Monday, February 20, 2012

Phillips, chs 3-4/ Puar

In this week’s readings, Phillips and Puar explore the various circumstances that led to U.S. prisoner abuse during the war on terror. In his attempts to investigate and comprehend U.S. prisoner abuse, Phillips becomes frustrated by the U.S. government’s unfailing ability to justify, mitigate, and deny acts of torture. One of the questions that Phillips tries to answer in these chapters is who should be held accountable for these acts of torture. In a terrorist search that lacked necessary detailed intelligence to make arrests, received minimal explicit instructions from superior military officers, and depended on make-shift/ rudimentary interrogation techniques based on hearsay stories and improvisation, Phillips puts most of the blame on superior government and military officials.  The soldiers received impossibly general leads and even the photographs of suspects they carried with them were blurry, which resulted in the arrest of “anyone who resembled them” (Phillips, 58). While Phillips blames military superiors for giving implied consent to their troops to carry out cruel interrogation techniques, he is unconvinced that U.S. troops were “doing the best they could.” In class last Thursday we talked about national myths and stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. While I’m more likely to blame the actions of these soldiers on the extreme situations in which they were thrown and a lack of guidance from superiors, it is inaccurate to say there were doing the best they could because they took pleasure in degrading and terrorizing prisoners. It is more accurate to say that these soldiers were doing the best they could to protect themselves and national security. The argument and the myth is that concerns for national security take priority over any considerations for human rights and anti-torture laws. Similarly, in the face of enemy threats, the soldiers did not regard their prisoners as vulnerable beings, but rather blood-thirsty, American-hating terrorists. As we learned from Butler, if we do not recognize someone as vulnerable, we dehumanize them and cannot grieve for them. When one of the soldiers physically assaulted a prisoner, he “wasn’t thinking about another human being-wasn’t worried about how he thought, if he was embarrassed” (Phillips, 63).
While I did sympathize with stories of innocent prisoners who were tortured by U.S. troops, I couldn’t help but feel a guilty satisfaction when reading about the story of Mohammed al Qahtani’s suffering. Qahtani, who would have been one of the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks if he wasn’t stopped by U.S. authorities in Florida, was sent to Guantanomo to be interrogated. They subjected him to intense isolation for three months and he “was tortured so badly that his heart rate droopped to thirty-five beats per minute-about half the average heart rate of a healthy adult” (Phillips, 70). Before finding out the identity of the prisoner, the story rattled me and provoked sympathy from me; it “shocked my conscience.”  Upon learning he was a would-be hijacker, I was satisfied with the cruel way they treated him and I can understand how a soldier could succumb to savage behavior. The 9/11 attacks hit home in such an intimate way that I feel disgust and hatred for anyone involved in the plot and because of that I ceased to regard them as human. Puar states,”the reaction of rage, while to some extent laudable, misses the point entirely-or perhaps more generously, upstages a denial of culpability” (Puar, 13).  Is it the human response to punish an inhumane act with inhumane torture? While Phillips focuses on physical pain inflicted on prisoners, Puar examines humiliation and sexual torture. As noted in class on Thursday, colonialism is always closely connected to power relations, owning, and rape. But, are these acts of rape and torture distinctly American or are they just the products of war mentality? Also, another question that I thought about when reading: Is there any way that we can justify torture? Both authors seem to suggest that there is no science that indicates torture works during interrogation. Moreover, the instances of torture that they cite suggest that U.S. torture has been cruel, misguided, and unforgiveable. If torture is an unacceptable part of the interrogation process, how are we to get information from suspected terrorists? Or, would you argue that these authors make a case not only against torture, but against war worldwide?


  1. One point that Olivia made as well as John, is that “the government plays on the public’s fears…” and the emphasis on our national security. The reality, that both Phillips and Puar touch on, is that we are one of the only countries in the world where people do not live each day wondering who may invade our borders or who might enter our country and try to “change” us. Yet we go into other countries and degrade their culture, exploit gender, and terrorize them to achieve a sense of “security” at home here in the US. So in response to Olivia’s question about the war being out of sight out of mind, I think the government absolutely thrives off of this mentality. As long as we here are “safe”, in relative terms, most of the American public is not concerned with how we are maintaining safety. Or as we previously discussed, as long as we are less vulnerable because of what our military is doing in other countries, people will be content. And because these other people are quite vulnerable, we dehumanize them and then we legitimize our actions of dehumanization because these people “might” be part of terrorist plots.

