In August 2019, a 21 year-old white supremacist named Patrick Crusius drove from his hometown of Allen, TX to El Paso and decisively took the lives of 22 persons, mostly Latinx residents, in a shooting spree. In a manifesto posted just hours before the massacre, Crusius would argue that he was left with no choice, echoing a popular white nationalist conspiracy theory of a white genocide in the US, known as the “Great Replacement.” But we know this threat isn’t real, and Crusius statistically posed a much higher threat for committing hate crimes and murders against Latinx persons. But the imagined possibility alone is enough to justify murder.
El Paso’s domestic terrorist attack sent shockwaves through the mainstream media, and the resounding consensus was that Crusius is yet another case study of Trump’s presidency and his emboldening of white nationalist domestic terrorism. While this is in part true, self-preservation rhetoric—of an individual, a race, a state, or the human species—has long been a powerful tool in justifications for extreme acts of violence.
Countless stories of police brutality and homicide against unarmed Black civilians open onto similar questions. From the cases of Rodney King to Michael Brown to Laquan McDonald, US police officers are consistently pardoned for acts of police brutality and murder, claiming that they, the armed police officers, feared for their lives. Who is more often read as a threat? Whose acts of self-preservation are seen as just that? Whose acts of self-preservation are seen as acts of aggression? Who in effect is allowed to exercise the right to self-preserve?
It is ironic but evident that self-preservation and its varied expressions like self-interest and self-defense are routinely used to justify neglect, violence, and brutality towards others. This phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it limited to the agency of individual actors like Crusius or US police officers—justifications via self-preservation are endemic to modern nation-state ideology.
The Patriot Act of 2003 authorized the federal government to suspend US residents’ rights to privacy, due process, and freedom of speech. All of this was done precisely in the name of preserving those very rights. Fighting for peace through pre-emptive war, protecting democracy through the imposition of new government regimes, are all examples of how self-preservation rhetoric might obscure the violence behind certain statist agendas. The state that seeks to pursue rogue actors becomes a rogue state itself. For Jacques Derrida, post-9/11 rogue politics is not a unique moment of crisis for democracy in America, it is yet another moment in a long history of crises endemic to liberal democratic politics in the West. The “autoimmune” nature of democracy leaves us to ask, how do we embrace the inherent vulnerability required in democratic societies?
The near-apocalyptic conditions of our contemporary political moment heighten rhetoric of this kind, and it can be found at work in defenses of new totalitarian regimes, historic levels of inequality in the US and worldwide, and the violence of climate change. But to see how intrinsic this logic is to liberal democratic politics, one need not examine its operations on the large scale of international conflicts; self-preservation rhetoric is at work daily in justifications for everything from educational institution reform to criminal law to gun control. The contributions presented here reflect these concerns, highlighting the need for more focus on the often unacknowledged power of this rhetoric in political speech.