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Torture and the Ticking Bomb: The War on Terrorism as a Geographical Imagination of Power/Knowledge

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Torture can be understood as part of a geopolitical response to a discursively inflated threat. Public discussions of torture in the United States between 11 September 2001 and the May 2004 revelations of abuses at Abu Ghraib prison cautiously justified brutal interrogation methods by couching the threat of terrorism in the language of the ticking-bomb scenario. Terrorist acts constitute a real threat to material security, specifically to the “topological” presuppositions of the forms of power/knowledge that Foucault and others have argued are central to modern social orders. Techniques of biopower and governmentality can only operate effectively if “normally empowered” biopolitical subjects allow populations and governing authorities to orient their governing and self-governing activities according to “mappable landscapes of expectation.” The threat of terrorism, especially in the person of the suicide bomber, renders landscapes of expectation more difficult to map, at least locally. The ticking-bomb scenario is the most important vehicle by which the material threat of terrorism has been discursively extended to encompass the entire national territory and intensified to a uniform level of unacceptability. Once this process is recognized, it is possible both to understand torture as a biopolitical technique of compensation for the threat of terrorism in its discursively inflated form and to place torture more firmly within the wider geopolitical account of “Empire” inaugurated by Agamben, Butler, and Hardt and Negri.
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Keywords: biopower; governmentality; terrorism; topology; torture

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Vermont

Publication date: 01 September 2006

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