    What was alarming to me in the readings came at the end of chapter 4 in the Phillips book. “ ‘By and large, there’s just this implicit assumption that torture and cruel interrogation techniques are effective,’ said Mora. ‘Individuals who did not have necessarily any background or experience or training in these kinds of matter [made]…decisions based upon an implicit assumption that they would be effective.’ And he went to say, ‘I think part of it was popular culture.’” (86) The only word that comes to my mind here is scary. It is scary that torture could be popular culture. Who is fostering this as popular culture and how has it gone unnoticed for so long? How could a country that has such an extensive constitution for individual rights, stand for a culture in which we violate so many others? Do we only see ourselves as human? Furthermore, what is scary is the way these soldiers in Phillips book talk about what they did. It seems so casual. And while I am just sitting reading it off of a page, there are not many of them to seem to express remorse for what they did. How does torture become popular culture? Things usually become “popular” because someone who is powerful, influential, or people look up to, has said it was a good idea. This seems to bring up the idea that these upper level officials ignite this idea of torture, and then the lower level people hear that it “may” be an effective way to extract information, they try it. To think of torture as popular culture is scary. To think of how we are being represented over seas is scary. But to go back to Olivia’s question about out of sight out of mind, I do not believe many of us would prefer there to be a war on our own soil. So then the question becomes, how do we change the culture that is thriving in our military without hurting ourselves? Is not starting wars the answer? And how do we educate people to understand the larger problems here and how do we educate the future to find different ways (human ways to start) to achieve safety and security here at home? Changing the culture of a well-established system is not easy, but clearly a change needs to be made so we do not continue to infringe upon others rights.

  2. The idea about “who is to blame” that Phillips discusses, and John does a great job at showing the complexities of it, really strikes me. Can you really put blame in one area, or is everyone to some extent to blame? In my women’s studies class we discussed the cage of oppression where you need to step back and see all of the individual wires in the way that they connect to every other wire in order to form the cage. In this sense, every individual aspect of the cage (society) is involved even if it holds a minor role. I don’t see why this cannot be applied here. As Olivia wrote in her post, “the entire military hierarchy is in on torture, not just a few out of control, low-level foot soldiers.” And then there are the actual soldiers implicating the torture. Further, there are the “innocent bystanders” that read about the torture or look at violent photographs and passively move on. Finally, there are those who don’t even care enough to pick up a newspaper or go onto a computer to read about the acts of torture that occur. We discussed in class that we cannot separate ourselves from society, and that we function in relation to others. I hesitantly want to make the argument that we are all in part to blame, and that perhaps finding “who” to blame is exactly the problem. Shoveling the responsibility onto one person, one group, one hierarchy won’t solve the problem, but potentially only make us feel better about ourselves because it is not our fault. Although I am by no means suggesting that John’s reaction to Mohammed al Qahtani’s story is wrong in any way, but one could say that a reaction such as that puts some blame on yourself for even getting the tiniest satisfaction regarding an act of torture. I guess what I am trying to argue is that no one really is innocent and free from blame (even if extremely indirectly connected), a point I believe is supported by the fact that we create national myths to hide behind and believe innocence.

  3. In reading John’s post, one aspect that particularly struck me was his discussion of our creation of and reliance on national myths. John writes, “The argument and the myth is that concerns for national security take priority over any considerations of human rights and anti-torture laws,” and he relates this to our overwhelming tendency to justify the terrible things we hear about torture overseas. I agree that the government plays on our desire to believe that national security is of utmost importance, but to me the idea of the government shaping our ideas about normative sexualities through its torture practices was even more profound and it was something I had never considered before. In his article, Jasbir Puar discusses the prevalence of homosexual acts in American torture methods towards Arabs abroad, describing that “homosexuality has been deployed as the ‘ultimate tool of degradation’ and as a ‘military tactic [that] reaches new levels of perversity’” (Puar, 25). Despite the fact that as a country we are not yet to the point of full-equality for people of all sexualities, America considers itself to be fairly progressive in terms of its tolerance towards peoples’ differences and life preferences. This brings up an important question that Puar poses: is the war on terror “in fact a gay issue?” (Puar, 25) By forcing Arab detainees to engage in homosexual acts, and labeling these acts as terrible, the government is definitely, although not overtly, commenting on homosexuality and portraying it in a less than stellar way. Considering this portrayal by our very own government, I question the legitimacy of torture more than I ever have before. Clearly there is more to torture than simply retrieving necessary information. It seems to me that the fact that the Army has used the cruel sexual abuse of Arabs to normalize and promote certain sexualities is completely inappropriate, because normalized sexualities do not have any clear connection to terrorism or a national security threat. So I guess the takeaway point here is the need to critically examine Puar’s question—is the war on terror really about terror? Or is it at least in part about something else?

