Saturday, February 18, 2012

Complicity in Action: Our Passive Role

The readings for this week have made me seriously consider the questions I posed in my comment last week; namely, how have we (the greater American populace) created, or at least submitted to, a society which views torture as acceptable?

Before the gloves come off and the rage at confronting each of our personal complicity in this simple fact of American society, let me expand on my question. I do not doubt that the majority of our classmates believe that torture is wrong. But we are all living in a country where we benefit indirectly, and directly, from torture. We get oil for our cars, we get to feel safe knowing our army is out there fighting the terrorists, we get to buy our cheap consumer goods, we get to be happy. So whether or not we say we are okay with torture, our actions show that we are, actually, okay with it.

Phillips gave us some clues as to how this issue is being glossed over. He carefully lays out the idea, not in the main subject of his chapters, but along the way, that our government is legitimating torture. Moreover, who's really playing the terror card? 9/11 has lasting effects, but our government went out of their way to label Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea as members of an "Axis of Evil" (Phillips, 50). This terminology is a throwback to World War II, playing on historical fears from previous wars. The torture memos read for last class provide the paper trail of government officials laying the foundation for the legitimization of dehumanization. This use of semantics to sidestep actual ethical problems is also addressed when Nowlan and Benson made the distinction between "interrogation" and "tactical questioning," (Phillips, 60). The government plays on the public's fears, our fears, that we aren't safe, that another 9/11 could happen if we don't fight this war. Even better, were it not for the photos from Abu Ghraib, we wouldn't have see the effects of the war at all. In not directly addressing topics, the government sings us a sweet lullaby, encouraging up to look the other way, or if we do look, to not look to closely. We, the public, were, and are, afraid of terrorists attacking our homes. Phillips writes, "It turned out that senior government officials and low-ranking troops at Guantanamo had much in common. Everyone feared terrorist threats," (85). But our government took that fear and used it to sign off on torture, and assuming one guilty before proven innocent. That is what most goes against the US's honorable nature. The entire military hierarchy is in on torture, not just a few out of control, low-level foot soldiers.

In addition, our government is making this behavior legally acceptable. How can we show we're not okay with it?  In an ideal sense, maybe we could try getting involved in the politics, or at least voting for people who will take a stand against it. I usually like Obama, but his stance on Gitmo is unfortunate in that it continues the legacy of torture in a place that does not legally exist, on people who do not qualify as human. Phillips takes all of Chapter 4 to demonstrate that torture is not even an effective means of getting information from someone. So why does the military continue to do this?

Puar provided evidence, explaining "torture is neither antithetical nor external to the project of liberation; rather, it is part and parcel of the necessary machinery of the civilizing mission," (Puar, 15). This makes something like the Holocaust argument we discussed in class on Thursday, in addition to my CORE Modernity course. Normalized and sanctioned torture is not an aberration of modernity, but just the flip side of the coin. The symptoms of modernity include the high-handed goals of industrialization and progress, and with them come efficient  means of dehumanizing people. Puar's summary of the Orientalist effect on torture in Abu Ghraib, notes "[The] eroticization of enemy targets . . . triggers the objectification process," (Puar, 18). He then refers to Lynndie England's role in this as showing what can happen with gender equality. It's extra poignant because, the same way torture comes with modernity, can't women's growing power provide the opportunity for the abuse of that power? 

I don't have a clever segue, but here's the other thought that comes to mind when reading about the US fighting our noble wars abroad: Do we want to fight a real war on terror? Why don't we start with dismantling the KKK? They may not have hijacked a plane, but they are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Would bringing the war home make us realize what actually goes into a war? instead of playing into the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality?

Also, on a related note, I was in CORE Middle East for my Communities and Identities course, and we watched a film called "Shocking and Awful" which further detailed bombings like Fallujah. If you feel ambitious, here's a link: It's sickening and saddening, and it's hard to keep seeing ourselves as the good guys in this equation.


  1. Building off of your idea, Olivia, I have also been thinking about the inherent weakness and vulgar nature of humanity. It is a scary thing to think about what each of us as an individual would do if we were in the boots of those committing the acts of torture. If we had seen our friends and allies being killed, would we still have the strength and capacity to make rational decisions about how to treat those who may have played a role in killing them? On American soil, it is easy for us to pass judgment on the “bad apples” over there who got their hands dirty in these acts of torture, or even on the government who sanctioned these acts. I do not mean to defend or applaud these heinous actions, but I do mean to remind us that before we pass blanket judgment on these individuals and the system, we need to ask whether or not this judgment is aimed at our common humanity. If my sister, father, mother was killed in battle somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq, I am not so sure that I would have the same intense anti-torture feelings if I am being truly honest. I think that that’s a large part of what Adam Gray struggled with as well. It was easy to be in support of, or at least be complicate to, the acts of torture while overseas. The actions came to haunt him only when he was back in America, back in the homeland, back in an area where he did not have to make decisions that could potentially have an effect on the entire country. Again, I would caution our class to keep these ideas in mind before we fall into a similar trap of judgment with a lack of empathy, without even an attempt at understanding what the mentality behind these decisions are. I think that unless we can study what exactly causes this kind of behavior without projecting our disgust, this cycle of violence and torture will not cease.

