Why Torture When Torture Does Not Work? Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and the Persistence of White Terror

A guest post from Melanie Richter-Montpetit, responding to the disclosure of the Senate Torture Report in December. Melanie is currently lecturer in international security at the University of Sussex, having recently gained her PhD from York University in Toronto. Her work on issues of subjectivity, belonging and political violence has also been published in Security Dialogue and the International Feminist Journal of Politics.


a land on which no slave can breathe.

- Frederick Douglass (1846)[i]

I had to leave; I needed to be in a place where I could breathe and not feel someone’s hand on my throat.

- James Baldwin (1977)[ii]

I can’t breathe.

- Eric Garner (2014)

 America Waterboards

No, bin Laden was not found because of CIA torture.[iii] In fact, the US Senate’s official investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation program concludes that torture yielded not a single documented case of “actionable intelligence.” If anything, the Senate Torture Report[iv] – based on the review of more than six million pages of CIA material, including operational cables, intelligence reports, internal memoranda and emails, briefing materials, interview transcripts, contracts, and other records – shows that the administration of torture has led to blowbacks due to false intelligence and disrupted relationships with prisoners who cooperated. What went “wrong”? How is it possible that despite the enormous efforts and resources invested in the CIA-led global torture regime, including the careful guidance and support by psychologists[v] and medical doctors, that the post-9/11 detention and interrogation program failed to produce a single case of actionable data? Well, contrary to the commonsense understanding of torture as a form of information-gathering, confessions made under the influence of torture produce notoriously unreliable data, and the overwhelming majority of interrogation experts and studies oppose the collection of intelligence via the use of torture. This is because most people are willing to say anything to stop the pain or to avoid getting killed and/or are simply unable to remember accurate information owing to exhaustion and trauma.[vi]

So if torture is known not work, how come, then, that in the wake of 9/11 the U.S. at the highest levels of government ran the risk of setting up a torture regime in violation of international and domestic law? Why alienate international support and exacerbate resentments against “America” with the public display of controversial incarceration practices, as in Guantánamo Bay, instead of simply relying on the existing system of secret renditions? Furthermore, in the words of a former head of interrogations at Guantánamo Bay, most of the tortured and indefinitely detained are “Mickey Mouse” prisoners,[vii] reportedly known not to be involved in or not to have any information on criminal or terrorist activity against the U.S. and its allies. Drawing on previously published work, I will explore this puzzle by addressing two key questions: What is the value of these carceral practices when they do not produce actionable intelligence? And, what are some of the affective and material economies involved in making these absurd and seemingly counterproductive carceral practices possible and desirable as technologies of security in the post-9/11 Counterterrorism efforts?

Against the exceptionalism[viii] of conceiving of these violences as “cruel and unusual,” “abuse” or “human rights violations”[ix] that indicate a return to “medieval” methods of punishment, the post-9/11 US torture regime speaks to the constitutive role of certain racial-sexual violences in the production of the US social formation. Contrary to understandings of 9/11 and the authorization of the torture regime as a watershed moment in U.S. history “destroying the soul of America,”[x] the carceral security or pacification practices documented in the Senate Torture Report and their underpinning racial-sexual grammars of legitimate violence and suffering have played a fundamental role in the making of the US state and nation since the early days of settlement.[xi] The CIA Detention and Interrogation program[xii] targeting Muslimified subjects and populations was not only shaped by the gendered racial-sexual grammars of Orientalism, but – as has been less explored in IR[xiii]is informed also by grammars of anti-Blackness, the capture and enslavement of Africans and the concomitant production of the figure of the Black body as the site of enslaveability and openness to gratuitous violence.[xiv]

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The Quiet Port is Logistics’ Nightmare

Dispatch #2 from Charmaine’s ethnography of a container ship comes to us from the port of Tacoma, where the ship is currently experiencing severe delays. Continue to follow the Ever Cthulhu with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.


Source: author

Source: author

It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”

There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.

The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.

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The Politics of the UK HE Marking Boycott – Part IV: The Betrayal

The farce of UCU’s “resistance” to universities’ attack on employees’ pensions is now reaching its inevitable climax (see Part I, Part II and Part III for background). Readers may recall that the crisis has been provoked by the employers’ association, UUK, seeking to impose dramatic cuts on the basis of a supposed massive deficit in the USS pension scheme – a position exposed as spurious by many academic statisticians and UCU’s actuaries. In previous posts, I have been savagely critical of UCU’s response. In summary, I argued:

the UCU leadership is using the membership as a stage army while seeking to mediate between an increasingly angry membership and the employers. It initiated the marking boycott without first consulting its members on what an acceptable negotiating outcome would be, rushed out its proposals in secret and put them to the employers without first seeking members’ approval, and now seeks to lock down the parameters of the debate by ending the industrial action, closeting its negotiators with UUK’s in the JNC, and presenting a fait accompli in January in the same manner as the pay settlement, with demoralised and confused members left with little alternative but to endorse the outcome.