  4. Phillips Chp 3 & 4, Paur “Torture”

    While reading over Olivia and John’s post, Oliva brought up a point that I didn’t really think about when I was reading Phillips and Paur. This idea that the majority of our classmates and probably the majority of Americans are against torture yet we benefit from torture. We get our oil from third world countries, cheap consumer goods from migrant workers, and a secure feeling knowing someone else is out there fighting your countries battles. I never really thought of these examples as a way of torture but they certainly are.
    Its funny that John mentioned he felt a sudden satisfaction when reading about the torture of Mohammed al Qahtani’s suffering. I say this because when I was reading (especially chapter 3 of Phillips) I was feeling extreme remorse for the victims and the captives held by American soldiers and then when I started reading about one of the architects behind 9/11, I thought to myself well this kind of torture is okay because he is actually guiltily and responsibly for thousand of deaths in America. Why did I immediately think that Mohammed al Qahtani deserved to be tortured over any of the other captives? Why did I immediately think he was an exception?
    What I found really insightful from the Phillips reading was the discussion by the soldiers. Talking about what torture they have inflicted upon captives and their reactions from doing so. Some felt remorse when others do it because it’s “fun as hell” (Phillips, 66). Many soldiers reasoned that since the military forced them to do such grueling exercises during training, it wasn’t that unreasonable to have possible terrorist do them too. “Basically the same things we did to those people in Iraq were the same things that were done and taught to us” (Phillips, 59). However, when I begin to think of how terrible some of these soldiers are and their superiors for inflicting this kind of pain on another human being I think how can I be so quick to judge when I have no idea what it is like in Iraq or Afghanistan. I have no idea what it is like to be away from my family and not knowing if I will ever return home and see them again. When I think of it this way and when I put things in perspective that these soldiers are not only fighting for the safety of our country they are also fighting for their own lives. We cannot be so quick to judge the actions of these soldiers unless we have taken a walk in their shoes!

  5. Hi John,
    I take a different stand from yours while I am reading Phillips. To me, he is not so much frustrated by the lack of training of interrogators and the Bush’s administration ability to justify and deny the abuse of American soldiers on detainees, but he is just making the readers, those who are ill-informed, question the validity of the use of torture and the tale we tell ourselves of our country. I remember Omar talked about how he thought of soldiers in uniform as heroes who do honored duty and who represent the American “good guy symbol,” and now, taking that image into account and relating to what we have read, should the image of the good guy American prevail?
    Is it really more accurate to say that these soldier were doing the best they could to protect themselves and their country? What you said makes it sound like the torture they are doing is actually protecting themselves and this country from danger. But I think it is not true at all. Let not forget who is the people getting tortured? Only 5% of them were actually captured by the US forces, and the rest were handed in for the bounties (Phillips 75). The people in GITMO were mostly not dangerous, and they could not kill American soldiers or American citizens. This reminded me of the This American Life radio show that described one detainee that looked like us, like your roommate that you would bring to visit your family in break (This American Life 331). Yes, you are right. The way that American soldiers use to compromise their morality and sympathy is to think of detainees as American-hating terrorists. Who/what should we blame this desensitization? The pop culture and our civilization process, as Puar suggested? I don’t think there should be a group of people will take the blame because as a lot of people have pointed out, this is the result of a combination of different aspects of modern life. And because of the lack of training and exposure, may be these soldiers cannot find any other outlet for their frustration and anger?
    I can never understand how American’s feelings on 9/11, but I strongly disagree with your claim that you cease to regard the terrorists as human. Maybe I should not disagree because it is your personal feeling, but I just want to voice my opinion. I think of them as human beings, not only because they have all the body parts that I have, but also because they also might have family and friends. Their pain is not their own, but it is also related to the pain of the people who love them. Should we consider what they might have been through that might lead to their act of 9/11? I am not saying that what they do is not terrible. I am just wondering what pain they have been through so that they can commit such horrible act as terrorists?

