Old pains, new demons
Critical insights into torture and dignity
Brad Evans interviewed by the International Committee of the Red Cross for a symposia on the occasion of the International Day Against Torture. June 2017.
Q. In your work, you have highlighted how public attitudes and discourses about violence have shifted since 9/11, with violence being increasingly accepted as a legitimate means to pursue national security goals. The ICRC has also recently highlighted people’s general increased acceptance of torture. How, in your view, should humanitarian organizations respond to this?
We need to begin by recognizing that violence is not some abstract concept or theoretical problem. It represents a violation in the very conditions that constitute what it means to be human as such. Violence is always an attack upon a person’s dignity, their sense of selfhood, and their future. It is nothing less than the desecration of one’s position in the world. It is a denial and outright assault on the very qualities, which we claim makes us considered members of this social fellowship and shared union called “civilization”. In this regard, we might say violence is both an ontological crime, insomuch as it seeks to destroy the image we give to ourselves as valued individuals, and a form of political ruination, which stabs at the heart of human togetherness that emerges from the ethical desire for worldly belonging.
It is obvious to us that what defines the human condition is not simply that we live with this capacity to be wounded. We also have the capacity to think and imagine better worlds. So this is what is really at stake here. To accept violence is to normalize the wounds that tear apart the bodies of the living. That is why violence and especially torture is so pernicious, especially as it becomes justified and more socially accepted. Through the subtle intimacy of its performance, it brings everything into its orbit such that the future can only appear to us as something that is violently fated. Every scar left upon the body of the individual is another cut into the flesh of the earth.
But the temporality to violence also works in another just as insidious and intellectually colonising direction. Not only does violence beget violence, continuously, endlessly. As we also know, the memory of violence can also have such a hold over us that the ways we come to read the past are filtered through the most brutal lens. The very concept “Humanity” is subject to this historical assay. Whilst the term has a complex and politically fraught history, we know that it really becomes significant after the horrors of World War II, especially when confronting the reality of the Holocaust. Humanity is this regard emerges as an ethical and juridical problem out of the realization of the very worst that humans were capable of doing to one another. Organizations such as ICRC thus respond to this reality – a reality where humanity itself is always figured or embodied as a violated and historically persecuted form.
This should raise profound questions for us, both in terms of dealing with the torturous legacy of human affliction and the continued capacity for us to violate the bodies of others; alongside the way we are to respond to these tragic conditions so that we might rethink the very concept of humanity in more affirmative, spiritual and dignified terms.
Q. You also stress that in contemporary society many phenomena – from popular culture to the representation of terrorist groups and the ongoing terror wars in mass media – can desensitize people to violence. The spectacle of violence and torture has become banal. Are people becoming immune to the horrors of this world?
In order for violence to be accepted there is a need for normalization. Such normalization depends upon immunization, like a surgical strike penetrating the body with such ruthless efficiency we no longer see it as being violence. What I mean by this is while we might see the cruelty as something that is painful, we can reason beyond this, hence beyond the violence itself, for some greater political good. The violence in this regard is overlaid with a certain metaphysical cloak whose mask of mastery covers over the desecrated body with a virtuous blood soaked robe.
But we also know that violence is always mediated by expressed dichotomies of permissible and impermissible actions. Some forms of violence or what we prefer to call force or collateral damages can be fully reasoned, whilst others clearly go beyond the tolerance threshold. Lets connect this directly to the problem of torture. What we have witnessed since 9/11 has been a notable public shift in the modalities of violence from spectacular attacks (in which humans were often removed from representations of the crimes) towards violence that is more intimate and individualizing. Such violence seems to actually be more intolerable for us as the intimacy works on a different register. Whilst both are abhorrent, images of exploding towers are arguably easier to deal with than the more focused types of suffering we now witness from digitalized recordings of sacrificial terrorist violence to little children washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean. There is something about the raw realities of intimate suffering which affects us on an all too human level.
Now it is of course clear that such intimacy has also fed into and in many ways been driven by the pornographic violence of popular culture. Movie franchises and video games in particular seemingly excel in showing the intimate realities of violence for entertainment value alone. It is also the case that our societies are so overwhelmed by images of suffering its as if we are continuously walking through an interactive version of what the author J.G Ballard called the Atrocity Exhibition.
And yet I think it would be far too reductive to say that people are simply immune to such violence. The fact that people may turn away from the violence or try to switch off is arguably an all too natural reaction to its forced witnessing. Violence should be intolerable. What I think is more a problem is how to find meaningful solutions to the raw realities of violence that doesn't simply end up creating more anger, hatred and division. People are certainly frustrated that the seemingly daily exposure to violence doesn't become a catalyst to steer history in a more peaceful direction.
