on tzvetan todorov's Torture and The War on Terror (2009)

Tzvetan Todorov - Franco-Bulgarian philosopher (1939 - )

"Torture and the War on Terror" is an essay published in 2009 featuring photography by Ryan Lobo.  I realize that for some, reading this now may seem late, no longer relevant; it is as Hegel said: "One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk."  It is important to analyze and understand our present history.

That said, the essay is brief, and an interesting observance of the rhetoric shifts that took place during Bush's presidency.  First, there is the obviously problematic terminology of a "War on Terror" and "Terrorists" as the enemy: a metaphorical war waged against a generic term that can be applied to any person whose actions and beliefs are not state-sanctioned.  There is no universally agreed upon, legally binding definition of terrorism.  How can a war exist when the enemy is undefined and the battlefield is an abstraction?  I do not think that it is an overstatement to call our conduct a recipe for genocide.  The conclusions drawn by Todorov's in this essay terrified me in their accuracy.  Some illuminating facts:

  • In 2006, only 1 out of a 1,000 person staff in the American Embassy in Baghdad spoke Arabic fluently.  Despite this, American soldiers formed the impression that Iraqis only understood the language of force.
  • Recipients of violence typically respond with acts of greater violence - During the Sétif demonstration in Algeria (1945), over 100 French were massacred.  In response, between 1,500 and 45,000 Algerians (depending on the source) were killed.  9/11 caused the death of 3,000 Americans.  By 2007, the war on Iraq had taken the lives of between 60,000 and 600,000 Iraqis (again, depending on the source).  This is not justice.
  • The 'Torture Memo' (2002) submitted by the US Dept. of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel cited legal reasons defending the practice of torture.  We simply redefined torture to be not what we were doing, defining torture instead by its long term effects (which of course cannot be proven prior to the tortuous act, thereby allowing acts of torture to continue).
  • "In prisons scattered throughout countries outside the US, detainees have been regularly raped, hung from hooks, immersed in water, burned, attached to electrodes, deprived of food, water or medicine, attacked by dogs, and beaten until their bones are broken.  On military bases or on US territory, they have been subjected to sensory deprivation and other violent sensory treatments... None of these methods cause 'the impairment of bodily function' but they are known to cause the rapid destruction of personal identity" (Todorov, 34 and 37).
  • the US government invented a new legal category of 'illegal enemy combatants' to establish "terrorists" as criminals protected neither by habeas corpus nor as enemy soldiers treated according to international conventions.
Todorov attests that international relations seem governed less by the idea that 'the end justifies the means' than by the fact that 'the means outweigh the ends,' and that ideas and principles have an underestimated and untapped (in times of war) formidable power.  Is the proposal that we switch our strategy from military strength to adherence to internationally recognized human rights standards and minimal calculated risks naive?  Another question, raised by Todorov, is whether the consequence is worth it - in other words, is legalized terrorism justified by victory?

Also - I was horrified to discover that all of Lobo's photographs featured in the essay were taken at the prison located 9 miles from my house.  They are photographs of male offenders classified as "maximum custody" or "extreme risks to the public."  None of them are terrorism suspects. 

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