    1. I think that Liz made some great points. It is really scary to think what we would do if we were in the shoes of those soldiers, and if we had seen our friends being killed. But if you think about it, we see the same things happening every day on TV and in the news in the United States. Puar mentions in his article that the Abu Ghraib torture is not exceptional- it truly is human nature. We seek revenge for wrongdoings committed against us, no matter what the situation. If somebody close to us is hurt, we seek revenge on the person who is responsible for hurting him or her. Whether it’s taking that person to trial or committing an act of violence in return, it’s human nature. As Puar puts it, torture is “part and parcel” of sociality. Phillips mentions in his book that Adam Grey had a hard time with the lull in action in Iraq. After hearing about all of the action that was going on and seeing people injured or killed both in Iraq and the US, the soldiers became frustrated. Their people were being killed, and they couldn’t do anything about it. Caroline mentioned in her post that many of the soldiers would torture prisoners just because they were bored. But I also think it was because they believed it was their responsibility to seek revenge, to fix what was happening to their fellow soldiers. It was in their nature. It’s pretty terrifying to think that everyone has it in them to inflict pain on others.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I would not like to believe that humans have an inherent weakness to engage in such horrible acts of torture, but it seems that when we are placed under the right conditions, we are able to participate in disgusting violations against humanity. I found the description that the solider on page 53 gave about becoming frustrated that “nothing happened” to offer some kind of explanation of how we arrive at such a mentality that allows us to torture people. This reminded me of the movie “Jarhead” that depicts what is more often than not, the reality of war and specifically the reality of the Iraq war. Solider who are rearing to engage in combat are shipped off to Iraq to spend most of their days doing nothing. This leaves them frustrated and angry at the lack of action, essentially making them feel useless and driving them mad with boredom. Thus, if these soldiers are told to torture prisoners, they are just relieved to finally do something, and take their frustration out on these prisoners regardless of if they even know why they should (or should not) be harming them. Some of the soldiers in chapter three commented, “Shifting to more mundane work, such as patrolling and detaining prisoners, could make a soldier ‘bored… so eventually you start to lose those feelings…and the only thing that really does excite you is when you get to…torture somebody” (64). These soldiers described torture as “a good time” and admitted to not knowing what the person did wrong, and even assuming that the prisoner probably was not guilty of anything (64). Nevertheless, these soldiers described torture as “a good time.” It is frightening that before their deployment, torture would not have probably have been considered a fun activity by these men, yet their morals were completely transformed without force, but by boredom that drove them crazy.

  4. It has been mentioned several times that the will to torture is inevitable, or “human nature,” especially when put in the harsh conditions of soldiers in a place like Iraq. This statement is derived from the reading; as Philips quotes from Millantz, “I think any human being in that situation would have done similar things” (66). I think that the text directly above this quote, however, is crucial to understanding this apparent appeal to “human nature.” (A constructed, Hobbesian human nature is what we all seem to be referring to, by the way, which is not a universal but a Western construct.) Directly before this quote, Millantz said “it was reckless ‘to give that much power and responsibility to a bunch of guys who were full of hate and resentment—getting shot at and watching their friends get killed… seeing people decapitated [in videos]—and then putting those guys in direct control of the people who did these things. That was very ironic to me’” (66). Although not directly shifting blame upwards, Millantz is pointing out how the American system in Iraq seemed designed to result in the abuse of prisoners. I think this is a very important point. If we are America, then we are the American soldier, and are implicit in their decisions; their actions, no matter how seemingly irrational and cruel, still require some degree of sympathy from us because we can see and understand their situation and unworldly pressures, and potentially even imagine ourselves reacting the same way. BUT if we are America then we are ALSO the structure that decided how things would go about in Iraq; we are part of the societal racism back home that allows and even encourages the dangerous “otherizing” racism that lets such reckless actions take place; we are the society of homophobia and heteronormativity that encouraged the forced sodomizing positions of the “other” as an appealing/unappealing (but riveting) tactic; we are part of the structure that “turned” these men. And that does not have to do with human nature, but with society; OUR society, a thing we are literally complicit in.

