Category Archives: war and peace

Competency Kinks, Violence, and Imperialism

A couple of months ago, I had a thought.  I was brainstorming an idea for an urban fantasy novel, one that would feature a strong androgynous superhero whose jurisdiction was over things like stopping rapists, confronting misogynists, and making vulnerable populations feel safe.  But as I was brainstorming this hero, who not only saves your life but has a penchant for cuddling and physical affection, I realized that one of the traits I was using was still “could kill you with hir little finger.”

That got me thinking about competency kinks and how they align with violence.

“Competency kink” basically just means that someone being really good at whatever zie does is a turn-on.  Movies certainly capitalize on this.  Sometimes it’s intellectual competence, or psychic ability, or something else unrelated to violence, but very often the protagonist is competent at killing, injuring, and/or self defense.  Whether it’s competence with weaponry, martial arts, magic, or some other violence-related skill, filmmakers are very good at combining destructive prowess with sexiness.  Think Christian Bale in Equilibrium.  Think Keanu Reeves in the Matrix.  Think of all the bad-ass chicks in films that are unexpectedly very skilled at physical combat.  Kill Bill, anyone?

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Blogging “Yes” Day 19: Is Fighting for Sex the Best Option?

For day nineteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Anastasia Higginbotham’s essay, “Sex Worth Fighting For.”  So far, this is the essay I disagree with most in the book, because it focuses on a self-defense program that focuses on actively fighting off men. Though I recognize that some women do feel empowered by physically fighting, I would argue that both men and women need to work towards non-violence, and that fighting violence with violence is not the right solution for everyone.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 17: Violence in Queer Communities

It’s day seventeen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I read the short but gorgeously powerful essay entitled “Shame is the First Betrayer,” by Toni Amato.  It’s hard to know what to say about this essay, because it says so much in such a concise format.  It does really resonate, though, and is an important reminder of how violence creeps up in queer communities, with queer people not only as victims but as perpetrators.

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Blogging “Yes” Day 10: Female Interrogators and Sexual Liberation

For day ten of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read “Invasion of Space by a Female,” which is actually an excerpt from Coco Fusco’s book, A Field Guide for Female Interrogators. The excerpt is interesting in that it looks at the difference between interrogation techniques used by female soldiers and the famous Abu Ghraib photos with female soldiers shown posing with detainees, as well as the implications of using “sexually liberated” female interrogators as a weapon to tempt, soothe, or humiliate detainees.

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The Significance of Rhetorical War

John Dickerson has a short piece up on Slate about rhetorical wars, the next one of which appears to be war on the economy.  Oops, I’m sorry, that’s war on the economic crisis.  My mistake.  Anyway, in my National Security Law intersession course this week, one thing we talked about was whether the war on terror is any different from the other rhetorical wars on drugs, poverty, cancer, etc. or if it’s just another phrase in the presidential bag of tricks.  I’d say yes and no.

In some ways, it’s like all the other rhetorical wars, in that the word “war” announces a policy priority and commission of resources.  It’s intended to make those who are doing whatever we’re at war with a little more afraid of us in the case of something like the war on drugs, and to make victims believe that we’re serious in the case of the war on poverty or the war on cancer.  The war on terror does announce a policy priority and commission of resources, and it is supposed to make terrorists fear us and Americans feel like the government is doing something to protect us.  But that’s not all.

While other wars may have done this to some extent, I think the war on terror sets a new precedent in terms of using the “war” as a justification for actions that may or may not be legal or otherwise socially justifiable.  Increased surveillance?  We’re at war!  Questionable interrogation techniques?  We’re at war!  If Congress doesn’t give the President more and more authority, then it looks like it’s on the wrong side of a war, and that’s something you don’t want to be.  It’s also fuzzy because while Congress has not actually declared war on terrorists (something it doesn’t have the legal power to do as the enemy has to be at least somewhat identifiable), it has authorized the use of force against those responsible for 9/11 in the AUMF.  We’re actively fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the President is allowed to do whatever is appropriate and necessary to track down the Al Qaeda people responsible for the 9/11 terrorist plot.  This means that the rhetorical war gets the added brunt of being associated with a real war, and sometimes the two get disturbingly enmeshed.  For example, it was easy to call Iraq just another battle in the broader war.  But Congress authorized force against those who had attacked us first; it never declared a wider war or referred to the war in Afghanistan as an opening battle.

