Making Enemies: The Reification of Essentialized Cultural Difference through “Legalized” Torture


This government does not torture people. -– George W. Bush

It’s a very different kind of person. -– Attorney General Michael Mukasey

A series of executive orders and disingenuous legal memos produced by the Bush government, most notably the infamous “torture memo” written by John Yoo while working at the US Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, has resulted in the de facto legalization of torture of people designated as “enemies” by the US government in its “War on Terror.” This sanctioning of torture, along with other anti-civil rights policies, combined with a widely disseminated discourse conflating the threat of terrorism with radical political Islam, permits construction of a juridically reinvented category of essentialized cultural difference. The Bush regime’s attempt to legally legitimize torture has had the ideological effect of further normalizing the perception of its Muslim targets as bad or evil and thus deserving of such horrific treatment. This article will focus on how this effort to legitimize torture through legal manipulations reifies the category of essentialized cultural differences upon which the initial rationalization of harsher interrogation techniques is predicated. I show how this tactic feeds into the larger project of producing, in lieu of the defunct Soviet “Evil Empire,” a new absolute enemy against which US imperial military exploits can be legitimized – a goal which can in turn be assimilated with trends toward fascism.

The “legalization” of torture

The United Nations’ “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” which was ratified by the US in 1988, defines torture as...

any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity (United Nations 1984).

The collection of legal memorandums and executive orders used by the Bush regime to justify such tactics is extensive. On January 9, 2002, Berkeley law professor John Yoo, while serving in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), wrote a memo arguing that the Geneva Convention III on Treatment of Prisoners of War did not apply to members of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban (Yoo 2002). Alberto R. Gonzales, White House counsel at the time, wrote a memo to Bush on January 25, supporting Yoo’s memo and suggesting that Bush declare the Taliban and Al-Qaeda outside the coverage of the Geneva Conventions, so that US officials would be protected from the federal War Crimes Act – a 1996 law that carries the death penalty – for their treatment of any detainees (Gonzales 2002). This series of legal contortions culminated on August 1, 2002, with a memorandum from Jay S. Bybee at the OLC, which outlined an argument to classify harsh interrogation tactics used to gain information from Al-Qaeda suspects as outside the category of what is legally defined as torture. This memo, largely written by John Yoo, accepts the Convention against Torture’s definition of torture as an act inflicting “severe pain or suffering,” but narrowly defines such pain as only that which rises “to a level that would ordinarily be associated with a sufficiently serious physical condition or injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions” (Bybee 2002: 6). This memo came to be known infamously as “the torture memo.”

The Defense Department followed up with a series of documents supporting the legal interpretations coming out of the Justice Department. One, written on October 11, 2002, outlined the torture methods to be used in interrogations of detainees, along with rationale for why these practices do not legally qualify as torture (Beaver 2002). A second memo prepared by a Department of Defense legal task force in March, 2003, is described in a New York Times guide (2005) to the memos on torture as a declaration that “Bush was not bound by either an international treaty prohibiting torture or by a federal anti-torture law because he had the authority as commander in chief to approve any technique needed to protect the nation’s security.” It also asserted that “executive branch officials, including those in the military, could be immune from domestic and international prohibitions against torture for a variety of reasons, including a belief by interrogators that they were acting on orders from superiors ‘except where the conduct goes so far as to be patently unlawful.’”

The Bush regime did not just rely on legal memos. According to a Human Rights Watch article (2004), a May 2004 e-mail to senior FBI officials (released that December, under a Freedom of Information Act request) made eleven references to an Executive Order signed by Bush permitting military interrogators in Iraq to “place detainees in painful stress positions, impose sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, intimidate them with military dogs and use other coercive methods.” The same article also cites other documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which describe acts of torture committed by US personnel in Iraq and at Guantánamo, including “strangulation, putting lit cigarettes into detainees’ ears, sleep deprivation, beatings, and chaining detainees in a fetal position for 18-24 hours or more.” As Human Rights Watch points out, such methods violate US obligations under international law, including the UN Convention against Torture.

In an apparent shift in official policy, the Justice Department issued a legal opinion, concurrent with the December release of the Executive Order e-mail, declaring torture abhorrent. However, the Justice Department issued a second, secret opinion after Gonzales’s arrival as attorney general in February 2005,1 which for the first time “provided explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” Later in 2005, the Justice Department issued yet another secret opinion in response to congressional efforts to outlaw “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment, declaring that “none of the CIA interrogation methods violated” that standard. Even after the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the Geneva Conventions do apply to Al-Qaeda detainees, Bush signed a new executive order in July “authorizing the use of what the administration calls ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, [though] the details remain secret.” This executive order was also approved by Bradbury and the OLC.

