Gabrielle M. Spiegel: History and the Torture Memos

Roundup: Historians' Take

"Getting medieval," as those who saw the movie will remember, is the phrase employed by Ving Rhames in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction as he was preparing to torture with the aid of a pair of pliers and a blowtorch the hapless man writhing before him on the floor (the actual spoken words were: "I'm gonna get medieval on your …"). According to Carolyn Dinshaw, the phrase became so popular that in the spring of 1997 the mint company, Altoids, launched an advertising campaign that urged prospective consumers to "Get Medieval on Your Breath."1 Both instances conjure up prospects of great harm about to be propagated and, in the case of bad breath, a hoped-for annihilation.

I was reminded of the phrase last spring, when I participated in a debate with Bruce Holsinger in the Center for 21st-Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Holsinger is professor of English and chair of the music department at the University of Virginia and the author of a fascinating little book entitled Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror.2 The topic in question was the use of medieval analogies in contemporary discourse, not least by a handful of neoconservatives, who have drawn upon an odd field of policy studies called "neomedievalism," first developed by British realist international relations scholars in the 1980s, and adapted by neocons after 9/11 for their own purposes. It was this latter incarnation of "neomedievalism" that proffered a cache of analogies about the "medieval" nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgments expressed by the authors of the torture memos as they set about demonizing the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and recommending the use of torture to a world that, in earlier "enlightened" days, had voluntarily abdicated its use. Although the actual number of analogies with the Middle Ages was limited, they were the sole historical comparisons to be deployed by the authors of the torture memos. In ways that were surprisingly literal, what these authors turned out to be recommending was, precisely, "getting medieval" in Tarantino's all too palpable sense.

That both the torture memos and the "medievalizing" moves that helped to frame their thinking appeared to be a suitable subject for scholarly debate by practicing medievalists suggests that we are living at a moment when the temptations for such analogizing between the medieval and contemporary world seem to be spreading in current political language. Something about the post-9/11 world, both in public discourse and among medievalists themselves, is giving rise to ill-considered uses of the term "medieval," a phenomenon that raises the larger historiographical issue of the place of analogy in the logic of historical thought and the risks that indulgence in such analogizing, whether by the torture memo-writers or by medievalists themselves, entail.
At the heart of the legal justifications for using torture against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan lay the notion that neither Afghanistan nor al Qaeda qualified as state actors, the former because it is a "failed state," the latter because it is merely, in the words of John Yoo, deputy assistant attorney general and framer of one of the longest memos (dated January 9, 2002) on the legal basis for torture, "a violent political movement or organization and not a nation-state. As a result, it is ineligible to be a signatory to any treaty"—not a "High Contracting Party," in Yoo's legalese—hence not party to or included within the scope of the Geneva Conventions regulating the treatment of prisoners of war in armed conflicts between signatory states. This view was fervently shared by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, who wrote a memo (dated February 7, 2002) to Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel, in response to the question of whether members of the Taliban militia qualified for POW status and thus protection under the Geneva Convention. Bybee concluded that the Taliban were not legally entitled to such status on the grounds that Afghanistan was a failed state because "the Taliban did not exercise full control over the territory and people and was not recognized by the international community, and was [therefore] not capable of fulfilling its international obligations."...

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