  6. I agree with John's sentiment in regards to the reasons that motivated the soldiers to act in the way they did. On one hand you reflect on the events of 9/11 and the danger and fear that penetrated every facet of American life and you can begin to understand the satisfaction one may feel when learning about the torture of people who were instrumental in these terrorist attacks. In the same breath; however, is retribution always the right answer? And issues arise when there were more innocent people tortured, scarred and even killed than those actually responsible for these horrid events.

    In terms of placement of responsibility, John states, "it is more accurate to say that these soldiers were doing the best they could to protect themselves and national security" and as I can understand this point I might have to disagree. Based on the accounts of what Phillips said and some of what was mentioned in Puar's article, I think that the 'national security' that they were so forcefully trying to protect is directly related to the meta-narratives concerning the USA. The rhetoric used to describe those detained in these places was carefully orchestrated so that they were identified by these descriptions and thusly served as justification of torture. Still, I think back to where soldiers made comments like, "We were doing things because we could...and the objective just got less and less important"(65).

    Secondly, I'm not too sure that they are attributing torture and this kind of violence to America per-say but because of the foundation of American history and expansion based on themes of manifest destiny or spreading democracy, violence -in particular rape and torture- is an inherit part of the nature of American presence and participation. Yes we were attacked. Yes many innocent people died. Still we are not as innocent as we claim to be. I believe these authors are trying to shed light on a situation, remove us (by us I mean Americans) and understand that we have to take responsibility and expand the scope of the context of these attacks against us.

  7. During discussion in class last week we were asked to reflect on the degrees to which we identified with the stories narrated in the This American Life podcast. Many of us responded with confessions that we really felt for the people, that we could really hear the pain and shared in their despair. With this theme of identification based on something shared, I think it is important to reflect on the degrees to which the American soldiers identify with the detainees they torture. Throughout the reading for tomorrow’s class Phillips brings to light that American soldiers grapple in deciding just how to identify with the detainees. Reoccurring in the stories from the various soldiers is this sort of oscillation between complete identification with the detainee (the view of the detainee as human and innately similar) and the view of the detainee as utterly “other”, an animal, the enemy. I am not sure that there is necessarily a distinct order of steps leading from one extreme to the other, but rather think of it as a kind of continuum, where the soldier’s conception of the detainee serves as an iteration of the soldier’s current attitude towards the war (Is the soldier bored? Frustrated? Stressed beyond belief? Sympathetic to the native cause?).
    In the most recent This American Life podcast, detainee Abdullah told the radio host that he in fact missed the officers he came to know during his detainment—he reflected on instances where the officers, off the record, would nearly apologize for the way they were treating him—something along the lines of “if I don’t do this to you, they’ll come after me”. I was really struck by such an exchange, and I find it to be only indicative of a moment in which a soldier was experiencing a level of friendship and identification with the detainee that they could not publicly express. In Phillips, Millantz told of forcing the detainees to do the same exercises that the soldiers themselves did during basic training, the thought process being that “if I could do it, so can they”. In a rather twisted way, this shared experience equalizes the soldier and the detainee, a sentiment similarly expressed to Abdullah. I struggle to flesh out, given these levels of identification, the explanations given for why the trained interrogators were unsuccessful in obtaining Intel—“They didn’t have any situational awareness…we lived not amongst the populace, but very close to the fight”. How is it that a soldier who can identify and relate to a detainee can then bring himself or herself to torturing?

  8. I agree with John’s idea that the pleasure the soldiers took from the abuse renders the “best they could” excuse useless. However, I agree with Toni’s sentiment that the narratives of national security served as a justification for their atrocious acts when in reality many began to abuse the prisoners because of their own frustration and boredom. I do not want to over simplify the soldiers’ motives, because as many of my classmates have said, it is hard to really empathize with the frustration and desperation they may have been feeling. However, Phillips demonstrated that as time went on, the soldiers began to act more out of frustration/depression from the monotonous routine of the job.

    One of the soldiers, Keller maintains, “We were doing things because we could…and the objective got less and less important” (65) and even claims that many of the abusive practices were someone’s idea of a good time. While I understand the lack of training they were working with, the soldiers’ statements highlight the ways in which these abusive techniques became a way to reproduce the power structure in the prison, as well as reconstruct notions of imperialism, racism, and homophobia that Puar references. Their frustration allowed them to suspend rational thinking and dehumanize the prisoners.

