The study of crime and punishment in our society generally has a decidedly domestic bent, and perhaps rightly so. What better way to understand crime—and society's response to it—than by studying the domestic institutions most directly associated with crime and punishment? To this end, most of this quarter's presentations at the Crime and Punishment Workshop have focused on domestic issues, be it juvenile delinquency or intuitions on punishment. In his presentation of a working paper on detention discourse in Iraq, Professor Michael Welch takes a different tack. Building on the notion that narratives emerging from
colonial projects may provide helpful insight into how the West conceives of itself, Prof. Welch studied the official website of
Operation Iraqi Freedom, in particular focusing attention on the rationales and technologies behind the large-scale detention of Iraqi civilians.
As an initial matter, the characterization of the American occupation of Iraq as a
colonial project is anything but incontrovertible, and indeed, drew disagreement amongst the attendees of the workshop. Though fundamental to Prof. Welch's working paper (available here), this post leaves it to one side, lest its author get ensnared in an argument having little to do with either crime or punishment. In any case, insofar as one is willing to accept that studying our conception of American detention practices abroad may provide insight into our incarceration policies at home, the characterization of Iraq as a colonial project (or not) is tangential at best.
As an example of self-conception of detention practices in Iraq, Prof. Welch pointed out the touting of low
re-internment rates (that is, the rate at which individuals are again detained after having been previously detained and released) by the military. This, as was noted by a faculty member, is certainly different than our expressed purpose in detaining individuals in military endeavors of years past, say, Vietnam, where the objective was incapacitation, or even at home, where (most would agree) the focus tends to be punishment rather than rehabilitation.
If there was any agreement amongst those present at the workshop, it was that there were a number of directions that the paper could be taken from its current state. One faculty member seemed interested in comparison of American propaganda in previous wars to derive an understanding of how our self-conception of detention has changed. Another was more focused on determining whether there were
true believers of the material presented on the site. A third seemed curious about who prepared the site, and to what end. Who was the target audience? Was it working to convince that audience of its viewpoint?
As these various lines of inquiry indicate, this is an interesting topic that will no doubt spur further research. A little self-awareness never hurt anyone, right?