The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

The 21st century will be the century of the fugitive. Not because fugitives are proliferating, but because they are disappearing. And not disappearing in the way that fugitives like to disappear, but disappearing because they simply won’t exist. Technology won’t allow it.

A manhunt summons forth the great machinery of the state: scores of armed agents, ballistic tests and DNA samples, barking dogs, helicopters, infrared flybys. There is no evading it. It’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive. And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” The more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater the role they will play in our symbolic repertoire. In film, literature, music, art, videogames—in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. Fugitives will come to occupy the same place in our collective consciousness as cowboys or pirates. And just as the Western film genre dominated the mid-20th century—while agribusiness was at the same time industrializing the west, making the cowboy superfluous—the 21st century will be dominated by the symbolic figure of the fugitive.

I think back to perhaps what will be remembered as the last great case of American fugitivity: Eric Rudolph, the Olympic bomber who disappeared into the mountains of western North Carolina in February 1998. Rudolph became the target of the largest manhunt in FBI history, and it seemed as if he had vanished in a poof of smoke until May 31, 2003, when he finally surrendered himself after years of hiding.

Rudolph reportedly told a man in July 1998—when he emerged briefly for a day before disappearing again for another five years—that “where I’m hidden, they’ll never find me.”

And it was true. Rudolph gave himself up freely, arrested near a dumpster behind a Save-A-Lot supermarket, in Murphy, North Carolina. By most accounts, Rudolph was simply weary of hiding where he couldn’t be found. And he will likely be the last fugitive. In a world of digital, synchronized communication we have what amounts to infinite tracking, deep searching, and persistent indexing. Of everyone. I don’t agree with Rudolph’s political beliefs and I abhor his methods. But there is something achingly diminishing about a captured fugitive. It’s as if the world suddenly got smaller. Now even Rudolph is subject to the same rules as the rest of us.

The fate of Rudolph—in permanent solitary confinement in the ADX Florence supermax in the Rockies—tells us what stands as the corollary to the fugitive: the detainee.

Detainees come in many forms: the prisoners held in federal and state supermaxes across the country (in addition to Rudolph, ADX Florence alone houses Ted Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, and many other former fugitives); the “illegal enemy combatants” held in Guantánamo without writ of habeas corpus; the undocumented workers rounded up by ICE and held in makeshift internment camps like the one in Raymondsville, Texas.

And what is the relationship between fugitives and detainees?

As the fugitive becomes one of the dominant images in American cinematic, literary, and folk culture, the detainee will become one of the dominant figures in real life.

The principle works under a law of inverse visibility. Detainees, for all their sheer number, will be virtually invisible to the mainstream media. The more detainees held indeterminately in detention centers, internment camps, and black ops military barracks, the less visible they will be. In their place stands their opposite: the fugitive.

Detainee should be the watchword of the 21st century, but it won’t. Instead, the fugitive will dominate the stories we tell ourselves about the modern world.

(Note: this post combines several of my previous posts on fugitives, buried deep in my archive from 2004 and 2007. Header image from the thermal imaging of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber.)

15 thoughts on “The Century of the Fugitive and the Secret of the Detainee

  1. Interesting. I wonder if this means that the space for a “democratic” and “peaceful” opposition to what we might call the system or the social contract is shrinking too. it seems that there is no alternative: either you are in or you are out. No nuances allowed.

  2. Pingback: Humanizing the Interface - Hybrid Pedagogy

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