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The Politics of Demonization
updated: Jun 09, 2014, 11:00 AM
By Kathy Swift
The Politics of Demonization
What can we learn from the medieval church about biometric identification?
Quite a lot it turns out, according to city officials. Biometrics is the science
human identification by noting an individual's unique characteristics in order
to classify them for authorized activities and pursuits. It gathers information
about the appearance and mannerisms of an individual using markers like
fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition, and manner of walk to determine
whether or not the individual will be permitted entry to restricted sites or
become the target of surveillance.
Social classification is a function of institutional paradigms in any epoch. In
the Middle Ages, the dominant social institution was the church and one of
its greatest concerns was the identification of those suspected of heresy,
witchcraft, or demonic possession. Church officials developed several
ingenious methods for identifying such individuals. For example, they could
engage in the examination of the suspect's body for telltale warts, moles,
birthmarks, and other signs of heresy or even test them by throwing them
into a pond to see whether they would float or not. In the case of the latter,
individuals who floated were witches and promptly burned at the stake.
Many a heretic and witch met their fate at the stake for failing church
Since at least the 18th century, the dominant social institution has been the
state and one of its biggest concerns has been the identification of those
suspected of criminal behavior. Nineteenth century biometric techniques
included the science of phrenology, a method of cranial measurement in
order to map the human head for signs of unusually concentrated brain
activity as evinced by the bumps, protrusions, and other outward
manifestations of potentially deviant cognitive dispositions. Though later
dismissed as psuedoscience, dedicated phrenologists nevertheless played
a role in the development of the idea of the innate criminality of
groups based on the observable traits and mannerisms of its members.
Fast forward to present day biometric discussions prompted by the national
security state and its growing interest in the identification of terrorists -
particularly domestic terrorists as defined by the Patriot Act. On that front,
city prosecutor Hilary Dozer has made the case for the gang injunction in
the Superior Court of Judge Colleen Stern this past May in order to abate
the alleged public nuisance posed by Latino youth in the city of Santa
A key component of the prosecutor's argument lies in the testimony of
expert witness Detective Gary Siegel. The 450 pages of the one and only
declaration submitted by the D.A. in support of his case was drafted by the
Detective. Much like their inquisitor and phrenologist predecessors before
them, Siegel and Dozer seek to define, categorize, and punish a suspect
class of people they nominally identify as "gang members."
According to the biometric standards presented by Siegel, membership in
gang culture can be observed in such dubious behaviors as speaking
Spanish and talking on cell phones. The appearance of tattoos - specifically
those of Aztec and Mayan origin - and "gang clothing" such as 805 attire or
professional sports clothing, also signify evidence of gang affiliation. Other
indicators of gang membership include writing graffiti and public intoxication,
as well as the use of Spanish-sounding nicknames and/or the making of
gestures like the "V" and "W" sign.
Graffiti seems to have posed a particularly thorny area of gang activity for
the D.A. so a great deal of the prosecution's argument addressed the
alleged coded messages gang members send to each other through graffiti.
Like smoke signals on street corners, gang graffiti indicates the presence of
"criminal enterprises" that taken along with tattoos, clothing, language and
gestures, serves to intimidate local residents, according to city officials.
Yet the problem with biometric identification is that its essentializing nature
can lead to the dehumanization of people dubbed problematic by
authorities. When the D.A. and the Detective conflate gang culture with
Mexican culture it starts the inevitable downward spiral toward the
demonization of an entire race of people.
What can be learned from the politics of demonization? We need look no
further than the recent mass murders committed in Isla Vista a couple of
weekend's ago. Dictated by Elliot Rodgers' world view that reduced women
and minorities to cardboard plastic villainy, his belief that women should
suffer "divine retribution" for failing to provide him with sex lead to the
murder of six innocent students. His manifesto essentialized both women
and minorities and his decision to punish them bore testament to his mad
While covering a broad spectrum of rational rigor through the ages,
biometric identification permits no room for nuances, ambiguities, or
complexities for the people caught in its classificatory logic. It offers
absolutely no chance for rebuttal or discussion and its tragic finale is one
recorded in history time after time.
The take away from Elliot Rodgers is that the politics of demonization can
In making the case for the crypto-racist biometric standards for identifying
gang members that Dozer has argued for, city officials are setting in motion
the historical juggernaut of Rodgers' final solution.
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