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American Methods:Torture and the Logic of Domination

Dan Horowitz de Garcia
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

American Methods is the latest from the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. In his latest book, Williams has produced a well-documented and extremely readable, if also extremely disturbing, piece of work that seeks to lay out the idea that torture works. He explains that torture is not something used to get information or punish, but is rather a system designed to control populations and is a base characteristic of state power. He writes, “Torture doesn’t represent a system of failure; it is the system.”

Williams begins with and spends a lot of time on Abu Ghraib, and then takes us on a trip around the world and back in time. He talks in detail about present-day prison conditions in Guantanamo and Afghanistan, and he also details the torture systems of US allies, beginning with Israel. He takes us to Chicago, New York, California, Hawaii, and across the US. He goes back as far as the Monroe Doctrine, but he doesn’t stay there long. Throughout it all he avoids passing moral judgment on any individual from those soldiers convicted at Abu Ghraib to Jon Burge, the Chicago cop responsible for torturing scores of people, on through war criminals like former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Yet Williams leaves no doubt that in a just world, Rumsfeld’s deliberate decisions to allow torture would be prosecuted as a war crime. Williams, it seems, believes people are both good and bad, so it’s best to focus on how power is used.

The highlights of the book are the sections where Williams lays out the legal framework on what is torture and why it’s illegal. In the section “Defining Torture,” Williams presents a definition that is intentionally broad and designed to force one to consider what he calls “the question of humanity” first. He holds to this standard throughout the work. Williams devotes an entire chapter to examining whether or not torture is ever justified and concludes that for the sake of humanity the answer must be no. In my favorite part, “Torture Warrants and the Banality of Evil,” he intellectually trounces Alan Dershowitz, the defense attorney who sold his soul for a Harvard professorship and a national reputation. Dershowitz has become a fan of “torture warrants.” Williams rightly exposes the absurdity of Dershowitz and moves on.

Human rights

In “The Centrality of Rape” section he does a good, if limited job of showing the reader how to view torture through a gender lens. Statements like, “Rape is…the model around which torture is organized” and “To be feminized, to be emasculated, is to be put in a subordinate position. It is to be labeled a candidate for abuse. It may be a humiliation; it is definitely a threat,” made me eager to see him show how patriarchy serves to structure power under capitalism. Williams approaches the topic, but he doesn’t go through the door. And this being the second to last chapter, Williams comes to the subject too late. It would have been better to truly explore the notion while defining torture.

More than anything else, Williams’ work lacks a grounding in true human rights history. Williams views human rights as a strictly legalistic framework and this is reflected throughout the book. He rightly documents US attacks on international law, and he explains the concept of US exceptionalism. He writes about Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US ambassador to the UN under Reagan, referring to the Universal Declaration of Human rights as a “letter to Santa Claus.” What he doesn’t write about is why and how the concept of human rights came about. We are left with the idea that international law and human rights agreements are imaginings of diplomats, lawyers and scholars. Human rights as an organizing strategy of the oppressed to not only curb state power, but to restructure power, is invisible. He mentions Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as partial instruments for change today, but not the All-Colonial People’s Conference or the Fifth Pan-African Congress as places where the concept of human rights was shaped. Ironically, restructuring power and particularly curbing state power is what Williams prescribes as the strategy for ending torture. Even a brief background on the grassroots history of human rights would illuminate how to fill Williams’ prescription.

Despite the shortcomings, Williams’ book is exceptional. Someone had to confront the horror of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or the local police precinct; Williams took up the challenge and answered it well.