Who Are We? or, The Presidential Debate Question: Are we torturers?

by kris bishop on September 29, 2008

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: See below for commentary from Paul W. Kahn, author of the new release Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty, a deeply thoughtful look at the constitutional, moral, and practical aspects of what it means to be Americans and condone the torture of others, and check out our blog entry FAT PEOPLE, focusing on Colombian artist Fernando Botero and the cover art of Sacred Violence.


Kahn_paulPAUL KAHN: “Many Americans find torture apalling when it comes up, but have seldom wondered why we focus so heavily on the subject.  Other forms of violence are far more destructive, yet they do not appall us the way torture does. It cannot be the violence of torture that offends us, for we are quite willing to inflict pain and death on the enemy, even as we object to torture.  Torture is like the pornographic: we are fascinated by it, even as we condemn it. To understand our attraction/repulsion to torture and our reactions to events like Abu Ghraib, we must address the double nature of our fundamental beliefs about the meaning of our national political community.

We are committed to both an idea of the rule of law and an idea of the sovereign state.  The state under law promises each individual dignity and protection of life and property.  The sovereign state demands sacrifice; it will take one’s life and destroy one’s property.  The law protects your life right up until the moment that the sovereign demands its sacrifice.  Terrorism invokes torture because they are reciprocal forms of sacrifice of the most primitive kind. Both communicate the idea that one’s own political/religious values are sacred, while those of the enemy are mere idolatry–i.e., the  worship of nothing at all.  This entire discourse is completely at odds with the rule of law, which is based not on sacrifice but on securing individual well-being.  Americans are truly committed to both of these ideas, and the problem for the state is to manage the interaction of these contradictory frames of understanding.  This is the subject of Sacred Violence.

Tellingly, our current election is unfolding along just the lines of deep division between law and sacrifice.  On the one side, the Blue side, we have a ticket of two lawyers.  They are running on the promise of the rule of law, which is always the side of progressive reform.  They promise to advance individual dignity and well-being.  Not surprisingly, the health of the body is at the center of their campaign: end the war, and provide health care for all.  These are the virtues of law.  On the other side, the Red side, we have a ticket straight out of the sacrificial imagination that I describe in Sacred Violence.  McCain offers one fact about himself as the basis for his campaign: he sacrificed himself for the nation. He gave himself over to torture and learned in that experience love of the nation.  Not law, but love, is the basis of his campaign.  Palin answers the question that hangs over every attempt to think clearly about the sacrificial in American politics: is it a male-gendered image of politics?  Palin offers the classic gendered response: the female role in a politics of sacrifice is, first of all, the giving up of the son to the nation’s demand.  In her post-modern version of the role, she links that traditional sacrifice to her own willingness to threaten violence.

From neither McCain nor Palin should we expect to hear much about law.  From Obama and Biden, we should expect to hear a stream of proposals for legal reform.  This contest captures the deep division within the national imagination: sacrifice or law?  Who are we?  The problem, of course, is that we are both.  Being both, we are constantly at war within ourselves.  In this election, our psychological division is playing out in visible form.  The only thing that we can know for sure is that no election can settle this deep division in our national soul.”

LISTEN: WBAI Radio Interview with Paul Kahn on 9/2/08

Paul W. Kahn is Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities at Yale Law School and Director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights.

Visit the author’s website at: http://www.law.yale.edu/faculty/PKahn.htm


Cover Illustration: “Abu Ghraib 67, 2005” by Fernando Botero. Courtesy of the artist and the American University Museum. Check out our blog entry “Fat People” for a note on Fernando Botero’s work.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: