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.