Seeking Method in the Madness of Abu Ghraib
American political system has never been as sick as it is today,"
says Belgian philosopher Lieven De Cauter, in a wide-ranging interview
where he discusses his theories about the "state of exception"
in the context of the Bush administration's "war on terror."
ideas are especially timely in light of the continuing revelations
of abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan,
and the launch of "military commissions" against accused
members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban at the U.S. naval base in
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which human rights groups have charged lack
fair trial protections.
from the interview, by IPS Washington bureau chief Jim Lobe, follow:
Two Abu Ghraib commissions have published their reports (one by
a top U.S. Army general and the second by a bipartisan commission
selected by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld and led by former Defense
Secretary James Schlesinger), so maybe it is a good moment to assess
the whole affair from a more theoretical viewpoint. I wondered how
you react to the whole scandal and the way it may relate to your
ideas about "the state of exception"? So first of all
what is it, the state of exception?
I must say I was not at all surprised when the Abu Ghraib scandal
came out. That doesn't mean that I wasn't shocked. It was consistent
with the spirit of the policies of the Bush administration.
months now, I have been calling it in newspaper articles and in
more academic stuff a state of emergency or, in the more European
continental phrasing, "the state of exception." The state
of exception, or state of emergency, often also called martial law,
is the right of the sovereign in this case the president
to suspend the law, fully or in part, in a case where the
state (and the law) is in danger. It mostly happens in response
to internal uprising or civil war.
all wars are linked to the state of exception. And it is my contention
that the "war on terror" is more a state of exception
than a regular war. According to the political theory of the German
philosopher, Carl Schmitt, a state of exception lies at the core
of sovereignty: it is not the power to make the law, but the power
to suspend it. And that is exactly what the Bush administration
has been doing.
Why do you think that the Bush administration installed a state
Well, here I have a whole list, a list of big and smaller suspensions
of law, that appear to be part of a larger strategy.
there was the blowing up of the Kyoto Protocol, a multilateral effort
to slow global warming. More important, of course, was the core
of the Bush administration's foreign policy: the theory and practice
of "preemption" against possible future threats. That
is breaking international law, pure and simple. Countries have no
right to invade another country unless there is imminent threat
[to] their homeland.
the war in Iraq, that had nothing to do with the war on terror,
was really declaring a state of exception, and the assertion of
American sovereignty in a new, rather shocking way.
there was the [USA] PATRIOT Act, which effectively suspended some
civil rights by greatly expanding the ability of the authorities
to conduct warrantless searches and seizures, so this preemptive
strike in external politics was repeated in internal politics. Secrecy
became the trademark of the Bush administration.
then there was the administration's renunciation of the U.S. signature
to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court
(ICC) in the Hague and an active campaign to subvert it, which has
once again been a way to put United States above the law. Indeed,
at one point, Congress even approved the "Hague Invasion Act"
that called for the president to use all necessary force to free
Americans detained by the ICC, although ultimately that provision
was dropped. Quite extreme, I would say.
as extreme is the privatization of war. It is one of the most perverse
outcomes of the Iraqi war. Private security firms (like Halliburton,
Blackwater and many others) have been enlisted in the war effort.
It has become unclear now who is a soldier and who is a civilian.
then there is, of course, Guantanamo. To invent a category that
has no legal basis "the illegal combatants"
and place these detainees outside any legal frame, without indictment,
without access to lawyers, without family visits, without rights,
is inconceivable in a nation that cherishes a tradition of freedom
and rule of law, as even the military defense lawyers are now claiming,
perhaps at some risk to their careers. Guantanamo is not a prison
but a concentration camp.
Don't you exaggerate a bit here? Can you prove this?
Guantanamo is a concentration camp, not a prison, because a prison
is a legal institution, and Guantanamo, at least according to the
administration, is literally a space outside the legal territory
of the U.S. and officially also a space where the Geneva Conventions
do not apply. And Guantanamo is just one base; there is Diego Garcia,
and many more of these concentration camps.
logic of unlawfulness migrates, naturally, as both the Army investigation
and the Schlesinger Commission have found even if they did
not draw the obvious conclusions about the responsibility for this.
It was exported from Guantanamo to Afghanistan and Iraq almost literally.
Gen. Geoffrey Miller came from Guantanamo to introduce the scandalous
"interrogation methods" in Abu Ghraib. So it is all too
clear that this was part of a strategy from the beginning.
Why you think Abu Ghraib was not incidental?
Almost more appalling than the actual deeds to me were the legal
memoranda that preceded them: some of them stating that torture
was not in contradiction with the U.S. Constitution, others that
the president could decide whether the Geneva Conventions applied,
others again that he could decide whether torture should be employed.
was really and very literally giving the president a sort of unheard-of
sovereignty: the power to decide on states of exceptions, to suspend
laws, the Constitution, and ultimately the rule of law. It is these
papers that prove Abu Ghraib was not the work of some rotten apples;
it was an inevitable result of the kind of "state of exception"
thinking that dominated the administration at the highest levels.
I think we have sufficient proof by now, even in the dotted lines
in the Schlesinger report we can read it, that there was method
to the madness. This logic is in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib concretized
as the logic of the concentration camp: humiliation, the breaking
of inmates as a goal in itself.
you think that this sadistic "strip tease" may have been
further more motivated by the knowledge of the taboo on nakedness
in Islam, it considerably enhances the cruelty of the "interrogation
What do you think about the report of the Schlesinger commission?
Well, I basically agree with what has been written about it this
week in the International Herald Tribune [Aug. 27]: The Schlesinger
commission was appointed by Donald Rumsfeld and would not make conclusions
that would endanger his position, with the explicit but ridiculous
argument that Rumsfeld's resignation would be a present to the enemy.
a sense they keep up with the logic of the state of exception. Because
another way to define the state of exception is the blurring of
the separation between the three political powers. The argument
the Schlesinger report uses is one of an executive power, while
a commission of inquiry should follow the logic of the judicial
it is for the American people, if they cherish their constitutional
rights, to take action against this.
first step is to vote Bush and his neocon "exceptionalists"
out. For it is obvious that the neocon philosophy, for all its profession
of love for democracy, favors sovereignty based on "exceptionalism":
putting aside rules, laws and regulations in favor of "benevolent
hegemony," or "strong leadership" as they call it,
both inside and outside the U.S.
fear this tendency runs deep in American society. The threat of
terrorism is an alibi to install an empire of fear (as Benjamin
Barber calls it), because these ideas predate 9/11.
is very important to keep in mind. And it is my feeling that [Sen.
John] Kerry might not really drastically change this. But the American
people should force him to do so. The state of exception and its
consequences will ultimately destroy democracy.
Cauter, the initiator of the Brussels Tribunal on The Project for
the New American Century, which took place in the Belgian capital
in April, is also the author of The Capsular Civilization: On
the City in Age of Fear, which addresses many of the same issues
in terms of modern culture.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service