Historically the OLC has been used for the purpose of providing US presidents with advice on the legality of potential policy decisions, not to usurp the roles of the legislative and judicial branches of government. However, John Yoo’s autonomy was so compromised by his close alliance with Dick Cheney’s adviser, David Addington, that even John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, privately referred to Yoo as “Dr. Yes for his seeming eagerness to give the White House whatever legal justifications it desired.” After Yoo left the Justice Department in late 2003, Jack Goldsmith, acting as the new head of the OLC, “began reviewing his work, which he found deeply flawed.” In June 2004, shortly before leaving the Justice Department as a result of his refusal to compromise the OLC’s advisory role, Goldsmith “formally withdrew the August 2002 Yoo memorandum on interrogation, which he found overreaching and poorly reasoned.” Goldsmith was eventually replaced by Steven Bradbury, who, as evidenced by his willing support of pro-torture memos and executive orders, is exactly the subservient loyalist the Bush regime prefers to have in that position.

In perhaps the most disturbing development in the Bush regime’s cooptation of the OLC, current Attorney General Michael Mukasey told lawmakers in Congress on February 7, 2008 that he would not open a criminal investigation into the CIA’s use of waterboarding – a torture practice in which the victim is tied down, his face is covered with a cloth, and water is poured over his face to simulate drowning – on detainees. When asked by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers whether he was opening a criminal investigation following the confession of CIA Director Michael Hayden that the CIA had used the technique to torture three “enemy combatants,” Mukasey replied:

No, I am not, for this reason: Whatever was done as part of a CIA program at the time that it was done was the subject of a Department of Justice opinion through the Office of Legal Counsel and was found to be permissible under the law as it existed then (Frieden 2008).

Mukasey’s explanation brings the Bush regime’s attempted circumvention of legislative and judicial oversight full circle. Basically, Mukasey argues that the Justice Department cannot investigate crimes if people commit those crimes in reliance on Justice Department decisions that declared those crimes legal.2 Such a rationale gives the opinions of the OLC the weight of federal legislation or judicial opinions. If Mukasey’s refusal to open a criminal investigation is not challenged, the Bush regime will in effect have succeeded in rendering torture legal.

As for the possibility of judicial intervention, the US Supreme Court’s recent refusal to hear the appeal of Khaled el-Masri – a German of Lebanese descent who had been kidnapped by CIA agents while traveling in Macedonia – does not bode well. El-Masri contended in his suit that he was flown “to a secret CIA prison in Kabul,” where “he was kept in a small, filthy cell and was shackled, drugged and beaten while being interrogated about his supposed ties to terrorist organizations,” before finally being “released in a remote part of Albania without ever having been charged with a crime.” The Supreme Court denied his appeal of a federal district judge’s 2006 dismissal of the case on the grounds that “trying the case could expose state secrets” (Stout 2007).

According to human rights attorney Scott Horton, this intentional manipulation of the law by the Bush regime is based on a “carefully orchestrated” policy called “lawfare,” which Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. (deputy judge advocate general for the US Air Force) describes as the “strategy of using or misusing law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective” (Horton 2007: 74). Neoconservative lawyers David Rivkin and Lee Casey claim lawfare is used to “gain a moral advantage over your enemy in the court of opinion, and potentially a legal advantage in national and international tribunals” (ibid.). Given, however, that torture has been covertly employed by US intelligence agency assets for decades, this rationale for the use of lawfare does not adequately explain why, in White House spokesman Tony Fratto’s words, the Bush regime has gone to such “great lengths… to make it clear that the intelligence community and our practices fall within US law” (NYT, 10/3/07).

State of exception

In light of the Bush regime’s use of lawfare in the “War on Terror,” Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben’s concept of a “state of exception” seems to be a particularly relevant analytic framework through which to approach the official embrace of torture. Indeed, as geographer Matthew G. Hannah observes, this framework appears to have found “perfect illustrations in the blinkered, bound, and orange-clad ‘enemy combatants’ held at Guantánamo Bay; the hooded victims of the torture filmed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; and the mysterious unidentified captives moved by ‘extraordinary rendition’ to CIA-run ‘black sites’ for interrogation” (Hannah 2007: 57). These “enemy combatants” fall into the category of people whom Agamben labels homo sacer: individuals “set outside human jurisdiction without being brought into the realm of divine law” (Agamben 1998: 82). Agamben argues that under this category of legal exception, sovereignty becomes a “sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice” (84).

Extending this logic, one could argue that the sovereign sphere is one in which it is permitted to physically assault, threaten and humiliate but without committing torture. However, if we are to better understand the underlying motivations that drive these processes, it is necessary to look beyond the state of exception – at the political and economic goals behind these suspensions of juridical order. In analyzing Nazi concentration camps as sites “founded solely on the state of exception” (123), Agamben states:

The correct question to pose concerning the horrors committed in the camps is… not the hypocritical one of how crimes of such atrocity could be committed against human beings. It would be more honest, and above all, more useful to investigate carefully the juridical procedures and deployments of power by which human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime (171).

While these words are as relevant to the current tactics employed in the “War on Terror” as they are to the atrocities of the Holocaust, it is equally useful to investigate the ideological effects of these deployments of power and how they are used to accomplish specific goals. Hannah notes that when the vast majority of citizens are now potentially homo sacer, “the salient issue… is the fact that a tiny, organized group may remain unexceptionable” (2007: 71). The salient questions, then, are: Who constitutes that group? How do they render themselves unexceptionable? And what do they stand to gain from making themselves such?

The danger in Agamben’s state of exception framework is the reification of sovereignty at the expense of glossing over the specific ideological tactics and goals these questions seek to uncover. Timothy Brennan and Keya Ganguly have argued that Agamben’s focus on sovereignty “confounds an understanding of the nature of power.” They propose an alternative analytic:

Our idea is to adduce a wholly different framework for understanding the Bush administration’s use and abuse of the legal system, both internally and in foreign affairs. Bush…has sought not to suspend the law but vigorously to observe its letter, enlisting allies within the judicial system to deploy legal briefs on behalf of his favored interpretations. At the same time, he has been in open violation of the law, including the Constitution. He is not therefore sovereign and above the law but, in practical terms, a criminal; and these are not versions of the same thing. In this distinction lies his Machtpolitik (Brennan and Ganguly 2006: 25).

Brennan and Ganguly define Machtpolitik as “the reassertion of might by right.” Through its lawfare tactics, such as the cooptation of the OLC, the Bush regime has been able to circumvent some of the expected contradictions between “the politics of naked power and the law,” making them work in “complementary rather than contradictory fashion” (ibid.). Accordingly they propose that “with the same doggedness that the media employ when rehearsing their morality plays of freedom and democracy, the Left needs to devise ways to convince the public that these are merely code words for a corpulent American empire seeking to destroy the integrity of nations abroad in order to facilitate new forms of unregulated capital penetration” (21).

To demonstrate this, we need first to expose the ideological tactics that facilitate the larger imperialist project. Thus it is necessary to go beneath the Bush regime’s abuse of the law in order to examine the underlying goals of its Machtpolitik, since the new category of “enemy combatants” is—when understood as a necessary component of this larger project—as significant as the tactics themselves. That is, proving the antidemocratic and totalitarian character of the Bush regime’s abuse of state power goes only part way in winning the fight against the Right. What remains is showing in whose particular interest these tactics are being employed.

Essentializing cultural difference

Following the Bush regime’s post-9/11 distinction between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims,” anthropologist and political scientist Mahmood Mamdani introduced the concept of “Culture Talk” to describe the practice of conflating culture and politics. Through this conflation, he argues, terrorist acts are viewed as rooted in cultural practices rather than as tactics based on political ideologies. “Culture Talk,” he says, “assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of that essence. Culture talk after 9/11, for example, qualified and explained the practice of ‘terrorism’ as ‘Islamic.’ ‘Islamic terrorism’ is thus offered as description and explanation of the events of 9/11” (Mamdani 2004: 17f). This ideology of essentialized and politicized cultural difference is firmly grounded in the tradition of “policy sciences that regularly service political establishments” (27).

Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek (2007) argues in a similar vein that “all human sciences are turning into a branch of cultural studies.” Culture, Žižek claims,

has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians” with a “medieval mindset”: they dare to take their beliefs seriously. Today we seem to see the ultimate threat to culture as coming from those who live immediately in their culture, who lack the proper distance (ibid.).

