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Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Torture and Civilization

The framing of the war by the Bush as a struggle between civilization and violence seems ironic and hypocritical due to the revelations of a systematic policy of torture on the part of the Bush administration. However, conceiving of these two phenomena--the sanctioning of torture by the United States and the struggle against terrorism-- as oppositional logics obscures a key move made by the Bush administration in defining and applying international law. This post argues that administration's juxtaposition of the values of civilization and the values of terrorism has provided the Bush administration with the ideological consistency necessary to torture impounded detainees in the defense of liberty.

President Bush, speaking to the United Nations on 21 September 2004, said of the war against terrorism:

In this young century, our world needs a new definition of security. Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence, or some balance of power. The security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind.

These rights are advancing across the world -- and across the world, the enemies of human rights are responding with violence. Terrorists and their allies believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights, and every charter of liberty ever written, are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten. They believe that dictators should control every mind and tongue in the Middle East and beyond. They believe that suicide and torture and murder are fully justified to serve any goal they declare. And they act on their beliefs.

In the last year alone, terrorists have attacked police stations, and banks, and commuter trains, and synagogues -- and a school filled with children. This month in Beslan we saw, once again, how the terrorists measure their success -- in the death of the innocent, and in the pain of grieving families. Svetlana Dzebisov was held hostage, along with her son and her nephew -- her nephew did not survive. She recently visited the cemetery, and saw what she called the "little graves." She said, "I understand that there is evil in the world. But what have these little creatures done?"

Members of the United Nations, the Russian children did nothing to deserve such awful suffering, and fright, and death. The people of Madrid and Jerusalem and Istanbul and Baghdad have done nothing to deserve sudden and random murder. These acts violate the standards of justice in all cultures, and the principles of all religions. All civilized nations are in this struggle together, and all must fight the murderers.

In this speech, Bush elucidates three key details about the war on terror that we should keep in mind when judging his policies of detainment and torture.

(1) Terrorists, in their very being, oppose every political and moral gain of the free world: "Terrorists and their allies believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights, and every charter of liberty ever written, are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten." The existence of terrorists is a threat to every free person; no amount of reason or persuasion can deter the terrorists from enacting their beliefs.

(2) Terrorists do abide by the principle of distinguishing between civilians and combatants: "police stations, and banks, and commuter trains, and synagogues -- and a school filled with children." In fact, the terrorists measure success by "the death of the innocent, and [by] the pain of grieving families." The more people that suffer, the better. Moreover, the persons chosen to depict these suffering innocents are the pro-typical civilians in Bush's mind, women and children. Our example here is a woman who cannot protect her son and her nephew.

(3) These acts of violence, by the terrorists, "violate the standards of justice in all cultures, and the principles of all religions" making the defenders of this moral order "all civilized nations."

Bush locates the defense of civilization-- the sum total of all standards of justice in all cultures the underlying principles of all religions-- in the defense of protecting civilians, those women and children who are targets of the terrorists when they attack "police stations, and banks, and commuter trains, and synagogues." It is important to note that the physical representations of the vulnerable and weak persons within civilization are women and children. (see article in the upcoming March 2005 edition of the political science journal Political Theory, entitled "Gendering Grotius: Sex and Sex Difference in the laws of wars." There should be links to the journal through the websites of the libraries of major or elite American universities and colleges.)

What distinguishes "us" from "them," presumably, is that "we" hold the lives of these women and children to be worthy of protection and would not sacrifice them toward some ultimate goal. The very values of civilization, those cultural structures which allow us to distinguish between civilians and combatants in the first place, are targeted for destruction by the terrorists. However, if terrorists oppose liberty, and liberty is thing being defended, why does the Administration choose to detain prisoners caught indefinitely and deny them prisoner of war status? Then Attorney General John Ashcroft suggests a legal strategy, and, then Assistant U.S. Attorney General Bybee in a memo to then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales postulates a number of reasons to not grant prisoner of war status to these detainees. However, these legal hoops are not the true reasons, in my mind, behind the Administration's willingness to depart from customary international law. The true reason is that the Administration believes that the not dead, not detained terrorist is still a threat to women, children, and civilians around the world. If women and children become the permanent proverbial prey, then the "terrorist" becomes the permanent archetypal predators.

In April 2004, Paul W. Butler, special assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, confided to the Boston Globe: "''They're dangerous. And we have a responsibility, both to our forces . . . and the rest of the world, to not let those people back out." The Globe also provides, by way of framing, "[o]fficials have spoken publicly about the prospect of indefinite detentions for some, but they had not disclosed that the majority could be held until the war on terrorism is finished." The war against terror could go on for a very long time. The article continues: "Each detainee has been photographed, fingerprinted, and swabbed for a DNA sample. The great fear, the officials said, is that they will release a prisoner, and then find his DNA on the wall of a bombed nightclub in Kuala Lumpur -- or a Starbucks in Columbus, Ohio. Each released detainee is added to the watch lists of people not to be allowed into the United States." These detainees, even when they stop posing an immediate threat, never stop being an imminent one. They're dangerous. For all time.

Supporters of this strategy realize that even for those few detainees who are not considered to be dangerous, and from whom all usable information has been gathered, "some of the delay in releasing them is caused by the complicated negotiations with more than 40 countries to take back their citizens." Why is there a delay? Getting the detainee to face a trial at home is difficult because the incriminating "evidence gathered at Guantanamo may not be usable in that country's courts. The closer another country's legal system is modeled on the US Constitution, the less likely it is to be able to use evidence gathered at Guantanamo."

Nevertheless, what I want you to realize is that the Administration's concern for the lives of civilians, particularly American ones, with the protection of civilians being the linchpin of the current customary international legal order, has caused the Administration to deny prisoners' rights and protections to its detainees around the world.

If my analysis is true, and accurate--and I think it is--how do we form a political response to an ironic reaffirmation of the principle of distinction?