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Torture - fiction and reality

by the stormy present Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 08:39:02 AM EST

If it's on TV, then it must be true, right?

MillMan pointed this article out in the Salon:

Jack Bauer, the fictional federal agent in the hit American TV show "24," gets what he wants--and does whatever it takes to get it. Whether he must beat, suffocate, electrocute, drug or engage in psychological abuse, he will unravel whatever terror plot imperils the United States. He's even used torture on his own brother. Less well known, however, is how TV series like these have captured the imagination of American soldiers in Iraq.

According to the New York-based group Human Rights First, the vivid depiction of these tactics in primetime shows like "24" are influencing U.S. troops abroad -- and presenting a major challenge for military training academies. "It's become clear that this show has unintended consequences in that it informs young soldiers about these techniques, and it gives the false impression that they work," says David Danzig, a torture expert at the nonprofit organization, which has just launched a campaign called Primetime Torture to change the way abusive interrogation tactics are shown on TV. "That's a real problem because there are young soldiers out in the field who are imitating this stuff."


Hollywood wants you to think torture's OK?

It's not.

I was just yesterday having an e-conversation with a friend about 24.  She's a lefty American who's lived overseas for years, in Africa and southern Europe, and she only recently discovered the show.  She's in the process of watching the whole first season back-to-back on DVD, and has already lined up the rest of the series to watch after that.  "I'm addicted," she told me.

Gaaah, I said.  It's Alberto Gonzales TV!  Torture is good, it works!  Torture can save the world from certain destruction!

That was the second conversation I'd had in the last week about this television show.  People who really ought to know better, who ought to recognize this for what it is, just seem totally oblivious.  I've, honestly, been somewhat dismayed.

The Newsweek article points toward this organization, which gives us this handy little graph, and I know how y'all like graphs...

Oh, thanks, Hollywood.  How helpful.

Human Rights First is working to retrain both soldiers and Hollywood.  Good luck to them.  Hurry, guys.

Let's just put this out there:  I have known people who have been tortured.  Feet beaten, neck broken, sodomized, skin burned with cigarettes, back laced with red welts, eyes swollen shut so tightly they cannot see.  They have sat across from me at the dinner table, been guests at my New Year's Eve parties, seemed for all the world like everyone else.  Some of their lingering scars are physical, some of them, but physical wounds can mostly be recovered from.  The invisible injuries, invisible to you and me at least, are so much more persistent.  They can leave the cells and camps where they were tortured, but they cannot forget.

Torture is not entertaining.

Don't take my word for it.  Others speak to this more eloquently than I ever could.  Listen to Ariel Dorfman or Tahar Ben Jelloun.

You may be familiar with Dorfman's play-turned-movie, Death and the Maiden.  If not, see it.  If so, see it again.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post (which I've previously diaried here), Dorfman explained where he came to this from:

It still haunts me, the first time -- it was in Chile, in October of 1973 -- that I met someone who had been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that had toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.

That is what stays with me -- that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell in the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

If the plight of the victims of torture is not enough to move the troops and the Hollywood moguls, perhaps this account, also in the Post, might get to them.  It was written by Eric Fair, a former civilian interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison.

A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

The tormenter's torment, if you will.

I had to supress my initial urge to shout nasty things at my computer screen when I first read Fair's article.  (Fair! what a name for a torturer!)  Given the agony "his" detainees undoubtedly still endure, it is hard to summon up sympathy for their tormentor.

Fair is not terribly charitable to himself, either...

I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

... and I swallowed my initial indignation ("Well, good!  I won't forgive you either!") because I do think it's important that voices like his be heard.

Torture.  It doesn't work.  It haunts the victim and the perpetrator.  It is a corrupt, morally indefensible policy that should be banished from our socieites without a backward glance.  If the people who put these policies in place won't listen to the victims, maybe they'll listen to the torturers when they say that.

And look, if TV wants to tell the story of torture, and TV shows are going to affect how soldiers view torture, perhaps it would be wise to let those soldiers know that they'll have to live the rest of their lives with the knowledge of what they have done, and it will not feel glamorous or manly.  It will not be Jack Bauer.

