A question of torture

“The majority of Europeans and North Americans appear to be thoroughly apathetic towards the state of the world. They keep stuffing themselves on cheap, subsidized food; they amuse themselves with the latest gadgets (including smart phones, sated with coltan taken from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some ten million people have died since 1995). They keep voting in those right-wing governments and they believe, increasingly and blindly, that their societies are an inspiration to the rest of the world as the sole examples of democracy and freedom.”—Andre Vltchek

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler’s ruling in May to suspend the force-feeding of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Guantanamo prisoner from Syria, was called “unprecedented” in the media. The ruling halted the prisoner’s forced removal from his cell (called “forcible cell extraction”) in order to be strapped down in a painful, though, state-of-the art, restraint chair. Through a tube inserted in his nose to his stomach, he would then be fed. She ordered one hundred videos of this vicious procedure on this single prisoner “to be preserved” until the next hearing.

At the appointed follow-up hearing, the judge ruled to allow the force-feeding to continue but gave the authorities “a rebuke.”

Apart from the individual moral dilemma facing the judge of having to choose between saving the prisoner’s life from certain suicide or prohibiting a torturous practice, this ruling within the general perspective of institutionalized torture was not surprising. What were being tested were not only the wrongness of one victim’s treatment but also the rightness of a regime of detention and torture. The purpose of torture is not only to torment victims but also to condition society to feeling a sense of impotence before the awesome power of the state. Torture is the spectacle on the stage of power intended to render the spectator mute. But that silence breeds complicity. And so it has been since 2001 in our nation’s devolution into an atavistic practice. To be fair, we selected a president in 2008 who promised to end this regime but didn’t. Then we fell silent.

How did we get to this point in our national ethos? A people who pride themselves on the rights of the individual before the law? Guantanamo is where people become legal un-people. It’s where the principles set by the Magna Carta, cemented in the architecture of Anglo-American law, are flushed down this prison’s antiseptic toilets. The only way the imprisoned-without-charges have found to resist the stripping of their selfhood is to turn radically against their own body and starve it—only to be forced into further subsisting in the limbo of un-people. The torturers of the Inquisition were forbidden from drawing blood, so they invented the rack, which crushed the victim’s bones—living, but incapable of motion. Is our logic any less sadistic? We erase their identity but deny them the mercy and justice of having their death on our conscience? Death or justice. Neither.

During the Algerian War (1954–62), France secretly authorized torture, banned since the revolution of 1789, as a weapon of war to defeat the anti-colonial rebellion which had erupted in the North African colony right after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May of 1954 that ended French control of colonial Indochina (Vietnam). Jean Paul Sartre, rose to the defense of the censored La Question, by Henri Alleg, an explosive and timely expose’ of the widespread use of torture in Algeria. Sartre denounced an indiscriminate practice of rounding up Algerians, the essential casualness of which echoes today in variants such as renditions, indefinite detention in secret prisons abroad, and particularly in the use of drones targeting “terrorists,” who incidentally happened to be Muslims. “People are arrested at random,” Sartre wrote in an article for the left-wing L’Express. “All Muslims can be tortured whenever the authorities feel like it. The majority of those tortured say nothing because they have nothing to say, unless they agree, in order to stop suffering, to tell lies.” Sartre’s condemnation of atrocities did not stop at the level of individuals; he indicted the system of colonial domination and warfare whose logic, he said, was inherently racist. The French public turned against the war in great numbers, so that tanks rumbled down the streets of Paris during massive protests.

But, I ask, who are we? I’ve heard Noam Chomsky say that we are a very fearful people and Arundhati Roy say that we are peculiarly insular and provincial. To be fair, for thirteen years since 9/11, our government has terrorized us with the threat of alien terror. Perhaps we know by now, or should, that the real world aggressor is our own government and that it sold us the “War on Terror” as a defensive cover. We may even know that this greed for conquest is not in our own interest, that what they call “national security” is not national at all but the security of small sector who owns the power of the state, the military, and police. We certainly can feel the impoverishment of our social services, our institutions, our infrastructure, and our reputation in the world. We know of an obscene rise in economic inequality; we are stunned by the boldness of governmental corruption as it weds corporate interests and divorces ours. The supposed bedrock of our democracy, the freedom of the press, is turned advocacy for power. The propaganda is so thick and coarse that we can read its newspeak backwards: whatever is being asserted, we can bet the reverse is true. If US troops are now in Chad, looking for “our girls,” what screams out of that unconvincing fable is that we’re invading Chad. We have proof that the government lied to us to draw us into a war against Iraq, whose people had never done us any harm, yet, we continue to believe each new false pretext for war—or pretend to. We have proof that the government spies on us, yet we continue to trust its mouthpieces Do we ask, who benefits from all these attacks on our sanity and the lives of others? “We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us,” Sartre wrote in his “Preface” to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Arguably, we have been twisted manipulatively into a nation of silent collaborators, but where is our “radical refusal”? Where is our vaunted empathy for the oppressed and persecuted? From 100,000 to one million Iraqis died; millions dispersed. Kofi Annan, then UN secretary general said in September 2004: “From our point of view and the UN charter point of view, it [the war] was illegal.”

