Crimes of Power & States of Impunity: The U.S. Response to Terror

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Summary || Table of Contents || Reviews

Welch, Michael (2009) Crimes of Power & States of Impunity: The U.S. Response to Terror.. New Brunswick, New Jersey & London: Rutgers University Press.

Since 9/11, a new configuration of power situated at the core of the executive branch of the U.S. government has taken hold. In Crimes of Power & States of Impunity, Michael Welch takes a close look at the key historical, political, and economic forces shaping the country's response to terror.

Welch continues the work he began in Scapegoats of September 11th and argues that current U.S. policies, many enacted after the attacks, undermine basic human rights and violate domestic and international law. He recounts these offenses and analyzes the system that sanctions them, offering fresh insight into the complex relationship between power and state crime. Welch critically examines the unlawful enemy combatant designation, Guantanamo Bay, recent torture cases, and collateral damage relating to the war in Iraq. This book transcends important legal arguments as Welch strives for a broader sociological interpretation of what transpired early this century, analyzing the abuses of power that jeopardize our safety and security.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A Post-9/11 World
Chapter 2: A New Configuration of Power
Chapter 3: Unlawful Enemy Combatants
Chapter 4: Guantánamo Bay
Chapter 5: Torture
Chapter 6: Ordering Iraq
Chapter 7: Collateral Damage
Chapter 8: Governing through Terror
Chapter 9: States of Impunity


"Michael Welch was one of the first scholars to grasp the enormity of the implications for law and international relations of the American response to the attacks of September 11th. This volume offers a critical and disturbing insight into the ways in which our world has changed irrevocably since those attacks."
--Conor Gearty, London School of Economics

"Building upon the work of Foucault and his philosophical heirs, Welch presents a reasoned, sober and provocative analysis of the US governmentís abuses of power during the war on terror. Relying on careful depictions of the way in which security trumped criminal justice and government by terror replaced government by law, Welch adapts traditional theories of power, punishment and sovereignty to address Guantanamo, torture, and the war in Iraq, creating a searing portrait of the costs of these recent crimes of power and their claim to impunity."
--Karen Greenberg, Executive Director, Center on Law and Security, New York University School of Law

"A valuable, at times gripping, account and analysis of the crimes committed by various US government agencies and officers in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy."
--David Kauzlarich, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Recently, the sport of boxing, with its careful and measured precision, has been overshadowed by extreme or ultimate fighting where opponents engage in all-out brawls. In much the same way, Michael Welch’s opening pages in Crimes of Power & States of Impunity: U.S. Response to Terror deliver powerful knockout blows in the no-holds barred fashion. His bullet points effectively combine to create a post-9/11 world that is equally ambitious and radical as it alters long-standing principles of American justice, international affairs, and serves as an example of elite criminality.

Upon establishing the facts, Welch quickly switches to a more nuanced form of writing, which befits his ability as author of six prior books. The strength of the book is its sociological interpretation of the post-9/11 events thus providing a broader view as opposed to a strictly legal or justice analysis which fails to capture the scope of these policies. Welch presents the material in four parts with the longest devoted to the exploration of unlawful enemy combatants, Guantanamo Bay, and torture in Part II.

In Part I, Welch establishes the post-9/11 world realities and provides an overview of elite crime including its historical development within the critical criminology field. The new power configuration highlights how fear of terrorism opened the door for the creation of a counter-law system in which Constitutional rights are suspended. While the counter law system has the claim of protecting citizens, it overreaches into sovereign impunity which has an inherent lack of accountability and erases all avenues for victims. In the next section, a detailed analysis of unlawful enemy combatants, Guantanamo Bay, and torture is conducted to show how these three prime areas that have widely defined America’s post-9/11 policies create a state of sovereign impunity. A chapter is devoted to each example and Welch effectively uses a powerful combination of historical facts, political events, landmark court rulings, current theory such as risk-management and the ideas and writings of Foucault in support of his premise.

In Part III, Expanding the Range, Welch delves into the Iraq War and its post-war ordering and nation building to show how these efforts re-enforce the state of impunity through its lack of oversight of money, no-bid contracts and executive orders. The saddest reality of the Iraq War is the death toll of soldiers and civilians. Welch advances the work of collateral damage by not only examining the War’s death toll, but also how refugees are flooding into other neighboring countries.

The final two chapters comprise the last section of the book appropriately entitled Lasting Legacies. The role of fear is explored as it relates to the new governing structure and patterns post-9/11. This section does a superb job at explaining the cultural forces that interplay with the governing structures thus permitting documented human rights violations by U.S. officials without the call for justice by the general public.

While this book is not Welch’s first work on the subject of September 11 (his first book is titled Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate Crimes and State Crimes in the War on Terror), this work can stand alone and serve as a succinct yet thorough review of America’s response to terror. The book is written in an engaging fashion with extensive citations that effectively explains the rudimentary elements of elite crime and state crime before advancing both with his original analysis and ideas. Using this book in an undergraduate or graduate criminal justice classroom would elevate and broaden the average student’s mindset to include human rights, state crime and its impunity, and elite criminology.

The corporatization of the war resulted in Americans dutifully supporting it much like a product such as a soda or pair of sneakers while any dissension was categorized as anti- American. The challenge remains of making the ideas and thoughts expressed by Welch apart of the mainstream conversation on America’s response to 9/11 even as public support has evaporated.

In the preface, Welch explains how he researched for this book while in England. Coincidentally, I read the book in Cambridge, England. During my trip, I had a difficult time explaining how and why Americans did not protest the Iraq War and other anti-terror policies and government actions as much as they did President Obama’s healthcare initiative. If only I completed Welch’s book before my trip, I would have been better equipped for such a challenge.
-- Robert Costello, Critical Criminology, 2010