On Torture: Engraving Power

…(cymbal crash)… We have a new Author of Disorder (or is that Disordered Author?). Please welcome, in your virtual way, Elke Schwarz, a PhD student at the LSE working with Kim Hutchings on Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, biopolitics and political violence.


‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’. Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said. ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough’

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)

The killing of Bin Laden last month has given new fuel to the claim that torture, as a tool in the securitization tool kit of a neo-conservative US government, actually has its place and validity in a liberal society. How absurd this artificial claim is has been highlighted in many a news source but incidents like this keep the so-called Torture Debate alive and well, as the normalising process unfolds. The practice of torture has become much more widely seen as a ‘necessary evil’ available to a liberal State in the pursuit of the protection of its population, if not humanity at large. A recent study conducted by the Red Cross has shown that as many as 59% of the American teenagers surveyed and 51% of adults accept torture as a means to garner information. When tyrannies torture, however, it continues to be a widely condemned affair and the international community shows no shortage of outrage.

Torture as a practice of and within otherwise liberal societies can only enter the realm of the morally permissible if it is detached from its illiberal roots and the discourses and practices allow societal norms to be such that a violation of the human bodies of some serves as a means to ensure the survival and proliferation of others in the pursuit of information finding. And it is precisely this clinical mask of the instrumental dimension of torture as an means of truth-gathering that the torturer’s power can be understood in terms of their insecurities and vulnerabilities. Facilitated by the display of the fiction of power, the ultimate objective of torture is one of domination in times where political power is challenged and status disputed.

It is perhaps not surprising that torture should emerge as a radical example of routines of illegal acts enacted in the most corporeal sense for the alleged securitisation and greater good for the greatest number of ‘good’ people whose sanctity of life has become precarious. In the wake of 9/11 this increased precariousness of American life has served as a warrant for the now infamous ‘gloves off’ approach instituted by Bush Junior’s neo-conservative posse. The problem is: the gloves have stayed off, even with Obama in command.

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