Things to think about.

The Importance of Culturally Appropriate Interrogation Techniques

Although the current interrogation manual used by the Army does, I am happy to say, specifically prohibit the use of sexual or religious interrogation techniques, I was rather disturbed to read about the previous approach to interrogation, based almost entirely on the degree of physical force used to determine whether inappropriate techniques were being used.  This approach is flawed from the general standpoint of how the armed forces should look at lawful interrogation versus torture in the first place, but I was specifically bothered by the use of sexual and religious methods designed to humiliate a detainee because they represent a complete failure to understand why these methods are inappropriate.  In conducting interrogation, the question should not simply be, “are we torturing the detainee in violation of international law?”  Certainly, that should be a threshhold question, but beyond that there is another question I want the interrogators to be asking.  “Are we using techniques that (1) are actually designed with the sole purpose of obtaining information and (2) conform with our social expectations of dignity and respect for human beings?”  The whole point of having laws of war is that there are certain expectations that apply, even when dealing with the enemy (putting aside for the moment the question of whether some of these detainees even are legitimately “the enemy.”)  

I’m bothered by any interrogation technique that is designed to humiliate the prisoner because it’s disrespectful and it doesn’t work.  First of all, from everything I’ve seen and read, the most effective interrogators are those who are patient and develop a rapport for the detainee.  Respect is a very powerful tool, as is cultural understanding.  Ideally, interrogators should be those who speak the subject’s language and whenever possible either come from or are very familiar with the subject’s culture and religion to whatever extent possible.  Even inadvertant cultural faux pas can diminish respect for the interrogator and make a subject defiant.  Intentional humiliation techniques in many cases are only going to harden the subject against revealing anything, and at the same time they compromise the interrogator.  If the army uses these techniques, it’s going to develop self-hatred and psychological damage among its interrogators as well as the detainees.  It will also further damage our already pretty shitty international reputation.  And finally, using these techniques is evidence of a purpose that has little to do with information – desire to humiliate, to dehumanize, to make one’s self greater than the subject.  Use the Golden Rule, folks.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Unrelated note: Please note that discussion is open on Patience & Sarah, as is the Round Four suggestions thread.  To encourage more discussion in the future, I’ll be posting specific discussion questions within each round’s discussion forum on the boards to get the juices flowing.  Of course, anyone is welcome to simply post their thoughts or start a thread with a question of their own, but I’m hoping that more directed discussion will encourage more participation.  Of course, as always, this is an entirely guilt-free group, and if I’m the only one reading in a round I’m just happy to have read the book!  Feel free to comment on a discussion post well after the round has started if you read the book late.  I myself haven’t read P&S yet, which is why discussion questions aren’t up yet 😉

Humanitarian intervention (still intervention)

My Foreign Relations Law professor, who is a Russian national, made an interesting point today.  He was talking about the decision to bomb Kosovo, and referred to the humanitarian intervention as a pretext, which I don’t agree with.  However, it’s good to remember that there are two sides to every story, and though I think in this case intervention was the right thing given Serbia’s history of ethnic cleansing, the credibility of the threat, and the lack of national interest beyond humanitarian concerns (very unlike Iraq), there is a Serbian side to the story.  Of course, Russia is an ally of Serbia, and it was due to the promise that Russia and China (nervous about the idea of invading sovereign territory) would veto the move in the Security Council that NATO chose to strike out on its own without UN approval.

