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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Killing is the New ‘Justice’: The Murky Morality of Target Killings

Today’s news of the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by US drones sparked a much overdue flurry of criticism and questions on the ethics and legality of Obama’s death-by-drone programme in the war on terror. Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s alleged ‘chief of external operations’ in Yemen (an upgraded title he received posthumously by officials at the White House and the CIA – previously he was by reputation and status merely a radical Muslim cleric) is the first US citizen to have been assassinated in President Obama’s brand of the fight against terrorism. The drones programme is by no means a recent tool in the American war chest, nor has it been particularly reserved in its remit of eliminating specified targets in this interminable ‘war’ effort. What is new, however, is that the US has today eliminated one of it’s own citizens, without due process, stripping said citizen of his 5th Amendment rights and rendering him nothing if not unworthy of living. The fact that a public outcry against the extra-judicial assassination of a human being becomes audible (aside from the controversial killing of enemy #1 Bin Laden of course) only when a US citizen is concerned starkly highlights the normalised extra-judicial status of all foreign drone targets in the perception of the international public. The gloves that came off during the Bush administration are still off and killing as the new justice is beginning to supersede the norm against assassinations.

The norm against political assassinations has been in serious peril since the Bush administration first overtly conceded the strategic use of target killings, framed as a military act to weed out and eliminate high-level Al-Qaeda members, in 2002. This norm continues to deteriorate with Obama at the helm, who has stepped up the drones programme considerably since he took over from Bush junior in 2008. Today, there are roughly double the number of drone attacks per week in regions deemed terrorist hotbeds, specifically Pakistan. Since 2004, these drone strikes are reported to have killed between 1,579 and 2,490 individuals, whereby some analyses estimate the civilian casualty rate among these statistics to be as high as 20%. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in 2010. While the policy originated as a programme to “capture and kill” a small number of high value terrorist leaders in the G.W. Bush years, the programme has expanded its remit considerably: up to 2,000 killings can hardly be described as a small number, no less if we accept that the total number of military leaders killed was a mere 35 since 2004.

Leaving aside the sovereignty issue that glaringly stares us in the face in a situation where the US decides to engage militarily within a non-war party, such as Pakistan or Yemen, this is a highly concerning development, as it represents not only the gradual erosion of the norm against assassinations but also the very acceptance of the ethics of the targeted killing of persons on a growing scale. Continue reading