Performing the institutionalization of "Bare Life"
by Coco Fusco
...For if violence is a means, a criterion for criticizing it might seem immediately available. It imposes itself in the question whether violence, in a given case, is a means to a just or an unjust end. A critique of it would then be implied in a system of just ends. This, however, is not so. For what such a system, assuming it to be secure against all doubt, would contain is not a criterion for violence itself as a principle, but, rather, the criterion for cases of its use. The question would remain open whether violence, as a principle, could be a moral means even to just ends.
Critique of Violence, 1927
Warfare is America's principal means of engaging in transnational affairs. In the 20th century, the "theatre of operations" was the battlefield, whereas in the 21st century, it is the military prison. For many American soldiers, these prisons are the only places where they actually confront the enemy face to face. The interrogation room of the American military prison is the main stage.
Terrorist activities around the world and the insurgency in Iraq have outmaneuvered cutting-edge surveillance technologies, compelling the U.S. to return to age-old methods of human intelligence gathering. A series of new identities emerge in this process. Enemy combatants are exempted from the Geneva Conventions, enabling their interrogators to "take off the gloves". The most prized security detainees are deprived of identification numbers, thus eliminating official records of their existence, detention or transport. The military interrogator assumes the role of Grand Inquisitor. Military psychologists revive the ancient role of doctors as the stage managers of the Holy Inquisition. Military police replace eagle-eyed snipers as the front line of defense.
Some of the most controversial images of the War on Terror have emerged from military prisons. They are depictions of ritualized humiliation of detainees, usually taken by the soldiers. These photographs, together with various testimonies by soldiers and interpreters who have witnessed acts of excessive cruelty, shed some light on the uses of performative spectacles of subjection inside these prisons as disciplinary conventions.
The release of the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib generated a noticeably brief and tepid public reaction in the U.S. in 2004. Indeed, more attention was paid to the scandalous qualities of the images than to the ethical significance of the U.S. Army's performance of inhumanity. The absence of public indignation at the growing evidence of the U.S. military's widespread if not systematic abuse of prisoners has simplified the task before U.S. government officials who continue to elaborate justifications for torture. Have physical violence and sexual humiliation have been so effectively normalized as sadomasochistic spectacle within our culture that we fail to perceive torture as an unconscionable tool of war?
My initial response to the prominence of women as perpetrators of violence in the Abu Ghraib scandal was shock. Then I learned that it is precisely because these prisons are not considered combat zones, from which women are barred, that many servicewomen work in them. When testimony about how female interrogators use sexual harassment against Muslim detainees in Guantanamo emerged a few months later, I began to consider how originally feminist ideas about sexual freedom and candor were being deployed as weapons against the Islamic world. I decided that in order to learn about the intricacies of the military's intercultural interactions, I would have to become a student of the perpetrators rather than an investigator. Too many activists focus their attention exclusively on the victims, I thought to myself, obfuscating our fundamental bond with the victimizers who are our compatriots and who act in our name. I found a group of retired U.S. Army interrogators who offer mini-courses to civilians on interrogation techniques and survival tactics for prisoners of war. I formed a group with six other women and a cinematographer, and we studied with those interrogators in the summer of 2005. The new performance and video works that emerge from that experience explore the expanding role of American women in the War on Terror. Operation Atropos is a 60-minute film about my group's experience in training with the military interrogators. Bare Life Study #1 is a group street performance using routine methods of humiliation in military prisons as choreography. A Room of One's Own is a monologue about the benefits and pleasures of being a female interrogator.