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American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, by Kristian Williams, South End Press, 279 pages

Reviewed by David Preston

1979. How well I remember it. My freshman year at college. In an effort to expand my consciousness and do good in the world, I joined a campus human-rights group and wrote dozens of letters to repressive governments around the world, pleading with them to stop torturing prisoners. Who knew that thirty years later I’d be too busy reading about torture in the Homeland to worry about what was going on over there. Needless to say, I’m humbler at 48 than I was at 18. Still, it was nice, once upon a time, to feel morally superior to a dictator in some obscure, benighted place: Uruguay, China, Romania, Chad.

In American Methods, a new monograph from venerable South End Press, author Kristian Williams has created a primer on torture in modern America. Using source material as varied as the Geneva Conventions, Stanley Milgram’s studies on obedience, and post-9/11 White House legal memoranda, Williams reveals an America in which torture has become a kind of new normal. As each new abuse scandal breaks, responsible parties gyrate through the motions of ignorance or denial, publicly distancing themselves personally from torture as an official policy while doing little to change the culture of domination and cruelty that prevails within the system. Ironically, in some cases (Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo) bringing torture to light has only helped to legitimize it. The Obama government takes a few of the most awful methods, like water boarding, off the table, while leaving indefinite detention, solitary confinement, and “moderate” stress positions on. Hairs are split, language is massaged. Thus, like the proverbial frog in the stewpot, we come to accept the unacceptable. By degrees.

Far from seeing even the worst torture as an aberrant, Williams perceives the essential role of brutality and domination in the American prison model. In discussing prison rape, for example, he explains that violence is a built-in feature of the sys-tem, as well as being a kind of product, like license plates or office furniture. Imprisonment is itself degrading, he notes, “marked by a pronounced lack of power over even the most basic elements of life. It is a regimen of imposition and deprivation, isolation and overcrowding. Food, fresh air, sunlight, social contact, showers, information and entertainment, meaningful work, medical care—all these are restricted, rationed, doled out as privileges, or prohibited altogether. Rote labor, isolation, and pain can be readily imposed. To be a prisoner is to be subject to control. It is also, as a means to such control, to be subject to violence. [ . . . ] One cannot maintain these conditions without also creating opportunities for abuse.”

“Violence is also the product of the prison system,” he adds. “Torture is not only the means by which the state gains control, it is also an expression of triumphant power.” Brutality will never go out of style in America, it seems, until prison itself does.

Williams’ writing benefits from a scrupulous attention to detail—sources are exhaustively cited and indexed—and a comprehensive selection of case studies. By considering wide-ranging aspects of the prison experience—from bullying interrogation tactics to oppressive prison regimens to inmate-on-inmate violence—he is able to give us the broadest possible view of how state power operates against the individual. Unfortunately, such breadth of view can also be a weakness. By devoting so much time to describing case studies, Williams has left himself little space in which to craft his arguments. As a result, his conclusions often come off as rushed and even shrill. In the concluding chapter, “Torture, Terror, and the State” he attempts to toss the whole laundry list of prison evils into the basket of political oppression, offering a one-size-fits-all remedy:

We must seek to radically reduce—ideally, to eliminate—the state’s ability to launch aggressive wars, to spy on the populace, to incarcerate, to keep dossiers, to patrol. It is, in short, necessary that we radically transform the institutions of political power, that we smash the state and break down the mechanisms of coercion so that they operate at a scale directly controllable by local communities.

Smash the state, eh?

Uh . . . What was Plan B again?

Perhaps there is simply too much brutality in the prison system for anyone to be able to make sense of it in 280 pages. Williams might have been better off shucking a few of his subthemes and making the scope of the work a little narrower. For example, he might have stuck to domestic jails and prisons instead of devoting so many pages to drawing analogies between the abuses of Abu Ghraib and those of say, Corcoran State in California. Granted, those connections are real enough. And they’re important too. But they are probably too complex to explore adequately in a work of this size, especially with so much other material tossed in the pot.

Buried in the middle of the book is a chapter titled “Ethics and Emergencies,” which discusses the notorious “ticking time bomb” scenario as a justification for torturing an interrogation subject. For me, this was the most interesting part of the work, since it goes to the heart of how Americans have become so inured to the evils done in their name. Williams does a good job of outlining the philosophical issues in this chapter, but what the question calls for is really a book of its own. Or maybe two.

In spite of its cursory handling of some points, American Methods is a remarkably brisk and enlightening read—if you don’t mind the subject matter—and I would recommend it to students of penology or anyone interested in the recent literature on American prisons. If nothing else, the book makes a concise and powerful case that the American prison system is rotten to the core.

Perhaps discussion groups could be organized around it. Or maybe a human rights club on campus. Students could even quote passages from the book when sending out appeals to those brutish and retrograde governments who still torture in the name of the state. By now, perhaps, you’re more familiar with some of the postmarks: Baghdad, Kabul, Ran-goon, Washington.

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