Predictably, this outcome is now unfolding. Following UCU-UUK talks, the UCU’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) has decided to put a “revised offer” from the employers to the membership via an e-ballot. This offer involves virtually no improvement on UUK’s initial position.

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#BlackLivesMatter, The New Black Liberation Movement

Maia PalA guest post from Maïa Pal, recently returned from San Francisco. Maïa is currently a Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University. Her main research is on the historical sociology of extraterritorial jurisdiction and Marxist theories of international law. She also researches UK student occupations as counter-conduct in the context of a political economy of higher education, and has blogged on student protests in the UK and Québec. And you can follow her on Twitter too.


Photo by Amanda Arkansassy Harris

Photo by Amanda Arkansassy Harris

After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?

10 years after Judith Butler asked this question in her work Precarious Life, San Francisco organisers Thea Matthews, aged 27 and Etecia Brown, aged 24, gave me some answers.[1] ‘Leaderful’, ‘sustainable’, ‘multidimensional’: “BlackLivesMatter is more than a hashtag, logo or slogan, it’s a lifestyle.” Their demands against police brutality are practical, short-term and realistic. The demands consist of ensuring enforcement, transparency, mental health awareness in training, demilitarisation, two-way accountability, and community work. ‘Police should be like fire-fighters, heroes with red trucks!’, we chuckled.

Some of these demands are already being implemented; in Portland, New York, Richmond. As public policy solutions they could be quickly put in place. Nevertheless, it is absolutely clear that such goals, however important and at the core of the movement, barely scratch the surface of the problem. BlackLivesMatter activists want to achieve long-lasting institutional change and an end to the more covert social, political and economic subjugation of black people. They explicitly revive the terms of colonisation and slavery because these do not belong to the past; an experience both organisers have observed and lived through personally. Without equal access to education, jobs, and political representation; with lower life expectancy, socially and in front of a police gun; with mental health conditions, fear and loss of hope in their humanity, black people are still in chains.

The point here is not to engage a discussion on the history and intricate forms of these processes of exploitation, white supremacy and patriarchy. Although necessary and important, this piece discusses instead resistance to these processes, and specifically to what these organisers aptly described as ‘psychological warfare’. This resistance means healing people who are suffering, have lost all power and hope for resisting, and building communities that care for each other beyond the myths of freedom, property and consumerism.

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Between Innocence and Deconstruction: Rethinking Political Solidarity

The third and final post in our short resilience and solidarity forum, this time from Chris Rossdale. Chris lectures in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research focuses on anti-militarist social movements and radical political theory. He has also recently edited a special issue of Globalizations on radical political subjectivities, his own contribution exploring the relationship between Emma Goldman and Friedrich Nietzsche through the concept of dance. He can be reached by email thusly.


The ethos of solidarity remains one of the left’s most powerful and enduring ideas, a clarion call for collective struggle in the face of international borders and neoliberal individualism. At the time of writing, my social media feeds are awash with calls for solidarity with Ferguson; thousands also turned out to a solidarity protest at the US embassy. Last week I attended a solidarity fundraiser for the Kurdish Red Crescent, took part in an action organised to coincide with UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and circulated a petition in solidarity with students who experienced police violence at the University of Warwick. Rarely a day passes at present without some fresh discussion about the particular politics involved in different forms of solidarity with those suffering from the outbreak of Ebola. Across different modes, the practice of solidarity is a part of our everyday political conduct.

Rossdale_pic1

Protestors march after gathering outside the American Embassy in London November 26, 2014, to show solidarity with the family of black teenager Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in August in Missouri. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

On the one hand, this is clearly a good thing, enabling common political, financial and emotional resources to be shared in important and useful ways. Distance, whether spatial or cultural, can be an alienating force, and practices of solidarity can serve as a powerful redress to such alienation, asserting collectivity and community in the face of division. In this piece, however, my intention is to outline a critique of much of what passes for solidarity, and suggest that more radical or deconstructive understandings are needed if we wish to produce more substantive challenges to political domination.

The particular practices of solidarity I have in mind are those which occur in those contexts (which are many) in which the imbalance of power directly privileges, at least in some forms, one party over another – whether this is in the context of cis-male solidarity in feminist projects, citizen solidarity in migrant and refugee struggles, or, the particular case study I discuss below, Jewish-Israeli solidarity with Palestinians. Continue reading

Governing Through Resilience: Implications for Solidarity and Political Action

The second guest post in our solidarity and resilience forum, this time from Tudor Vilcan. Tudor is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton. He seeks to critically investigate how discourses of resilience are put to use as ways to govern society. He is also interested in complexity theories, new materialism and critiques of neoliberalism.


