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The Culture of Torture

John Hinkson

Since September 11 the debate on whether to engage in torture in order to save ‘citizens’ and ‘civilisation’ has been openly considered within the United States — within its media and academic institutions, as well as its frontline military, intelligence and political institutions. There have also been sufficient numbers of serious reports of the practice of torture by elements of the US military and intelligence to suggest that it was only a matter of time before the largely hidden reality became accepted fact. Certainly reports about practices at Cape Delta in Guantanamo Bay were convincing if lacking the graphic detail of what we now know about Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

It would be quite naïve to think that torture is entirely novel for US agencies. Even so, the devastating impact of September 11 has shattered the sense of invulnerability of the United States. This in turn has tended to encourage it to cast aside many of the commitments to civilising norms in the treatment of prisoners — both legal and moral — previously taken for granted.

The investigative disclosures of Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker are a case in point. He performed a crucial service in disclosing the astonishing array of images of torture and humiliation within Abu Ghraib. In his account, the Pentagon, in conjunction with the White House, established extra legal ‘access’ teams in response to September 11. National sovereignty was no constraint upon the ‘A’ teams, while assassination and torture as means to truth and security were tools of trade. In their mission they answered to the Commander in Chief.

Hersh admires the role and success of these global missionaries. In his view they are professionals of the highest order, intervening to save liberty and the polity. But this is surely a sign of a profound shift in our institutional order. That they have no institutional constraints upon their actions — other than those imposed by G.W. Bush — means that ‘Ollie North’, that temporary love child of Ronald Reagan, is now writ large upon the world. The core of democratic process, Congress, is completely sidelined.

For Hersh the problem with torture and assassination as political means is one of context. As he sees it, these ‘access’ teams do not belong to any given institutional place like Abu Ghraib, but to the headier, ever-moving world (without place) of global terror. Out of context, he argues, they introduce institutional confusion about the authority structure and ‘acceptable’ torture degenerates into’ unacceptable’ torture. (Guantanamo Bay is a special kind of place that avoids this Hershian judgement, perhaps because it has been created as a zone, free from all legal constraint, not unlike the Missionary Team that provides it with inmates.)

In the debate over whether the torture at Abu Ghraib is the work of a few marginal marines or whether it is an effect of a chain of command, Hersh makes his political mark. By nominating the chain of command, he draws the hostility of the neo-conservatives. Yet what he regards as acceptable in the post-September 11 world, namely George Bush’s global missionaries of brutal retribution, points to a crisis of another order.

A system that advocates and practices torture is bad enough. To come to terms with that in this instance would require that we reflect on almost two generations of United States administrations turning their backs upon the constraints of international law whenever it suited. They have particularly refused to allow the United States to be subject to War Crimes legislation. And one of the first acts of the Bush Administration after September 11 was the creation of an extra legal setting at Guantanamo Bay, where the Geneva conventions relating to the proper treatment of prisoners would not apply and ‘rules of interrogation’ that amount to torture were advocated. It has only just been revealed that Bush has explicitly sought legal rulings on whether he is able to bypass prohibitions on torture. And it is these ‘rules of interrogation’ that were subsequently exported to Iraq along with the actual personnel that employed them at Camp Delta.

As these practices have been so strongly advocated by an administration that sees itself as the champion of liberty and that explicitly seeks to export liberty around the globe, one can hardly avoid reflecting upon what all this means. This is especially the case when these same advocates of liberty are actually eliminating traditional liberties as though they are no more than relics and impediments from the past.

The self-image of modern cultures of liberty is one of having transcended torture as a means, in a manner similar to the banning of slavery. In this image they are cultures that respect individuality, have legal protections of individual rights and enhance individual sensibilities. The nineteenth century theorists of the rise of markets associated market societies with liberty and what was referred to as a new gentleness in the world, one that nevertheless was also associated with a more ambiguous category — self-interest.

‘Gentleness’ is an old-worldly term, but its intended contrast is with the ‘earthy “brutality”’ often enough found in pre-modern cultures, a ‘brutality’ and ‘animality’ that offends the modern sensibility. These pre-modern cultures are often viewed as being conducive to torture. Formed in more direct communities, these cultures sometimes supported regimes that engaged in administered torture. The unforgettable description by Michel Foucault of the torments of the body in medieval executions in Discipline and Punish serves as one type of example. This is the world modernity transcended. It generated another type of sensibility, one differentiated from direct bodily torment and committed to a more abstract range of psychological controls that work upon the inner self.

