I’ve not had a lot to say on the blog about stories that I have a lot to say about, partly because of an upswing in my periodic feelings of discomfort with the echo-chamber aspect of blogging as well as my irritation with the debasement of public discourse by hacks, pundits and talking heads. It seems completely worthless to say anything about US policy on torture when Karl Rove can go on TV and complain that the release of the memos makes torture ineffective by disclosing the details. As Jon Stewart said, “What, is torture some kind of magic trick that’s ruined when you know the secret”? It almost seems beside the point to be outraged about both the policy and the apologists for it. It’s like complaining that people at a nudist camp don’t have any clothes on.

However, there is one sense in which the legal sanctioning of torture under the Bush Administration, with all of its obscene bureaucratic precision and full-on banality-of-evil legalese, was in fact a magic trick.

The anthropologist Adam Ashforth argued that commissions of inquiry in southern Africa (and by inference, elsewhere) were largely a form of theater designed to affirm the state’s authority over information and knowledge rather than open-ended processes of investigation, that they were elaborate performances. My only caveat to this observation has been to argue that while commissions, blue-ribbon panels, and so on may be theatrical, they are sometimes improvisational rather than scripted, that officials do not always control or anticipate what takes place within such a process.

Ashforth extended this argument in an article by observing that torture is frequently a very similar phenomenon, that it has rarely been about obtaining actual information which the state requires, whether that’s about ticking time bombs or the names of dissidents. Instead, he argued, modern states torture in order to prove that they can torture, as a performance of power over the bodies and lives of people within their territorial sovereignty. For this to work, torture both has to be secret (which amplifies its drama) and yet also a spectacle hazily retold and represented within popular discourse.

Which fits the policies of the last eight years pretty well, and makes you wonder whether some of the people leaking information, memos and photos were doing so with the intent of enhancing their understandings of the usefulness of torture rather than contesting it. It’s pretty clear that if you’re waterboarding the same person over a hundred times in a month, you’re not looking for urgent information. You’re doing it because you can, to perform vengeance and toughness and resolve through operatic sadism. It’s a very different way of saying, “Yes we can!”. It’s Romper Room 101, not quite yet up to the full rats-on-face horror but well on its way.

My quibble with Ashforth’s argument still holds: this was a performance with many improvisations. Moreover, as with many performances, what the players and directors imagined audiences would think and do and what audiences actually felt about the staging may have been and will continue to be rather different.

The only new thing with the current disclosures is really that every pretense and excuse and hypothetical, every fig-leaf, is gone. No bad apples, just an orchard the size of an entire political class. No “it was just enhanced interrogation, not torture”. No Mark-Bowden-style “These are professionals who know what they’re doing and do it only when they must”: the people who signed the memos and drafted the policies were totally clueless about the actual precedents and roots of the methods they endorsed. No time-bombs to defuse. Just the need to be seen as capable of the same authoritarian brutality as many other states around the world, just keeping up with the Joneses.

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6 Responses to Theatricality

  1. Unfortunately for me, this whole thing has come out just as I’m passing through the “dark valley” of 20th century World History. So I wonder what effect I’m having when my students read Mussolini, and I talk about the logic of total war, in the context of a public discussion of state secrets, legislative intimidation, torture and tasers?

    I’m not trying to be topical….

  2. hestal says:

    I think that some fig leaves weren??t even there. I was reading the torture memo written by Jay C. Bybee of the White House??s Office of Legal Counsel to Alberto R. Gonzales when he was Counsel to the President. The memo is 27,750 words long. In the first paragraph Bybee sets out the circumstances and the reasons that caused him to write it. The last sentence says:

    “We conclude by examining possible defenses that would negate any claim that certain interrogation methods violate the statute.”

