A background discussion on terrorism in the western world
The cultural scientist Katrin Dauenhauer did her doctorate on torture in US military operations. Her research focuses on the internal American discourse between the years 1899 and 2008 based on the Philippine-American War (PAK), the Vietnam War and the war against Iraq. With this long-term perspective, some myths in the torture debates become clear and can be deconstructed in the future.
How did you come up with the subject of torture and the discourse about it?
Katrin Dauenhauer: In 2004 the pictures of Abu Ghraib were published and for me, besides the obvious crossing of boundaries that these pictures showed, also their structure, the self-portrayal of the perpetrators, the forced portrayal of the prisoners was interesting. Abu Ghraib was important because it was politically and culturally important. The torture debate triggered by Abu Ghraib in the USA also brought waterboarding into the public eye. When I asked if there was waterboarding before, I came across the PAK and also Vietnam.
Waterboarding stands like no other torture method for the "excesses" of the "War on Terror". However, these are by no means "undesirable developments" after September 11th. Rather, this approach has a sad tradition.
Katrin Dauenhauer: Yes, in fact, waterboarding existed before, even if it wasn't known as "waterboarding" during the PAK and the Vietnam War. During the PAK the method "water cure" was called. In the scientific literature it is pointed out that the Americans took over the method from the Spaniards, i.e. the predecessor colonial power.
During the Vietnam War the method of waterboarding was also used, here it is described by the term "water torture". My research was based on a picture in the Washington Post. However, there was no such extensive debate on water torture during the Vietnam War as during the PAK and the Iraq war. In the end, I explained it to myself in such a way that the brutality of the war itself was discussed and so the water torture took a back seat as just one expression of this brutality. For example, the My Lai massacre was discussed at great length.
September 11th is not a "zero hour"
There is an important narrative in the current debate about torture, namely that human rights would be in crisis because of September 11th. This narrative was also quoted in previous discussions about e.g. the totalitarian surveillance by the NSA, about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and about the increasing militarization of the police in the USA. Just take the Spiegel cover story from December 15: The dark side of power. How America lost its values. It says: The Senate's torture report relentlessly reveals how the country betrayed its values after September 11, 2001. One must understand the Americans, after all, the terrorist attacks were incredible horror. One can hardly contradict that. But if you accept September 11th as a starting point, aren't you already succumbing to the "propaganda" of those who want to justify torture and wars? You have already mentioned the Vietnam War and the PAK. So torture is not something that only begins with the "War on Terror"?
Katrin Dauenhauer: You are absolutely right. On both sides - on the part of the supporters of the measures in the war against international terrorism, as well as on the part of the opponents - September 11th was and is partly declared as a paradigm shift, as an apparent zero hour. However, following this logic as a critic of the "War on Terror" weakens your own position lastingly. They argue that, despite the exceptional case, the human rights of every individual must be preserved. It would be much more important, however, to question the existence of an exceptional situation or to determine that we were or are not in one, at least not in the order of magnitude suggested by terms such as "zero hour" or "paradigm shift". The ticking bomb scenario is ultimately a variation of this exceptional case argument based on a concrete example. A variation of this rhetoric of the extraordinary can be seen again in the classification of transgressions: these are extraordinary individual cases.
With ticking bomb scenarios theoretical constructs are meant, in which torture must absolutely be used, since the "terrorist" would know about the locations of bombs that are about to explode. According to this, information can only be obtained through torture in order to save human lives. The entire television series "24" is ultimately based on this concept, in which the protagonist Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) tortures himself from episode to episode in order to prevent attacks up to and including the ultimate atomic bomb attack. This is questionable in several ways. On the one hand, it reduces thinking to a dichotomous situation and, on the other hand, the main argument of the torturers is set as a premise: through torture one gains information.
Katrin Dauenhauer: Your last point seems to me to be the most important: Many opponents of torture who campaign against the use of torture in the context of a ticking bomb scenario first accept - consciously or unconsciously - the premise that valuable information can be obtained through torture. The use of torture would still have to be rejected, so the argument of the opponents in this case.