While Žižek’s argument seems close to orientalist generalizations, it should rather be understood as highlighting the double function of culture in the production of difference along cultural lines – that culture is simultaneously constructed as an affective influence on the lives of those in the West and, paradoxically, as an irresistible force shaping every aspect of belief and behavior of “fundamentalist” Muslims.

This supposed obsessive submission to cultural forces is seen clearly in orientalist historian Bernard Lewis’s notorious description of Islam, in his article “The Roots of Muslim Rage”:

There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civilized country – even the spokesman of a great and ethical religion – to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions (cited in Mamdani 2004: 22).

Culture is used not only to obscure the real political and economic sources of conflict, but also to buttress the idea of a hierarchy of civilizational development with Muslims at the lower end. This ideology argues that they are so controlled by their culture that their ability to act rationally (i.e. civilizationally) is thereby impeded. They are inherently violent and incorrigibly prone to conflict.

While orientalist narratives of Western Christianity in conflict with Eastern Islam can be traced back to the Crusades, perhaps the clearest articulation of this cultural dichotomy is political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s well-known article “The Clash of Civilizations?” Borrowing the idea of unavoidable civilizational clash from Lewis, Huntington argues:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future (1993: 22).

Huntington’s clash of civilizations model supports an ideology of essentialized cultural difference that obscures the real political and economic factors leading to conflict. This framework enables the juxtaposition of “Islamic terror” against “legitimate” Western uses of violence. It also allows for the monopolization of secularism and liberal principles, like freedom and democracy, as solely Western virtues. Secularism is then equated with democracy, further reinforcing the ideology of politicized and essentialized cultural difference between Western democracies and what the Right calls “Islamo-fascism.”

The Bush regime allows for the possibility of “good” Muslims who can assimilate into Western civilization, which presumably involves passive acceptance if not support for neoliberal imperialist projects around the globe. However, the “bad” ones, according to this ideology, pose a permanent threat to Western (i.e. developed capitalist) civilization, because they are culturally driven to oppose it. The 9/11 events are invoked to link the politically-motivated violence of a few actors who happened to be Muslim with the religious beliefs of Muslims in general. Although this production of cultural difference has also been made along racial and ethnic lines (mostly in narratives linking terrorism exclusively to Arabs and Central and South East Asians3), in the era of color-blind racism the Bush regime’s reification of “irreconcilable cultural differences” is more publicly palatable and thus more ideologically powerful when structured around essentialized cultural differences rather than explicitly racialized categories.

Torturing difference

Despite the fact that “many veteran interrogators, psychologists, and other experts” as well as “CIA professionals… believe patient, repeated questioning by well-informed experts is more effective than harsh physical pressure” (NYT, 10/3/07), for the first time in history the US government has chosen to openly authorize torture tactics. Given the cultural framing of the “War on Terror,” does torture play a role in the ideology of essentialized cultural difference? Surprisingly, Bush himself provides an answer when he defends the CIA detention and interrogation program:

I have put this program in place for a reason, and that is to better protect the American people.… And when we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we’re going to detain them, and you bet we’re going to question them, because the American people expect us to find out information – actionable intelligence so we can help protect them. That’s our job (Stolberg 2007).

In his references to “the American people,” Bush implicitly contrasts them to people who may pose a threat. Though he does not explicitly point at “Islamic terrorist” enemies, his fear-mongering evocation of a potential attack permits him to make the link with the wider discourse about violent Muslim extremism aimed at the US.

As one of the “necessary” new policies to address the conflict arising from this so-called cultural difference, torture helps to facilitate the further construction of difference, not just along a politicized cultural axis but also through the creation of differentially applied juridical norms. “These people” are subject to torture because, being culturally incapable of conforming to democratic principles, they are outside the boundaries of democratic civilization and thus can only be made to cooperate or acquiesce through violent corporeal discipline. At the same time, the fact that they have no legal recourse proves they are outside the realm of liberal democracy, since they clearly are unable to take advantage of its protections. Furthermore, in an inversion of the historical use of biological variation as a basis for creating difference (e.g. categories of race and gender), this torture creates a category of people whose bodies are subject to physical violation, producing difference around who can be physically harmed rather than around any inherent biological variations.

