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Norm regress : American revisionism and the slow death of the torture norm McKeown, Ryder Luke Wilson


This thesis examines the status of the legal and moral norm against torture within post-9/11 America in an effort to determine how one of the strongest international norms came to be significantly weakened by its most important proponent, and ascertain what this means for the status of the norm internationally. I argue that key members of the Bush administration should be considered norm revisionists who have actively sought to reshape America's interpretation of its obligations in regards to the norm through discourse and policy that frames torture as a necessary tool in the War on Terror. The net result of this revisionism has been the normalization of torture within the United States - where torture has now been widely accepted as a useful, necessary and acceptable weapon to use against America's enemies - which I argue represents a crisis of legitimacy in the norm within that country. That such normative backsliding could occur in a country with a long history of constitutionalism and the rule of law suggests that the moral norms many take for granted may prove shallow and fleeting; norm regress will occur if these norms are not protected. In this regard, I offer a theoretical model to chart this normative regression, and in doing so make a contribution to the constructivist international relations literature which has hitherto concerned itself only with questions of normative progress at the expense of recognizing the potential for the decay of these internalized norms. I argue that while there remains a high level of acceptance worldwide that the norm against torture is right, any future incidences of torture by liberal states may well bring about a crisis of legitimacy in the international norm itself. This realization should encourage all who care about such norms to defend them against revisionism.

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