If Hollywood wants to talk about torture, let them talk like Tahar Ben Jelloun.  His book This Blinding Absence of Light (in the original French, Cette aveuglante absence de lumière) is an excruciating and extraordinary novel based on the true story of a Moroccan political prisoner, held in a windowless, scorpion-infested underground cell -- a tomb more than a prison -- for 20 years.  The book has won both prestigious awards and angry criticsm.  I found it, like the work of JM Coetzee, simultaneously mesmerizing and painful to read.  You blink back tears, and choke as your stomach turns, and cannot put it down for a moment.

"hope was a complete denial of reality. How could these men abandoned by everyone be made to believe that this hole was only a parenthesis in their lives, that this ordeal would have an end, and that they would emerge from it stronger, better men?"
"For a long time I searched for the black stone that cleanses the soul of death. When I say a long time, I think of a bottomless pit, a tunnel dug with my fingers, my teeth, in the stubborn hope of glimpsing, if only for a minute, one infinitely lingering minute, a ray of light, a spark that would imprint itself deep within my eye, that would stay protected in my entrails like a secret."

So I say this to our popular culture mavens and masters and moguls in Hollywood:  this is torture.  It is not entertaining.

So there it is.

I wanted to diary the Eric Fair column when it came out, but I was offline.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 06:52:58 AM EST
You've been living in Egypt too long, stormy.  Fuckin' freedom-hating English sellouts.

Be nice to America. Or we'll bring democracy to your country.
by Drew J Jones (pedobear@pennstatefootball.com) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 05:26:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ok, this was in today's Washington Post.  

New Light Shed on CIA's 'Black Site' Prisons

On his last day in CIA custody, Marwan Jabour, an accused al-Qaeda paymaster, was stripped naked, seated in a chair and videotaped by agency officers. Afterward, he was shackled and blindfolded, headphones were put over his ears, and he was given an injection that made him groggy. Jabour, 30, was laid down in the back of a van, driven to an airstrip and put on a plane with at least one other prisoner.

His release from a secret facility in Afghanistan on June 30, 2006, was a surprise to Jabour -- and came just after the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's assertion that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners like him.

Jabour had spent two years in "black sites" -- a network of secret internment facilities the CIA operated around the world. His account of life in that system, which he described in three interviews with The Washington Post, offers an inside view of a clandestine world that held far more prisoners than the 14 men President Bush acknowledged and had transferred out of CIA custody in September.

"There are now no terrorists in the CIA program," the president said, adding that after the prisoners held were determined to have "little or no additional intelligence value, many of them have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments."

But Jabour's experience -- also chronicled by Human Rights Watch, which yesterday issued a report on the fate of former "black site" detainees -- often does not accord with the portrait the administration has offered of the CIA system, such as the number of people it held and the threat detainees posed. Although 14 detainees were publicly moved from CIA custody to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, scores more have not been publicly identified by the U.S. government, and their whereabouts remain secret. Nor has the administration acknowledged that detainees such as Jabour, considered so dangerous and valuable that their detentions were kept secret, were freed.

I swear, I don't own stock in the Post or anything, they just seem to write about this a lot.  If only they'd fire their editorial board....

The Post article points toward a new report by Human Rights Watch:

In a letter to President Bush published in conjunction with this report, Human Rights Watch has provided a list of 16 people who were believed to have been held at one time in secret CIA prisons, and whose whereabouts are currently unknown.  Jabour saw or spoke to a number of those people while he was held.  The letter also includes a list of 22 people who were possibly held in such prisons, and whose whereabouts are similarly unknown.  A copy of the letter is included as an appendix to this report.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Bush administration to provide a full accounting of every person that the CIA has held since 2001, including their names, the dates that they left US custody, and their current locations.  If they are being held in proxy detention in a third country, the US government should either transfer them to the United States for prosecution in US courts, or order their release.

To leave these men in hidden limbo violates fundamental human rights norms.  It is also extraordinarily cruel to their families. The wife of a man who has not been seen since he was believed to have been taken into CIA custody told Human Rights Watch that she has had to lie to her four children about her husband's absence.  She explained that she could not bear telling them that she did not know where he was: "[W]hat I'm hoping is if they find out their father has been detained, that I'll at least be able to tell them what country he's being held in, and in what conditions."