    While many of us sympathize with these detainees, I found it interesting that some felt a guilty satisfaction when reading about the torture of Qahtani, who we now know was connected with an orchestrator of the attacks. Though I understand people’s sentiment, I still felt disgust when reading about the guards’ actions. I think it is dangerous for our country to suspend certain rules for those we feel are guilty, because it compromises our credibility and our own citizens in the future. Some of the officials in last week’s memos referenced this point when they declared that it would undermine America’s credibility in punishing those who used abusive techniques, especially against their own soldiers and promoting liberal ideals abroad. Furthermore, there is proof that abusive and coercive techniques often lead to false information, demonstrating that it is definitely not the best mode for acquiring knowledge.

    While we can look at Qahtani’s guilt as a justification, we have to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and our use of torturous techniques to obtain information for those we realize to be guilty only paves the way for acceptance of such techniques when in actuality the person is innocent.

  9. In John’s post he wonders whether there is a circumstance in which torture is justifiable. As other students have confessed, I too felt a pang of relief and satisfaction in knowing that one of America’s terrible acts of terrorism was with good intention in the case of Mohammed al Qahtani. However, that sentiment had nothing to do with a notion of improved understanding or information about his organization. I did not think to myself, “Well I bet we got a lot of information out of him in Guantanamo”. Torture isn’t about information; it is about decreasing a human to nothing, not even animal, to an object. It is about taking their reality, their world, away from them. Puar explains the use of torture as “integral to the missionary/savior discourse of liberation and civilizational uplift, and it constitutes apposite punishment for terrorists and the bodies that resemble them” (Puar 15).
    In a PCON class last semester we focused on torture and I was shocked and appalled to find how unsuccessful its statistics are. This is unsurprising when thinking back to Phillips’ chapters in which we found that the torturers were improvising, they were just regular angry, bored soldiers- not trained interrogators. A great example of this was the “sleeping bag” technique which ended up killing the detainee.
    Puar’s argument is that the shaming and humiliating of men in Abu Ghraib was specific enough to their religious culture to make it extremely effective and offensive. The ban of homosexuality in Islam made prisoners more likely to divulge information in fear of blackmailing the photos of them preforming homosexual acts. What I found most interesting about this article was not only the integration of religion and culture as a form of torture but also the idea of violence not only as physical but also as mental. I would like to end with a point which I think is directly related to the subject of our class, education on peace and non-violence. Puar mentions that as viewers of the photos we are “curious and disturbed” (Puar 21). What exactly does this say about us? What does it say about our culture, our society, our understanding of torture, war, and the so-called enemy?

  10. A point that I would like to make and John touched on at the end of his post is this idea of justifying torture and how it becomes an acceptable part of the interrogation process. War presents the military with many unforeseen situations and you can never properly prepare for everything that you will likely to see so they just have to adjust to the situation the best way possible. Obviously everyone cannot prepare for every situation they face, that’s life but what I found interesting was they were not properly trained or prepared for most situations they faced. They were trained for combat war and they encountered more than just battle. “We were supposed to be out there blowing stuff up, not stopping traffic, trying to interpret the Iraqi language – that wasn’t our responsibility... it just wasn’t what we were trained to do”(55). Not only was it the miscellaneous things that they weren’t prepared for but they definitely were not prepared to deal with prisoners and detainees, “even though they went through aggressive military training, some soldiers from Battalion 1-68 told me they were unprepared for house raids and detainee operations, and hadn’t been briefed on some of the most elementary procedures for handling prisoners” (57). I found this statement rather surprising. How could the military not have been prepared to deal with detainee operations? It really doesn’t make any sense. Maybe it is because there is some unwritten code or language with what actually goes on with torture that by not training the military and not telling them what to do makes it look like torture doesn’t go on when it actually does. John also posed a question at the end of his post asking if these readings were cases only against torture or against war worldwide and I would have to say it is against war worldwide. I think the situations dealt with these people in these readings are situations every country deals with around the world. I am sure every country has a different training program but I definitely think the moment a military officer is dealt with real life situation the training process and commands get altered and adjusted accordingly to how he is personally feeling or his state of mind. It has been a topic we have talked about all semester but until you personally experience a situation yourself you cannot point the finger and put blame on a certain individual or organization.