Torture and State Power

In his book ‘Discipline and Punish’ Michel Foucault placed the relation of physical torture to subsequent non-violent strategies of social coercion, ‘scientific’ social control like Jeremy Bentham’s ‘reformist’ prison and highly structured schooling. In Foucault’s telling sovereign / state torture developed as a mode of social suasion, as the relation of particular acts to state / sovereign prerogative. As expression of political power social coercion, including torture, defines the relation of sovereign to subjects, state to citizens, torturer to the tortured and controller to the controlled. ‘Official’ torture is one aspect of the physical expression of the state’s relation to those in its realm of control. This view relates police repression and mass incarceration in the U.S. to treatment of those tortured and murdered at U.S. direction overseas.

By invoking the attacks of September 11, 2001 to justify the tiny fractionof torture at U.S. hands ‘disclosed’ in the Senate torture report the American leadership continues to frame the relation of state power to its expression as one of mutual interest, as protector to the protected. As a self-identified defender of democracy George W. Bush demonstrated his contempt for democratic rule by lying his way into a war that he had determined to launch within days of taking office. The use value of 9/11 for his administration was in creating a nebulous ‘enemy’ that was used opportunistically to promote elite interests. And for context, 3,000 people died tragically on 9/11 and between 210,000 and 440,000 dieevery year from preventable medical errors. The ‘protective’ response to these wildly asymmetrical outcomes would be to defund the NSA and CIA and redirect the funds to healthcare.

Torture as a mode of operational expediency, the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario of American fantasy, isn’t judicial, the state’s claimed right to punish proscribed acts, because no crime has been committed until the hypothesized bomb has gone off. This logic of torture as ‘prevention’ is simple restatement of the Cold War frame of U.S. military aggression as defense against this or that manufactured threat. And in fact, as with theNSA’s empty claims that its domestic surveillance programs prevented attacks, when invited to defend torture as ‘prevention’ no credible threats were found, even within the thin purview of the Senate torture report. And the genesis and persistence of conspiracy theories around 9/11 are in part attributable to the overwhelming volume of actionable warnings that preceded the attacks that the Bush administration failed to act on.

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