The Portland title image
About Us - Subscribe - Contact & Submission info

Front Page > Issues > 2006> June

Turning of the imperialist screw

Local police reform actiivst and author Kristian Williams has produced a new work looking at how our society uses torture to control us. American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination explores the dynamic created by imperialism in cultivates a society in which torture becomes an acceptable tool of domination abroad and at home. Dave Mazza recently spoke with Kristian about his latest work.

American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination

Kristian Williams
Paperback: $18.00; 279 pages
South End Press 2006
ISBN 0-89608-753-0

Dave Mazza: In your first book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, you argue the importance of slavery to the development of our modern police institutions—that the police are very little about crime-solving and very much about social control. Did this nation’s relationship with slavery play a similar role in the creation of places like Abu Ghraib?

Kristian Williams: There’s definitely some relevance, especially if you consider the historical connections between police and slavery and slavery and prisons in the U.S., and the evolution of the prison as a means of mass control, especially for the black population. On the other hand, it’s not simply reductive. The story isn’t just “because we had slavery, we now have torture.” Other factors are clearly important, especially U.S. imperialism.

DM: How does U.S. imperialism play a role?

KW: The history of Guantanamo is pretty symbolic of this. It came under U.S. control in the Spanish American war. The U.S. invaded Cuba. We then imposed a constitution on the island that basically put a lot of the country’s resources under U.S. control. It guaranteed the right of U.S. Intervention and turned over some strategic points for military bases—Guantanamo was one of those. Since that time it has been used—most recently and famously as an extralegal concentration camp for prisoners of war from Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Gitmo was specifically chosen as the site for the prison on the theory that no law applies there—the Bush administration takes thisline, anyway. But the base’s lawless status actually dates from the Clinton administration, when it was used to detain Hatian refugees without considering their appeals for asylum.

Of course, the supreme court hasn’t appreciated the Bush administration’s legal arguments and UN has also lauched an investigation into Gitmo. That sort of scrutiny internationally and in the U.S. is a main reason we took the further step of setting up secret prisons in Eastern Europe, Diego Garcia and elsewhere. For the network or Gitmo to be there in the first place, there needed to be a background of the U.S..asserting control outside of its own territory and exempting itself outside its own national laws.

DM: Could you relate that back to what’s happening in domestic prisons?

KW: The ties there are actually pretty tight. There’s a transfer of personnel, techniques, and technology—in both directions. I think it’s a mistake to try to talk about torture in the US without also looking at our military’s actions overseas, or to try to talk about things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib without also looking at the domestic prisons.

It’s not just that the things that happened at Abu Ghraib look like the things that happen in US prisons. The institutions imitate each other. That’s one of the major arguments of the book, actually.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Many of the bloodiest abuses at Guantanamo were perpetrated by the Internal Reaction Force, or the Extreme Reaction Force, as the inmates call it. This was a special unit modelled on the paramilitary units in US prisons. Those units, in turn, were modelled on the SWAT teams in American police departments. And the first SWAT team, as Daryl Gates is very proud to admit, was modelled after special forces units in the US military. So there we have a full circle — from military, to police, to prison, back to the military. You raise the sexual nature of torture and its connection to sex and rape.

DM: Could you explain how those relationships work?

KW: It’s very complex, and I spend a whole chapter in the book addressing just this question. I mean, this got talked about quite a lot when the Abu Ghraib photos came out, but I realized in the course of my research that it’s really a common feature of these sort of abusive situations. I mean, rape, sexual violence, and sexual humiliation just show up again and again —in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other military prisons, in domestic prisons, in the practices of our allies in the Middle East and in Latin America. It can’t just be a coincidence.

Part of the answer is technical. The torturer wants to hurt you as much as he can. The genitals are physically very sensitive, andsexuality is a sensitive area psychologically. So those become obvioustargets. But on top of that, there’s also the fact that in our society sex is all mixed up with ideas of violence and power. And sexual violence in particular is a major feature of the way that men dominate women. What I realized, writing the book, is that this actually says something fundamental about the way that power operates, and about how our society is organized.

In men’s prisons for example, rape isn’t just an expression of dominance, it’s actually a way of organizing the inmate population, of stratifying it. Rape and sexual violence is used to create gender differences. And, upon reflection, it seems like that’s just a replication of similar dynamics in the larger society. I find that very troubling.

Work by Stanley Milgram and the Stanford Prison Experiment touch upon key issues in explaining why people permit torture to occur and even participate in it. Could you discuss that as well as talk about how we deal with those aspects of human nature?

Milgram’s experiment was ingeniously simple. He just asked volunteers to administer an electric shock to an innocent person. The “shock” was actually rigged to a buzzer and the “victim” was actually an actor, but the volunteers had no way to know that. The researchers expected that most people would refuse, and then they could examine the common traits of the people who participated with the idea that this would lead them to understand the psychology of people who commit real-life atrocities. It turned out, though, that no one refused and a very large portion of the volunteers would continue with the experiment all the way through to the maximum voltage. This was true even of those volunteers who suffered guilt and anxiety, and who vocally objected. What they found was that among ordinary adult Americans the habit toward obedience was very much over-developed.

The Stanford experiment was less scientific. It may not even be right to call it an experiment, in the usual sense; it’s more like a very well documented anecdote. But it goes like this: Psychologists at Stanford University set out to replicate prison conditions on the university’s campus, and they really did too good a job. They randomly sorted a group of male students into prisoners and guards, and within hours the guards started mistreating the prisoners. After a few days things got so out of hand that the whole project had to be scrapped. It’s interesting to note, though, that soldiers in the US military have reported the same thing happening in their trainings to resist capture.

If we look at the two studies together —the Milgram study shows that normal people will do terrible things if ordered to do so by the authorities, and the Stanford study suggests that when given total control over others ordinary people will indulge their most sadistic impulses. In real-world prisons, where each set of conditions are present to a greater or lesser degree, it’s only too obvious what the results will be.

DM: You seem less optimistic at the close of this book. Can we get ourselves out of this fix and if so, how?

KW: In Our Enemies in Blue, I really stressed what is possible. In American Methods I focus more on what is necessary. I guess in each book I was really pressing against the usual boundaries of the debate. In talk about the police, it’s usual to assume that whatever their flaws, we have to have them. I argue otherwise, taking seriously the idea that we could eliminate this institution and find other, better, means of insuring the public safety. When talking about torture, human rights advocates tend to base their arguments on international law — really understating the kind of changes necessary to actually eliminate this set of practices. So in American Methods I argue that if we really want to end torture, and not just forbid it, we need to radically alter, or very likely, dismantle the institutions that employ it. That means getting serious about abolishingprisons and police, and ending our government’s imperialist military and global economic policies. Furthermore, it means correcting for the imbalances in power that give these organizations and policies their shape—for example, racism, capitalism, and the dominance of men over women.

Ultimately, if we really want to eliminate torture, we need to break up the existing concentrations of power and press all of society in the direction of greater equality.

Kristian Williams will be reading from American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination on June 30, 7:30pm at Powell’s City of Books.


Back to Top


The Portland Alliance 2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Questions, comments, suggestions for this site contact the webperson at

Last Updated: June 5, 2006