Anthropological analyses have also been complicit in the production of essentialized cultural difference through torture. For example, Raphael Patai’s 1973 book The Arab Mind has been employed as one “source for the government’s understanding of the psychological vulnerabilities of Arabs, including the notion that Arab men are particularly subject to sexual shame” (Starrett 2004: 10). In another example of military use of cultural knowledge, the Marine Corps offered its troops, “along with a weeklong course on Iraq’s customs and history,” a pamphlet including the following admonitions:

Do not shame or humiliate a man in public. Shaming a man will cause him and his family to be anti-Coalition. The most important qualifier for all shame is for a third party to witness the act. If you must do something likely to cause shame, remove the person from view of others. Shame is given by placing hoods over a detainee’s head. Avoid this practice. Placing a detainee on the ground or putting a foot on him implies you are God. This is one of the worst things we can do. Arabs consider the following things unclean: Feet or soles of feet. Using the bathroom around others. Unlike Marines, who are used to open-air toilets, Arab men will not shower/use the bathroom together (Danner 2004: 32).

Despite the pamphlet’s ostensible goal of fostering cultural sensitivity, this passage could just as easily function as a torture guide for the atrocities committed by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib, as evidenced by the symmetry between the acts listed here and the ones carried out at the Iraqi prison. Given the prevalence of various forms of sexual assault in the guards’ repertoire of torture tactics, Patai’s book also seems to have informed the techniques of abuse. The integration of cultural knowledge into the formation of torture tactics was a significant choice considering that, as Laurie Kin-Irani points out, “anyone might be shamed when their rectum is being torn by a lightstick or they’re being threatened by a snarling German shepherd” (Starrett 2004: 11). The fact that Patai’s book has been widely panned by critics for its essentialism and abundant inaccuracies (ibid.), along with the gross essentialism on display in the Marines pamphlet, only underscores the reciprocal relationship between essentialized notions of culture and the use of torture to reinforce the categories of difference that arise from them.

Although torture clearly plays a role in the reinforcement of essentialized cultural categories, the question still remains: Why the insistence on its legality? The most basic reason is that juridical ideology is a cornerstone of Western liberal hegemony. As legal scholar Patricia J. Williams explains, legal thought rests on three main principles:

(1) The hypostatization of exclusive categories and definitional polarities, the drawing of bright lines and clear taxonomies that purport to make life simpler in the face of life’s complication: rights/needs, moral/immoral, public/private, white/black. (2) The existence of transcendent, acontextual, universal legal truths or pure procedures… (3) The existence of objective, “unmediated” voices by which those transcendent, universal truths find their expression (Williams 1991: 8f).

It is a reliance, however cynical and calculated, on such clear taxonomies drawn from official procedural guidelines which enabled US Army Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who oversaw the operations at Abu Ghraib (and who was subsequently demoted to Colonel, most likely for her failure to prevent the media circus that Abu Ghraib became), to sign a letter to the International Committee of the Red Cross contending that “prisoners held as security risks could legally be treated differently from prisoners of war or ordinary criminals” (NYT 2005). Relying on the same principles to defend the torture of CIA detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged chief planner of the 9/11 attacks), CIA spokesperson George Little claimed, “The agency has always sought a clear legal framework, conducting the program in strict accord with US law, and protecting the officers who go face-to-face with ruthless terrorists” (NYT, 10/3/07).

This exploitation of the law goes well beyond the construction of a shield against possible liability, however. The whole network of tactics for establishing the de facto legalization of torture, from memos and executive orders to the constant insistence in the media on the legality of the torture methods, serves a two-fold purpose. First, it produces a justified exception, if not a state of exception, from the behavioral requirements of the principles of liberal democracy – an attempt to allow conduct that clearly falls within the realm of the “uncivilized” as opposed to the alternative and more hypocritical practice of simply torturing people covertly. Second, and more important, the project of legally legitimating torture further buttresses the essentialized cultural categories that torture helps to produce.

The enemies not only force the US to employ torture as a last resort, so the logic goes, but they are in fact so radically opposed to democratic civilization that they are not entitled to its protections. The insistence on the legality of torture functions to reinforce that fundamental division by not only violating but also dispossessing the humans rights of the tortured, and thus denying them membership in liberal society. It is through this process that normal enemies are made into The Enemy in the “War on Terror.”

