Race, torture and the curious case of Obama’s myopia

May 31st, 2009 | Posted in Iraq
    rabble.ca by Sunera Thobani | May 8, 2009.

    Photo: Iraq war graphic by Jeremy Traum.

Where does the question of race figure in President Obama’s political calculations, for surely he cannot be ignorant of the historical relationship between race and torture in the American experience?

The tortured body has long been the site for the most spectacular display of the politics of race: the utter violation and dehumanization of black and other bodies of colour has been central to the colonial and imperialist expansion of American and European powers.

Amidst the media fanfare that marked the Obama Administration’s first 100 days in office, the five-year anniversary of the release of the Abu-Ghraib photographs by the CBS went largely unmarked.

Americans debated what grade their President deserved for his performance thus far: Obamaites vacillated between an A and A-, Republicans and other conservatives settled on a C average.

Torture did not feature too large in these calculations, although what exactly the first Black American President will do on this issue seems still to be an open question. He supported the release of the torture memos in response to the ACLU lawsuit, but then personally reassured the CIA that agents would not be prosecuted if they perpetrated torture in ‘good faith.’

Those who have been tortured in the War on Terror are brown and black Muslim bodies. It is also the case that Afghan and Iraqi men were tortured in ways designed especially to emasculate and feminize them. Although much less is known publicly about the torture of Iraqi and Afghan women who have been ‘detained,’ there have been serious allegations of rape. Sexual violence seems to have been central to the torture inflicted on some women prisoners.

Race, gender and sex have been deeply fused in the torture that has been perpetrated. Although water-boarding continues to dominate public discussion about the techniques authorized by the Bush Administration, the batons in rectums, the panties on heads, the smearings of menstrual ‘blood,’ the electrical wires, the rapes, the pilings of naked men on top of each other and the murdered bodies should not be forgotten quite so readily.

As debates about the reasons for the torture focus on the ticking time bomb scenario, the grinning of the white faces posing with the naked brown/black bodies should not be dismissed so summarily. Neither should the trophy photographs of these triumphant moments of America’s victory over ‘terrorism.’ For they reveal that the use of torture was not simply instrumental; the pleasure registered on the grinning white faces as they engineered the pornographic spectacle is only too evident.

If the President’s actions seem oblivious to the racial and sexual politics underwriting the torture, there is a curious convergence between the positions articulated by those who want to see no further action and those who are advocating for further investigation and prosecutions.

Like Obama, most public commentaries from all sides of the debate are eerily silent on the disquieting relation of race to the torture. So, for example, The New York Times has called the torture “illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values.”

Further action, including impeachment, is imperative, the paper argues, because Americans need to know who was responsible. They also need the Administration’s reassurance that they will be protected from undue surveillance themselves — which might also be illegal. Accountability from their political leaders is urgently required, thunders the paper’s editorial. In similar fashion, Paul Krugman states that America’s “moral values” have been tainted, and only further investigation can help “reclaim America’s soul.”

On the opposite side of the debate, Vice-President Dick Cheney still argues on Fox News that the torture tactics were not only necessary, but actually yielded vital information that the Bush Administration used to foil more attacks on the U.S. Condoleezza Rice uses the ‘whatever the President ordered was legal’ argument to justify whatever role she may have played, as well as the ‘you really had to be there to understand’ rationale.

Striking middle ground, Thomas Friedman supports the release of the memos by the Obama Administration, but urges no further action be taken. Al-Qaeda was a “unique enemy” requiring extraordinary measures (they “hated us more than they loved their own children.”)

Besides, further action will likely take investigators to the top of the Bush Administration’s chain of command, and action against high-ranking officials “would rip our country apart.” The character of a nation that is kept together on the basis of hiding the torture committed in its name is not a question that seems to trouble him much.

In short, opponents of further investigation cite various reasons for their arguments: the use of water-boarding was necessary to prevent further attacks on the U.S; the ‘few bad apples’ who used the unduly harsh tactics have already been held to account; the reputation of the U.S. will be further tarnished internationally; more public discussion will give the ‘enemy’ greater insights into intelligence operations; the digging up of more dirt will be divisive for the nation; and finally, the question of torture is best left buried in the past.

Those who support further action, whether in the form of Commissions and Inquiries or investigations and prosecutions, do so on the basis that: laws were broken and those who broke them need to be held to account; America’s reputation needs to be restored at a global level; American values were corrupted and only a full public accounting can heal the damage; torture is ineffective as a weapon, the information thus elicited is notoriously unreliable; and Americans might well be subjected to torture in the future as a result of having themselves weakened international prohibitions.

There is no mention of race in these very publicly argued positions, no concern is expressed about the destruction of the human dignity of Muslim men and women that the torture sought to accomplish. The tortured have been disappeared in the torture debate as Americans have claimed their place at its centre and agonize most brazenly about the injury done to them by the torture.

American laws have been undermined, American values eroded, they lament. The cleansing of the American soul is their central concern, recognition of the humanity of Muslims and the healing of the tortured Muslim bodies matters not a whit.

Ignoring the centrality of the politics of race, sex and gender to the torture will have serious consequences. Those who oppose the torture remain unable to tie this opposition to confronting the demonization of Muslim men as violent misogynists.

This demonization has gone a long way in making the torture palatable, if not entirely welcome, and if left unchallenged, it can just as readily be called upon in the future to justify torture and war. With Muslim men constructed as utterly evil and hate-filled in the American imagination, the ticking time bomb scenario continues to have great seductive power.

Dehumanizing Muslims also serves to undermine support for the absolute right of Muslim societies to protect themselves from such aggression and violence. The claims that their actions are driven only by ancient hatreds distort understandings of their political resistance to contemporary violence and occupation.

Resistance movements in the Muslim world are routinely isolated and politically marginalized on this basis, thwarting the possibilities for international solidarity with their claims for self-determination. In spite of what American law might or might not allow, one of the lessons of history is that Muslims will continue to fight to defend their communities.

President Obama’s support for the release of the memos was an important step, for it helped widen the political space for anti-war activists to mobilize public support for prosecution of those who authorized and perpetrated the torture. More importantly, Obama could play a vital role in transforming American ‘values’ by addressing head on the relationship between race and torture, between race and occupation.

For far too long, the rest of the world has been made to look at America through American eyes. The torture debate provides an important opportunity to show America to Americans through the eyes of those tortured in their name.

So far, Obama has not risen to this challenge. Nor have the other public commentators who are opposed to the use of torture. If the anti-war movement does not make anti-racism central to its politics, it too, will be unable to rise to the task.

Sunera Thobani teaches Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia.

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