American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination

Gyozo Nehéz. First, tell something about you to readers!


Kristian Williams. I’m an anarchist living in Portland, Oregon. (If you look at a map of the US, Oregon is all the way at the left and about 2/3 of the way to the top, just north of California.) For the past ten years, I’ve been involved with local efforts against police brutality, most recently with an organization called Rose City Copwatch. Copwatch teaches people about their legal rights, videotapes the cops when they interact with the public, and tries to influence the debate around public safety in ways that promote non-state responses to community needs. My intellectual work grew directly out of my activism.


I’ve written two books about state violence. The first, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America came out in 2004, and the second edition is coming out next year. My second book, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination came out this past spring. American Methods deals with the US government’s use of torture, starting with an analysis of the Abu Ghraib scandal.


Q. As you write in the introduction in your book is not ultimately about Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. It is instead about torture in general and about the USA. What was your aim with this book?


A. American people are very confused right now. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way, like if you don’t agree with me then you’re suffering under false consciousness or something. No, I mean that for a very large number of people, if you ask them about what is happening in the country, or with America‘s role in the world, they tell you that they don’t understand it, that they don’t know what to think about it. That’s true about a lot of things — the September 11 attack, the whole war in Iraq — and I think it was particularly true about the Abu Ghraib pictures. Here were these horrible photos, which really vividly showed our soldiers behaving like monsters. And people just couldn’t understand it. I wanted to help them understand why torture was occurring at Abu Ghraib, and moreover, I wanted to show them that, for very similar reasons, the same kinds of abuses continue to occur not just overseas, but in our domestic prisons as well. I wanted to provide some context for those ghastly snapshots.



Q. To learn the story of Abu Ghraib what kind of impression was made on American people? What extend is the culture of violation accepted in view of American historical tradition?


A. Nearly everyone was shocked. And not merely shocked, but horrified. There were a few right-wing pundits who tried to justify it, but they were really just an embarrassing fringe. More commonly, the authorities tried to minimize the significance of the events at Abu Ghraib, saying that it was just a few soldiers at that one base, and that it in no way reflected on the war effort, or on the military as a whole. People were pretty willing to believe that, and largely just assumed that anything so terrible had to be some sort of anomaly. Of course, the military’s own investigations reached the opposite conclusion, and careful reading shows how the torture at Abu Ghraib, and similar abuses elsewhere, came as a predictable consequence of policy decisions made a couple years earlier. In American Methods, I push the analysis further, and argue that the policy decisions characterizing the War on Terror actually fit pretty neatly in a much longer historical arc of US imperialism. But the sad fact is, the American public as a whole is almost completely unaware of that history.



Q. Has American people connected the story of Abu Ghraib with NSA’s phones tap without court supervision and the effect of Patriot Act giving the FBI the power to search American people’s home without ever notifying them? Are they willing to notice the overall pattern in terms of repression? Just think about the relationship between violation and statepower…


A. Critics sometime list those items — torture, wiretaps, secret searches — together along with a lot of Bush’s other misdeeds, but they rarely make any effort to explain to the public the underlying logic that connects them. The reporting around this sort of thing is very fragmented, so that you might have separate articles in the same issue of the same newspaper addressing Bush’s torture policy, the NSA wiretap program, and, say, an FBI raid based on secret evidence — and yet there’d be no attempt at all to connect these stories one to the other. They’re presented as though they have as little to do with each other as the stock numbers and the sports section.


That’s ironic, really, because it is exceedingly easy to show how they relate. As genuinely stupid as George Bush is, the clique behind him does have something of a philosophy. In their view, power isn’t just a means by which they can achieve their agenda, it’s the central piece of the agenda — power of the state over the citizenry, power of the president over the judiciary and the legislature, power of the US over the world. What they’re seeking is the Hobbesian ideal of sovereignty, with the ruler being above the law. And they want to extend this power over the entire globe. The War on Terror, in both its international and its domestic aspects, is very much animated by this philosophy.


I’ll give you an example: When I was writing the first draft of American Methods, I read assistant attorney general Jay Bybee’s famous torture memos. In these documents he puts forward a really astounding argument that, given the President’s role as Commander in Chief, and given the context of the War on Terror, there are no legally valid limits to what the president can do to protect the American people. Not the Geneva Conventions, not the federal anti-torture law, not the War Crimes Act. What he advocates is really a straightforward totalitarian principle, with the president as Fuhrer. To give some idea of what this might mean, I pointed out that in this particular memo it justifies torture, but it could also justify warrantless wiretaps, or Watergate-style black bag jobs, or a nationwide system of military checkpoints. I really just came up with those examples out of my head, but by the time I was doing my revisions it had been revealed that arguments very much like Bybee’s had been put forward within the administration to justify warrantless wiretapping. And shortly after the book went to press, we got some good evidence that the feds had conducted at least one black-bag job in an effort to cover up the wiretap program. It’s one of those situations where you don’t really relish being proved right.


