"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
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.
If this is beginning to ring a bell, it's because 24's absurd plot and gimmicky premise indulge the "ticking bomb" scenario so commonly invoked by apologists for real-life torture. When Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz risibly proposed that judges ought to issue torture warrants in the "rare 'ticking bomb' case" (which, as even he admits, has never occurred in the United States), he might as well have been scripting 24's next season. It's not just Dershowitz. Taking a page from so many James Bond scripts, University of Chicago law professor and federal judge Richard Posner writes, "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used." He further argues that "no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility." Since this philosopher's dilemma is streamlined to resemble film treatments, there's no messy reality to deal with, no shaky evidence, no fallibility. The problem with this scenario is not just that it starts down a slippery slope but that it allows a plot dreamed up by Hollywood to determine the limits of moral authority. As a flight of fancy, the ticking-bomb story tells us nothing about torture's actual application and everything about how we would like law enforcement to behave in a state of emergency in which the stakes are dire, the information perfect and the authorities omniscient. That is, we want our guardians to be like Jack Bauer. Unfettered by law, unhampered by civilian ethics, Jack Bauer is awake while the world sleeps, protecting us. For him (and for the hypothetical agent in the philosopher's dilemma) torture is more than just a technique of interrogation. It is the very badge of power.
If the first three seasons of 24 stage torture as a kind of necessary evil and mark of resolve, then the fourth and latest season veers toward a different cultural logic of torture. Not only is there a lot more of it–happening in so many episodes that it loses its shock value–it is also utterly collapsed into the secondary genre of the show, the family or workplace melodrama. In this season, torture plays itself out as a kind of surrogate love scene or family feud, taking place not just between agents and suspects but between family members, co-workers and rivals in a love triangle. When terrorists kidnap Defense Secretary James Heller, CTU agents suspect his lefty, Michael Moore-watching, environmentalist son Richard as part of the plot. Using sensory deprivation and drugs, they interrogate him. Though he screams in agony, he confesses nothing. When Heller is freed, rather than punish his men for torturing his own son, Dad orders another round because he intuits that Richard is still hiding something. Later in the day, after a third round of interrogation at the hands of his sister and father, Richard finally reveals what he's been concealing all along. He's gay! (OK, so he had sex with a terrorist, too; we all make bad choices sometimes.)
Secretary Heller is also the father of Jack's current lover, Audrey (Richard's sister). When Jack discovers that Audrey's estranged husband, Paul, is connected to the terrorist plot, he shocks Paul with a lamp cord while she watches. Miraculously, only moments after he's been tortured, Paul teams up with Jack to foil the meltdown of nuclear reactors across the country; he even takes a bullet for him. It's only later in the day, when Jack causes Paul's death by denying him medical treatment, that Audrey realizes her new love might not be such a good guy and promptly dumps him. In casting torture as melodrama, 24 reverses the dehumanizing mode of actual torture and replaces it with something familial and social. So blasé are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it. Less focused on torture's instrumentality, the narrative upshot of torture in this rendition of 24 is that it troubles, deepens and ultimately clarifies personal relationships. In this instance, popular culture construes torture as a humanizing social ritual enmeshed not in war and violence but in the drama of family and love life.
Even a show such as the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, which takes a decidedly anti-torture tone, plays torture as intimacy. In one episode, a particularly sadistic crew rape and torture a captured enemy agent until she's reduced to a catatonic state. (She also happens to be a humanoid robot posing as a gorgeous blonde lingerie model.) Playing good cop to their bad, the ship's resident scientist, Dr. Baltar, feeds and heals her in order to assure her cooperation. Since she's the identical clone of his former lover, he tearfully confesses while doing so that he really did love her all along. As absurd as it may seem, this particular fantasy of torture has its cognate in the actual "war on terror." In response to accusations of torture at Guantánamo Bay (including religious and sexual abuse and the denial of medical care), Col. Mike Bumgarner, the commander of the military unit that oversees the daily handling of detainees, told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, "We have to be like the parents here. In loco parentis. That's how we look at it. It's like a big family."
Following the Abu Ghraib scandal, Rush Limbaugh defended the troops' "emotional release" as just a harmless "good time" that was "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation." In his independent report, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger characterized Abu Ghraib as "'Animal House' on the night shift." Abu Ghraib was, of course, no Skull and Bones tomb or National Lampoon's production. Beyond essentially exonerating military command, such analogies ignore the nonconsensual nature of torture and neatly invert its dehumanizing process. In doing so, apologists exploit the uncanny resemblance between torture and intimacy. When one consents to participate in or witness ritualized violence–whether in the bedroom or on the playing field–one expects to emerge from it more fully human, to have one's desires recognized and fulfilled or to become a big man on campus. Despite their patina of cruelty, such scenes are intended to socialize, to connect the individual to a larger public body. In contrast, in her brilliant book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry notes how real-life torture converts the mundane, pleasurable and intimate into sources of terror and isolation. Voices and pictures of loved ones are used to break victims' psyches. Everyday objects like telephones, bathtubs, beds, soda bottles and refrigerators become instruments of violence. Normally nourishing actions like drinking water or eating are forcibly repeated until even the most quintessentially intimate object, one's own body, is made a foundation of agony. This dimension of torture–the transformation of the familiar and human into the grotesque and inhuman–is obscured when ritualized social violence and intimacy are conflated with actual torture.
Popular culture can aid and abet this mystification of torture, its transformation into scenes of righteous agency or scenes of intimacy. But because cultural representations of torture are hyperbolic and surreal, they can also help reveal how specious the rationalization and justification of actual torture really is. Watching television momentarily transports us through the looking glass into a warped, alternate reality; the Bush Administration would have us live there.