Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sontag on Acceptable Brutality

Torture victims continue to be released and to tell their grim stories of being taken without being charged, for being Arab in the wrong place at the wrong time, "disappeared" without due process or habeas corpus, flown on CIA flights to countries like Syria where imprisonment and torture is commonly practiced, now outsouced there via the USA, or simply taken to the local military prison, or for the long haul to Guantanamo; sickening tales of being tormented under interrogation, routinely humilated and degraded, kept in solitary confinement in chains, blindfolded for days, told that their families are in danger, stripped naked, sexually assaulted, electrical shocks applied to various intimate parts of their bodies, and photographed in postures of abject dehumanization with their smirking American guards. Occasionally a released prisoner will even mention the screams, nightmares, permanently injured limbs, and even seeing others beaten unconscious perhaps never to recover.

And then they were released without trial apparently innocent. They return home to their families but never to rejoin the world of safe normality.

Torture is illegal for excellent reasons. It is also of course inhumane. What's equally troubling is that it is impractical. The released returnees from our prison hells admit that they eventually signed any confession handed to them, just to stop the pain. Torture doesn't work to separate the guilty from the innocent. If tortured enough, everyone is "guilty". If you don't believe me, stop on by for an experiment -- I'll torture you until you confess that indeed you are "guilty" too. It won't take too long.

And yet torture is the neoconservative policy of the Bush Cabinet, abruptly ending a half century of international agreements. And even after the worldwide scandal brought on by snapshots of torture victims, such tales from the house of the dead continue to leak out.

One implication of this disturbing trend of post-911 America goes deeply into the collective way of life today, where we are desensitized to violence in its many forms. We have become more brutal because we see it as funny or at least as acceptable behavior. The late Susan Sontag, in one of her last essays, articulated this implication better than I can:

'Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and seen by many people: it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what President Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and heart of America." It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere, starting with the video games of killing that are a principal entertainment of boys - can the video game "Interrogating the Terrorists" really be far behind? - and on to the violence that has become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant kick. Violent crime is down, yet the easy delight taken in violence seems to have grown. From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools - depicted in Richard Linklater's 1993 film, "Dazed and Confused" - to the hazing rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation in college fraternities and on sports teams, America has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence are seen as good entertainment, fun.

What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the exercise of extreme sadomasochistic longings - as in Pier Paolo Pasolini's last, near-unwatchable film, "Salo" (1975), depicting orgies of torture in the Fascist redoubt in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era - is now being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or venting. To "stack naked men" is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The observation - or is it the fantasy? - was on the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh's response: "Exactly!" he exclaimed. "Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time." "They" are the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on: "You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?"

Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis. And shock and the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behavior in open contempt of international humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up, before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given nearly anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic brutality.'

This excerpt is from Susan Sontag's much longer essay, "Regarding the Torture of Others" (2004).

The world has gone wrong because the worst people are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction.


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