Q. What can be the message of Guantanamo prisons for politician of the rest of the world?


A. Guantanamo is a good example of what I’m talking about. The base was located where it is for the explicit purpose of putting it — and its prisoners — outside the law. The Bush administration argued that since it wasn’t in the US itself, no law applied at the prison. And at the same time the administration was saying that prisoners captured in Afghanistan were “enemy combatants” not Prisoners of War, thus excluding them from the protections of the Geneva Conventions. If we put these two arguments together, the prisoners at Guantanamo had literally no rights. Legally speaking, that was nonsense, of course. But it did send a pretty clear message to the rest of the world: The US intends to exempt itself from international law; it acknowledges no limits to the ways it can treat its opponents.


Q. Ignoring of the Geneva Conventions as well as norms of international law has not a special feature of George W. Bush. Just think about his father President George Herbert Walker Bush, whose invasion agains Panama was a typical example of this attitude. (For Central-European people it has a special importance, because invasion Panama and arresting of general Noriega just happened when Eastern-Europe was set free from the Soviet opression.) But here we could mention President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeline Albright’s famous statement: Multilaterally when possible, but unilaterally, when necessary…


A. Yes, in fact the first president Bush also declared that the Geneva Conventions did not legally pertain to the invasion of Panama, though he left their provisions in place as a matter of policy. And it was Clinton who started the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, in which official enemies are kidnapped and shipped to other countries for torture. The current president Bush has merely intensified a tendency that was already well entrenched. If America ever has its version of the Nuremberg tribunals, we can look forward to seeing these three men in the docket together.


Q. On the day after 9/11 Le Monde declared we are all American now, but sympathy for the United States has changed into suspicion and, for some, into hatred. The prisons at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the treatment of prisoners, secret prisons and flights all added to this feeling. Today people outside of America want to distance themselves from American policy…


A. Plenty of people inside America want to distance themselves from American policy. In fact, plenty of people in the president’s own party want to distance themselves from his policies!


A lot of this has to do with Iraq. The politicians seem to have suddenly remembered one of the major lessons of the Vietnam war: The public will sometimes forgive you for starting an unpopular and illegal war — but never for losing one.


The question is how much it matters. Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet, but the anti-war movement, by and large, is disorganized and ineffectual. Both Republican and Democratic politicians are becoming more vocal in their criticisms of Bush’s policies, but it mostly smells of election year posturing. Despite their grousing, the Republicans in Congress keep rubber-stamping Bush’s proposals — and the Democrats are hard pressed to say how they would do things much differently, even if they won control of both houses of Congress. Internationally the situation is pretty similar. The UN and the EU gripe about Guantanamo and the extraordinary rendition program, but as long as their member countries keep cooperating, who cares?


My sense is that the current administration is not overly concerned with public opinion, or even with keeping things smooth with their allies internationally. They’ve decided that it’s better to be feared than loved, and so they don’t really worry about criticism. What they worry about is resistance.


Q. What can people do to energize democracy now?


A. That’s a very good question. To some degree it’s a chicken-and-egg problem, because the way we mobilize people is by delivering real victories, and the way we win is by creating broad-based social movements. The good news is that once the process gets going, a virtuous cycle can set in. But in the mean time it’s hard to know where to start.


I can’t really speak to conditions in Hungary, but in the US most people feel really powerless to affect any actual change and the Left has become almost resigned to its own irrelevancy. I mean, if you asked most activists what purpose is served by a protest march, I think most would say something like “to voice our opposition against the war (or torture, or whatever).” The connection between “voicing opposition” and actually stopping the war is left vague. Because of this, the anti-war movement has squandered some real opportunities. Millions of people demonstrated before the invasion of Iraq, but there was no real plan for how to respond when the invasion happened anyway (even though everyone pretty much knew it would). So all those people felt defeated and powerless, and a lot of momentum was lost. Three years later, the movement still hasn’t fully recovered. A lot of people have been left with the feeling that opposition is just pointless. Our first task has to be showing them that it’s not, that change is still possible.


It’s been done before. The anti-globalization movement’s development in the US is a good recent example. I mean, when Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal faced only token opposition domestically. But the left continued to press the issue of globalization, working steadily for years on anti-sweatshop campaigns and the like, and building working alliances between unions, environmental organizations, and human rights groups. By 1999, there was a sizeable bit of the population who not only opposed corporate globalization, but who had actively participated in some aspect of the struggle against it. That November, tens of thousands of protestors succeeded in derailing the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. It was an unexpected victory, and the anti-globalization movement got a huge the boost — especially in US. Tons more people got involved, protests got bigger, and direct action tactics suddenly had a legitimacy that would have been unthinkable just a year or so before. Shutting down the WTO meeting was certainly worth doing for its own sake, but the real benefit was that it wildly expanded our sense of the possible.


Q. Alice Walker in her book — Anything We Love Can Be Saved — writes that Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr,. and Rosa Parks all „represent activism at its most contagious, because it is always linked to celebration and joy…


A. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot to celebrate at our present moment. But still, isn’t it interesting that that sense of joy remains attached to resistance? I think it’s because resistance affirms our humanity, our dignity. It makes us more fully human. But I think that’s more an outcome than a cause of struggle. At the outset, I think it’s more important to have a sense of hope, that things can be different and that through our actions we can contribute to that change. The joy comes later, from struggle itself as much as from victory.



Kristian Williams was interviewed on his new book by Gyozo Nehéz on September 23, 2006. Gyozo Nehéz is an activist, a member of ATTAC Hungary. He can be reached at: nevictor@gmail.com 

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