The fate of the missing detainees is one of the main unanswered questions about the CIA's secret prison program, but it is not the only one.  Much is still unknown about the scope of the program, the precise locations of the detention facilities, the treatment of detainees, and the cooperation and complicity of other governments.  Although confidential sources, including CIA personnel, have described some aspects of the program to journalists, and a small number of former detainees have recounted their experiences, many details of the program remain hidden.

And this account has disturbing echoes of Tahar Ben Jalloun's book...

During the more than two years that he was held in this secret prison, Jabour spent nearly all of his time alone in a windowless cell, with little human contact besides his captors. Although he worried incessantly about his wife and three young daughters, he was not allowed even to send them a letter to reassure them that he was alive.  

"It was a grave," Jabour later told Human Rights Watch. "I felt like my life was over."

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 07:59:03 AM EST
Argh.  Forgot the link to the Washington Post story.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 08:00:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary.

I have to admit I love watching 24, although they definitely go waaay overboard with torture in later seasons. I do understand that the show in its entirety is completely fictional. It is very problematic, obviously, if people can't tell reality and fiction apart.
Also, I abhor torture in any shape or form, and wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.
You have to wonder, though...are people so open to torture because of TV shows like 24, or are shows like 24 so violent and sadist at times because that's what people want?

So...24: TV Show with little correspondence to reality, not "Counter-terrorism 101." I don't think Hollywood exploiting traumatic experiences for entertainment purposes is anything new, though.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 08:36:08 AM EST
Yeah, I have to plead guilty to having watched the first two seasons pretty avidly myself.  But then I gave up on it.  It's a well-crafted, suspenseful show, but it really started to smack of rightwing propaganda to me, especially regarding torture.  Torture is portrayed as if it works, and as if it's a legitimate means to a necessary end.  I am just too uncomfortable with that to watch anymore.

What worries me, and has for some time, is the idea that avid viewers (and to some extent, the larger society they live in) would begin to accept the idea of torture.  The fact that my government is doing this should be an outrage, and nobody should tolerate it, but they are.  Anything that normalizes it in peoples' minds is contributing to that problem.

The issue's actually been discussed a lot lately.  This New Yorker article, which painstakingly documents 24 producer Joel Surnow's rightwing allegiances, made the startling revalation that the dean of the US Military Academy at West Point went to the show's creators and asked them to tone it down:

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise--that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security--was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."


The article in turn has been discussed here.

The West Point delegation was mocked here (there's the Post again...):

Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of West Point, decided that he needed to do something to end the horror of Americans torturing prisoners. So he gathered three of the top military and FBI interrogation experts and they headed for the airport.

Did they fly to Abu Ghraib? No. Guantanamo? No. One of those secret prisons where the CIA allegedly tortures terror suspects? Nope.

Finnegan and his experts flew to Hollywood to meet the producers of the TV show "24," so Finnegan could urge them to stop the actors who play American agents from pretending to torture the actors who play terrorists in the show.

Uhhh... fair point.  But still.

The general issue of 24 and torture has been discussed here and here and here.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the show's creator, Joel Surnow, is a "self-described 'right wing nut.'"  And the New Yorker and other accounts describe him as a close friend of Rush Limbaugh who wants to create a "conservative network" in Hollywood, to promote his rightwing agenda.  Yippee.

I feel dirty just reading about this guy.  I think I'm going to have to go watch Good Night and Good Luck or something to disinfect myself.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 09:10:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The fourth season was definitely full of propaganda. One scene in particular that infuriated me was when they had a lawyer from Amnesty International show up and hinder the interrogation of a suspect. Yeah, as if the fate of the free world depended on getting rid of due process. Yuck.
Although, the concept of saving the "free world" by making it less free have always been an amusing argument.
The abundance of violence on TV do desensitize us to it. Maybe it has something to do with "how" we watch TV. My father always made it a point to tell me that
a) all TV is crap
b) don't believe a word of it

So I always have that in my back pocket when I watch TV (which, in truth, isn't a whole lot, save for the occasional series).

There should be more emphasis on media analysis and critical thinking in school, I think...

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 09:44:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There should be more emphasis on media analysis and critical thinking in school, I think...

