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 first and foremost a “memorializing” or imprinting of power on the bodies of the colonized,  it has an intimate connection to terror, as Taussig emphasizes. Marnia Lasreg explains, for example, that for the colonial Algerian context torture defines:

a genuine battle between two embodied realities: in this case, colonial France with its unbounded power and mythologies, and colonized Algeria, with its claim to a full share of humanity.  Conversely, the fact of doing torture allows the torturer to voice (albeit freely) his identity claims. (Marnia Lasreg.  Torture and the Twilight of Empire. From Algiers to Bagdad. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008, p.7).

The identity claim ‘I am superior’ and ‘I can imprint my power on your body’ is the line that connects torture to terror.  The work of empire literally has to be embodied, as I have argued elsewhere, making the abstract power of empire concrete or, as Andrew Austin put it in the case of lynching, transforming ‘whiteness’  “into something visible and terribly tangible, into something ‘real.’ ” (Andrew Austin, ‘Review Essay. Explanation and responsibility: Agency and Motive in Lynching and Genocide.” Journal of Black Studies, 34, no 5 (May 2004):726. Quoted in Casting Out: Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics, S. Razack.p.69).

Torture links the body to the state — individual bodies as well as the military itself.  In Algeria, torture “reached deep into the military body which it tied to the political system in a way that supplemented the esprit de corps that normally characterizes the army. Torture was the source of social integration that melded the political and the military, and consumed the structural transformation of the state into a militaristic institution.” (Lasreg, p.121). If the state enjoys its identity through torture, individuals who participate in torture do the same: ‘Imperial identity is achieved through torture” (Lasreg, 184).

In contemporary narratives about torture, the struggle with wildness and the fantasy on which it is based (the imperial identity alluded to by Lasreg) is visible in the idea that a culturally different enemy requires torture. For example, at an academic workshop, a former military interrogator, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a philosopher each discussed the justification for “new methods of interrogation.” We are dealing with a culturally different enemy, several of these academics and military personnel advised. The Arab enemy is more “ideologically driven and more religious.”

Unlike during the cold war, the war on terror and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced conditions where military interrogators need cultural help. Without it, “the 18 year old interrogator will fail and will be driven to more violent means to obtain information,” warned the interrogator.  A well known anthropologist suggested that with a clandestine enemy, standard ways of operating are no longer useful. [The enemy is usually seen as clandestine, as Joshua Dratel points out, but when Communists were viewed as clandestine there was no argument that torture was the only option for confronting the communist threat. (Joshua Dratel, in The Torture Debate, p.113). ]  The anthropologist’s suggestion was only a hair’s breath away from the logic of torture itself. As Stephen Holmes explains, the logic behind torture is a simple one: “To respond to the savages who want to kill us, we must cast off our Christian-liberal meekness and embrace a “healthy savagery” of our own.  We must confront ruthlessness with ruthlessness. We must pull out all the stops. After victory we will have plenty of time for civility, guilt feelings, and the rule of law”  (Stephen Holmes, “Is Defiance of law a proof of success? Magical Thinking in the War on Terror” pp. 118-135 in The Torture Debate in America, p. 127).   Savagery or wildness, it must be remembered, is the stuff of colonial fantasy.

The idea of a culturally different enemy first circulated during upon the release of the photos of Abu Ghraib. (The following two paragraphs come from S. Razack, Casting Out: Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp.65-66).  The theory that went the furthest to provide an explanation for the practices shown in the photo was the idea that sexualized torture was simply a culturally specific interrogation method. Fitting in nicely with the “clash of civilizations” thesis ( See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order. New York: Touchstone Press, 1997) that had come to dominate Western explanations for conflict between West and non-West, and the Islamic world in particular, pyramids of naked men forced to simulate having sex with each other was everywhere to be understood as nothing more than a contemporary form of interrogation.  Few in the media questioned the Orientalist underpinnings of this claim. (Unlike us, they are sexually repressed, homophobic and misogynist and are likely to crack in sexualized situations, particularly those involving women dominating men or those involving sex between men.)  No one asked whether such methods would in fact humiliate men of all cultures both because they are violent and because they target what it means to be a man in patriarchy.