Making enemies

The “War on Terror” has filled the lacuna left by the sudden dissolution of the Cold War, which had served for several decades as the basis for US projects of capital accumulation and its imperialist exploitation of the world’s peasantry and working classes. A new perpetual war has supplanted an older one. Any war can have normal enemies, but for a perpetual war you need absolute enemies. Susan Buck-Morss describes the US’s absolute Cold War enemy, Bolshevism, as having the fantastic image of “a ‘fire,’ a ‘virus,’ a ‘flood’ of barbarism, ‘spreading,’ ‘raging,’ ‘out of control,’ a monster that seeks to devour civilized society’ and destroy the ‘free world’” (Buck-Morss 2002: 2). Similarly, Mamdani argues that only “with the Crusades did Christendom define a universal enemy and declare a ‘state of permanent war against the heathen’” (Mamdani 2004: 25). The attempt to render the torture of “Islamic terrorists” legal is part of the project of reinserting this new universal enemy into the vacancy left by the former absolute enemy, while updating the terms that define the unbridgeable chasm of essentialized cultural difference. Buck-Morss notes that the Cold War enemies

were deployed on an ontological divide, and what Churchill named the Iron Curtain became its geophysical manifestation. This boundary was defensive not only in a military sense, but in the conceptual sense that it prevented contamination from the imaginary perceptions held by the absolute “other” (2002: 35).

The Bush regime is attempting to build the ontological divide between the US and the absolute enemy – “Islamic Terror” – by laying sole claim to the use of liberal democratic practices. Indeed, by equating Western culture with liberal democracy, they attempt to dispossess their enemies of access to or protection by democratic principles of human rights. Using the juridical administration of liberal protections as the axis on which this division rests, their strategy is manifested in scattered zones of suspended legality throughout the world, such as the concentration camp at Guantánamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib prison, and various CIA black sites. The legal-ification of torture (not “legalization,” since the Bush regime can still not directly legalize it) is one tactic by which the US structures this divide between essentialized cultural categories in order to produce an absolute enemy.

Although there is not sufficient evidence to claim that US intelligence agencies intentionally cultivated Islamic terrorism as a replacement for the Soviet Communist Enemy, the concept of blowback – that is, the unintended effects of covert operations – is quite familiar to US intelligence agencies (see Johnson 2000). Also, given that US allies have not infrequently been turned into convenient enemies when needed (e.g. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Manuel Noriega in Panama), it is clear that this kind of realpolitik is not alien to US intelligence strategists. The US role in organizing and sponsoring terrorism (so-called counterinsurgency low intensity warfare) through Cold War proxy wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, combined with their calculated exploitation of the 9/11 events, establishes a willingness to use terror to accomplish political and economic goals.

Essentialized cultural difference and accumulation by dispossession

Whereas the hot battles of the Cold War mostly played out in the form of proxy wars, the threat attributed to the absolute enemies in the “War on Terror” has enabled the Bush regime to successfully push for direct engagement with them in Afghanistan and Iraq. While such open warfare has failed in many of its stated goals, and in fact seems to have exponentially expanded the ranks of radical militants opposed to US policies, it has been immensely successful in enriching many US corporations with ties to top government officials. Since, as Naomi Klein points out (2007: 381), “every possible aspect of both destruction and reconstruction has been outsourced and privatized,” an enormous share of the military budget has been channeled directly into the coffers of US corporate contractors.

Although the contemporary era of US imperialism and the ideologies that sustain it have been thoroughly critiqued,4 Klein’s analysis of the instrumental deployment of ideology in the US imperialist occupation of Iraq underscores an essential component of the Bush regime’s Machtpolitik. Illustrating the neoliberal ideological invasion that quickly followed the military invasion of Iraq, Klein describes the US political appointees of the Coalitional Provisional Authority established under L. Paul Bremer to rebuild the governmental infrastructure in Iraq: “These were not just any political cronies; they were frontline warriors from America’s counterrevolution against all relics of Keynesianism, many of them linked to the Heritage Foundation, ground zero of Friedmanism since it was launched in 1973” (354). The deployment of neoliberal ideology in the “reconstruction” of a free-market Iraq is parallel to and facilitated by the ideology of essentialized cultural difference underlying the “War on Terror.” Just as the “War on Terror” provided the political means to prosecute the invasion of Iraq, the imposition of free-market economic policies by neoliberal managers provides the rationale for completion of the US Empire’s macro-economic agenda in the region.