This logic is analogous to the idea "9-11 as a paradigm shift". Here, too, the argument is rather used: "Even if 9-11 represents a paradigm shift, even if we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation, we must reflect on our values and speak out against torture ...". Instead of asking: Are the given cornerstones, within which torture is to be justified, correct at all? Does 9-11 really represent a paradigm shift? Does torture actually provide usable information?
The series "24" is an example of the emotionalized representation to justify torture in certain situations. In one of the many torture scenes, for example, the protagonist Jack Bauer uses electro-torture without hesitation against a suspect, especially the ex-husband of his partner. However, Bauer's trade is not portrayed as ill-considered, but as determined and competent. That "an innocent person" - this in quotation marks, because there would be no justification for torturing "a guilty person" - could not be tortured. At the same time, torture is staged as a melodrama, there is nothing dehumanizing, but something familiar: After the torture, Bauer, the tortured Paul Raines and his ex-wife, now Bauer's girlfriend, drive together in the car, a little "as if nothing had happened" and as if "everything is fine again". Finally, the tortured person apologizes to the two of them for having brought them into such a situation through his rash behavior. Such depictions certainly also contribute to the mystification of torture.
The argument of the exceptional situation is intended to justify torture
The ticking bomb scenario is therefore only a pointed, emotionalising variation of the apparently only argument that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.
Katrin Dauenhauer: In my dissertation, I argue that the exceptional situation argument does not relate to facts, but is used as a rhetorical device to justify the use of torture. And here it makes particular sense to watch debates in the wake of the Vietnam War or the PAK. Here, too, it was argued that one is confronted with a situation that is unparalleled. In the Vietnam War, this was the fight against communism, the absolute belief in the domino theory, the conviction that the takeover of South Vietnam by the communist north would ultimately also pose a threat to the USA from communism.
In the case of the PAK, the colonization of the Philippines was based on the logic of a "civilizing mission", that is, the belief in bringing the supposed savages to a higher degree of civilization through American rule and thus making the world as a whole better. At the same time, the USA first entered the world stage through the Spanish-American War, out of which the PAK developed. Thus there was the fear of embarrassing oneself in front of other states or world powers by a defeat against the Filipinos - with unpredictable consequences for the future of the USA. In this "extraordinary situation" the US had to act as it did. They had to win the war against the Filipinos, no matter what the cost. This mantra came into play particularly when the public learned of human rights violations by American troops, including the use of torture, in both wars.
The public debates in the wake of these revelations show that American society was already grappling with human rights violations by its own government before September 11th. Defense strategies, according to which one first dealt with the question of what exactly tortured was after 9/11 and also made wrong decisions in the course of this new challenge, can be invalidated by pointing out these previous debates.
At the same time, there are also many continuities at the political level. In Germany in particular, the presidency of George W. Bush is seen as a turning point. Bush, his defense minister Rumsfeld and his vice president Cheney are solely responsible for the so-called intensified interrogation methods and have lost all measure in the declared war on terror. That the so-called Torture Papers, the memoranda of the Office of Legal Counsel, which detailed these techniques, refer to earlier legislation, especially in the course of the ratification of the UN Convention against Torture by the US Congress in 1994 and CIA "expertise" from the Cold War going back is often excluded. So here, too, there are far greater continuities between the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations than is commonly assumed.
In the mid-1990s, the so-called KUBARK Handbook became known in the context of hearings and trials that dealt with the CIA's involvement in torture in Latin America. In it, the CIA put together torture methods as early as the 1950s, which are particularly effective in breaking and even extinguishing people's will and personality. The manual was expanded to include instructions on torture in the 1980s. There are many methods that were actually used in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo. With all of this in mind, shouldn't one speak of a long tradition of torture rather than exceptional situations?
