Saturday, February 17, 2007
Absolute Power Zones
The Times has got this article describing the two years an Iraqi Sunni spent in an American detention facility. Needless to say, it ain't pretty: stun guns, exposure to cold and heat, 24 days in a pitch-black solitary confinement cell.
Now, this is the kind of story that, sadly, I think we've all grown somewhat accustomed to hearing about. Often it's used to condemn America's slow slide into a torture-sponsoring state, and rightly so. But I'd like to put it into a slightly different context.
Because as much as this kind of abuse has to do with official American policy, it also has to with the fundamental danger of creating environments where one or several individuals have absolute, unchecked power over the physical person of another. What I call in the title of this post, Absolute Power Zones.
Whether it's American soldiers abusing detainees in the GWOT, or Russian soldiers forcing younger recruits into male prostitution, or American prisoners raping other prisoners, the common thread is the existence of physical perimeters within which there is no oversight. Where society is either unable or unwilling to restrain the strong and protect the weak. With the result that there is nothing to limit the victimization of the latter by the former.
The abuses that take place within them might originate in the darker regions of human nature. But they are exacerbated by institutions that manipulate, encourage, or overlook them.
State-sponsored torture is just one example of a much wider phenomenon. A particularly egregious example, because of the state's singular responsibilities as holder of the "monopoly of legitimate violence". But as long as we countenance legal black holes of any kind, disavowing state-sanctioned torture won't be enough.