    The memo also includes an appendix which Bybee mentions only once on his page 24, which is the 13,136th word in the memo. Here is how he describes the content and purpose of the appendix:

    “Given the highly contextual nature of whether a set of acts constitutes torture, we have set forth in the attached appendix the circumstances in which courts have determined that the plaintiff has suffered torture, which include the cases from which these seven acts are drawn. While we cannot say with certainty that acts falling short of these seven would not constitute torture under Section 2340, we believe that interrogation techniques would have to be similar to these in their extreme nature and in the type of harm caused to violate the law.”

    The appendix is the last section of the memo and it begins on his page 47 with the 25,715th word. Its title is:

    “Cases in which U.S. courts have concluded the defendant tortured the plaintiff:”

    The 11th paragraph, in my view, mentions waterboarding. It says:

    “Plaintiff spent eight years in solitary or near solitary confinement. He was threatened with death, blindfolded and beaten while handcuffed and fettered. He [Continued on Page 49] was denied sleep and repeatedly threatened him with dealt. At one point, while he was shackled to a cot, the guards placed a towel over his nose and mouth and then poured water down his nostrils. They did this for six hours. During this incident, the guards threatened him with death an electric shock. Afterwards, they left him shackled to his cot for six days. For the next seven months, he was imprisoned in a hot, unlit cell that measured 2.5 square meters. During this seven-month period, he was shackled to his cot ? at first by all his limbs and later by one hand or one foot. He remained shackled in this manner except for the briefest moments, such as when his captors permitted him to use the bathroom. The handcuffs cut into his flesh. See Hilao v. Estate of Marcos, 103 F.3d 789, 790 (9th Cir. 1996). The court did not, however, appear to consider the solitary confinement per se to constitute torture. See id. at 795 (stating that [“]to the extent that [the plaintiff??s] years in solitary confinement do not constitute torture, they clearly meet the definition of prolonged arbitrary detention.”).”

    I hurt inside when I read this long list of acts that the court concluded was torture. The only one not classified as torture was solitary confinement.

    I am sorry to take up so much space, but this memo seems to be in support of your topic.

    I am not a lawyer, I would rather see than be one, but this entire memo is aimed at giving the CIA some legal cover and to protect the lawyers who wrote them as well. But they, the lawyers, knew that waterboarding was an immovable object, they could rationalize it away, they could not get around it, so they did their best, our nation was at stake they will say. But the lawyers didn??t want to go to jail so they included the citation about waterboarding. This gave them cover, but left the CIA hanging. I don??t think these guys are stupid, but they had an impossible task. And the guys responsible for the rule of law are not stupid either. So if these guys walk, without giving up someone else in the usual give and take of criminal prosecution, then everybody is guilty.

  3. I find this argument very attractive, Tim. The 9/11 attack made it clear that we didn’t control our own geography as tightly as we’d thought. So, it became very important to assert our ability to exert control. Torture is the most intimate kind of control over an Other.

  4. fridaykr says:

    Applying Ashforth’s argument seems a bit too pat to me. To do so, one would have to ascribe more intentionality to the Bush administration and more awareness about the performativity of power than I think it deserves.

    A simpler explanation would be that the leaks occurred, as they usually do, because of bureaucratic infighting–between the FBI and the CIA and mostly likely within the CIA as well. This isn’t to say that the CIA didn’t get caught up in its own seeming limitless exercise of power and like most bureaucracies, intensified its futile efforts when it didn’t get the results it wanted.

    Another reason I don’t find Ashforth’s performative model very helpful is that it probably is more useful describing the ways closed or autocratic societies maintain power internally. This model doesn’t work as well in the U.S. Let me be clear –it’s not that I don’t think there are many instances in which we are well served in talking about the performativity of many state functions –press conferences and hearings come to mind. I just don’t think the torture network is the best example. Unchecked bureacracy run amok? Sure.

    As for the effects of the theatricality on terrorist networks and others external to the U.S., I am not sure the revelations of our torturne network did anything other than confirm long-standing assumptions about U.S. abuses of power, etc.

  5. benjamin says:

    great stuff. this gives me a much clearer view of what’s at play here.

    also got tons out of your article in the most recent Bulletin.


  6. anna h says:

    lol romper room 101

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