Q. Conflicts around the world are changing and evolving. There is an undeniable global component, which we can see clearly in recent attacks claimed by ISIS. Conflict is no longer contained in the war zones where the ICRC is working but spilling over in cities around the world. What does this mean for the laws of war and how can the ICRC respond to this spilling over of violence?
I have always been skeptical of the term “laws of war” as the victors always write such laws. What I think is a more appropriate phrase is the “wars of law”, which not only end up recreating global relations of power, but also in the process, continue to mark out justifiable versus unjustifiable or tolerable versus intolerable forms of violence. Hence violence that is waged by high-tech smart weaponry is somehow legitimate, whereas other forms of violence are barbaric or indeed pure evil. Does that mean we shouldn't see war as a criminal problem? Absolutely not! But we need to have a better ethical approach prior to any legalistic framing of war and its consequences.
Now in terms of the changing conduct of war, you’re correct to point out that everywhere has now become a battlefield. And as a result, we can no longer make meaningful distinctions between friends and enemies, the inside as a place of sanctuary and the outside as a place of lawlessness, along with the ability to identify times of war from times of peace. It seems in fact that we are engaged in a global civil war, which has become so normalized the very term “war” is no longer even declared. Are we still actually in a war on terror, for example? Politicians no longer feel the need to say it, and yet, nobody has actually declared it to be over. Such a condition cannot be attested by retreating back in some retro-topic way into 20th Century paradigms. It demands new global ethical thinking of which organizations such as the ICRC must have a considered and represented voice, beyond the juridical pale.
Q. When it comes to conflict and violence, social media is playing an increasing role in how armed groups or politicians address the world, not to mention on-line bullying and trolling. Violence seems to be going viral. How can society respond to this?
“Going viral” like “immunization” is a term that is evidently fitting when thinking about the human as a mortal and biological form. It speaks directly to what political theorists call bio-politics – namely, the foregrounding of life itself as a political category. When we say something has gone viral, it immediately invokes notions of contagion, which has the capacity to spread throughout the body politic like an infectious disease. Now one of the defining features of modern life has been the speeding up of all social relations, largely as a result of technological advance. Whilst this is seen as enabling, it has also had devastating philosophical consequences.
We might think here about the seemingly impossible task of controlling the “outbreak” of various spectacles of violence, which once released take on a life of their own such that their affective currency (their emotional impact) far exceeds the nature of the attack. It only takes, for example, the willful killing of a number of individuals today to create the image of a global security crisis of epic proportions. But more important still is how we might proactively respond to these outbreaks. In order to critique the world and think it anew, there is the need for sustained reflection. This is especially the case when it comes to breaking the cycle of violence. Such reflection is denied to us in a world, which demands immediate responses.
So how do we account for this? Too often we produce technologies before considering their ethical implications. This is the case whether we are talking about the advent of communications technologies that radically alter social relations or the considerable investment that goes into newly designed weapons of war whose violence is said to become more “intelligent” on account of the fact that it speaks directly to the surgical language raised. But to focus on regulating the technology alone is to side-step more pressing questions about the seductiveness of violence. To my mind, it is less a problem of technological production and its very reductive and rather abject notions of what we mean by “human progress”, than broader ethical points regarding the ways humans live with each other on this shared planet. Why do we only seem to respond to suffering once it appears extreme or exceptional?
Q. What are the new trends in violence today? How can an international humanitarian organization like the ICRC respond to this in your view?
What is troubling in the contemporary moment is the notable liberation of prejudice on all sides. I have already spoken of the advent of the catastrophic individual, who is now capable of being the author of widespread devastation and slaughter. We cannot simply deal with this violence by responding to its consequences. What is required, and where the ICRC might make a truly positive intervention concerns the yet to be answered question about how we begin to educate about violence today with proper ethical care and political consideration for the subject. This requires a sustained global conversation between many actors who know first had the realities of violence and the way it truly destroys any humanitarian claims.
Q. Given the news trends in violence, do you think that humanitarian organizations still have a role to play? What should that be in your opinion?
Education. I am not denying the need for on the ground responses to deal with the legacies of war and the individual and social traumas of violence they produce, which undeniably require sustained engagements by multiple professional organizations. This work is important. But unless we start to develop the necessary educational tools, which bring together international organizations, advocates, community leaders, academics, artists and cultural producers, and everyday citizens, then we will continue to see violence justified for the furtherance of political goals.