Why do we torture? It’s not to get information, as the Senate report into “harsh” interrogation makes clear. Naomi Klein writes that “torture’s true purpose” was “to terrorize—not only the people in Guantánamo’s cages and Syria’s isolation cells but also, and more importantly, the broader community that hears about these abuses. Torture is a machine designed to break the will to resist—the individual prisoner’s will and the collective will.” Klein’s point is backed up by the torturers themselves, including one of those psychologists contracted to design the program, Bruce Jessen, who said that the real reason for torture was to “exploit” the detainees, to force them to “collaborate” and comply.
Klein (and Jessen) is obviously right. But something else is also going on: the pain, humiliation and death inflicted by the United States after 9/11 has, in a way, nothing to do with those it was inflicted on and everything to do with those doing the inflicting—along with that growing portion of the electorate that supports them, that wants to torture not on instrumental grounds (to extract information) but simply wants to torture. In this sense, Dick Cheney’s infamous appearance last weekend on Meet the Press was one long whistle to the “Torture Party.” “This is why I don’t give a shit how we gathered information from terrorists” is a sentiment widely circulated on Twitter and FB, attached to various images related to 9/11.
In 2011, Pew asked people to complete the following sentence: “Torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists can be justified…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. The poll revealed that “a substantial majority of Republicans (71%) say torture can be at least sometimes justified, compared with 51% of independents and 45% of Democrats.” More recently, a Washington Post/ABC survey found that “by a margin of almost 2 to 1—59 percent to 31 percent—those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.” And a CBS poll says more and more people are willing to describe waterboarding as torture (nearly 70 percent) while a majority (57 percent) “think that such interrogation tactics provide reliable information that helps prevent terrorist attacks at least some of the time.”
But by framing the question in terms of effectiveness, these polls dodge the main issue. To really take the nation’s temperature, one would have to poll on the following: “Torture is justified to exact revenge…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I will only vote for politicians who support shoving food up our prisoner’s rectums…” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I believe it is acceptable to sodomize young children in front of their Muslim mothers and video-tape their terror.” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know. “I support political leaders who ‘seem unfazed’ by reports that a man not involved in terrorist acts was ‘chained to the wall of a cell, doused with water, froze to death in CIA custody.’ ” Often. Sometimes. Rarely. Never. Don’t know.
Then Pew could do some cross-tabs, correlating the findings to attitudes on immigration, police violence, the state-sanctioned murder of blacks and Latinos, public education and healthcare. What you would get would be a pretty clear outline of the slaver-settler-colonial voting bloc.
Years ago, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin argued that racism was the missing link binding the secrecy and spectacle of the national-security state together. Those two qualities—secrecy and spectacle, the covert and the overt—might seem antithetical but they actually comprise a unified form of modern imperial power. It’s not concealment that the imperial presidency requires to function. It is rather, Rogin said, “political amnesia,” and that amnesia is created not in the shadows but on the stage, in the kind of theater we are seeing now revolving around the question of torture.
Think about it. Since Vietnam, the United States has perfected a form of amnesia-producing pomp unique to itself: the official congressional investigation into covert ops. The Church Committee inaugurated what turned out to be a perpetual pageant: from Pike to Rockefeller, Fulbright to Kerry to now Feingold, and all the too-many-to-count investigations between. Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, the National Security Archive and tell-all books by apostate agents like Philip Agee add to the mountain of information. The safe is thrown open and the “family jewels” of clandestine activity have been cast to the public: fact upon top-secret fact, witness upon witness, figures and declassified documents—the Pentagon Papers ad infinitum.
Some of the information gathered remains secret, including the bulk of the torture report and apparently the “worst” of the Abu Ghraib images, including video tapes of young children being raped. But, really, what don’t we know? Certainly the fact that we had been torturing people—and training our allies to torture people—long before 9/11 was known to anyone who wanted to know.
