By Jim Miller
A couple of weeks ago I evoked Joseph Conrad’s classic critique of colonialism when discussing the disposability of black and brown lives in the wake of Ferguson and our collective ability to dehumanize or “thingify” black and brown people at home and abroad.
As I observed then, “in Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness we are taken on a journey into the core of the European colonial enterprise. And while the naïve reader may expect an adventure in the ‘savage’ world of Africa, what one quickly discovers is that it is the ‘hollow men’ of Europe bent on the ruthless exploitation of the land and the people who are the real savages, whose moral emptiness and desire to ‘exterminate the brutes’ is the actual horror.”
Well, sadly, last week the Senate report on torture officially revealed that “we are the hollow men” to steal a line from T.S. Eliot, “the stuffed men” whose lips “form prayers to broken stone.” Yes, now formally, we have admitted that in the service of a war our former President cast as a moral battle between good and evil, we exposed ourselves and our proclamations about our core values to be utterly empty, devoid of any meaning save vain posturing.
But what makes this revelation of barbarism in the service of a war against barbarism more unsettling is how many apologists remain ready to openly construct a case for the acceptability of torture, to reframe it as a heroic necessity or, worse, neutralize its horror by making it a subject of polite debate. When the wave of inane American media chatter began, I thought back to Slavoj Zizek’s brilliant analysis of the moral bankruptcy of the film Zero Dark Thirty :
One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.
Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators.
Without a shadow of a doubt, [Zero Dark Thirty] is on the side of the normalisation of torture . . . There is something deeply disturbing in how [one of the film’s CIA torturers] changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty . . .
The debate about whether waterboarding is torture or not should be dropped as an obvious nonsense: why, if not by causing pain and fear of death, does waterboarding make hardened terrorist-suspects talk? The replacement of the word “torture” with “enhanced interrogation technique” is an extension of politically correct logic: brutal violence practised by the state is made publicly acceptable when language is changed . . .
A parallel with rape imposes itself here: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here; I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument.
So what about the “realist” argument: torture has always existed, so is it not better to at least talk publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem. If torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalise it, to lower our ethical standards.
Torture saves lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls – and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his or her soul to save the lives of his or her countrymen. The normalisation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are gradually approaching.
Predictably, the response to the torture report by so many in the American media turned the subject of torture into yet another banal subject for canned debate.
Indeed, the lead for a good number of outlets was not outrage over the details but worry about whether the release of the report rather than the actions it detailed would make us more vulnerable to terrorist attack. And sure enough, the night after the report was released, the security at the basketball game I attended had already instituted new searches, making all the fans, including my ten year old son, remove their caps, presumably to show that we were not hiding some weapon of mass destruction under our lids.
Be afraid, very afraid.
This, of course, leads me to revisit Naomi Klein’s ruminations on the purpose of terror in the wake of earlier reports of abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. In Klein’s estimation, the power of torture, indeed the essential purpose of it, is not to extract information but to instill fear not only in the enemy but also amongst those who might dissent from the aims of the state:
This is torture’s true purpose: to terrorise – not only the people in Guantánamo’s cages and Syria’s isolation cells but also, and more importantly, the broader community that hears about these abuses. Torture is a machine designed to break the will to resist – the individual prisoner’s will and the collective will.
Klein goes on to cite human rights reports that argue that the use of torture is primarily a tool of dehumanization in the service of setting an example and observes:
Yet despite this body of knowledge, torture continues to be debated in the United States as if it were merely a morally questionable way to extract information, not an instrument of state terror. But there’s a problem: no one claims that torture is an effective interrogation tool -least of all the people who practise it. Torture doesn’t work . . . As an interrogation tool, torture is a bust. But when it comes to social control, nothing works quite like torture.
Thus what the last week shows us is not that we are somehow nobler because we admit our transgressions publically, but that we have normalized the subject of torture and many of us see it as an acceptable practice to keep “the brutes” in line. It also means that, without our saying it out loud, we have come to accept a culture of brutality, fear, and surveillance so thoroughly that we barely blink at the moral abyss even when it’s right in front of our faces.
There it is: the horror, the horror.