Our Obsession With Otherness Runs Deep

With the torture debate making its way back into the headlines in recent weeks, I have found myself sifting through old news clips and articles from the spring of 2009. In April of that year, President Obama called for the release of what came to be known as the “torture memos.” These memos documented the Bush Administration’s efforts to create a legal argument allowing for the use of torture (referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques”) on high value targets in the “war on terror.” Notable contributors to these documents were none other than Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, David Addington and John Yoo, just to name a few. These documents were controversial to say the least. Their release catapulted the ongoing torture debate to the front page of most every news outlet. Many, including Human Rights Watch, have called for the prosecution of those involved in the implementation of the torture policies outlined these memos. It was a fierce and important debate, which sadly faded, and I am glad to see it beginning to resurface.

Coincidentally, at the time of the release of these memos I was enrolled in a course entitled “Torture and Ideology” at the University of Washington. While I hesitate to use the word exciting when talking about torture, it was definitely an intense experience being in the midst of that class as the torture debate unfolded in front of us. Sitting in that seminar room, we spent a countless hours discussing topics such as Agamben’s State of Exception, and monarchical notions of prerogative (which is fun to say, but disturbing to think about). However, once the memos were released, our syllabus went out the window and our focus became the debate being had on the national stage. We began to look at how the discussion was being framed, and what themes were emerging. Not surprisingly, the theme which continually appeared, and happens to have been the focus of my previous blog, was the necessary creation of an “other.” This was evident not only in the need to see terror suspects as other, but surprisingly in the need to see those implementing the policies as other. In this way, their otherness enabled them to implement policies of torture, while distancing them from the label of torturer. In other words, Cheney and Rumsfeld are nothing like "real torturers." They were simply patriotic Americans looking out for our best interests. This creative explanation is illustrative of America's long and complicated relationship with torture.

Historically, the United States has seen torture as a horrific and unacceptable act, that is, except when we deem its use necessary for our own political gain. In April of 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, the US signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In a message to the Senate, President Regan declared that the signing of this convention would, “clearly express the United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.” In the same breath, he referenced articles 20 and 28 of the convention, claiming that under these two articles not only would the US not be subject to accusations of torture in our own country, but states will not have the right to accuse the US of violating this convention. In other words, we do what we want. These rules are for "other" countries. We will enforce them when it benefits us, but these "others” do not have the authority to try to enforce these rules when we supposedly violate them. 

For me, what is most intriguing about the the torture debate is this insistence of the otherness of those who created the policies and legal arguments which allowed its use. This is especially interesting because this argument is made by those on both sides of the debate. There is something astounding about the ease with which we excuse or support the actions of American leaders involved, while at the same time decrying those same actions of other world leaders. This is where American exceptionalism shifts from being a source of pride to a source of shame. As much as we might like to believe so, Americans are not and should not be exempt from international law. As one of the founding members of the United Nations, we ought to enthusastically bind ourselves to it. We ought to use our obsession with otherness to hold our leaders to a higher standard, rather than allowing them to live up to a lower one.