This contribution represents a sum of reflections about solidarity and political action in the context of resilience policies based on a presentation given at the Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity Workshop organized at King’s College London in September 2014. I suggest that there is room to think about political action and solidarity in the context of resilience policies. Political action and solidarity are developed through encouraging individuals and communities to take ownership of their own risk management and build generic adaptive capacities. I argue that the meaning of political action and solidarity is changed in this context, as it provides a localized social engagement that at the same time evacuates political concerns from consideration. For resilience policies to succeed in properly connecting with individuals and communities, they need to find a level of engagement that is not just social, but also political.

Vilcan_pic1

Resilience has become an important idea, especially in the last few years. It has been developed and applied in the context of the environment, threats and hazards, development or thinking about change. More importantly, it has started to make its way into policy making, becoming one way in which society can be governed. At its core, resilience proposes to be a property or capacity of groups, communities or societies to cope with disruptions and still maintain their basic functions.

There is an acute absence of contributions that seek to draw links between resilience on one side and political action and solidarity on the other. This might be because we are told that resilience is about the strengthening of society as a whole to better tolerate shocks and rebuild if necessary. It appears to go beyond concerns with formal politics and deliver a model for governing society that is more appropriate to the interdependent and complex world in which we are living. Such a model emphasizes the need for connections, diversity, broadened participation or devolved governance. It signals a move away from the centralized approaches to policy making to emphasize that society must be seen as a large array of networks, systems and critical infrastructures whose disruption or failure can have catastrophic domino effects. When resilience is conceptualized in such way, political action and solidarity can be seen to represent atavisms of a time when static, concrete political and social categories were popular. In today’s complex and fluid world, they don’t appear to have the same purchase.

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Why We’re Not Ditching Resilience Yet…

A guest post in our resilience and solidarity symposium from Rhys Kelly and Ute Kelly. Rhys is a Lecturer in Conflict Resolution at the Division of Peace Studies, University of Bradford. His work currently focuses on the pressing challenges posed by ecological crises (including climate change) and resource depletion (including ‘peak oil’). Retaining a long-standing interest in (peace) education, Rhys’ work is now broadly concerned with investigating what kinds of individual and social learning are needed and possible in the context of increasing global insecurity, which might support just and peaceful transitions to more resilient, ‘sustainable’ communities. Ute is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. Her current research interests arise from the intersection of two areas that she has been interested in – the theory and practice of participatory engagement processes (particularly dialogue and deliberation), and the emerging interdisciplinary field of social-ecological resilience. Ute is interested in exploring the communicative and collaborative dimensions of resilience, the relationships between people and the places in which they find themselves, and approaches to enhancing resilience at different levels and in a range of contexts. She also teaches a module on ‘Peace, Ecology and Resilience’ within the BA in Peace Studies, encouraging students to explore the meanings, uses and limitations of ‘resilience’. Rhys and Ute are jointly engaged in exploring the meanings of ‘resilience’ on the ground, particularly for people who have been trying to engage with the converging ecological, economic and energy crises facing us today. Relevant recent joint publications include ‘An Education in Homecoming: Peace Education as the pursuit of Appropriate Knowledge’Journal of Peace Education (2013); and ‘Towards Peaceful Adaptation? Reflections on the purpose, scope, and practice of peace studies in the 21st Century’, Peace Studies Journal (2013).


Those who responded:
engaged with resilience,
thoughtfully active.

‘I want you’, she said,
‘to ditch ‘resilience’ now’.
How, then, to resist?

Part of a sequence of haikus about ‘10 days in September 14’ for a collective zine, these two fragments are an attempt to convey Ute’s experience of the workshop on ‘Political Action, Solidarity and Resilience’. The first tried to describe the people who responded to a survey we had created to gather reflections on ‘resilience’.[i] The responses to our survey were thoughtful and reflective, and most came from people who are critical of the status quo and trying to respond to a set of crises that includes climate change and the degradation of ecosystems, energy depletion, austerity, conflict, inequality and injustice. Interestingly, many of our respondents appreciated the opportunity to reflect on their own understandings of ‘resilience’, on the contexts in which they had seen the concept appear, and on its strengths and limitations.

Kelly_pic1

The second haiku poses a question that emerged from some of the discussions at the workshop itself – in particular, a tendency on the part of some of the contributors to dismiss the idea that ‘resilience’ might be a helpful concept, to conflate a focus on ‘resilience’ with neoliberal agendas, and/or to construct ‘resilience’ and ‘resistance’ as mutually exclusive concepts.

Such a construction, we feel, is too narrow, too caught up in looking at how ‘resilience’ has been used in some (not all) academic and policy discourses, and too dismissive of genuine attempts to grapple with ‘the fragility of things’, with a real sense of converging crises. Continue reading