The “clash of civilizations” approach to torture reinforced the idea of their  barbarism at the same time that it enabled the West to remain on moral high ground. Through the idea of cultural difference, sexualized torture became something more generic – torture for the purpose of  obtaining information, something that was not even torture at all. Sexualized torture, then, was simply  “to attack the prisoners’ identity and values” ( John Gray, `Power and Vainglory,’ in Abu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture, ed. Gray et al. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004, p.50).  Believing that the fault had to be traced back to the top,  Mark Danner declared the photos “comprehensible” given the cultural characteristics of Arabs and the Central Intelligence Ageny’s (CIA) manual on interrogations. The photos are “staged operas of fabricated shame intended to `intensify’ the prisoners’ guilt feelings, increase his anxiety and his urge to cooperate,” Danner wrote, quoting parts of the CIA’s interrogation policy ( Mark Danner, `The Logic of Torture,’ AAbu Ghraib: The Politics of Torture, ed.Gray et al. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2004, p.31).  Photos are a “shame multiplier,” according to the Red Cross, since they could be distributed to the prisoners’ families and used to further humiliate detainees (Danner, p.32). Second, through the idea of culturally specific interrogation techniques, Americans were marked as modern people who did not subscribe to puritanical notions of sex or to patriarchal notions of women’s role in it. The Iraqis, of course, remained forever confined to the pre-modern.

The idea of a culturally different, more savage enemy persists in several contemporary journalistic accounts. For instance, Heather MacDonald a journalist and frequent guest on Fox News writes:

“The Islamist enemy is unlike any the military has encountered in the past” (Heather Macdonald, The Torture Debate in America, p.86).

The difference, it turns out, is a cultural one.  Islamists don’t give up information, don’t play by the rules of the Geneva Convention and are mainly interested in homosexual sex.  Confronted with such an uncivilized enemy, Americans had no other choice but to turn to various “stress techniques,” some of which may have gone too far (she dislikes the use of dogs and is a little concerned about water boarding).  The prisoners who were moved from Camp Xray to Camp Delta at Guantanamo were really only upset because they could no longer have homosexual sex. Acknowledging some practices of torture, Ms. MacDonald concludes:

“We don’t gas people like the Nazis did.”

One sees only a slightly more restrained culturalist argument from lawyers and policy analysts, many of whom use the culture argument to downgrade what happened at Abu Ghraib from torture to interrogation. For example, Andrew C. McCarthy describes the “mortification” of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib  and argues that with a new clandestine and ruthless enemy, American had to legally authorize “a bending of the rules.”  Dismissing any connection between lawlessness (as in the refusal to grant POW status to detainees) and torture, McCarthy simply agrees with Alan Dershowitz that we should have a system of torture warrants where we apply for permission to torture especially high value and presumably especially savage detainees (Andrew McCarthy in Karen Greenberg, eds. The Torture Debate in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p.96.).

The culturalist narrative about torture mediates terror through appeal to a racial hierarchy, a divide between the civilized and the savage. The casual assumption of an immutable cultural difference and the quick, unexamined slide into two levels of humanity and thus two levels of law is, of course, the basis of all colonial projects.

Torture and its authorization in law thus require the idea of racial difference. Although she does not name it as racial power, Elaine Scarry famously argued that torture itself is the conversion of real pain into the fiction of power. It is an eviction of the tortured from the torturer’s world. Torture is “the undoing of civilization” (Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain. The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford university Press, 1985, p.38), where the torturer systematically destroys the world of the torturer, first by alienating the prisoner from his own body and then by transforming everyday objects into instruments of violence.  The torturer transcends body and becomes voice; the tortured is only body and no voice. Scarry notes that the lines of moral responsibility are so clearly drawn in torture that they are difficult to shift. However, as soon as we begin to think of torture as an interrogation, the inflicting of pain becomes neutral and the agony of it invisible. Interrogation is not simply a rationalization but a productive fiction, a narrative that enables the torturer to stop the pain of the prisoner from penetrating his consciousness. The fantasy of interrogation is vastly enabled by the narrative that the tortured is not the same kind of human as the torturer.

Many scholars now unambiguously condemn torture and show “the mundane banality with which cruelty and torture became official policy of the United States Department of Defense” (David Cole, ‘What to do about the torturers?” New York Review of Books January 15, 2009, p.20-24).  Analysts share the conclusion that under President George W. Bush, as David Cole put it, “an amoral, blinkered pragmatism ruled the day” (Cole, p.22).  In this apparently post-torture age, where so many announce their objections to torture, the opening words of Taussig’s classic book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man where he reminds us of the mediation of terror through narration, suggests that we should not assume that the narratives that enable torture have in fact all disappeared. How do contemporary narratives about the wrongness of torture at Abu Ghraib mediate terror? How do we write effectively against torture? The question is as pertinent when writing about torture and the Arab/Muslim enemy today, as it was for the Putumayo.

