Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lisa Stampnitzky

Lisa Stampnitzky is Lecturer in Social Studies at Harvard University. She earned her PhD in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has also held fellowships at Harvard, the University of Oxford, Ohio State University and the European University Institute.

Her new book is Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented "Terrorism".

Earlier this month I asked the author about what she was reading. Stampnitzky's reply:
Right now, I'm reading a number of books on human rights and the laws of war, as I dive into a new research project on the politics of human rights and the 'legalization' of torture in the U.S. after 9/11.

Political scientist Kathryn Sikkink's The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics (W.W. Norton, 2011), describes the rise of a new mechanism for enforcing human rights: the prosecution of individual officials for state crimes, perhaps most famously illustrated by the 1998 extradition of former Chilean dictator Pinochet. Most intriguingly, Sikkink suggests that this development can help us to understand one of the most puzzling shifts in the recent history of human rights: why the U.S. government not only engaged in torture and other violations of human rights after 9/11, but documented and defended these practices in a series of official legal documents. While state officials in earlier periods might have relied upon secrecy and denial to cover up human rights violations, the "justice cascade" has, somewhat paradoxically, pushed officials to engage in a mixture of secrecy and openness about such practices as they seek to preemptively defend themselves against prosecution.

Israeli architect/ social critic Eyal Weizman's The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence From Arendt to Gaza (Verso, 2011) puts forth an argument that appears, at first glance, rather mind-bending. Where Sikkink tells a largely optimistic story of rising respect for and enforcement of human rights, resulting in a narrowing of the ability of states to act with impunity against civilians, Weizman takes a more pessimistic view, arguing that the rise of the logics of humanitarianism and human rights have enabled a new logic of state power. Through a series of examples, such as the practice of giving warnings before dropping bombs on populated areas (which enables militaries to argue that those who choose to remain on the scene are "human shields" and not "civilians"), he shows how states have harnessed the very language of humanitarianism in order to justify their acts of violence.

Next up on my reading list are Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield (Nation Books, 2013), an investigation into the covert side of the war on terror, and Jeffrey Kahn's Mrs. Shipley's Ghost: The Right to Travel and Terrorist Watchlists (Michigan, 2013), which traces the pre-history of today's "no-fly lists" through the story of the woman who developed America's first comprehensive travel watchlists in the mid-twentieth century.
Learn more about Disciplining Terror at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue