A Spectacle of Power: Why Conservatives Love Torture


It was perhaps inevitable that the Trump administration would move to adopt torture as policy. The love of power drives the use of torture.

It is not too strong to use the word “love” to describe the attitude of conservative regimes to torture. Torture is all about the abuse of power and it is used by those who desire to exercise absolute control through intimidation. That’s what the Roman military occupiers in the time of Jesus knew, and why they would routinely use crucifixion as a way to torture people to death.

The purpose of torture is not to get information. That is a lie, and one that has been proved a lie over and over. It does not work and experts know it does not work.

Instead, torture produces an excess of pain in order to control, to destroy one world and create another. The is the point Elaine Scarry so brilliantly argues in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. An example Scarry uses, and a good example since most people can relate to it, is what happens when the dentist’s drill accidentally hits a nerve in your tooth. You “see stars.” What that simply means is that everything else in your life, your memory, your experience, your whole being is obliterated and you become reduced to that “world-destroying” pain.

Scarry says that torture is employed by political regimes to illustrate a “spectacle of power.” The knowledge that torture is policy is itself meant to destroy the world of the citizens of the country that tortures. No one is safe if torture is policy.

What actually happens, however, is that the regime that employs torture is thereby revealed as “so unstable, that torture is being used.” In other words, torture as systematic brutality is supposed to look like power, but that is a fiction. What is really revealed is that when a political power feels it has to resort to torture in order to exercise power, it is actually doing so because it is weak and unstable.

This kind of political power is really a hall of mirrors, a fun-house distortion of genuine political power based on strong values of community and justice.

I doubt there is a better description of the approach to political power that has so far been exhibited by this incoming administration.

Torture as policy is therefore an inevitable choice for a Trump administration that has already demonstrated within only a few days that their grasp on power is tenuous. The specter of “illegitimacy” drives the lying about everything from the size of the Inauguration crowds to completely false allegations of illegal votes being cast, as attested by FactCheck.org.

The Spectacle of Power in Domestic Policing

There has been a disturbing power shift in the U.S. in recent decades, revealed not only in the resort to torture of “enemy combatants,” but also in the militarization of domestic police forces. This militarization of police began during the “war on drugs” and it has filled private prisons with many Americans, a disproportionate number of them African Americans. It has escalated with the “war on terror,” and the net effect is that police forces adopt military strategies. But now these strategies are used for control of ordinary citizens exercising their first amendment rights. This reveals a troubling weakness of American power; when a democracy does not trust its citizens it can cease to become a democracy.

I have written on torture many times. One of the most circulated columns was “Can a Nation Lose It’s Soul? Coming to Terms with the Conscience of the United States and the Torture of Iraqi Prisoners,” first published on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune on May 4, 2004.

The Tribune published my editorial with the photo of the hooded Iraqi detainee balanced on a box, with wires attached. A Chicago Theological Seminary student held up the paper in chapel that day and said, “This is lynching.” And it is.  The editorial discusses the torture of African Americans by police in Chicago in Areas 2 and 3.

Torture of police detainees is emblematic of the extreme militarization of domestic policing. Experienced police officers themselves find this incredibly alarming, even tragic. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has said as much. “We needed local police to play a legitimate, continuing role in furthering homeland security back in 2001,” says Stamper, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “After all, the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place on specific police beats in specific police precincts. Instead, we got a 10-year campaign of increasing militarization, constitution-abusing tactics, needless violence and heartache as the police used federal funds, equipment, and training to ramp up the drug war. It’s just tragic.” And it has continued.

And now the response of the Trump administration to increased gun violence in cities like Chicago is to threaten military occupation: “I will send in the feds!” wrote the Tweeter-in-Chief. This too has a logic, the logic of the spectacle of power over citizens via Twitter.

Torture is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention. This is clear, despite all the legal gymnastics used to try to justify torture.

Torture destroys the human dignity, in body, mind and spirit, of the one tortured. It is morally corrupting to the one who tortures because they must consent to treat another human being as a thing, a pulsing, pain-filled object. And it destroys the society that authorizes it.

A country that offers a license to torture is fundamentally degraded in its claim to be a civilized nation.

This direction by the Trump administration, both in terms of torture at “black sites” or threatened military occupation of our cities, must be strenuously resisted. It is everything that is wrong with the approach to power of this administration.

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About Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

I am a Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, author of more than a dozen books, a peace activist, and a public theologian.
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