I am studying U.S. government official reports on Abu Ghraib prison because I want to find out what language and techniques are used to describe controversial practices in order to help readers understand how the government draws ethical boundaries in their treatment of foreign detainees.
One source I have started to look at to familiarize myself with the discourse is the book Torture and Truth by Mark Danner.¹ While the book is a secondary source and provides some chapters of analysis, the vast majority of it compiles essential memos and reports declassified to the public regarding the controversial treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The book also contains the original images leaked to the public of U.S. soldiers dehumanizing detainees.
I am curious to investigate. the language the government uses to describe the practices in comparison to the practices themselves. For example, one report refers to certain interrogation methods as “harsh techniques,” but the images of these practices seem to depict behavior far closer to what might more appropriately be labeled severe torture.² Though constitutive causality, as described by Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, is an inherent element of interpretivist research, I am interested in studying this discourse at the official level because this type of discourse can more concretely be traced to actions.³ When, for example, an interrogation handbook uses certain language to describe a regulation, it is likely that this language will be reflected in the attitudes of the practitioners. It is also particularly interesting to examine government documents for this puzzle because the definitions of various practices that these documents set have been accused of intentionally circumventing international conventions and norms on torture. If I continue with an interpretivist research project, I would anticipate comparing official international discourse on torture and domestic U.S. reports.
After reading some of the documents Danner includes in his collection, I am also interested in the way the language of the report explicitly and implicitly places the blame for the situation at Abu Ghraib on various parties. If I can find language that suggests the torture at Abu Ghraib was an anomaly caused by some rogue, low-ranking soldiers, this could offer an interesting potential explanation for the lack of policy change and continuation of torture in other contexts that I have discussed in previous research designs.
¹ Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review Books, 2004).
² Ibid, 553.
³ Peregrine Schwartz-Shea and Dvora Yanow, Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes, 1 edition. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011).
For my small-n research design, I plan to compare two of the cases I chose for my large-n research design to examine more thoroughly: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. I chose to keep the unit for each case the same as the large-n design, as individual prisons allow the balance I desire for more specificity than state-wide analysis yet a large enough scale to presume some degree of generalizability. I chose Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, specifically, due to the amount of similarities and control in each circumstance. They do, however, also seem to demonstrate enough variation in potential dependent variables, such as the number of years of operation as I used in the large-n design, that a comparison would be significant and meaningful.
For my dependent variable, I am interested in using news and media sources as reflections of public response to each prison in order to uncover differences in attitude by the American public as well as international community to torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. This makes news articles and responses published at the time of each prison’s operation primary sources for my research, and I have started reading various articles from major national news outlets to get a sense of how I might operationalize and measure public attitude.
Comparing two Washington Post articles on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, respectively, drew my attention to the differences in language used about each prison. In Graham’s 2004 article on the closure of Abu Ghraib, the ethics of torture in Iraq are not described as questionable or debatable, they are presumed to be wrong. The only debate in the article is regarding who to blame.¹ Conversely, the 2018 article by Ryan and Nakashima engages in the now partisan debate on the necessity of keeping Guantanamo open, which implicitly includes the continuation of torture.²
Though the differences in the two articles are apparent to me, I recognize that language and connotations are often subjective, and I am struggling with operationalization. I am considering using a software that counts how many times certain words are used in selected texts and comparing them across articles on each prison, but I fear the variation will not be apparent with this method. As I continue to read, I will be looking for more concrete trends in the articles that I may be able to measure more tangibly.
¹ Bradley Graham, “Torture and Prison Abuse,” last modified August 26, 2004, accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.globalpolicy.org/us-un-and-international-law-8-24/torture-and-prison-abuse.html.
² Missy Ryan and Ellen Nakashima, “Trump, Reversing 2009 Move, Vows to Keep Guantanamo Open Indefinitely,” Washington Post, last modified January 31, 2018, accessed October 29, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/trump-revoking-2009-order-moves-to-keep-guantanamo-open-indefinitely/2018/01/30/c45a0b02-061b-11e8-8777-2a059f168dd2_story.html.
