Torture, Care, and the De-Nationalized Other

In the readings for this week, we have observed what Agamben astutely notes as the separation between bare life (zoe) and political life (bios). In his chapter on biopolitics, he argues that the rights of man (located in zoe), as was enshrined by the various declarations of rights, does not necessarily encompass the rights of citizens (located in bios). As Stevenson and Ticktin show, the point of intervention for modern humanitarianism has been zoe and not bios. For example, Stevenson tracks and critiques the biopolitical mode of “anonymous care” or a “regime in which it doesn’t matter who you are, just that you stay alive” (p.7). Ticktin also makes us privy to how humanitarian assistance in France has focused on the provision of temporary residency and medical care to “apolitical,” diseased bodies of color. These texts alert us to the injurious effects minimal forms of care have on communities, families, and bodies.

However, I would like to draw our attention to a related yet different process: torture. In these situations, there is no pretense of care. The body becomes a site upon which the law, and the various exceptions enshrined within it, allow for the state to mutilate and kill bodies for the sake of national security. In the links below, you can see how torture at secret CIA facilities and Guantanamo Bay has resulted in both physical and psychological harm.


Miami Herald Article About Anal Surgery

Short Film about Torture

NYT Piece about long term effects of Torture


This is quite a different perspective of zoe than Stevenson and Ticktin offer. With the case of torture, there is a distinct process of “de-nationalization” (Agamben, p.132) that occurs in which US and non-US citizens are stripped of all their rights and made subject to extra-judicial, extractive, and inhume interrogation techniques. Torture necessitates the removal of bios and the creation of bare life. However, interesting to note in the links is that the US government does not always admit to torture or not providing adequate medical care. In many ways, torture has become the US’s “public secret.”

Here is the quote from the NYT article that I would like to serve as a springboard for discussion by Captain Shimkus, the previous commanding officer that managed the Guantanamo Bay Hospital.

“Captain Shimkus now regrets not making more inquiries. “There was a conflict,” he said, ‘between our medical duty to our patients and our duty to the mission, as soldiers.'”

In this quote we see care and torture as mutually exclusive phenomenon. I wonder though, if torture, despite its utter absence of care, can be a means to think conceptually about care. To be more specific, I am curious about whether torture is an example in which the absence of care for one body, a tortured and de-nationalized other, results in the care of another body, a national citizen. How does torture engender discourses of care, be they related to caring for the nation-state, national security, or national citizenry? Does torture’s relationship to national security show that care and compassion can be produced on the mangled bodies and psyches of a de-nationalized other? How is care not just a tactile relationship between the care giver and the cared for, but a symbolic relationship that is dependent on the violent (inclusive) exclusion of zoe from the polis?

13 thoughts on “Torture, Care, and the De-Nationalized Other”

  1. Hey Parsa, thanks for sharing the videos and media clips.

    I think the quote you picked out from the times article is an interesting one. It seems to me that Captain Shimkus, the commanding officer who managed the Guantanamo Bay Hospital, did not perceive what he did as either the withdrawal of care from the prisoners, or the provision of care to American citizens. Instead, he kept bringing up this idea of duty. He mentioned that military personnel working in the hospital were torn between their “medical duty” to “their patients,” and their “duty to the mission.”

    I wonder, how is “duty” different or similar to “care?” Are public security institutions and staffs employed by these institutions protecting the nation out of a sense of caring for the national body, or are they doing so out of a sense of duty as citizens and as soldiers? If the later, then perhaps, as Stevenson suggests in her book, bureaucratic positions and roles might have prevented individuals such as Capitan Shimkus from engaging with his patients/the prisoners on a more intimate, personal level, which therefore allowed “evil” to take place? (I’ll admit, I stole this idea from Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” argument)

  2. Hi Sun, Thanks for the comment. I like how you honed in on the word duty. I think I would like to posit that care can be a kind of duty too. In the Stevenson’s introduction (which was not assigned) she says that even colonial forms of care should be considered care. Also, as Stevenson notes (and as we have read) care is often given as a type of duty that is required by ones job.

    In the blog, I also wanted to get at, how do we as americans conceive of torture in terms of care.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. Parsa, thank you for this post. I am most intrigued by this question that you posited: “Does torture’s relationship to national security show that care and compassion can be produced on the mangled bodies and psyches of a de-nationalized other?”

    It seems almost absurd to equate torture with any kind of care, but I think your conceptual idea about torture as a means of caring for the nation-state is interesting to consider, particularly within the context of the care/duty dichotomy that Sun suggested (above).

    Many of the readings from this week, and especially the piece about MSF, talked about the provision of care as an ethical obligation, especially in the sense of preserving basic life, or zoe. Some of the MSF volunteers that were quoted in the article noted that their own morals significantly compelled them to work with the organization, as a means of “doing something.” I wonder how this relates to your question, and how it may speak to an alternative form of duty – one rooted in a duty or obligation to one’s country or nation-state. Is this kind of duty also a compulsion to act, with torture materializing as the consequences to those actions? And for those who are acting out of a duty to their nation, like Captain Shimkus, is there a level of compassion involved? I myself am doubtful of this.

    1. Yes, this would be a perfect ethnography! Interviewing the torturers to see WHAT they were thinking. In a way, it could provide an interesting complement to the Redfield chapter.

  4. Hi Parsa, thank you for your blog post. “Torture” would have been gone from my memory if you hadn’t brought it up in the post. I guess subconsciously I blind myself to torture because of the utterly uncomfortable and shocking effects it arouses which never fails to lead to my doubt on humanity as a whole. Even in reading Agamben’s chapters on concentration camps, I seem to lie to myself about a simple process of “encampment–labor–death.”

    However, I do think we should be cautious to proceed with the argument that torture on one is care for another. I don’t even think the real purpose of torturing suspects is to “care” for citizens. For example, after a terrorist attack, the dead citizens are dead. They don’t need care anymore. For those who are alive, protection doesn’t necessitate torturing suspects. One might probably argue that sometimes to torture is to get better information about terrorists, but in a lot of the cases we can see it’s more about torturing for its own sake than about getting information. Torturers’ imagination and creativity in coming up with new techniques of inflicting pain and humiliation far exceeds practical needs. Simply put, torturers seem to enjoy too much of it; they are having too much fun doing it.

    As much as I question Freud’s focus on sex to explain everything, I do think he has a point in Civilization and Its Discontents. He argues that instead of serving any kind of social function, torture (or S&M, which is really just another kind of torture) has a much deeper root in human mind. He goes on to argue that the root is the instinct of destruction which is suppressed by civilization, which I don’t necessarily agree or disagree. But deep down I do believe there is something in the individual psyche that has the tendency of inflicting pain on others. Rather than being necessitated by any kind of care, I’d rather say “care” for a nation-state, a national identity, national pride, etc. serves more as an excuse for human beings to unleash the monstrosity hidden inside.

    1. I think this could definitely be an aspect of it! But, by saying that the instinct of destruction is in the human mind, or that we have a tendency to want to inflict pain in others, does that not in a way remove the political from the torture?

  5. Thanks for the post Parsa! The relationship between torture and care that you’re proposing is a theoretically interesting one. The way I understand Agamben’s work is that political life (bios) is state-given. This means that bios can also be state-removed. States have the power to strip people of bios and to reduce them to bare life (zoe). The way the state accomplishes this is by placing the individual in a state of exception. In certain instances, like at Guantanamo, the reduction to bare-life is an intentional act. Prisoners must be reduced to bare life before they can be tortured because, as the NYT article notes, “these tactics [are] entirely inconsistent with our values as American.” Prisoners are conceptualized as a threat to the populace, a threat to the bare life of the nation’s citizens. In this way, American discourse about torture is often about protection. The justification is: we torture people to prevent future imagined harm from happening to our citizens. I suppose another question, then, is: is “protection” a kind of care-giving? If protection of the bare life of the national citizenry is a way in which the state enacts a form of care, then I think, yes, an argument can be made that the torture of the bare life prisoner could be the simultaneous “caring” for the citizen. However, the dangers of this kind of conceptualization seem quite scary.

