Thatcher’s Gift: law and ordering

Datta Khel strike satellite analysis

Following on from my last post…  The failure of the anonymous US official to recognise what I called the operative presence of customary law is symptomatic of a structural condition: Pakistan’s borderlands, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, must be construed as ‘lawless’ in order for law (which is to say ‘order’) to be imposed from the outside, through military and paramilitary violence shrouded, as it so often is, in the cloak of law itself.

Talking with Michael Smith yesterday – who is busy co-editing a special issue of Society & Space on legal geographies with Craig Jones  – I suggested that this effectively repeated the canonical double gesture of Orientalism, in which the space of the Other is summoned as a space of the bizarre, the exotic and at the limit the monstrous (‘a living tableau of queerness’, Edward Said called it), that must be imperatively normalised – straightened out, if you prefer – through the imposition of the order it has been deemed to lack.  In this case, the ordering is imposed through a deadly dance choreographed in Washington and Islamabad.

Michael then provided me with this remarkable quotation from Peter Fitzpatrick‘s ‘Racism and the innocence of law’ from the Journal of Law and Society 14 (1) (1987) 119-132 (p. 129):

“It is hardly surprising, then, that the resort to law as a symbol of race and nation should be so facile, so common and so effective. Thus, to return to the stratagem of the telling instance and to Thatcher’s contribution, she precisely echoes the imperialist claim to law as a gift we gave them, gave those “people with a different culture”, people who did not have law, who did not give it to the world and who in remaining essentially alien have failed to assimilate the gift adequately.”

The reference is to a speech given by Margaret Thatcher in January 1978, in which she praised Britain’s contribution to law (‘throughout the world’) and sympathised with those who feared that immigration would see this ‘swamped’ – submerged, drowned – ‘by people with a different culture’.

Datta Khel strike BoJ PNG

So, in the telling instance of Datta Khel [the image above is from an official Pakistani transcript published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; there is also a detailed report here – scroll down to 17 March) colonial and imperial power redux: Midnight’s Children being ‘ordered’ by Thatcher’s….. It would have been better if the Jirga targeted by the drone had been a ‘charity car-wash’ – but that distant prospect was evidently (and I think necessarily) construed as even less likely than its being a properly constituted legal assembly.

In case this is misunderstood, to insist on the operative presence of customary law is emphatically not to deny that people in these areas are subject to extraordinary violence from the air and from the ground, by the CIA, the Pakistan military, and the Taliban and other groups – but it is to acknowledge how what Michael called ‘liberal legality’s denigration of its others (tradition, custom, customary law)’ is a vital, constitutive moment in the imposition of those violent exactions.

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