Until this week during which our class’ focus shifted to large-n neo-positivist research, I had mostly considered my puzzle in terms of a handful of cases I was familiar with. I was aware, however, that torture has been used in prisons worldwide for centuries. Because I am interested in investigating the causes for the closure of each of these facilities, I knew I needed to address the duration of operation in each prison utilizing torture. Therefore, to compare a larger number of cases in a large-n research project, I would use years of operation as my dependent variable, allowing me to have an interval-ratio value to analyze statistically if needed. Ideally the nature of my independent variable will demonstrate some kind of correlation to the number of years each institution remained open.
As for finding the data for my dependent variable, I could not find any datasets including information on duration of prison operation internationally, especially not regarding prisons of torture. Given the specificity and scale of my subject matter I expected to need to search for my own data and found a few sources that I might be able to pull from. First, I found that the United Nations has a Committee Against Torture which publishes factsheets on systems of torture and the organization’s actions in response.¹ While not all of the information on torture is specifically related to prisons, I can sift through the data and pick the cases relevant to my research. The limitation of the UN site is that the information is mostly about ongoing crises and there is not necessarily a precise duration in years listed for each case. Regarding the scope, there is some measure of information on almost every country’s involvement with the committee and/or record with torture.
Another organization that has poured significant resources into investigating the persistence of detainee torture is Amnesty International. As an NGO dedicated to achieving human rights globally, Amnesty International has published numerous reports detailing the facts surrounding various torture practices globally.² This is another source I can sift through to find cases matching the parameters of my research to use for my dependent variable. The potential limitation on this data is that it is funded by a private organization, so it will be essential for me to consider the organization’s motivations and perspectives in finding their data. As for scope, Amnesty International provides a slightly broader offering of cases going further back in time and they also describe issues at the sub-state level more frequently than the United Nations.
¹ “OHCHR | Committee against Torture,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/cat/pages/catindex.aspx.
² “Torture and Prison Abuse,” accessed October 11, 2018, https://www.globalpolicy.org/us-un-and-international-law-8-24/torture-and-prison-abuse.html.
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The two articles I chose to examine regarding my puzzle on the ethics and motivations of torture by global superpowers are both interpretivist analyses of factors that have potentially allowed for the United States to practice torture on foreign nationals without a great deal of moral outcry from the American public. “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture,”¹ published in the International Journal of Cultural Studies by Marita Sturken, asserts that the American notion of “comfort”² as a justification for questionable security practices has led to a lack of vulnerability by the public that prevents them from being empathetic to detainees subject to torture. Sturken analyzes pieces of pop culture such as comic strips and t-shirt slogans to get a better understanding of the public perception of state-sponsored torture. “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age: Rationalities of Violence, Theodicy, and Torture,”³ published in Security Dialogue by Luca Mavelli, concludes that theodicy, or “how to reconcile the existence of God with the presence of evil in the world,”⁴ has led many to adopt racist and stereotypical notions of torture victims as deserving of their treatment.
Though Mavelli and Sturken take distinct positions on the issue of torture the two articles are not necessarily contradictory. While Mavelli’s claims point to causes for indifference in a population to its state’s own torture practices, Sturken focuses more on the effects of this indifference on the issue as it persists in a society. Sturken and Mavelli are just two voices in a much broader conversation on the ethical implications of torture on a society. From what I have seen so far, there is already a substantial amount of scholarship answering why, generally, societies turn a blind eye to torture. I have noticed, though, a fascinating lack of literature on what may cause a society to accept torture in certain situations and not others. Both authors’ theories of comfort⁵ and theodicy⁶ could potentially be used as variables in a comparison of different empirical instances public perception of torture in my research.
¹ Marita Sturken, “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization: The Mediation of Torture,” ed. Lilie Chouliaraki and Shani Orgad, International Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (July 2011): 423-440.
³ L. Mavelli, “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age: Rationalities of Violence, Theodicy and Torture,” Security Dialogue 47, no. 2 (2016): 117-132.
⁵Sturken, “Comfort, Irony, and Trivialization.”
