Fugitives and Detainees in American Social Life

Two years ago in Tracking the Fugitive I predicted that one of the dominant symbolic figures of the 21st century will be the fugitive. In film, literature, music, art, video games–in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. And the reason, I suggested, is because there is no room anymore for fugitives in our society. With technologically-sophisticated corporate and state apparatuses tracking every move, every transaction, it’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive, to live life “off the grid.” 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.” So the more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater role they play in our symbolic repertoire. The image of Osama bin Ladin, for example, has much more narrative power than the actual man. He’s become a kind of boogeyman for the 21st century.

As for fugitives in our own country, Eric Rudolph was perhaps the last great American fugitive.

The fate of Rudolph–in permanent solitary confinement in the ADX Florence supermax in the Rockies–tells us what stands as the antithesis of 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.