Friday, February 6, 2009

Torture Is Cool: Legacy of Bush/Cheney Propaganda

"Torture Chic", subtitled " Why Is the Media Glorifying Inhumane, Sadistic Behavior?", a thought-provoking article by Maura Moynihan, really struck a chord with me. This is not exactly new, but it reminds one of the last days of Rome when throwing people to the lions (and other wild animals) was a spectator sport - entertainment for the Romans, and not just a elite class. Not so long ago, an LA Times editorial remarked (and the blogosphere expanded) that Americans were "blase about torture."

From such banal offerings as "Wrestling Entertainment" and its obsession with "bad guys" to the pro-military, get-the-Islamic-jerks propaganda spewed from all manner of sources, there has been a growing popular macho movement towards acceptability of torture, cruelty and sadistic behavior.

In their zeal to legalize torture and trounce the Bill of Rights, the Bush team crafted a media campaign to sell the "War on Terror" as a righteous quest retribution for 9/11, inciting fear of future carnage to justify violating the Geneva protocols and the U.S. Army Field Manual. While the Bush torture policy made stunning progress through the courts and the legislature, with the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, there followed an increase in the normalization of torture images in popular culture, a growing acceptance of violence as effective, routine.

When photographs of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib appeared in 2004, Bush's approval ratings sank, yet torture themes multiplied in film and TV. From 2002 through 2005, the Parents Television Council counted 624 torture scenes in prime time, a six-fold increase. UCLA's Television Violence Monitoring Project reports "torture on TV shows is significantly higher than it was five years ago and the characters who torture have changed. It used to be that only villains on television tortured. Today, "good guy" and heroic American characters torture -- and this torture is depicted as necessary, effective and even patriotic".


So are these the "new American values"? And if so, what distinguishes us from, say, Al-Qaeda? How long before Americans could use techniques such as rape to coerce other Americans to do things they otherwise would not - in the Machiavellian "end-justifies-means" philosophy espoused by prominent neocons? Where is their moral high ground over al-Qaeda?

Human Rights First has just released a short film entitled "Primetime Torture" that examines how torture and interrogation scenes are portrayed in television programming. A retired military leader interviewed for the film says, "The portrayal of torture in popular culture is having a significant impact on how interrogations are conducted in the field. U.S. soldiers are imitating the techniques they have seen on television -- because they think such tactics work."

Lately it seems that three out of five offerings at the local Cineplex are tales of clever and nimble torturers and serial killers. This mass marketing of the murderer, sadist and child molester endows the deviant with a fictitious intelligence, the pretense of a rich and complex "inner life", a particularly annoying Hollywood buzzword. Such characters aren't presented as perverts, rather, they're complex geniuses, creative and tormented, ever misunderstood. It must come from the suits, who study box office returns for the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" franchise. Whereas actresses frequently complain that the only roles available are for killers or tarts, actors bemoan the dearth of "serious" movies amid piles of scripts about guys shooting off guns. They'll play the killer if they have to, it's work.


There is lots of evidence that so-called pop culture has a very heady influence on people's mindsets in general, especially people without a strong "counter-influence" such as family or cultural values that override these influences. And in the military, the military culture itself overrides, or can easily override, one's previous cultural values.

I know of several people in the military who have emerged deeply changed and affected by their experience, and not in good ways. They returned alienated from friends and family, introverted, depressed, moody, unstable, uncommunicative, obsessed with security or weapons, or even prone to addictions. Opening the door to torture added to the stress of fighting a confusing and unclear war in culturally alien territory where any value system seems not to apply... all this can lead to abuse. It's the absolute wrong way to go.

In the Bush years torture images migrated from Hollywood to fashion and advertising. ...In 2007 a fashion blog proclaimed; "Torture is the New Black", when John Galliano's 2007 runway show male models wore hoods, nooses, handcuffs, and had their bodies painted with gashes, cuts and cigarette burns. Then Italian Vogue ran 30 pages of color photographs by Steven Meisel, depicting models elegantly clad in Dolce & Gabbana, Prada and more, being interrogated and beaten by policemen with clubs, knives, guns and attack dogs. Many fashion writers embraced "Torture Chic". Joanna Bourke, a professor at Birkbeck College, observed that the images served "the interests of the politics of torture and abuse. There is a vicarious satisfaction in viewing these depictions of cruelty in the interests of national security.'


Interests of national security?? Vicarious satisfaction? What security is that, exactly? And what about when the tables are turned? Did anyone ever tell these people that the tables always are turned, sooner or later?

According to Human Rights First:

U.S. interrogators say that not only is torture illegal and immoral, it is also ineffective as an interrogation tactic – because it is unreliable. Moreover, evidence gained through torture is inadmissible in court – and therefore unusable for prosecuting alleged terrorists or criminals.

Torture, as it is performed by American characters on television, regularly produces reliable information – and quite quickly. When writing about interrogation, writers might consider creating scenes that more accurately mirror reality: showing that torture often incapacitates suspects (or kills them); that innocent people are often mistakenly tortured; or that victims of torture provide false information. On television today, torture has few consequences for the torturer and the tortured ... it would be difficult, if not impossible, for those who torture or are tortured to resume normal life quickly as they do on television.


So torture is not helpful to security, not helpful to law enforcement, achieves nothing militarily, does not do anything except destroy the image of America in the greater public around the world. It makes America look like the villain, the cruel taskmaster, the bad guy. And in effect, by engaging in torture, that may actually be the case. America is acting as a rogue nation in defying the Geneva Conventions it originally espoused.

Obama is absolutely right in opposing torture and undoing the unimaginable damage done by Bush and the Republican neocon right by allowing and encouraging it. Let's hope that popular culture will catch up with Obama in standing tall for reason, compassion, human rights, science, the Constitution, taking action to deal with challenges, and being upfront and direct to the American public, as well as working with diplomacy before guns.

1 comment:

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