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  • "We are all torturers now":Accountability After Abu Ghraib
  • Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn (bio)


"We are all torturers now." So read the title of an op-ed essay written by Mark Danner and published in the New York Times in January, 2005. The gist of Danner's argument, which followed revelations of the abuse meted out by U.S. security personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison complex, is as follows: "By using torture, the country relinquishes the very ideological advantage -- the promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights -- that the president has so persistently claimed is America's most powerful weapon in defeating Islamic extremism... By using torture we Americans transform ourselves into the very caricature our enemies have sought to make of us." But how exactly, we might wonder, are "all" Americans implicated and what sort of accountability is at stake when persons participating in the United States military campaign in Iraq commit atrocities, quoting Danner, "in their name"?1

Danner's response to these questions, implicit in the essay's title, presupposes a specific conception of democracy and, more particularly, of the constitution of popular sovereignty in a democratic political order. If, however, this representation is anachronistic, as I believe it is, then derivative claims regarding the locus of collective accountability for torture will prove flawed as well. Accordingly, my aim in this essay is, first, is to indicate why an appreciation of certain features of the contemporary U.S. security state should cause us to pause before endorsing the claim that "we are all torturers now;" second, to explain why this contention is not merely misleading but also pernicious insofar as it props up the very regime it claims to criticize; and, finally, more speculatively than conclusively, to suggest how we might begin to rearticulate the question of political accountability in ways that contest rather than consolidate a profoundly anti-democratic political order.

Liberal Legalism and Accountability

In this essay, I am not concerned with recent discussions about how the term "torture" is to be defined. Nor am I concerned with recent arguments condemning this practice, no matter how defined. Nor, for that matter, am I concerned with the specific events that transpired at Abu Ghraib, no matter how characterized and no matter how abhorrent. Instead, I am interested in judgments of accountability regarding what happened there, emanating from the political right as well as the left, within the United States.

Such judgments have ranged from the particular to the general, depending at least in part on whether the social contractarian premises presupposed by conventional liberal legal discourse are or are not expressly called into play. Most narrowly, one finds members of the current administration. President Bush, for example, effectively settled the question of accountability by characterizing what transpired at Abu Ghraib as the "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values."2 This characterization was echoed by the official investigative reports issued in the wake of Abu Ghraib, all of which explained these events in terms of the pathological and/or immoral conduct of a handful of rogue soldiers. To cite but one of many possible examples, according to the "psychological assessment" appended to the report commissioned by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the incidents at the Baghdad prison complex were the work of a small number of "immoral men and women" who engaged in "sadistic and psychopathic behavior."3

These characterizations, as well as the judgments of accountability that derive from them, are unsurprising, but also quite inadequate. They are unsurprising insofar as they presuppose the methodological individualism that informs most liberal legalism, which, as a rule, defines punishable wrong-doing as the deliberately-willed acts of identifiable perpetrators. This, of course, is what one would anticipate in a political order where holistic affirmations of group liability are often countered by the claim that a collectivity is nothing more than an aggregate of the individuals comprising it, and that therefore culpability can only be assigned to those persons immediately and proximately implicated in a specific misdeed. (To see the point, think of neo-conservative critiques of arguments avowing collective white guilt for structural racism as well as of...

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