    Take the famous Milgram obedience experiment. Over half of the subjects were willing to inflict intolerable pain on their unseen companions when ordered to by an authority figure. This has been argued to be “human nature.” Now imagine this experiment is an analogy for the war/torture practices in Iraq. Although soldiers were not given direct orders, the system was designed such that they came to have only one obvious way to funnel their anger, frustration, fear, passion, etc: into torturing prisoners. The way this torture took place was inevitably structured by their own (homophobic) context (which I think says more about our society than Islamic doctrine, if we are so afraid of our own inbred intolerance that we have to make the “other” out to be worse, more intolerant). Well, we, as people living complicit in American society, must not ONLY compassionately state that if we were soldiers, we would have done the same thing. We also have to recognize that as part of the system, we put the soldiers there. Beyond levels of necessity, we encouraged them in their abuses; we broke them down by letting them be in a system that would inevitably lead to their individual demise. So we cannot only identify with the soldiers, the “participants,” people that some might call another kind of “victim.” We must also realize our relationship to Milgram the experimenter, the US government, the military, the chain of command, the beaurocracy, the society. This, I think, is harder to do, because there is no way to explain it away as a “natural” thing. Elements of society are naturalized, but they are not natural. They are constructed, and we have to recognize that we as individuals had a part in the formulation of our own.

  5. It’s really hard to make an argument over such horrific matters when in the end, everyone seems to agree that torture is morally wrong no matter what shape or form. Puar’s article really adds to the explanation of the hierarchy within the system among government superiors and soldiers. The reason why I go back to ‘our government’ because I wonder what kind of “training” these individuals have had; one that must’ve numbed them to other human suffering. Have they been dehumanized themselves in the process? I don’t mean to jump to conclusions but from this kind of behavior and the fact that we are all indirectly or directly to blame, does this mean that human nature is inherently evil?
    “Their treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people” (Puar 14) said President Bush, there’s something particularly striking about this statement. As if there was nothing to control ‘our’ soldiers from committing such disgusting acts abroad. It’s almost as if being abroad provides this imaginative space where the lack of careful attachment is idealized (at least from our perspective) in that their free to do as they please. Thus so, if humans were not to have any consequence for their wrong doings or proof of a photograph, then is Puar right? Is torturing other humans, human nature? I keep coming back to this because its mind blowing to read these stories or to even see such terrors and continue with this behavior (or maybe I’m too much of a hippie, Idk).

  6. It is interesting to think about how we are complicit in the torture that goes on overseas. Contrary to President Bush’s assertions, these acts do reflect the nature of the American people. Well, maybe not the nature, but the attitudes, or the lack of attitudes and the indifference, rather. I think that that’s really what it comes down to. People just don’t care enough about these things. It becomes even easier to not care in this culture of fear that the government has created through rhetoric such as “War on Terror” and “Axis of Terror.” It might be the case (might being the key word here, see: Rhwanda) that people would care if there were “innocent” people being tortured, but the general attitude seems to state, implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, that no one of Middle Eastern descent, or living in the Middle East, or with darker skin than us could be truly innocent. If anything, it is this attitude of politicians and Americans, back home on American soil, and not the specific acts of the few, or not so few, soldiers that committed the acts of torture that is most important to assess. There are numerous psychological and behavioral assessments that you can make as to why the soldiers committed these acts. What they all boil down to, in my opinion, is the attitudes of American’s, policy makers, and upper level officials. That is where change must begin.

    I think Stephani made a really interesting point about the inherent homophobia in these pictures of torture that we see. It is not simply that the prisoners are naked that is augmenting the torture, it is that they are portrayed as engaging in homosexual activity. Maybe this is just an attempt to exploit the prejudiced attitudes of the prisoner’s themselves, but it is likely that the soldiers’ and America’s own homophobic attitudes are also manifest here. It is important, as we continue to view these pictures, to try to see past our heteronormative biases, and all other biases that we may have. The photographs from this war hold not only important insight into the war itself, but also insight into American culture and modernity, and the underside of it all.

  7. One of the points Olivia made that I found especially interesting was the idea of how we have dehumanized and othered people in countries, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, which Olivia notes Americans have labeled the "Axis of Evil" to evoke fears related to past wars. It seems to me that this othering and dehumanizing is what allowed the torture we have been reading about to take place. If the solders were to see those they were torturing as a like them, or like there college roommate as This American Life described a prisoner, and not the dangerous fanatic who would chew through wires to bring down the plane transporting them to escape, I don't think they would be able to commit these acts.
    I think it is our national myth allows this: if Americans are constructed as liberators, we must be liberating the innocent from something evil, depraved and possibly inhuman. I guess this also makes me wonder if we must create our national myth in opposition to people or a country we cast as "evil."
    Interestingly this othering and lack of understanding influenced the torture tactics that we inflicted upon people. Puar writes, “it is exactly this unsophisticated notion of (Arab/Muslim/Islamic) cultural difference that military intelligence capitalized on to create what it believed to be a culturally specific and thus effective matrix of torture techniques” (p. 17). Puar concludes that we have ones again marginalized victims of the war and torture in telling their stories (p.33). Is this proof that the myth continues as we continue to construct those who we don't se as like “us” as insignificant at the least and inhuman at the worst.