One way amnesia is produced, according to Rogin, has to do with the triviality and vicariousness of the hearings: “spectacle is the cultural form for amnesiac representation, for specular displays are superficially and sensately intensified, short lived and repeatable”—the endless regression of the congressional investigation embodies the soft pleasures of contemporary visual entertainment. Amnesia is also created through the reduction of the crime of war to a procedural question or a domestic drama between two political parties: one party executes, the other explicates (Rogin was writing in the wake of Iran/Contra [which involved considerable amounts of torture] and this clip of Senator George Mitchell questioning Oliver North beautifully illustrates what he was getting at: Mitchell represents the logorrhea of the decomposing New Deal coalition; he immediately concedes the argument—there is “no disagreement,” he says, about the need to contain the Sandinistas—but can’t stop talking. North wins without saying a word. Really, if one had to choose a single semiotic text that captures the decline of the New Deal and the rise of the New Right, this seven-minute, fifty-three-second video is it).
What is displaced in “imperial spectacle is the historical content of American demonology,” which for Rogin is the history of settler-slaver racism: “The American empire started at home; what was foreign was made domestic by expansion across the continent by the subjugation, dispossession, and extermination of Indian tribes.… The American colonies, after experimenting with Indian workers, enslaved Africans instead. The United States was built on the land and with the labor of peoples of color.… American political culture came into being by defining itself in racialist terms.… categories that originated in racial opposition were also imposed on political opponents, creating an American political demonology.”
The specific racial content of that demonology, Rogin said, was muted through “good” and “cold” wars fought in the name of freedom, subsumed into a nominally deracinated, secular ideology of national security. But racial demonology could never be completely extirpated because racial violence doesn’t just negatively define American nationalism (that is, what America isn’t). Race terror also positively defines American nationalism (what it is): more than a century of racialized torture—in the form of slavery, genocide and land dispossession—“created a distinctive American political culture” linking “freedom to expansion in nature rather than to social solidarity.”
In other words, the individual supremacy that defines so much of American Exceptionalism is white supremacy. Cheney’s appearance on Meet the Press is a near-perfect exposition of the historical logic behind such an equation: decades of torturing others granted Americans an exceptional privilege. Americans can only be tortured. They can never actually torture—even when they are actually, by definition, torturing. It might be the most honest thing Cheney has ever said.
I have a sense we have reached some kind of turning point. Not too long ago, at the height of their world power, Americans defined themselves, in the classic description of Graham Greene, as “untorturable.” Surely it means something that Cheney has flipped the definition and is now defining Americans as the only people in the world worthy enough to be “torturable.” “I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture,” Cheney said. “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” There is, he said, “no comparison” between anything the United States does and that.
There are many different “spectacles” attached to American torture. There’s the act and the circulated electronic images of the act. Here’s Seymour Hersh in 2004, referring to a video that as far as I know hasn’t yet surfaced: “This is at Abu Ghraib.… The women were passing messages out saying ‘Please come and kill me, because of what’s happened’ and basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children in cases that have been recorded. The boys were sodomized with the cameras rolling. And the worst above all of that is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking.”
There’s the spectacle of the media, as Dan Froomkin at The Intercept points out, turning the Feinstein report into an opportunity for “revisiting a debate” and “splitting the difference between the facts and the plainly specious, morally defective arguments led by Dick Cheney.”
And there’s the spectacle of the open defense of torture, not as effective but as righteous because we are righteous. Many of these defenders don’t even bother to hide their racist revanchism, much less transform it into political amnesia. Rogin’s formulation—in which imperial spectacle conceals the nation’s racial demonology “from contemporary eyes” by hiding it “in plain sight”—no longer holds. The transformation of a good part of the white electorate into an aggrieved class (whereby they perceive themselves not as “untorturable” but the only ones moral enough to be “torturable”) has let loose the furies.
The historical subconscious is not percolating to the surface but bursting forth like a geyser. This is “how we baptize terrorists,” says Sarah Palin of waterboarding. The remark directly links American torture back to the race slavery established with the conquest of the Americas, to the forced collective baptisms performed on enslaved peoples before leaving Africa, where sailors would push the heads of captured Africans into pots of water as priests chanted Latin prayers. Sometimes the enslaved were baptized and branded in the same ceremony.