Katrin Dauenhauer: Yes, this is another example of the fact that there are far more continuities than is evident from the current, historically narrow, debate. In particular, the sensory deprivation methods and the stress positions that can be found in KUBARK are taken up in various memoranda of the American Department of Defense in 2002. This can be read very well in Alfred McCoy's books.
However, there is controversy over the "development" of new torture methods. While McCoy argues that the CIA developed such methods in psychological experiments and then disseminated them through manuals such as KUBARK, Darius Rejali, who wrote "Torture and Democracy", a monumental work on torture in democracies, contradicts this. For him, torture is more of a "backroom apprenticeship" than a "science". According to Rejali, torturers could try to hide under the guise of science, but just because you put on a lab coat does not mean you are a scientist. And even if certain torture techniques have been officially developed and approved, practice shows that torturers act much more independently and often go beyond what is listed in manuals such as KUBARK.
Torture is a very flexible term or is subject to a wide range of possible interpretations. At least that was what the Bush administration had argued. Is torture really that vague?
Katrin Dauenhauer: The prohibition of torture has a long tradition in international law. The internationally most widely recognized or widespread definition is that from Paragraph 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture: "For the purposes of this Convention, the term 'torture' refers to any act that deliberately causes a person to suffer great physical or emotional pain or suffering be inflicted, for example in order to obtain a testimony or a confession from her or a third party, in order to punish her for an act actually or allegedly committed by her or a third party, or in order to intimidate or coerce her or a third party, or for another , on any basis of discrimination, if such pain or suffering is caused by, or on the initiative of, or with the express or tacit consent of a public servant or other person acting in an official capacity. The term does not include pain or suffering, which result only from legal ch permissible sanctions result, belong to or are connected with it. "
But even during the Vietnam War and thus before the Anti-Torture Convention of 1984, the international declaration of human rights was an international document that contained the prohibition of torture. During the PAK, reference was again made to the so-called General Orders No. 100 (Dear Code) from 1863. Article 16 stated that atrocities such as mutilation or wounding outside of combat, inflicting suffering out of revenge and torture, for example to extort confessions, were not permitted. This document also had a major impact on the Hague Convention of 1899.
The prohibition of torture also has a special position in international law: the prohibition of torture is jus cogens, i.e. mandatory law. At the same time, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights writes that torture is not an act in itself, but the legal assessment of an event or behavior based on a comprehensive assessment of that event or behavior. In this respect, torture is always a question of (legal) interpretation.
In addition, torture is not exclusively discussed in law or as a legal term. What is to be understood as torture is also negotiated in political debates and increasingly through media coverage, literature, films and photos. In these debates, torture is often used for the moral condemnation of the opponent. Regarding the events of Abu Ghraib 2004 as abuse cases, while describing the same prison Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein as a torture prison, already testifies to the strategic use or non-use of the term.
Films change the perception of torture
You have already mentioned that the discourse about torture is not only debated in the political class, but that negotiations about torture are also conducted in films, i.e. in popular culture. We already had the example of series 24. You looked at a few films in more detail in your dissertation. What did you find out?
Katrin Dauenhauer: I took a closer look at three films that dealt with torture: First, a relatively unknown film from 1963 called "The Raiders of Leyte Gulf". It is about the reconquest of the Philippines by the USA after their occupation by Japan in World War II. As a result of the American liberation action, the protagonist, an American major, is taken prisoner and tortured. But instead of unequivocally condemning the torture of an American, it is also a symbol of the United States' high commitment to the liberation of the Philippines.
Torture is staged as the ultimate "proof of friendship" between the Philippines and the United States. The pain caused by the torture is clearly portrayed in the film, but at the same time the victim becomes a hero precisely because he has survived the torture without disclosing any information. Torture thus becomes a kind of initiation rite - but interestingly, this only applies to Americans. As it turns out during the film, the torturer, a Japanese general, was also previously tortured, but for him the torture only added to his instability and unpredictability. The torture is thus staged as a proof of strength.
Interestingly, such an interpretation can also be found in John McCain's autobiography, in which he reports on his imprisonment in Vietnam. Torture is also presented there as a test of one's own strength. McCain ultimately grew as a person through his time in Vietnam. Basically a popular American narrative.
The other films I watched were "Rambo: First Blood" (1982) and "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Both address the Vietnam War, but without being too specific about history. In both films, the Vietnam War is portrayed as an American tragedy. In "Rambo" the mission of the American soldiers is also glorified and the Vietnamese enemy is portrayed as a butcher. Torture scenes are the focus of both "Rambo" and "The Deer Hunter". In both films, however, Americans are the victims.
What is particularly noteworthy in "Rambo" is the fact that Rambo is subjected to electro torture in the film, but even then does not reveal any information - the well-known heroic narrative. In addition, the film attributes the use of electric torture to the Viet Cong. The US Department of Defense was only able to confirm two cases of electric torture by North Vietnam during the entire war, and there were no cases of electric torture in Vietnam after the war. Instead, it was the Americans, French and South Vietnamese who used electric torture. The film thus unilaterally stages the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong as brutal opponents, falsifies historical facts with regard to the type of torture methods and depicts the American soldier exclusively as a victim.
Not that bad, you might think, it's "just a movie". However, this fiction is adopted unquestionably into the historical understanding of American society. Basically, an analysis of material from popular culture is important because it represents an important part of the culture of remembrance. Probably more Americans have seen a series of Vietnam films than they have read a series of history books about the Vietnam War.
You mentioned an interesting point earlier, namely the belief that many Americans believe in their own superiority and the superiority of Western civilization. This is of course not a peculiarity of the USA, but rather a widespread sociological or social-psychological mechanism. This also means that one's own value is permanently dependent on the competition between nations. At least that's how many people experience it. You say very aptly that the USA did not want to embarrass itself, in the competition of nations and was therefore ready to do anything. Similar processes could be seen with the decline of the English Empire or with German National Socialism. Often, materialistic interests such as geostrategy and securing resources hide these no less important mechanisms of perceived superiority.
Katrin Dauenhauer: This is a complex point. The main aim of my research was to use the various sources to work out how the use of torture was justified or condemned. And indeed there are many, almost philosophical, treatises to be found. It turns out that a discussion about torture is actually much more negotiated than torture. It's about social values and other basic questions of a society: How do we define ourselves? What holds us together What is important to us as a community? What is not negotiable? Not really surprising, because as an extreme form of violence and with great affective potential, torture hits the foundations of a society. Ultimately, the legitimation of violence is a fundamental issue for any society and torture reinforces this importance.
I'm not sure how the two motives you mentioned relate to each other: Is the perceived higher value paramount or do geostrategic considerations play a greater role? In the debate about a commitment in the Philippines, for example, one's own higher value took on a far greater priority, and economic considerations were resolutely rejected. Henry Allen Cooper of the US Congress said in about 1900:
"We are in the Philippines, sir, to fulfill a duty, a duty that we owe to ourselves, to the people of the archipelago and to civil liberty all over the world. We are committed on the archipelago to the limits of freedom to expand, to secure freedom as well as to give an oppressed race the opportunities and support of the best of modern civilizations, a blessing it has been denied for centuries, and thus to establish an invincible young republic and inalienable human rights to establish."
This higher value was therefore not questioned; it was only from it that the obligation to intervene emerged. Of course, this is no longer so explicitly found during the Iraq war, since one would be exposed to accusations of racism with such formulations. At the same time, this tenor definitely resonates in Bush's "civilizing mission".
Basically it is true that in every war mechanisms come into play that categorize the other as enemy and thus devalue or demonize. In the case of the conflicts considered in my work, these are in particular categories that lead to race based, especially during the PAK and the Vietnam War.
