had come to the conclusion that the occupation and development of the Amazon was a major national priority for defending the Brazilian state. The development of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, the aggressive clearance of the rainforest for economic gain, and the suppression of indigenous rights are all part of a plan of Brazilian nation-building. The obsession with the Amazon grows to a fever pitch in some nationalist quarters, where many insist the United States plans to use its environmental anti-deforestation campaign as a Trojan Horse for foreign control over the Amazon basin and Latin America generally.

Of course, these are not uniquely Brazilian concerns. Extrajudicial killings by police forces are frequently decried features of Nigerian and South Asian law enforcement. Policies of internal occupation are also apparent in modern China. However, it is important to distinguish these activities as something besides merely authoritarian features. They are frequent features of the long and painful process of nation-building, and ones with antecedents in the developed world’s own past.

Even as states seek to build legitimacy through maintaining the rule of law and finding recognition and acceptance in the broader international community, they do so by employing violent and coercive means that those same standards of legitimacy and acceptance might otherwise reject. A desire to provide a safe and prosperous society, and to be able to host the international community in its greatest cities, leads Brazil to declare war against its poor. A desire to ensure the legitimacy and infallibility of its claims leads it to ravage its own environment and suppress the indigenous. Perverse? Yes. But then, modern society’s furthest gains against the cold and unforgiving machinery of the state occurred only after its most terrible gears ceased to turn.

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