However that may be, this ‘gentleness’ within modern culture should not be accepted on its own terms. It is really the other side of significant indifference to others, an indifference that is closely related to notions of self-interest. And indifference is a social relation with rather strong implications for what can be done to others. Certainly 19th century liberty had as its dark side, to take one example, an appalling level of slaughter and mayhem in the colonies. This indifference is also the core of a hardness and coldness to others that can, at the limit, issue in bodily torture. However, its preferred violent expression is not direct and bodily, it is violence at a distance. The administered chemical or electrical death penalty, the guided missile, not to mention the ultimate in civilised technique — the Atomic Bomb and bio-tech weapons: these are the artifacts of a culture offended by direct and bodily torments. In this context there is no reason for the self-image of civilisation to be reassuring.

But whatever is said about nineteenth and mid-twentieth century liberty is only a precursor to the cultural world inhabited by George W. Bush. There is no reason to rule out at all that the attack on long-standing liberties from early modernity — individual rights, entitlements to due process, habeas corpus and so on — are cultural effects. This is to say that they are not merely effects of a Commander in Chief, they are simultaneously effects of a shift in the cultural setting. For when this market mutated into the neo-liberal market, reaching deep into the domestic sphere denied to the 19th century market, some characteristic cultural tendencies of modernity were amplified. This emergent culture undermined residual community structures and their related cultures that were both inseparable from the old market and were its main constraint. Now, in the form of a rabid culture of consumption, mobility of market relations transmutes into fleeting relations between persons combined with a savage indifference towards the Other. Could this culture of indifference be a source of the incomprehension that allows the obliteration of liberal freedoms from the past? And could it be one of the props that support the advocacy of torture found in the military chain of command as well as the willingness of soldiers to comply? Could it also lie behind a flatness of response amongst the general population towards the Behemoth that is not only ravaging Iraq but is also upon us?

If these reflections are anywhere near the truth, what is at work at Abu Ghraib is not individual humiliation but a form of cultural humiliation grounded in a fundamental lack of empathy for, and respect for, the Other. While it is true enough that all cultures lack a certain insight into other cultures, a culture grounded in indifference to others, where community is displaced by commodity/consumption relations, is especially insensitive. A substantial cultural introspection is called for if the West is to renew and reground itself after Iraq and the war on terror.

The ascendant consumption culture that supports a debilitating indifference amongst the population and within many of its powerful institutions could be said to be facing the abyss due to the exposure of its shameful abuse and torture of prisoners. Here, however, torture, culturally speaking, differs from ‘medieval’ torture. Torture, today, is the response of a culture at its limit and shaped by an abstract coldness that is the other side of liberty. We should not forget that, for the West, torture is a sign of failure and decay, while the greatest torments and agony for those who oppose the West lie not in bodily torture but in being the recipients of violence at a distance. Bodily torture emanates from an incapacity to manage an actual complex cultural situation, a lashing out by the forces of liberty when faced with the failure of abstract techniques. The blitzkrieg made possible by its high- tech weaponry finds its limit in the concrete situation that resists, that cannot be understood through the prism of high-tech cultural assumptions.

This is not to suggest that culture within the United States is undifferentiated. Other cultural elements, with a history much longer than that of the consumption culture, retain a definite force even, as they are, on the ‘back foot’. After Abu Ghraib they will be the main resource of a cultural struggle over the coming period, a struggle that will entail many dangers. In his forthcoming book The Lesser Evil, Michael Ignatieff conjures up a possible future order arising out of the ‘ashes’ of the terrorist challenge:

[W]e might find ourselves, in short order, living in a national security state on continuous alert, with sealed borders, constant identity checks and permanent detention camps for dissidents and aliens. Our constitutional rights might disappear from our courts, while torture might reappear in our interrogation cells.

It is striking the degree to which we are already well down this road to the apocalypse.

We have only seen the beginning of the cultural fallout that will follow from the torture revelations. It may yet, when combined with the contradictions associated with the disastrous policy in Iraq, begin a process of unravelling within our only superpower comparable with the collapse of its Cold War rival in 1989.

Could these events call into being the resources to evaluate our cultural directions? While facing the cultural abyss and reflecting upon the meanings of the structural association of liberty with the infliction of bodily torment is hardly conceivable by our mainstream institutions, it is time for thinking people to gather their resources and re-assess. The depth of that challenge will reach into and exhaust our emotional and cultural reserves for decades.

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