Torture Fatigue

Silja J.A. Talvi

The Chris­t­ian in me says it’s wrong,” Army Spe­cial­ist Charles A. Graner Jr. said of tor­tur­ing pris­on­ers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the cor­rec­tions offi­cer in me says I love to make a grown man piss himself.”

Pho­tos tak­en of him demean­ing cap­tives at Abu Ghraib exposed Graner as the sadist that his sur­round­ings allowed him to be. But are the dif­fer­ences between bru­tal cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers like Graner and oth­er Amer­i­cans as stark as we would like to think?

An acquain­tance of mine recent­ly admit­ted how much he enjoyed watch­ing the tor­ture scenes in the new block­buster, Sin City. I know it’s strange,” he said, but there’s some­thing I get out of see­ing tor­ture and vio­lence like that on the screen. It’s like it’s some kind of release.”

He is not alone. Slates David Edel­stein enthused that the film boast­ed the most relent­less dis­play of tor­ture and sadism I’ve encoun­tered in a main­stream movie. My reac­tion to Sin City is eas­i­ly stat­ed. I loved it. Or, to put it anoth­er way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gor­geous sick dis­gust­ing rav­ish­ing over­baked blood-spurt­ing arti­fi­cial frame of it. … It seems point­less to tut-tut over the deprav­i­ty. Sin City is like a must-have cof­fee-table book for your inte­ri­or tor­ture chamber.”

That inte­ri­or tor­ture cham­ber is more vis­i­ble in pop­u­lar cul­ture than ever before. One of the nation’s most pop­u­lar net­work tele­vi­sion shows, 24,” opened its sea­son finale with an over-the-top tor­ture scene of a man, forcibly strapped down to a chair, being shocked repeat­ed­ly with volts of elec­tric­i­ty, scream­ing and cry­ing out in sheer agony. The scene was so atten­tion-grab­bing that it end­ed up being fea­tured as one of the week’s top events on VH1’s Best Week Ever.” Tor­ture pops up every­where these days, even on the lat­est T‑Mobile com­mer­cial, which fea­tures a young, black man tied down to a chair, scream­ing in an inter­ro­ga­tion-style room as he’s tor­tured by hav­ing his phone bill run up. At the end of the com­mer­cial, a smil­ing Cather­ine Zeta-Jones deliv­ers her pitch as he stum­bles around the store, still bound to the chair. 

What accounts for the preva­lence and pop­u­lar­i­ty of these scenes of tor­ture and mis­ery? Could these media images be serv­ing as a form of mis­placed cathar­tic release to ease our social con­science, a bizarre way of pro­cess­ing and desen­si­tiz­ing our­selves to real life torture?

Con­sid­er that only one-third of Amer­i­cans ques­tioned in a Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News poll last May defined what hap­pened at Abu Ghraib as tor­ture.” Half of those polled believed that such acts of bru­tal­i­ty were tak­ing place as a mat­ter of pol­i­cy in the war on terrorism.”

Our leg­is­la­tors are no bet­ter in this regard. With the notable excep­tion of indi­vid­u­als like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D‑Vt.), con­gres­sion­al vows to find out who was respon­si­ble for the Abu Ghraib scan­dal ebbed after the pros­e­cu­tion of a few low-lev­el rank­ing offi­cers, a few fines and the issuance of a sin­gle demotion.

In an exhaus­tive May 2005 Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al report, Guan­tá­namo and beyond: the con­tin­u­ing pur­suit of unchecked exec­u­tive pow­er,” the run­ning count of deten­tions in the glob­al war on ter­ror stands, at least, at 70,000 peo­ple, includ­ing the known deaths of 27 indi­vid­u­als in U.S. cus­tody since 2002. To take but one exam­ple, con­sid­er this June 2004 account of Mar­tin Muban­ga, a British cit­i­zen who was kid­napped by U.S. Forces in Zam­bia and even­tu­al­ly brought to Guantánamo:

I need­ed the toi­let and I asked the inter­roga­tor to let me go. But he just said you’ll go when I say so.” I told him he had five min­utes to get me to the toi­let or I was going to go on the floor. He left the room. Final­ly, I squirmed across the floor and did it in the cor­ner, try­ing to min­i­mize the mess … He comes back with a mop and dips it in the pool of urine. Then he starts cov­er­ing me with my own waste, like he’s using a big paint-brush, work­ing method­i­cal­ly, begin­ning with my feet and ankles, and work­ing his way up my legs. All the while, he’s racial­ly abus­ing me, cussing me: Oh, the poor lit­tle negro, the poor lit­tle nig­ger.” He seemed to think it was funny. 

