12/10/2005 12:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pop Torture

"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.