Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

"Like a Dog!": Humiliation and Shame in the War on Terror

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

"Like a Dog!": Humiliation and Shame in the War on Terror

Article excerpt

An examination of the disturbing practice of torture and abuse in the "global war on terror," focusing on the methods and motivations of the United States. Proceeding from the imaginary yet all-too-real world of Kafka and the Kafkaesque, it highlights the themes of humiliation and shame in the waging of this war, noting that the damage so caused is reciprocal and indivisible: "Whoever degrades another degrades me." KEYWORDS: war, terror, torture, humiliation, shame, intelligence.


  "What are you after? Do you think you'll bring this fine case of yours
  to a speedier end by wrangling with us, your warders, over papers and
  warrants? We are humble subordinates who can scarcely find our way
  through a legal document and have nothing to do with your case except
  to stand guard over you for ten hours a day and draw our pay for it.
  That's all we are, but we're quite capable of grasping the fact that
  the high authorities we serve, before they would order such an arrest
  as this must be quite well informed about the reasons for the arrest
  and the person of the prisoner. There can be no mistake about that.
  Our officials, so far as I know them, and I know only the lowest
  grades among them, never go hunting for crime in the populace, but, as
  the Law decrees, are drawn towards the guilty and must then send out
  us warders. That is the Law. How could there be a mistake in that?" "I
  don't know this Law," said K. "All the worse for you," replied the
  --Kafka, The Trial (1925)

The "Global War on Terror" (hereafter GWOT) is nothing if not Kafkaesque. The very idea, a never-ending, all-encompassing, worldwide sweep, seems to pay a kind of tribute to Kafka and his demons. "Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning." (1) The arbitrary nature of the proceedings of The Trial corresponds eerily with the proceedings of the GWOT. "I forgot to ask you first what sort of acquittal you want. There are three possibilities, that is, definite acquittal, ostensible acquittal, and indefinite postponement." (2) Anonymous functionaries (warders, whippers, doorkeepers, assessors) shield the prominents from direct contamination. Hand soiling in high office is inconceivable. Joseph K. never sees the Judge or locates the High Court. He is allowed an advocate, but the Advocate is also part of the system. "So the Advocate's methods ... amounted to this: that the client finally forgot the whole world and lived only in hope of toiling along this false path until the end of his case should come in sight. The client ceased to be a client and became the Advocate's dog." Rendition and subjection are spook-ishly prefigured.

The queasy combination of bureaucracy and depravity, a total envelopment at once sinister and grotesque, foreshadows policy and practice at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and numberless other "facilities" in nameless other places, whose common denominator is "the camp." "The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule," as Giorgio Agamben has observed. "In the camp, the state of exception, which was essentially a temporary suspension of the rule of law on the basis of a factual state of danger, is now given a permanent spatial arrangement, which as such nevertheless remains outside the social order." (3) Amnesty International's "gulag of our times" comes to resemble Kafka's penal colony, where the guiding principle is devastatingly simple: Guilt is never to be doubted. (4) In the penal colony the prisoner is not told the sentence that has been passed on him, or even if he has been sentenced at all. He learns it corporally, on his person. The commandment he is supposed to have disobeyed is inscribed on his body, in needlepoint, by an ingenious apparatus called the Harrow. (5)

Corporal instruction, and corporal indignity, feature large in the catalog of torture and abuse perpetrated by the "alliance of values," in Tony Blair's parlance, now copiously documented. …

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