Dehumanizing the other person and then torturing them without scruples raises the question of who is perceived as human and who is not. Which human life as such is of value and which is not. These questions have been very prominent in American cultural studies in recent years, especially through the well-received book "Homo Sacer" by Giorgio Agamben, but also Judith Butler's "Frames of War" and "Precarious Life".
Western values and the magic of denial
The debate about torture is therefore embedded in a much more fundamental debate about the values of a society. So what is important to a society and what is by no means negotiable. Given the methods of torture, which are also still justified and considered legitimate, does that mean that all values are up for debate in the US? And how does that fit in with the self-image of the constitutional state and democracy, which is committed to human rights?
Katrin Dauenhauer: I think there is no final answer on this point. Also because there are many parallel and sometimes competing models of justification for torture. In "States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering" (2001) Stanley Cohen wrote about dealing with war crimes and named various strategies. He calls one of them "denial magic": Since an action is strictly forbidden, it cannot have happened. This strategy continues to be used even when there is sufficient evidence of a crime, according to Cohen, largely because logic and ideology play a role in such arguments. An ideology that paints the picture of defending human rights instead of violating them.
The debates reveal a conflict between the ideal of a righteous army and specific transgressions to grapple with. Ultimately, this conflict also leads to "ideological restrictions" to which one submits when dealing with transgressions.
"Denial Magic" is just a strategy. Another strategy is not to declare these acts as torture until the end, to relate the transgressions of the USA to the acts of the opponents and to find them less bad or to negate the "humanity" of the opponent in order to justify such acts. All of these strategies run side by side, even individual people use several and often contradicting strategies. Regarding My Lai, one article summed up such a paradoxical defense strategy as follows: "It Never Happened and Besides They Deserved It." To come back to your question again: I do not think that it is the understanding that all values are up for debate, but that values have to be defended and that in individual cases this means that certain values have to be weighed up against each other. William T. Cavanaugh describes this very aptly:
"On the one hand, denying that we torture is essential to upholding the notion that the United States is morally exceptional. On the other hand, maintaining the privilege to torture is essential to upholding the notion that the American nation is Protector from the inhuman forces that threaten us. […] The widespread idea of torture is therefore important to promote two things: on the one hand, the bad feeling of living in an emergency and exceptional situation and, on the other hand, the feeling that the state will do whatever it takes to protect us from the threat that he himself helped to create. "
These contradictions cannot be resolved. In the US context in particular, patriotism and the role of the army in society play an important role, which also explains the "ideological restrictions" already mentioned.
It seems to me that this is primarily about double standards or, more clearly, about mendacity in the argument. The "others" are accused of torture, and one squirms in order to find the last legal and moral argument that goes far beyond the absurd and ridiculous in order to legitimize torture. How do you explain that Americans are willing to accept this bigotry?
Katrin Dauenhauer: Much of what has just been said also applies here. "Ideological restrictions" play a central role: on the one hand, the belief that one acts more morally than "the enemy", that one must have important reasons in the event of border crossing, but also simply the suppression of events that shake one's self-image.
Regardless of the catchphrase "ideology", there are also very simple and pragmatic reasons: disinterest in international politics or the 24-hour news cycle that makes you quickly forget the torture report because of new news from Syria or Iraq.
On the other hand, one must of course also recognize the work of those who fight against torture in very different ways and loudly denounce American torture: the work of intellectuals like Butler or McCoy, the artistic examination of torture in works by Richard Serra, Clinton Fein or Steve Powers, the work of human and civil rights organizations like ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and finally the efforts of politicians, especially Dianne Feinstein and John McCain. But if you look at surveys in which the majority of Americans consider the so-called enhanced interrogation methods to be justified - still - that is very worrying.
Katrin Dauenhauer is a research associate in the North American study program at the University of Bonn. Her dissertation will be published shortly by Peter Lang Verlag: "The Shadow of Torture: Debating US Transgressions in Military Interventions, 1899-2008."
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