A recent collection of articles on the torture debate in America begins with the observation that Americans have been remarkably “apathetic” about the question of torture in the war on terror. The editor speculates that Americans are not uncaring but simply confused about the issue.  The spate of films about torture and other excesses in the War on Terror, however, suggest otherwise. Americans have engaged in a public discussion of the meaning of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other sites of torture, and they have mostly done so as critics.  Documentaries such as “Standard Operating Procedure” (more about which in a moment) and “The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” as well as books such as Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, and Hollywood movies such as “Rendition” have become a genre of sorts, works united by a common criticism of the torture policies of the Bush administration. If the majority of critics of American torture policies of the past decade (most do not spare the time to discuss pre 9/11 American torture) focus on the corruption, immorality and illegality that characterized the Bush administration, very few consider torture itself: what is torture, who is tortured, and what made it so easy for the regime, ordinary soldiers and ordinary people, both to torture and to accept torture as official policy. Although we have all become familiar with the list of torture practices it is as though these acts were not in fact committed by people we can name. Instead, the discussion has largely been an abstract one about policies and immoral leadership.

On the rare occasion that the questions ‘Why was it so easy for American soldiers to be amoral?’ and ‘What enabled torture?’ are asked, they are answered by the theory that once you create a torture culture, ordinary people find it easy to torture. (Stanley Milgram‘s Stanford experiments are often cited). “Rumsfeld made them do it” seems to suffice as explanation.  Such explanations do not explore torture as the identity making practice Taussig, among others consider it to be.  In fact, they studiously avoid embodying torture at all; torture remains a particular policy or law.  We seldom hear the voices of the tortured of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere although the recently available information from interviews with detainees compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross is one exception which may yet change the direction of public consciousness (Mark Danner, “US torture: Voices from the Black Sites,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 56, no. 6, April 9, 2009).

It is said that Americans must now live with the story of torture. As Mark Danner wrote recently after reading the Red Cross interviews, the decision to torture “sits before us, a toxic fact, polluting our political and moral life” (Mark Danner, “US torture: Voices from the Black Sites,” The New York Review of Books, vol. 56, no. 6, April 9, 2009).  To confront this toxic fact requires confronting what torture is: a systematic dehumanization of the other.  In both popular culture and officially, America has yet to acknowledge and confront the fact that its soldiers were able to torture with abandon.  The rank and file soldiers involved in torture at Abu Ghraib appear neither to regret it nor to face social censure for it.  The remarkable absence of the prisoners as persons who were tortured and the compulsion to exonerate the rank and file ensure that Americans do not confront the toxic fact of empire.  This is the argument I make below, an argument that is about the persistence of racial terror in narratives at a moment when America announces itself to be post torture.  Specifically, I suggest that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib have often aroused compassion and understanding.

As a culture, North Americans appear to sympathize with many of them, perhaps believing the Milgram experiment to be a good explanation for their behavior. I note here that less good feeling has been spared for the winter soldiers who protest the war and the terrible things they were required to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through the redemption of the rank and file soldiers involved in torture and an almost exclusive focus on the legal and political authorization of torture, Americans have successfully stopped torture from penetrating their consciousness.

There is something productive about the argument that only the leaders are to blame for torture. American innocence is secured through this focus in much the same way that Canadians were able to affirm their innocence in peacekeeping abuses (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.). Both the nation and the rank and file soldiers become mere dupes of a corrupt leadership. The work of empire can go on apace when we rest on the assumption that all the bad guys have gone home. What was done to Iraqis disappears into a story of  American innocence, a strange time in American history when  “our children” as the filmmaker Errol Morris called the rank and file soldiers, were coerced into “animal house on the night shift” at Abu Ghraib, a phrasing he borrowed from former defense Secretary James Schlesinger (Errol Morris, New Yorker Magazine Writing Festival Presentation, October 5/2007).  Morris is reluctant to name what went on at Abu Graib as torture and the soldiers whose faces appear in the famous pictures are never labeled torturers. At worst, the rank and file soldiers who were charged with abuses at Abu Ghraib, are fondly referred to in the media as the “seven bad apples” and their activities are described  as “unseemly.”

In Pt.2 of this post tomorrow, I will focus on the documentary film made by Morris, entitled “Standard Operating Procedure” and the book he co-authored with Philip Gourevitch based on extensive interviews with the soldiers (Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure. New York: The Penguin Press, 2008) and continue this exploration of racism, empire and torture.