Who are we? Alain Badiou, French radical-left philosopher, novelist, playwright, and activist for decolonization during the Algerian struggle, in a recent interview defines the human being as someone who evolves into one by processing the changes inherent in experience. Borrowing from Simone de Beauvoir’s celebrated dictum, “One is not born a woman; one becomes a woman.” Badiou specified, “I would say you are not a subject or human being, you become one. You become a subject to the extent to which you can respond to events.” But everything that is admirable in the American character—self-reliance, ingenuity, fairness, optimism—vanishes into its opposite before the catastrophic events imposed on other people by our own government’s aggressions. The media visit us like a succubus in the night and sucks discretion out of us. It leaves us a limp will, hypnotically enthralled to its monstrously skewered, power-friendly prejudices. Tutored by the media, we parrot Washington’s political lexicon. Self-reliance becomes obedience, ingenuity inaction, and optimism either blind fanaticism or craven nihilism. We never look back. We never process the new through the prism of the old. We always “move on,” a phrase possibly exclusive to American English in its symptomatic implications. Is this pragmatism or opportunism?

“You discover truth in your response to the event. Truth is a construction after the event, ” Badiou noted. We never bother to “reconstruct.” We “move on” from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Iran and Guatemala, to Vietnam and Chile, to Salvador and Nicaragua, to Iraq and Falluja, to Libya and Syria—coups, regime-changes, wars. If we had understood the nuking of Hiroshima for the demonstration of imperial power through technological weapon dominance that it really was, all the other interventions of this kind of brutal force, covert actions, or upheaval could have been seen as the pattern that imperialism prescribes. Instead the word “imperialism” is taboo, but without it we can’t explain our government’s actions. We know by now that we do not act to spread “freedom and democracy,” but we have no comprehensive explanation for our government’s chronically bellicose behavior. After the fact, we refer to each unprovoked aggression indulgently as a “mistake,” “stupidity,” “wrong-footed foreign policy.” Lately, lost in the fog of the pretext for the War on Terror, we can’t, we won’t, we refuse to face the glaring truth—that our government has gone mad with the obsession of global power and control.

On August 6, 1945, the first nuclear bomb was detonated on a civilian population in Japan. On August 6, 1990, without a murmur about the date’s significance in the US media, the UN Security Council, under pressure from the US, launched the draconian punitive sanctions against Iraq. A “second Hiroshima bomb,” world observers noted with horror. The devastating bombing of the Gulf War, which crippled the country’s infrastructure including the water supply, followed the sanctions. The sanctions were enforced until 2003, even though we knew, or the planners certainly did, that the sanctions would result in the poisoning of the water supply. Lack of water purifying agents and replacement parts for equipment, together with shortages of medical supplies, enforced malnutrition, the deadly effects of depleted uranium caused the death of 500,000 Iraqi children. Sanctioning a country and waging war on it were not new twin abuses–we had done it to Vietnam—but they remained a violation of the UN Charter, which made it clear that either but not both measures could be applied self-defensively in the attempt to neutralize a country’s actual or threatened aggression, neither of which had been the case with Iraq. When Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was asked if the death of those 500,000 children had been “worth it,” she said that it had. We blanched—and moved on. To a second war on Iraq.

Now we are causing more grief, this time in a place called Ukraine. The new Hitler, after so many recent incarnations, is Vladimir Putin. Our new obsession is Russia.

