Saturday, September 21, 2013

Warfare and Torture In A Global Context

By Muhammad Khan
The Muslim News (UK)

Torture and the Twilight of Empire, from Algiers to Baghdad. By Marnia Lazreg. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, pp335, 2008, HB, £17.95.

Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Richard Falk, once wrote, “Undoubtedly, part of the hidden cost of patriotic excesses is the tendency to become insensitive to infringements on liberties at home, and human rights generally. To the extent this pattern can be attributed to the impact of September 11, it represents an indirect victory for the al-Qaeda attacks, compromising the most legitimate elements of the American reality, including its own proudest traditions as first enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, heroically enacted in the Revolutionary War, and enshrined in the Constitution on the basis of the Federalist Papers and an exemplary constitutional convention. At the same time, it is important to avoid self-congratulatory assessments of America’s human rights record, which has throughout its period as a coherent country been beset by glaring contradictions between proclaimed values and actual practices at home and abroad.” (The Great Terror War, p147)

If Falk’s case against the American human rights record especially in relation to the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is a damning one, then Marnia Lazreg’s interdisciplinary analysis of the abuse of human rights and dignity in the form of state-sponsored torture and cruelty could not have been more powerful and pertinent. Indeed, according to the author of the book under review, “Informed by a utilitarian perspective that seeks to maximize gains and minimize losses, the formula ‘the ends justify the means’ considers torture an efficient means to achieve ends deemed morally worthy. Its variant, to which I will refer as the apologetic perspective, condones the use of torture as one of the options a politician might have to choose in a situation of crisis. This perspective has roots in the premise that politicians are not necessarily moral people; ‘they are often killers.’ Of course, some decent men do at times enter politics. And when they do, they sometimes face ‘moral dilemmas’ that they resolve by ordering actions that dirty their hands…But this method of reasoning reflects a major problem plaguing the apologetic perspective: it thrives on hypothetical situations, which, in this case at least, are simplifications of what actually occurs in real life. And because they are simplifications, these hypothetical situations rest on the selection of one or two features (a ‘rebel’ and ‘bombs’) from an intricate political reality requiring serious analysis in order to shed light on the decision to use torture.”(p 237-238)

As it happens, the author of this book was inspired to research and write about the psychological, cultural and political meanings of torture by the following incident: “In the course of a discussion about the Algerian war, a disenchanted man in his twenties who worked in the mailroom of a government institution where I had been employed in the early years of independence when I was still a student, said to me: ‘The French army broke my testicles! And here I am recording mail day in, day out.’ A shy young woman at the time, I had not quite grasped the enormity of the pain and suffering that this man had experienced, nor had I understood his trauma, although I glimpsed the depth of the anger that gleamed in his eyes.” (p1)

Based on her analysis of the French army’s coercive tactics during the Algerian war of 1954-1962 and the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and its subsequent recourse to torture in these countries, Lazreg’s book is nothing short of a thorough anatomy of torture and cruelty, their methods, justifications, functions and consequences both on the victims as well as the perpetrators. Drawing on the sociological, political, psychological and philosophical writings of Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzche, Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Albert Camus and also archives, interviews with former torturers and tortured, as well as war diaries, the author effectively argues that the occupying Western powers have not only justified their systematic use of torture and cruelty as a regrettable but necessary means of protecting and saving Western civilisation from those ‘who hate our way of life’ but they have also used this argument as a pretext for invading and colonising those nations that dare to challenge Western politico-economic hegemony.

Divided into four parts and eleven chapters, the author focuses on “torture as an analytical category and practice (that is, conscious and rule-bound activity) through which to understand how, between 1954 and 1962, the militarized colonial state normalized terror to forestall the collapse of the empire in an age of decolonization. In tracing the aetiology and methods of state terrorism, I explore the justifications that allowed for the routinization of torture in a “total” war of decolonization-recolonization…Torture was not, as was often claimed by military officers, an epiphenomenon of the war. It was central to the army’s defense of a colonial empire in its waning years.” (p3)

This, in turn, required the French in Algeria, for instance, and to a lesser extent the Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay to justify their actions as a regrettable but necessary action to ‘protect our way of life and promote higher values’. However, Lazreg argues that, “Justifications of torture play a crucial role in its routinization; they require for their efficacy a suspension of disbelief: They harness an array of reasons of unequal value and importance that must be accepted as a whole. The dictionary points to the root of justification as making ‘just,’ whereas explanation ‘makes flat.’ I take the position that intentional assault against the body physical or the body social is not justifiable, albeit explainable. In wars, ‘just’ or ‘unjust,’ belligerents are bound by rules of engagement, which are meant to avoid or minimize the occurrence of atrocities.” (pp 5-6).

Although the author’s approach to the analysis of torture is an integrated one, focusing as she does on the French army’s systematic use of torture in Algeria as well as the American troops wanton abuse of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, it would have been equally useful to explore the phenomenon of outsourcing torture to Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Morocco by many Western governments, including the US. Perhaps this issue was beyond the remit of this study, yet it is an area which needs to be explored and highlighted using interdisciplinary tools of analysis, not least because all of these ‘centres of torture’ happen to be Muslim.

What do all of these countries have in common and why do the Western governments choose to outsource torture to these countries in the first place? How is this to be viewed in the context of political maturity and commitment to democracy and human rights on the part of the leading Western nations? Though this book does not answer these questions, it has paved the way for someone else to take up this issue and explore it further.

Yet, from a global perspective, Richard Falk is right to say that, “The most profound challenge confronting humanity is to devise alternatives to war as the foundation of global and human security. As matters now stand, even political foes generally sensitive to the restraints of international law and morality are locked within the confines of war system when confronted by fundamental security threats of the severity of those associated with mega-terrorism. This decentralized system of states tends to absolutize the survival and wellbeing of the part, while giving only shallow attention to the interests, wellbeing, and sustainability of the whole. Such a self-help dynamic underpinned by violence and evolving technologies of destruction tends to empower the militarily powerful and rich, and to punish the weak and poor. It is a system driven by power and wealth, whether the focus is on empire-building with weapons or by the control of markets…Such a mentality makes killing and dying fully justified, even an occasion of glory. In the end only a rejection of all fundamentalisms will enable humanity to grope toward a safer, fairer, and more sustainable and hopeful future than now seems in the offing.” (pp188, 190)

The author of this book deserves credit for focusing on the subject of global warfare and torture in such an integrated and systematic way. Her profound respect and regard for human life and dignity is both humbling and inspiring. Recommended reading especially for politicians, human rights lawyers, military figures, political activists and students of international law.

Muhammad Khan
M Khan is author of The Muslim 100
(Leicester: Kube Publishing, 2008)

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