The professor was making a link to one of the Federalist Papers, wherein the author (I believe it was Hamilton) mentions the inability of a young United States to remonstrate with dignity.  To illustrate the meaning of this phrase, he used the example of Russian Prime Minister Primakov flying from Moscow to Washington to meet with Vice President Al Gore.  Before leaving, Primakov was informed by Russian intelligence of NATO’s plan to bomb Kosovo.  He called Gore, who informed Primakov that his information was bad.  Primakov got on the plane, and when he arrived at Shannon to refuel, he called once again, again receiving intelligence information that the bombing was imminent.  Gore responded in the same way.  Well, Primakov was over the Atlantic when he found that the bombing was taking place.  Had he arrived in Washington and had his picture taken with the Vice President, the obvious message would have been that Russia supported the mission.  So Primakov asked the pilot to take a U-turn, and he returned to Russia. In my professor’s words, “that was when the United States lost Russia.”

I find this story interesting in two respects.  One is the perspective that many Americans have when it comes to Russia.  I grew up thinking of Russia as a country that was strong throughout the Cold War, though it had trouble feeding its own people and was probably in some way inferior, and after the war ended, I didn’t really think of Russia as anything.  It was this state out on the other side of world that we didn’t have to worry about any more, essentially.  But I’ve come to realize that Russia is a country to watch for, and also to respect.  I think Russian leaders have done some horrible things in terms of human rights, but I also think that to ignore or try to manipulate Russia is a bit foolish. 

The other respect in which I find the account interesting deals directly with Kosovo.  I’ve been reading Richard Falk’s recent book, in which he talks a lot about how Kosovo was illegal but legitimate.  One side you don’t really get, however, is the Russian (or Serbian) side.  Again, I think it’s fairly clear that the mission saved a lot of lives, and that imminent humanitarian attrocities justified the attack, but the nature of the attack is another question.  Humanitarian intervention is still intervention, and respect for sovereignty is one of the key rules of diplomacy.  I think we could do better.  High-altitude bombing, for example, doesn’t seem like the solution.  I think the global world order needs restructuring so that nations can show respect for each other and universal non-acceptance of human rights violations.  If Russia, for example, had been able to retain the option of being Serbia’s ally but at the same time could have refused to use its veto due to the human rights violations going on, and at the same time NATO powers had agreed to use only targeted military force when absolutely necessary in a way that would avoid civilian casualties and ensure quick withdrawal, maybe we’d be in a different position today.  I think that we should work to prevent human rights tragedy no matter what the geopolitical consequences, but I also think we should be careful about verifying the threat and using appropriate responses.  Losing Russia, I think, is proving to be a relatively big deal.  

So what is the goal?  I think universal acceptance of at least the very most basic human rights is a good start.  This is an extremely difficult goal to achieve, but it is in the self-interest of nations to adhere to the principle.  If we could all carry out diplomatic relations as sovereign states, but at the same time understand that none of our allies will help us if we commit human rights atrocities, even within sovereign territory, that our international reputation will be irrevocably tarnished and our economic position threatened… who knows.  Maybe the situation would improve.  I’m not naive enough to think that the world will go pacifist anytime soon, but I have to believe that there is a better way of doing things.

As a human rights activist, my personal goal is to be more sensitive to geopolitical realities and cultural concerns.  Though I do strongly believe that people deserve a minimal standard of living, the way to go about it isn’t to burst into a country and declare that I’m right.  Situations are often complicated, and cultural understanding is essential to intelligent diplomacy.  I do believe that diplomacy is the way to achieve human rights victories, not force.  If international organizations can gain more respect on the world stage, they also may have a critical role to play in informing nations of their human rights violations in a way that appeals to national self interest and cultural context, not just the universal “civilizing mission” that nations are understandably hesitant to embrace.  Even in the human rights field, there are two (or many) sides to the story.  Hopefully we can reconcile them and still manage to save a few lives along the way.