⁶Mavelli, “Governing Uncertainty in a Secular Age.”
Before we had the chance to discuss the differences in class, I was unable to fully articulate in my own words how methodology and ontology differ from one another, especially because Abbott¹ placed all the methodologies, ontologies, and debates on knowledge in the same chart on page 54, comparing them in similar categories. However, as we began to examine examples of different studies implementing various aspects of Abbott’s matrix, I was able to more easily wrap my head around the concepts. To my understanding, methodology is more concerned with the operationalization² of research and the actual practices of conducting the research process, which ontology is more closely tied to the interpretation of research the implications of the results.
In my opinion, it is impossible to be an unbiased researcher and act only as an observer to the social world. As Alexia mentioned in class, even the fact that we are in the position to be researchers carries its own bias and gives us a different perspective from people who may never have the privilege or desire to take part in it. These biases, though, do not necessarily decrease the merit of social research. I subscribe to the theory of “experience-near”³ and contextualized research because I am wary of overgeneralizing certain results to apply to more contexts than appropriate. This viewpoint is already apparent in my research process. I am fascinated by two situations regarding foreign detainees imprisoned by the American government, but I am grappling to find exactly which larger concept or phenomenon I would like to address in academic conversation.
I have also personally been struggling with the level of certainty I can allow myself to have in various sources I come across in my research. While I do not necessarily believe one has to see everything they are researching with their own eyes to base claims on them, but it is also essential to acknowledge potential gaps between one’s source material and reality. As I mentioned before, every researcher has some level of bias. As one’s work veers further and further from raw source material, I believe the margin of error increases and implications can be made with less certainty. As I expressed in class, I have trouble deciding at what point to trust pre-existing research and let it speak for itself and at what point that pre-existing work needs further questioning. Because so much of the information on my subject area is classified or vague, I hope to work on my own ability to evaluate the distance between my source material and an objective truth.
¹ Abbott, Andrew Delano. Methods of Discovery Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
² Kellstedt, Paul M., and Guy D. Whitten. The fundamentals of political science research. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
³ Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Dvora Yanow. Interpretive research design: Concepts and processes. Routledge, 2013.
In my initial proposal for my research this semester, I expressed interest in investigating the correlation between the United States’ questionable practices regarding prisoners of war, or ‘enemy combatants,’ and recruitment by terrorist organizations. I was fascinated by news coverage and books I had read about groups like Al-Qaeda posting footage of hostages dressed in orange jumpsuits in retaliation to the perceived injustices at Guantanamo Bay. In my policy memo for World Politics last year, I argued that the human rights violations committed by the United States at Guantanamo Bay make the country’s calls for nonviolence and peace less legitimate. It made sense to me that terrorist organizations would point to Guantanamo as a recruitment tool and I explained to my faculty mentor, Professor Banks, that this was my central research interest.
After some discussion of my broader interest in the United States’ history with controversial imprisonment of foreign nationals, Professor Banks pointed out that my interest in the relationship between imprisonment and recruitment was more of an assumption or conclusion than an open-ended question that I could attempt to answer. I came to realize what I was really interested in was the use of vague terminology allowing our government to treat human beings in ways that, in essence, violate the Geneva Conventions. Documentaries like Taxi to the Dark Side caused massive outcry from the American public regarding the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, yet there seems to be less concern over a similar situation in Guantanamo Bay. Is this due to the amount of media coverage on each circumstance or do Americans have some other differentiation between the two that makes Guantanamo Bay seem more justified?
Professor Banks suggested I focus either on the use and implications of terminology like “enemy combatant” as opposed to “prisoner of war” or on the more case-specific comparison of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. As of now, I have decided to focus on the latter. I have started looking at primary source material available in government documents in addition to reading more investigative books on each situation such as Torture and Truth by Mark Danner and My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan.
As mentioned, I am curious to uncover what domestic factors have allowed for such controversial practices. However, as an international studies major, I am also curious to learn how Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have affected the United States’ standing with the rest of the world, whether or not that may include terrorist recruitment.