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Pop Torture

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"It is not accidental that in the torturers' idiom the room in which the brutality occurs was called the 'production room' in the Philippines, the 'cinema room' in South Vietnam, and the 'blue lit stage' in Chile...having as its purpose the production of a fantastic illusion of power, torture is a grotesque piece of compensatory drama."    --Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain

About the Author

Richard Kim
Richard Kim
Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times...

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In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal the right wing was quick to blame the incident on two of its favorite bogeymen--popular culture and pornography. According to Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Abu Ghraib is what happens when you "mix young people who grew up on a steady diet of MTV and pornography with a prison environment." Jan LaRue of Concerned Women of America spent the day Googling and watching "rape porn," "military porn," "torture porn" and "prison porn" and concluded that "the photos coming out of Abu Ghraib" were "very similar to a genre of deviant and violent pornography." Citing the thrilling sadism of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill as well as the "$10 billion-a-year" porn industry, National Review's Rich Lowry argued that Abu Ghraib demonstrates the "seamy undercurrents" of American culture.

Those steeped in the culture wars will find these arguments all too familiar: Blame pornography for rape, pin Columbine on video games, hold gangsta rap responsible for drive-by shootings. As liberal critics like Frank Rich pointed out, this latest right-wing jeremiad was a political strategy designed to "clear the Bush administration of any culpability for Abu Ghraib." Since you can't very well prosecute AOL TimeWarner or Larry Flynt, you might as well pin it on a few "bad apples" dimwitted enough to copy what they see on the boob tube.

But if the right wing's cultural theory of torture is simplistic and politically calculated, it also contains a grain of truth, for popular culture and torture have a long and intimate history. Not only is torture one of film and television's favorite themes--appearing with frequency in crime dramas (Law & Order, NYPD Blue), spy thrillers (24, Alias) and movies ranging from the Vietnam War revenge fantasy Rambo to the decadently amoral Sin City to the grotesque Christian hit The Passion of the Christ--culture has functioned as an idiom in which torture is approved, justified and absolved. To recognize this point is not to let the Bush Administration or military command off the hook; first and foremost, torture is a state policy. Nonetheless, paying attention to cultural representations of torture may cast light on why Americans are so seemingly nonchalant about torture's prevalence in the "war on terror." It may also help us understand why torture, or its euphemism "prisoner abuse," took the particular form it did at Abu Ghraib--at once shocking in its dehumanizing effect and banal in its gleeful sadism.

In the most basic way, popular culture rationalizes torture as necessary to preserve not just US national security but law, authority and agency in general; it is a fantasy of absolute power. On cop shows like CSI, NYPD Blue and Law & Order, detectives regularly torture suspects in order to quickly obtain some lifesaving information. That they do so without hesitation is usually a sign of their competence. In the BBC film Dirty War (rebroadcast on HBO), the chief interrogator waterboards a terrorist in order to prevent the explosion of a second dirty bomb in central London.

This tendency is epitomized by the first few seasons of Fox's hit series 24. Taking place in "real time," the show follows a day in the life of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland). Thuggish, relentless, decisive and supremely capable, Bauer is one of those guys idealized by one real-life terrorism expert when he said to the Washington Post, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job." Jack Bauer always gets the job done, and he certainly doesn't let annoying bureaucratic rules like the Geneva Conventions get in the way. Bauer can't be constrained by the law; he is the law. In the first three seasons of 24, Bauer almost single-handedly foils the assassination of a Democratic presidential candidate, the detonation of a nuclear bomb in downtown Los Angeles and a massive biological terrorist attack. Along the way he shoots kneecaps, breaks fingers, kills his boss, chops off his partner's hand, electroshocks enemies, withholds heart medication, threatens "Russian gulag towel torture" and fakes the murder of a suspect's child on live video feed. All the while, a digital clock counts down the hours, minutes and seconds of the day, and since this is cliffhanger TV, Jack's above-the-law methods always work, but usually with only seconds to spare.

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