Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Chuck Kleinhans: Imagining Torture

Imagining torture
by Chuck Kleinhans
Jump Cut

Most of us don’t know torture, either as victim or perpetrator. We haven’t experienced it. We can only imagine it. We imagine it in terms of extreme pain we have felt, the feeling of panic and loss, violation of our body, perhaps in a accident or illness. But even then we don’t have the experience of being a prisoner, of being totally helpless. Therefore we have to imagine torture from descriptive sources such as news or, more likely, from fictions, particularly its representation in popular film and on TV.

In this essay I want to survey the fundamental political facts of torture in the present moment in U.S. history and then provide a brief introduction to the visual imagination of torture in moving image media. Other articles in this issue of Jump Cut also discuss torture: Julia Lesage’s analyses of recent documentaries on U.S. CIA and military torture of prisoners taken in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Martha Rosler’s reconsideration of her pioneering video, A Simple Case for Torture. But the fundamental issues also cross over into the sections in this issue on porn and on horror. The human body, on display, in extreme sensory states, in danger, in degradation, in humiliation: these conditions overlap, as with a Venn diagram overlapping sex, horror, and violence. Considering these connections in a fast-changing current political and media moment is an urgent task now and in the near future.
One: torture and the national imagination

As the United States moved to the November 2008 Presidential election, other issues took the lead: the national domestic economy; the financial sector meltdown; the increasing housing crisis; the high cost of transportation, energy, healthcare, and food; the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so forth. In that frame, torture was not a front burner issue. As the election season narrowed the range of topics in public discussion and concentrated attention on individual candidates rather than offered any systematic analysis, torture appeared to disappear as an issue. But, we would argue, it is also deeply present in U.S. life and also deeply repressed. America is in denial about torture. First, it is a troubling topic. Deaths in combat are an uncomfortable topic, but understandable. Soldiers become casualties and kill others — combatants and civilians.

But torture suddenly became one of the central issues in the Obama era, in part because of how the President chose to play out the choices: close Guantanamo; do not prosecute CIA agents involved in torture; do not pursue the war crimes of the previous administration; continue the imprisonment by moving prisoners to other sites; restore military tribunals. At the same time, those who want to hold the Bush-Cheney administration responsible have found a fulcrum point in the torture issue. Even more invitingly, Dick Cheney has become increasingly defensive and open, calling for release of classified documents to “prove” torture was effective and thus that he was right. Even the normally circumspect Condoleezza Rice has made public defenses of her past actions. And the right wing media amplifiers have blustered on, with TV talk show host Sean Hannity even offering to be waterboarded to prove it wasn’t really torture, and then chickening out when challenged to do so.

Torture in custody always involves premeditation and planning. It is hard to talk about, to recognize, to face up to. The examples that come forward, such as the Abu Ghraib photos, or reports that the United States took children as hostages and terrorized them to get information about the whereabouts of their father, are disturbing. But we would argue that issue is really always present but repressed. The trace of denial can be seen in media representations, and covers not only documentaries, but also dramatic feature films about the war, and entertainment films and TV shows that touch on the subject.

Torture is part of the contemporary national imagination. In summer 2007 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, at a Canadian meeting of international jurists, indicated he was a big fan of the TV drama 24.

"'Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,' Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent's rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand. 'Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?' Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. 'Say that criminal law is against him? 'You have the right to a jury trial?' Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so. …'"

"During a break from the panel, Judge Scalia specifically mentioned the segment in Season 2 … 'There's a great scene where he told a guy that he was going to have his family killed,' Judge Scalia said. 'They had it on closed circuit television - and it was all staged. ... They really didn't kill the family.'"[1][open endnotes in new window]

Following the 9/11 attack, the war in Afghanistan, and the subsequent capture of Al-Qaeda suspects (and more, later in Iraq), the White House National Security Council’s Principals Committee met regularly to advise President Bush on the prisoners (euphemistically called in Bushspeak “detainees,” as if they were just being politely asked to wait a little while until another flight). Chaired by then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the group included Vice President Dick Chaney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA director George Tenet, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, or their principal deputies. They discussed and approved specific details of how Al-Qaeda prisoners would be interrogated. They approved combining techniques including slapping, pushing, slamming heads into walls, sleep deprivation, stress positions, loud music, and waterboarding.

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