Pursuit of these economic objectives is part of the process geographer David Harvey describes as accumulation by dispossession: the ongoing dispossession of large portions of the population from the land and hence of the means of production essential to US capitalism’s continuing expansion and stabilization in the midst of crisis (Harvey 2003). Accumulation by dispossession involves a range of processes, many of which have already been imposed in Iraq, including “the conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights; the suppression of rights to the commons…[and] colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources)” (145). To better understand the role of the ideology of essentialized cultural difference in this process, it is useful to consider how anthropologist Leith Mullings employs the concept, namely, to “signal the relational aspect of racism: how the dispossession and disadvantage of the racialized produces accumulation and advantage for others” (Mullings 2005: 673). This nuancing of Harvey’s concept allows a more thorough consideration of the effects of such accumulation strategies – specifically, how they produce and intensify inequalities of privilege and advantage as well as wealth and property. Accumulation by dispossession can occur along multiple axes of essentialized difference. As Mullings notes, “Gender and class are also implicated in these processes, producing interlocking forms of oppression” (ibid.).

The category of essentialized cultural difference reconstituted through the regime’s use of lawfare enables both the production of an absolute enemy as well as a new axis of difference along which accumulation by dispossession can occur. On the ideological level, dispossessing people of their rights through the legal-ification of torture reinforces their status as outsiders incapable of integrating into democratic civilization. The importance of ideology to the larger project of accumulation by dispossession should not be underestimated. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Michael J. Kelly underscored this point in 1983 when, referring to the necessity of casting communists as a national threat during the Cold War, he stated: “If we win the war of ideas, we will win everything else” (Mamdani 2004: 115). At the present moment, the Bush regime may have successfully recast with a new enemy the old role of outside national threat, yet that enemy is still a product of the war of ideas.

At a time when it seems the possibilities for countering the dominance of the Right in the war of ideas have been exhausted, and when essentialized notions of culture are used against us to lend war the air of inevitability, what recourse is left? How can we meet Brennan and Ganguly’s call (2006: 21) to devise ways to convince the public that freedom and democracy “are merely code words for a corpulent American empire seeking to destroy the integrity of nations abroad in order to facilitate new forms of unregulated capital penetration”? One answer to this question lies in the following description by journalist Ron Suskind of a conversation he had with a senior adviser to President Bush in the summer of 2002.

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That's not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” (Suskind 2004).

Such creation of “new realities” is the very process that drives the war of ideas – the forging of ideas into weapons with which to claim power or further entrench status positions. The fact that members of the Right are willing to so brazenly display their understanding of this process points to the need for deeper Left analysis. In the days following the publication of Suskind’s article, progressive radio pundits and satirists joked about the term “reality-based community,” suggesting that Bush and his cronies were out of touch with reality, were mentally deficient. These jokes, although perhaps cathartic, failed to acknowledge – while unintentionally confirming – the far more disturbing implications of the aide’s statement: that power elites do shape reality through the war of ideas; that they do deploy their ideologies strategically and consciously to achieve political-economic goals; and that a large part of their success lies in the fact that their opposition consistently fails to fully recognize this even when they explicitly affirm it. Before we can create reality-altering ideas of our own, we must fully grasp the Right’s tactics of ideological manipulation and how these tactics intermesh with larger political-economic processes, such as accumulation by dispossession.

The Bush regime did not create a military quagmire in Iraq merely as a result of incompetent war planning, nor did they endorse torture just because they are cruel. Above all, in designating a specific group of people as absolute enemies on the basis of essentialized cultural differences, they did not act out of cultural ignorance or blindness. Rather, they were implementing a Machtpolitik with a definite political-economic agenda built on conscious and calculated ideological manipulation. Starting with a theoretical understanding of this Machtpolitik and its ideological tactics is a good way to re-enter the war of ideas, a war that for the past decade we have been badly losing.


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1. The following account (including quotes) is based on an October 3, 2007 New York Times (NYT) report, “Secret US Endorsement of Severe Interrogations,” by Scott Shane, David Johnston and James Risen.

2. Incidentally, a defense by a private citizen based on the grounds that a criminal act was committed in reliance on inaccurate legal interpretations regarding the legality of the act would be flatly rejected in virtually any court in the country. Ignorance of the law is not a mitigating factor in a court’s determination of culpability.

3. See, for example, Kumar 2007.

4. See Harvey 2003, 2005; Smith 2003, 2005.