~ Sociologist Sherene Razack, (U of Toronto), and is the author of many articles and books, including:  “How Is White Supremacy Embodied? Sexualized Racial Violence at Abu Ghraib” (Canadian Journal of Women and the Law – Volume 17, Number 2, 2005, pp. 341-363) Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism, (University of Toronto Press, 2004) and Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms, (University of Toronto Press, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2006).


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Another great post—I look forward to Part II. Many things come to mind, as well as questions. When I think about that type of treatment/torture, male soldiers immediately come to mind. And that’s minus the sickening sexualized aspects of the various types of torture and humiliation the US soldiers were carrying out. At Abu Ghraib, women soldiers were equal participants and cheerleaders. Another thing, I think they were all white soldiers. We know this has occurred elsewhere also. There are not words that can describe my outrage on this issue. What I can say at the moment, however, is that despite all the criticism toward President Obama, I am glad he is now our leader.

    I appreciated the analysis above on trying to capture why and how people could become that way (i.e., US soldiers). And I am sure the world is very eager to have the US serve as the global police! I think not.

    It is nice to see Muslim issues being addressed here.

    And while a bit off topic, but related to the picture, is there anybody who can tell me about the origins of the sheets and hoods? I have heard many stories, but I think they go back further than the 1800’s in the US. And I think they go beyond the US. Anybody?

  2. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you Rush Limbaugh’s Big Toe, very imformative–as with the conclusion of the article, this nation seems to respond in silence to a lot of things…. 🙁

  3. Seattle in Texas

    (apologize for the typo…*informative*…and probably all the others…) And Part II is excellent too. Important posts. Thank you on this end.

  4. MayI ask a general question about the “clash of cultures?” What, exactly, is that supposed to mean? Why do cultures have to “clash”?
    My next question is more specific to the “war on terror” – odd that we’re literally using terror to fight terror, as in fire fighting fire. When you think about it, in this particular “war,” I think the clear winner is “terror.”
    But that wasn’t my question. In this particular “war,” exactly what 2 cultures are clashing? The US is a nation that numbers in the hundreds of millions, and we’re fighting a specific group the probably numbers in the, I don’t know, hundreds. So . . . what 2 cultures are clashing?
    To the article, very thought provoking. Knowing the mainstream American response to slavery, it’s no surprise folks are able to find innocence in the face of torture.
    You know what? And this is a bit off topic. I think it would help in other areas of policy if more voters came to terms with the fact that Americans and America is not immune from messing up. And the way torture was allowed with hardly a bat of the eye is the same way financial execs can screw over people’s lives and the economy with hardly a blink of the eye. The same principle of “superiority” is operating, though in the case of the bank bailouts and credit card “scams,” it may well be one of class rather than race. But, it’s the same thing. “I’m better than you, so I can waterboard you and it’s okay,” is no different from, “I’m better than you, so I can raise your interest rates retroactively and it’s okay.” In case, the “rationalization” is national security; in the other, it’s profits. Which makes me wonder why Fox News still gets millions of viewers. Aren’t Americans tired of the deification of “national security” and profits. This is one of those times I really believe if more white people would listen to black people, we wouldn’t have these problems. In fact, I joked once with a friend that if you look through political history and the consequences of elections, I felt as though white Americans had forfeited their right to vote. I only “joked” because I know that’s racist no matter my rationalization. But goodness! What is it with Americans, especially white Americans, that it is so hard to face up to our faults. You can’t solve problems – like torture or the financial market – that you don’t first acknowledge.

  5. jwbe

    >But that wasn’t my question. In this particular “war,” exactly what 2 cultures are clashing? The US is a nation that numbers in the hundreds of millions, and we’re fighting a specific group the probably numbers in the, I don’t know, hundreds. So . . . what 2 cultures are clashing?
    The West against Islam is the ‘official’ version.
    And the US and allies don’t fight a specific group, they invaded Iraq, they continue the war in Afghanistan and will start new wars I think.
    US and Western allies don’t want to solve problems, they want to stay in power and as long as they are in power they will admit or acknowledge probably nothing.
    Torture committed by Americans shouldn’t come as a surprise, with such idealizing of America’s violent past and “patriotism”, and according reports torture is also a problem in American prisons.

  6. Vannina Sztainbok

    Very interesting article. It made me think about who is “torturable.” You know, in Latin America in the late 60s when the CIA was training interrogators/torturers, they would go to the streets and pick up street people for demonstration and practice. They would dispose of the bodies after. Obviously this was not about interrogation. I think that your argument regarding who can claim humanity are key to understanding what is going on in these situations.

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