That is so, so, so true.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 10:15:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read that New Yorker article and was somewhat surprised that the co-creator of the show is such a rabid right-winger. Still, both my wife and I love that show. We only started watching it last spring; in a few weeks, we went through the first four seasons, which I had downloaded off the Internet. So I agree with your friend. I don't have a TV, and this is the only show I watch.

As the writers for the show say, torture is a "dramatic device". I think we've lost something when the autonomy of art is sacrificed to moral or political ends.

Torture has always been present in certain film and TV genres. Recently I saw Claude Chabrol's Poulet au vinaigre (Cop au vin). In it, a provincial detective tortures two suspects, a lawyer in his fifties and a twenty year old boy. In the first case but not the second, the torture works. The film makes no suggestion that the detective is in the least corrupt: he is merely determined, like Jack Bauer. But actually, he is worse than Jack Bauer, because Jack is always facing a "ticking time bomb", something the detective most definitely was not.

The army officers who flew to southern California to try to get the producers of 24 to tone down the torture are deluding themselves: American soldiers engage in torture not because they watch 24, but because they have been instructed to do so, through the chain of command, by Bush.

Although the the co-creator is a right-wing nut, my guess would be that most of the writers are fairly liberal. And I believe that any harmful effects from the depictions of torture in the show are more than made up for by the way that people in power in Washington are portrayed as simply evil. At this moment in season 6, the fate of the U.S. president is uncertain, because there has just been an assassination attempt on his life by the deputy national security adviser. This was part of a conspiracy "to save this country". What it needs to be saved from: a president who refuses to follow the recommendation of his advisers to collectively incarcerate U.S. citizens who are Muslim as a "preventative measure".

In the previous season, the previous president conspired with terrorists and ends up being arrested for treason. I think that in these days, a popular TV show that portrays an American president as conspiring against the American people is a good thing. Now if only our news media would make clear that that is what is happening in real life.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns

by Alexander on Thu Mar 1st, 2007 at 06:53:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My husband and I began watching 24 early on, but it made us sick.  As a former lawyer, who therefore studied the constitution, it made me CRAZY mad.  I can't even stand to see the promos any longer.  

Let's not forget that it's shown on the FOX network.

Karen in Austin

'tis strange I should be old and neither wise nor valiant. From "The Maid's Tragedy" by Beaumont & Fletcher

by Wife of Bath (kareninaustin at g mail dot com) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 08:48:13 AM EST
Let's not forget that it's shown on the FOX network.

Yeah, well, there is that....

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 09:11:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I can't watch it either, but that goes for many tv shows.. After some years without tv a couple of years ago, I somehow am no longer used to watching realistic tv violence, and can't stomach it.

You have a normal feeling for a moment, then it passes. --More--
by tzt (tzt) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 04:17:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My sentiments exactly.  My favorite (and almost exclusive) TV show these days is a Canadian cartoon series called "The Backyardigans."  I started watching it here in Mexico with our 15 month old grandson.  The two of us think it's great.  I like it because it's funny and has no violence; I still don't know what he gets out of it!

I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell. _ Blood Sweat & Tears
by Gringo (stargazing camel at aoldotcom) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 11:32:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Though I am in complete agreement about tortue not being entertainment, I have a slightly different take.

I'm mad at the advertisers and consumers.  TV shows have to turn a profit, and if people are willing to pay big bucks for this crap, and consume it religiously, I think the problem is much deeper than ignoble Hollywood execs.  It's social, and the family in Ohio that watches this show and goes out and buys the products of those who fund this show are frankly as responsible as the people writing it.  Some unfortunate combination of desensitization, laziness and absence of tangible consequences of our choices has led to a public which has abdicated its responsibility to think for themselves and hold those in power, political, economic, cultural power accountable.

There will always be people who peddle trash, and there will always be people who will buy it.  But when a society endorses the witnessing of suffering as their national pasttime (esp. while simultanously sitting on their moral high-horses), well, history would assert that such a society has graver problems on their hands than it realizes.  

FYI, I have never seen 24, but I've watched my fair share of crap, so I am implicating myself in this.  It is really very scary how easy it is to choose the path of least resistance.  