What such sys­temic bru­tal­i­ty means, on some lev­el, is that Amer­i­cans bear col­lec­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty for the dam­age our gov­ern­ment has done. That’s not an easy thing to con­tem­plate. But the pub­lic won’t find any such admis­sion rep­re­sent­ed on the pages of our com­mer­cial news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. Instead we see out­rage and com­pas­sion about things that we’re not respon­si­ble for, the deaths of Ter­ri Schi­a­vo and the Pope, for instance, or the toll of the tsunami.

At the recent Nation­al Con­fer­ence for Media Reform, author Nao­mi Klein spoke of these media-man­aged, rit­u­al­ized, col­lec­tive mourn­ing moments” that serve as com­pas­sion release valves.”

We have moments where all that pent up com­pas­sion is allowed to release, and you are allowed to care [and have] spasms of out­rage and com­pas­sion,” Klein said.

Such large-scale, media-fren­zied, com­pas­sion-release-valve mech­a­nisms are impor­tant, she added, because the feel­ing of being out­raged alone is the feel­ing of being crazy.”

Could it be that Amer­i­cans are sub­con­scious­ly try­ing to stay sane by desen­si­tiz­ing them­selves and find­ing cathar­tic release in end­less media depic­tions of tor­ture and bru­tal­i­ty? The U.S. mil­i­tary death toll now nears 2,000 men and women, in addi­tion to the count­less thou­sands of Iraqis and Afgha­nis who have died. Who among us tru­ly wants to face the emo­tion­al impact of what we’ve done?

I asked clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Bruce Levine, the author of Com­mon­sense Rebel­lion, what he thought of all of this. When you become dis­con­nect­ed from your own alien­ation [from soci­ety], you become cut off from your human­i­ty,” he told me. You become numb to all kinds of atrocities.”

A cru­cial mech­a­nism of that numb­ing process where real-life tor­ture is con­cerned seems to revolve around the abil­i­ty to release pri­mal reac­tions (ter­ror, fear and out­rage, for instance) in both a social­ly con­doned and polit­i­cal­ly non-threat­en­ing way. Gorg­ing on the bar­rage of fic­tion­al­ized tor­ture imagery has become the eas­i­est and most acces­si­ble way for Amer­i­can cit­i­zens to do this with the least pos­si­ble dis­com­fort. Whether con­scious­ly or sub­con­scious­ly, the writ­ers and pro­duc­ers of tor­ture-sat­u­rat­ed media play a cru­cial role in this process, feed­ing and fuel­ing this per­verse and deeply root­ed pathology.

These media-pro­duced, san­i­tized blood­sports have become a thick ban­dage affixed over the deep and ugly gash of human suf­fer­ing and cru­el­ty. But that ban­dage can only stay in place for so long before it begins to rot away.

Real heal­ing and emo­tion­al cathar­sis would actu­al­ly require gen­uine dis­com­fort, dis­course and repa­ra­tion. It would neces­si­tate an admis­sion of our col­lec­tive cul­pa­bil­i­ty for the emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal dam­age inflict­ed by our gov­ern­ment, whether on the streets of Bagh­dad, or in the inter­ro­ga­tion rooms of Abu Ghraib and Guan­tá­namo Bay.

With­out such reflec­tion, we’re head­ed for our own true-to-life Sin City, a ver­i­ta­ble car­ni­val of blood­sport, tor­ture and mis­ery for all.

Sil­ja J.A. Talvi, a senior edi­tor at In These Times, is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and essay­ist with cred­its in many dozens of news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines nation­wide, includ­ing The Nation, Salon, San­ta Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Monitor.
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