When the torture becomes humdrum

February 10, 2006

We have become accustomed to others' suffering in the War on Terror, says Joanna Bourke

Ameen Sa'eed Al-Sheikh was arrested on October 7 2003 and taken to the Baghdad Correctional Facility in Abu Ghraib. "Do you believe in anything?" an American interrogator asked. "I believe in Allah," Al-Sheikh replied. The interrogator responded: "But I believe in torture and I will torture you." The crucible of humanity has become the torture chamber. In the words of Jay Bybee, US assistant attorney general, torture is defined as "extreme acts" that "must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injury such as death or organ failure". In other words, so long as an act does not involve "death or organ failure", it does not constitute torture. In this way, the threshold of the human has been reached: not through xenophobia or misogyny, nor even misanthropy, but by rendering an individual "non-human" through the infliction of pain.

What we are seeing is the execution of a politics in which humanity is defined through the actions of the inhuman (torturer) on those defined as non-human (victim). As Abu Ghraib prisoner Nori Samir Gunbar Al-Yasseri put it: "They stripped us naked... Then they ordered us to hold our penises and stroke [them]... They started to take photographs as if it was a porn movie. And they treated us like animals not humans."

In a number of troubling ways, we have all participated in these attempts to create a hierarchy of humanness. The photographs taken to shame the prisoners and their communities have been broadcast around the world, globalising dishonour. Perpetrators, bystanders and victims have been sorted into positions of hierarchy. Just as the actions of some perpetrators are presented as more comprehensible than others, so too we sort victims into a hierarchy of suffering and, in such a way, justify some abuse.

Simone de Beauvoir - an ardent opponent of torture during the French-Algerian War - acknowledged, "in 1957, the burns in the face, on the sexual organs, the nails torn out... the shrieks, the convulsions, outraged me". But, by the "sinister month of December 1961, like many of my fellow men, I suppose, I suffer from a kind of tetanus of the imagination".

Are we so numbed yet? In an article published more than ten years ago, but even more relevant today, historian Eric Hobsbawm observes that people have "got used to" terror. "I don't mean we still can't be shocked by this or that example of it," he observes, "On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience."

The international shock caused by the Abu Ghraib photographs suggests that "something unusually awful" had happened. The photographs that came out of Guantanamo Bay and Basra had none of the power of the Abu Ghraib ones. We had become inured to images of terror - unless they were tied to our media obsession: sex. Just as when Big Brother became boring, we introduced the possibility of a sex romp; when torture photographs became humdrum, we did the same. And there is the obscenity: Big Brother and torture casually bedded in the same sentence. This was the "pornography of violence" that appalled so many commentators after Abu Ghraib, but to which they were oblivious when the attack was on "our" soil.

While pornography dehumanises and commodifies, however, the current War on Terror reminds us that there is no natural "human", no amorphous "Other" from which to deviate. In the War on Terror, the "human" does not emerge whole from the natural world, but is created through violence. Today, the main strategy for distinguishing the threshold of the human is torture and, in particular, the tortured sexual body. The emphasis on sexual abuse is not a deviation from tough considerations of indomitable state power and seemingly unassailable military muscle. In the current war, where discrepancies of power between protagonists are so disproportionate as to render systems of law hollow, politics operates on the body.

Furthermore, this body has been extraordinarily sexualised. The world recoiled in horror, not because of torture as such (that continues to be endorsed at the highest levels), but because of the presence of female perpetrators of sexual violence. Face to face with images of female perpetrators and powerful female leaders implicated in sexual torture, theories premised on the assumption that it is the male of our species who are "rapists, rape fantasists, or beneficiaries of a rape culture" become (at best) wishful thinking. The female perpetrators seemed to be using conventional tropes of femininity to subjugate. While male guards stomped on male prisoners and threatened buggery, the women threw menstrual fluid and slowly stripped. The female perpetrators seemed to be living out their own fantasies about power and sexuality.

The sexualisation of torture is only one way in which the War on Terror has delineated who is (and who is not) human. Religion remains a powerful site for disciplining bodies. "Do you pray to Allah?" the American interrogators screamed at Al-Sheikh, tortured in Abu Ghraib. When he replied "yes", they yelled, "fuck you" and "fuck him" and forced him to "thank Jesus" that he was alive.

Messianic Protestantism encourages a notion of unending war without any sense of accountability. Like that other "talking cure", prayer enables purification from those irrepressible violent urges. It was a lesson understood by a nine-year-old American girl from Our Lady of Peace, a Catholic school. This child sent members of an interrogation unit in Iraq a drawing of aeroplanes dropping bombs on small figures in turbans. Her caption read: "We are praying for you and saying the rosary in class for you today."

Even more noticeable is the use of the secular religion of our times, human rights, to justify suffering by deciding who stands outside the threshold of the human. When we look at the right not to be tortured or raped, the question becomes: does this right apply to the (suspected) terrorist? Or to any individual who might have been picked up on the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan? Democracy itself is used to make sense of suffering: if only the Iraqis were more democratic, we would not need to do this to them. If only they had told the truth, we would not need to torture them.

Meanwhile, the language of psychological trauma has been co-opted by the perpetrators of violence. The invention of post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1980s was a mechanism that allowed those who had tortured and raped Vietnamese to be portrayed as victims. Today, psychological trauma experienced by service personnel in Iraq is also being used to justify abuse. In the words of Rush Limbaugh, a US radio talk-show host, speaking about the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib abuses on CBS News: "You know, these people are being fired at every day... You (ever) heard of (the) need to blow some steam off?"

One effect of the trauma trope has been to create a universal suffering subject outside of history. Individuals are reduced to undifferentiated bodies-in-pain. Yet pain is always local. To universalise it is to remove the specifics of an individual's history; it is to situate torture in the realm of moral edification.

While suffering has been universalised, the abusers have been individualised. "Rotten apples" have been identified; the putrid barrel ignored. Those who practise systematic cruelty (as promoted by the most powerful agents within political institutions) are left alone. The guilty ones are those seen as enjoying the carnavalesque aspects of violence.

Finally, the trauma narrative insists that the perpetrators are not the only ones "traumatised" in the War on Terror - so too are the witnesses.

Our so-called trauma of hearing what American and British troops are doing in Iraq has trumped the wrong done to Iraqis. In the end, torture is about us.

Our security - and, since the bombs in London, our anguish - has become the main way we justify inflicting suffering. Ethical debate has fossilised into the skewed morals of individual perpetrators as opposed to the biopolitics of war in general. Human rights are conceptualised in terms of Western priorities and desires. As law professor Costas Douzinas put it:

"Civil and political rights take precedence over economic and social entitlements; liberalisation of trade is more important than guaranteeing minimum standards of living." We cannot escape complicity: our humanity is defined through the torments the inhuman visits on the non-human.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history, Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Fear: A Cultural History (Virago, 2005). This is a summary of her lecture for the Oxford Amnesty series, sponsored by The Times Higher and delivered this week.

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