    1. I really like how you related protection to care. It would be important to follow up and see exactly how they are related.

  6. Thanks Parsa! I think you bring up an interesting point in thinking about the relationship of care of different bodies, between the body of the prisoner and the body of the citizenry. Torture draws a clear distinction that the body of the individual can be sacrificed for the “good” of the many. So how does that relate to Agamben’s understandings of homo sacer, as the person who can be killed but not sacrificed? While torture specifically speaks more to disciplinary power, enacted on the body of individuals, rather than biopower enacted on the population level, could this perhaps be an instance where biopower, or the concern with the life of the population is ranked hierarchically above disciplinary power? Foucault notes that disciplinary power never disappears, but is instead enacted on the population level, along with biopower. Does torture represent a question of mini-sovereigns who have sovereign power over death of their subjects in the zone of exception, or is this still a type of power over life, where bodies must be disciplined in order to “let them live.”

    1. I love how you brought in Foucault. He argues that at the intersection of individual discipline and population oriented concerns is the question of the norm. I think that by thinking through what sorts of norms does this inculcate, and for who, could also be interesting in thinking about care.

      Also, in the second lecture about Foucault we read, he talks about racialization in a vary Mary Douglas like fashion (but plus biological symbolism/imagery). Can carrying constitute the act of getting rid of the biological impurities that weaken the race?

  7. Great post Parsa, I really enjoyed it. I think the question of caring in relation to torture is a really interesting one. In general we associate care with a positive value. The idea of torturing as a form of care for the nation I think in a sense can reveal the deep relationship between care and security in modern governmentality as Foucault articulates it. Considering these are the two main methods by which the population is preserved, I think it is a fruitful way of thinking about it. I think it reflects the instrumentalization of particular subsets of bodies in the nation. Caring (in a more general sense) about Muslim/Brown bodies in the context of Gitmo is always a means to a particular end. In many ways it reflects the ways Muslim citizens are instrumentalized in public political discourses in the US in which people only seem to be concerned with Muslims as threat or care for Muslims because of their ability sniff out threats from other Muslims. We are utilized as mediators of information. This seems to be the same logic behind both torture and in public discourses about the treatment of Muslims in the US.

    1. Interesting point about sniffing threats that invites deeper meditation. Non-tortured muslim bodies are cared for to the extent that they can report other muslim bodies. This is very much like how Foucault argues racialization worked in Nazi Germany. Everyone becomes endowed with sovereign power–to kill, potentially.

  8. Hi Parsa,
    You pose some very interesting questions! When we think of care, I do agree with Samee that there is a positive value assessment associated with the concept. As individuals, we care for people not just because we we are concerned of their welfare, rather this care for others carries some productive qualities in relation to our own well-being. Similarly, society cares for the bodies it desires. Through disposition, appropriation, or management the state also cares for the bodies that further its interests. I imagine that the prisoners that are found at Guantanomo, do not further the interests of the United States and consequently are regarded as less deserving of the “care” that is made accessible to American bodies.

    It is not surprising that most people turn a blind eye to prisoners that are victims of torture. My understanding of the situation is that once these individuals are labeled as prisoners, they are stripped by the state of their zoe. Situated in this space of exception allows the state to separate prisoners from the population because it rationalizes that only citizens [because of their birthright or have acquired legal documentation] “deserve” protection. Their exclusion, which is a form of recognition, means that at a very superficial level their lives are worth maintaining, but the quality of their life does not merit the care that a law abiding body should receive. In this way, so as long as the severity of their torture does not result in death, the violence committed against the prisoners is justifiable.

    This situation arises from a state of crisis where these prisoners are observed as threats to national security. Why is it that we do not find it morally egregious that these victims of torture are left alive under these conditions? I wonder if these bodies can be referred to as homo sacer because it seems that they could and are being spared (not sacrificed) and no one is batting an eye. It is very terrifying to think that our collective indifference to the torture of these bodies continues to allow the practice to still be in effect.

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