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 12:32:58 PM EST
Thank you for this reminder...! 24 as many other shows, or even video games can be quite pernicious...! The "this is not for real" attitude is dangerous as this mindless violence creeps in all heads!

I'm not naive enough to think torture doesn't/shouldn't exist... It does. My father went trough it in 1943 in Germany, he then saw it in the Red Army in 44.
As you say, nothing was apparently left of those bad years... But he raised his kids in such a way that violence was not an option!

I do now the same with my own kids... But I find it harder to explain it today when even a seemingly innocent tv commercial can hold such non apparent at first violence.
We devised a family game, and as in this forum, we rate films, serials, commercials on gratuitous violence, unnecessary for the script. They have to explain their ratings...
It's the only other way then just forbidding things, that I've found.. yet!

I don't believe in the "there are people to watch" (and pay)... It's an education problem, it's a society choice... It our responsibility!

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman

by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 01:46:16 PM EST
It's every Quentin Tarantino and Paul Verhoeven movie, all those unbelievably evil Saw movies, 90% of the so-called reality shows and 50% of all the video games on the market. And it's certainly not just an American phenomenon. It's just that with 300 million mostly brain-damaged people, we're by far the world's largest and most lucrative market for cruel and sadistic "entertainment."

Of course, there's cruelty in every culture. But I think American culture is unique in finding sadism a fuckin' laff-riot. Even my Democratic friends roll their eyes and giggle uncomfortably when I mention Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It's just soooo UNcool.

This, by the way, is why I come here. I gave up years ago on the U.S. ever working against torture, but I still have hopes -- incredibly naive, I suppose, but what else can one hope for? -- that Europe may one day get serious about human rights abuses. Of course, it's not an encouraging sign that last year's best-selling, most prize-winning French novel was written by a heterosexual American and features an intriguingly sadomasochistic gay Nazi. But then I think of old movies like Battle of Algiers (not exactly French, I know, but still...) and "Z" and dream that European culture will one day come back to its senses.

by Matt in NYC on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 04:04:38 PM EST
Don't give up...!
I could easily pass for an anti-American, as most EU citizens,  but behind the rot there are people... You/We can't leave them, just because they have a crazy fit...!
This works also for those countries we want to blockade... We must help people whatever dumb or crazy government they can have... Or we'll be fueling hate for generations !

"What can I do, What can I write, Against the fall of Night". A.E. Housman
by margouillat (hemidactylus(dot)frenatus(at)wanadoo(dot)fr) on Wed Feb 28th, 2007 at 04:39:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've used this in the classroom to great effect, which gives me hope that anti-torture film and fiction can still prove as effective as the drama of Mr. Bauer's weekly punch-out. Still a marvelous film after all these years.

Progressive Historians and The Next Agenda
by aphra behn (aphra (underscore) behn (at) bigfoot (dot) com) on Thu Mar 1st, 2007 at 06:25:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
24 is like mainlining adrenaline, and interesting only for its 'supposed' revealing of how the inner circles of power work, and how to make one hour of tv put your nervous system through as much change asm possible without killing you..

the first season was the best and i don't watch it any more, it is so predictable in its repetitiousness.

a great object lesson in how an amoral artifact can have hugely immoral consequences...

or more simply put: no matter what you create, there will always be a number of maroons who will get what you're saying only insofar as it confirms their prejudices.

it's fun to be ambiguous, but it's unsafe also.

torture is evil, and should haunt the torturer.

justice will eventually be served...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Mar 1st, 2007 at 04:03:30 AM EST
The twelfth episode of this season was shown last Monday. Here the national security adviser, with very good information, tells the Vice President that a Muslim (former) terrorist was not involved in the attempt to assassinate the president, but the Vice President decides to go on air anyway blaming that Muslim for the assassination attempt, when we know that it was the deputy national security adviser that did it.

Is this right-wing propaganda? I don't think so.

Please try to let go of your liberal worries. If cinema or TV drama is going to be any good, there is no way it could function as right-wing propaganda.

A bomb, H bomb, Minuteman / The names get more attractive / The decisions are made by NATO / The press call it British opinion -- The Three Johns

by Alexander on Wed Mar 7th, 2007 at 03:09:26 AM EST

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