Racism, Empire and Torture, Pt.1

P1010072The news today is filled with reports about torture, but there is no discussion of the many ways racism and empire are implicated (Creative Commons License photo credit: cudmore).  As I wrote five years ago when the photos of prisoner torture began appearing from Abu Ghraib, I know this is about racism (“When is Prisoner Abuse Racial Violence,” ZNet, May 24, 2004).  Torture is also about empire.   To understand the torture debates, reinvigorated through yesterday’s speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, we must once again confront the ghosts of Abu Ghraib which return to haunt us in uncanny ways, reminding us that the imprinting of colonial power on their corporeal form is a central way in which the abstract concepts of white supremacy and empire are made concrete.

Empire, where a superior civilization defends its values from barbarians through annihilating them, is evident in torture talk, whether pro or con, whenever the idea is invoked that an all powerful America confronts an especially savage, culturally different enemy from which it must defend itself. Long ago, Michael Taussig pinpointed the racial divide that lies at the heart of the contest that is imagined as one of savagery over civility. 

Writing on the culture of terror of colonialism, Taussig ventured that neither the political economy of rubber nor that of labour accounts for the brutalities against the Indians of the Putumayo in Peru during the rubber boom. Terror, he reminded us, is the mediator of colonial hegemony par excellence, an “inscription of a mythology in the Indian body, an engraving of civilization locked in a struggle with wildness whose model was taken from the colonists’ fantasies about Indian cannibalism” (Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987, p.27).

Despite a persistent belief that torture is instrumental – designed, that is, to extract life saving information from an enemy who would not otherwise divulge it, torture is intrinsically about the staking of identity claims on the bodies of the colonized. Because torture is Continue reading…