Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Anthropology and torture?

As I mention in my profile, I'm a cultural anthropologist with an interest in interrogation and torture. You might be asking yourself, "How does an anthropologist get interested in torture?" Well, therein lies a tale:

This all started with Seymour Hersh's article, "The Gray Zone," which he published in The New Yorker Magazine in late May 2004. Hersh was one of the first to break that Abu Ghraib scandal; his three-part series on prisoner abuse came on the heels of the Sixty Minutes II episode that broke the news about torture in Iraq. In his series on the scandal, Hersh wrote extensively about the sexual humiliation of the prisoners, and alleged the existence of a Special Access Program, or SAP, code named Copper Green. The program allegedly enabled interrogators to use very harsh techniques, including sexual humiliation and physical torture, to get information from prisoners.

This is where the anthropology comes in: According to Hersh, the people that thought up this program were informed by an ethnography written 36 years ago:

The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.” (Seymour Hersh, "The Gray Zone," The New Yorker, May 24, 2007)

Since Hersh published this piece, anthropologists have been very worried about the idea that their work might be used to inform torture. I decided to tackle this problem empirically by looking for more evidence than a single anonymous source in a journalist's account. I started with the Taguba report, then the Miller and Ryder reports, then Fay-Jones... and my search for evidence of anthropologists being involved in torture quickly grew into an obsession with the dynamics of interrogation and torture more generally. Since I started this research in April 2007, I've come to believe that the devastating images that came out of Abu Ghraib in January 2004 have many explanations, and that the role of anthropology in their creation was likely minimal. But I've also come to believe very strongly that anthropologists have something unique to say about torture, a critique that can complement the already excellent work done by lawyers and psychologists in particular.

The American Civil Liberties Union has made tremendous use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get copies of paper and electronic documents and correspondence generated in the context of interrogation and torture in the Global War on Terrorism. As of this writing (September 2007), the ACLU has over 100,000 pages of primary documentation on interrogation and torture in the US GWOT. That's my primary source for much of what I'll be writing about. However, I'll also be blogging about books, articles, and discussions that touch on this subject. Expect this to be eclectic as I explore questions like, What does it mean for ethnography to inform torture? How is anthropology used in interrogation? How does culture play in interrogation? What can interrogation and torture tell us about the Global War on Terrorism?

I welcome the comments of others, particularly anthropologists who are interested in reading the torture documents

Welcome aboard.


ckelty said...

funny, that quote from Hersh quoting Patai could very accurately have been about Americans in 1973-- it's so vague it hardly counts as evidence of anything. Which brings up an interesting point: that of the threshold different actors have for how much knowledge they need before they act. Scientists might occupy one extreme, "paralysis by analysis" as they say; while Lindsey and her friends might occupy another of impulsive expressions of their power disconnected from any analysis or thought. Patai's statement is just specific enough to be a warrant for people who need a warrant, but far from actually providing any sound justifications for those who might. Surely there must be someone whose written about such a decision making problem...

Laura McNamara said...

Hey, Dr. Kelty, thanks for the post. I wish I had prize to give you for being the first.

Your question about what knowledge (justification?) people need to have before they act is interesting; I'd actually never thought about that. I wonder if an ethnography would be capable of pushing someone with, say, Charles Granier's mean streak over the edge. I haven't read through his courts martial documents, but I might have to do that.

Traci said...

I find the concept of using anthropological theory to back up abuses of human rights to be an interesting, if paradoxical one. I am an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Currently I am doing research on anthropology and its contributions to the abuses of the Holocaust. Do you have any insights into this? Any suggestions on where to look for documentation concerning anthropology and torture / race science / National Socialism during World War II? I know this isn't directly related to your blog, but it is something I am interested in.

Laura McNamara said...

Hi Traci,

I'm not sure what you mean by "back up"- if you mean anthropological work that addresses human rights issues, yes, there's a lot of work by anthropologists on human rights. You might go to anthrosource.net and do a search on "human rights" to get a list of articles you can read.

As for torture and race science during World War II, I'm not sure where you'd find this in the anthropological literature. It depends on the kinds of questions you're asking. If you're interested in the history of anthropology and its role in creating, then challenging, racial categories, you might read some of George Stocking's work. If you want to read about torture and abuse during the Nazi regime, there's a very chilling chapter in Kate Millet's book, The Politics of Cruelty. Another good one is Photographing the Holocaust by Janina Struk.

If you're wondering about the contributions of anthropologists in Nazi Germany to genocide, I honestly don't know of that literature, but I'd be interested in knowing what you find.

Gregory Starrett said...

Traci could look at Gretchen Schafft's book From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich (U Illinois Press), which deals with the involvement of anthropologists (in Central Europe, "anthropology" meant physical anthropology, by and large) in the development of Nazi racial science. I'm not sure there's anything about torture in there, except insofar as Joseph Mengele had a background in anthropology as well as medicine.

More generally, Robert Proctor's book Racial Hygiene is a good introduction to the content of racial science.

Leather Diaries said...

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