The Erasure of Torture in America

Case Western Journal of International Law (forthcoming)
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Abstract

As several scholars have argued, far from being antithetical to American values, the torture of nonwhite peoples has long been a method through which the United States has enforced (at home and abroad) a conception of what I will call “white moral citizenship." What is missing from this literature, however, is an exploration of the role that the erasure of torture, and the political and public narratives that are used to justify torture, plays in this function. As I will demonstrate in this article, the erasure of American torture takes at least three different but mutually reinforcing forms: erasure of the fact of torture, erasure of the experience of torture, and erasure of the victims of torture. Erasure of the fact of torture occurs when lack of education and public discussion creates widespread ignorance about the history of torture in America, as has occurred in relation to the post-9/11 torture program. Erasure of the experience of torture occurs when victims’ experiences of extreme suffering, and practices or institutions that inflict extreme suffering (such as solitary confinement), are not acknowledged as forms of torture. Erasure of the victims of torture occurs when victims are treated with indifference and even contempt, even when what they suffered is acknowledged to be torture, and their perspectives and experiences are dismissed, minimized, or ignored. As I shall argue, both the use of the torture and the forms of erasure described above are essential components in the ongoing enforcement of the normative boundaries of American white moral citizenship and the myth of American exceptionalism and civilization. The repeating pattern of the use and erasure of torture leads to the ongoing toleration of practices that constitute torture and that overwhelmingly impact people of color. Until this pattern of justification and erasure is recognized and confronted, torture will continue to be embedded within American culture and institutions.

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Jessica Wolfendale
Case Western Reserve University

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