In the post-coup chaos now unfolding in Ukraine, the coup’s effects are presented to the public as causes that send us into fits of xenophobic hatred of Russia. Through the witchcraft of the media’s spin, the coup’s covert plot to encircle Russia militarily—and eventually destabilize it–emerges from the shadows of conspiracy into a public crusade, a popularly endorsed “just cause.” The departure of Crimea from the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the refusal to be ruled by the illegitimate junta by South-east Ukraine, the massacres in Odessa and Mariuopol are the effects of our own covert actions in Kiev, but we are led to blame the Russians for causing them. This logic is just plain nuts.

The verifiable assertion that the Kiev junta relies for “frightfulness” on the brutal brawn and intellectual perversion of fascists and bigots is airily dismissed by both media and officialdom as the propaganda fantasy of Putin’s Russia. Yet, the massacre of a still uncounted number of victims (certainly more than one hundred), shot, poisoned by unknown gas (possibly chloroform), garroted, beaten to death, and burnt in Odessa on 2 May is not a Moscow fantasy. Witnesses of the massacre aside, anyone who has survived or has grown up with family stories of fascist terror in Europe recognizes its fingerprint in Odessa. The “anti-terror” campaigns of the Nazis in WW II followed a regular pattern in the systematic group-killings of civilians carried out in a trapped space, followed by the torching of the villages–tiny Valhallas burning. The iconic case of the French village of Oradur in WW II documents this practice. The intention of such terror against unarmed people was, and is, to create “frightfulness.” “Frightfulness” is Martha Gelhorn’s word (The Face of War). She writes: “Nazi doctrine extolled ‘frightfulness’ as a weapon, as a means to the end of victory. The human race is still sickened by the poison of that doctrine, by crimes committed everywhere and answered by other crimes. We have before us the memory and the lesson let us not imagine that anyone can use frightfulness in a good cause.”

Who are we to sweep away so wantonly the lessons of the past? In Ukraine, what do we know of it? Thirty million Soviet people died to defeat Hitler—ten million of them Ukrainians. Do we think they can’t tell now a neo-Nazi from a democracy-activist? Did we see the pictures of the victory parade in Petersburg on May 9 this year? Hundreds of thousands of photographs of people sacrificed in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazi invasion, held aloft by their descendants. They remember all right. Why have we no equivalent emotional ties to the past? Sartre had an answer: we lack the sense of the tragic. “There are also these [Americans],” he wrote for The Nation during his stay in New York in the mid 1940s, “who, though conventionally happy, suffer from an obscure malaise to which no name can be given, who are tragic through fear of being so, through that total absence of the tragic in them and around them.” The tragic, in classic Greek drama, was a passage from ignorance to knowledge. That passage involved great suffering for the individual and the community. Out of the past into the peaceful present came the voice of wrath for unacknowledged crimes, furiously clamoring for justice—justice for the sacrifice of innocents in wars, justice for rape, for incest, murder, famines, plagues, and pillage. But out of the past’s clamor for justice, too, came the cleansing through painfully achieved self-knowledge and came, too, that most healing, that most enriching of all human emotions–empathy. Another word for love.

Was Sartre right? I think so. We certainly know that our country was founded on genocide and built on slavery. The recognition of these facts should make us humble. Yet we boast. Our official narrative is to proclaim the exceptionalism of our birth as a nation, the gift to the world of our selfless, humanitarian democracy, sprung from history like Athena’s parthenogenic birth from the head of Zeus, without maternal birth pangs, fully armed to fight for right everywhere. An idea before which humanity should stand in awe. Never mind how we act, see the Idea. Worship the Idea. Bow to the Idea. Beyond the Idea, however, lurks the act, the perpetuation of our unexamined virgin birth in violence. This delusion the Greeks called hubris and Sartre “bad faith,” a false relationship with reality, the result of which is our chronic conformity, our fear, our insecurity, and our desperate consumerism. We lack faith in ourselves. We have nightmares not dreams. We are not political because, as Badiou said in that recent interview, “Real politics is that which gives enthusiasm. Love and politics are the two great figures of social engagement. Politics is enthusiasm with a collective; with love, two people. So love is the minimal form of communism.” What if it’s as simple as that?

Meanwhile, as we continue to stunt our growth into mature humanity by our refusal to admit the tragic, the unthinkable, the it-cannot-be-so of who we have been to history and are now to the world, we will continue to generate violence until we will be answered by the justifiable violence of resistance. Denied humanity, as Sartre wrote in defense of anti-colonial violence in the “Preface” of The Wretched of the Earth, “The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity.” That is the tragic truth that we will come to know, if history has anything to say about it. Unless we step in and stop the madness.

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and taught at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu.

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