January 23, 2007

At the Bottom of the Abyss (II): The Torturers Take Over

Several days ago, I wrote about a new study from the Intelligence Science Board. The study confirms two points of overwhelming significance. Each point is sufficiently horrifying and jaw-dropping on its own; in combination, they illuminate a horror almost beyond comprehension.

The study concerns the "effectiveness" of torture, although (as I discussed in the earlier entry) the word "torture" never appears in the Washington Post article. Our government commits acts of monstrous barbarism, but the mainstream media obediently follows the unwritten rule that we are never to identify the true nature of our own actions. In this manner, evil is advanced and corrupts us all. The first point of importance is one I have maintained for several years, ever since I first began writing about torture. It is, very simply: "The new study finds that there may be no value to coercive techniques."

Let the full meaning of that statement sink in for a moment. Our government has systematically employed the most brutal methods of interrogation, methods that are common to every totalitarian regime in history, for over five years -- and during all this time, they have not had any idea what they are doing, or if it even "works." This confirms another point I have made repeatedly: for evil to succeed, it must purposefully shroud itself in ignorance. If the actual nature of torture were accurately identified, many more people would flee from its unspeakable horror:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.
This is the truth that the torturers and those who advocate torture can never permit to enter their minds. Similarly, these barbarians can never allow themselves to wonder about those individuals who will always refuse to engage in such acts, or think about what their refusal might signify:
When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

To maintain their precarious hold on "decency," on civilization, and even on sanity, the torturers cannot acknowledge the existence of the person who says, "No."

The second point of significance in the Washington Post article is equally horrifying, and veers perilously close to the literally unbelievable:
[In the report], experts find that popular culture and ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk, even if there is no evidence to support the tactics' effectiveness.
As I went on to say in the earlier essay:
Research and science do not provide any basis whatsoever for the "effective" use of torture, as indeed they could not since all such proof is impossible. So our torturers resort instead to "popular culture and ad hoc experimentation" -- "experimentation," I forcefully remind you, on living human beings, many of whom have proven to be entirely innocent. And "popular culture" -- probably including the very successful television series, 24.
I then analyzed some of the numerous profoundly dangerous messages conveyed by 24.

To amplify the second point, we have this article from the Guardian, which primarily consists of an interview with one of 24's co-creators, Joel Surnow. (Thanks again to the reader who pointed out this article to me.) I could spend the better part of a day commenting on the article, and on various aspects of Surnow's observations. But I want to focus on these especially revealing remarks:
Surnow's take on torture in the show, and in the war on terror, is a little more controversial. "I think torture does work. It would work on me! I believe torture has been around since the beginning of time because it works. I just think that for any person in the circumstances that Jack Bauer is in, you'd be a fool not to. If someone's family was going to be killed in 10 minutes unless you tortured something out of somebody, they would do it. A lot of these experts, people in the human rights field, will tell you it doesn't work, it may not work, that there may be more humane ways to get information out of people, and I believe that, but in our show, if you have 10 minutes to stop a nuclear bomb, tell me what you're going to do. I mean, it's unrealistic, and it's not how the world works, but we're not purporting to be the world, and we're creating our own little world. And we're not saying it's good, bad or whatever. We're saying, tell me what you would do. I would bet there are a lot of soldiers fighting wars, on all sides, in all sorts of conflicts, under pressure when the bullets are flying and wanting information, who do all sorts of things. And I don't want to know about it. I just want to be safe. We're just exposing a little of what maybe does happen. The military hates it. People call us a conservative show, but the military will tell you they never use it. We use it as a last resort."
If you want to understand how evil triumphs in the world, Surnow has provided you with many clues.

I am absolutely opposed to censorship in any form and to any degree whatsoever. I am not suggesting for a moment that Surnow should be silenced, or that 24 should be forcibly taken off the air. With that said, it should be acknowledged that, given the immense popularity of the series, Surnow is demonstrating an attitude of extreme recklessness here. In view of the stakes involved, such recklessness is unforgivable. Surnow says, "I think torture does work." This is simply not true, as every study ever done confirms, and as the most recent study confirms yet again. Moreover, it is especially not true in the viciously false "ticking bomb" scenario, when "time is short." I turn once more to Darius Rejali, a man who has studied and analyzed torture, its uses and its significance for many years. Rejali writes:
What if time is short, as with a "ticking bomb"? Does torture offer a shortcut? Real torture -- not the stuff of television -- takes days, if not weeks. Even torturers know this. There are three things that limit torture's value in this context.
On this issue, Surnow doesn't know what he's talking about. Surnow also says (contradicting his earlier statement): "I mean, it's unrealistic, and it's not how the world works, but we're not purporting to be the world, and we're creating our own little world." This would be unobjectionable, but for two facts of the utmost importance. First, any television series, particularly one as successful as 24, affects the general cultural atmosphere that influences all of us. A show like 24 conveys certain ideas about what behavior is acceptable -- and, which is infinitely worse, what behavior is admirable. One of the central messages of 24 is that extreme violence, when supposedly engaged in to "protect" us and to save lives, and when inflicted on "bad guys" (even though, in real life, they often turn out not to be "bad guys" at all), is good, and even noble. If it is difficult for Jack Bauer to engage in such violence, that makes his recourse to violence even more admirable. This is the monstrous message that Hannah Arendt has examined in detail (as I discussed before).

But again: torture does not work. So we are left with violence as deeply admirable -- violence and cruelty for their own sake. No propagandist for state power could hope for more. Contemplate how many people watch a show like 24, absorb this message, and feel: "I want to be like him! That is so cool!" This is how people willingly turn themselves into monsters, and convince themselves that they do so in the name of "civilization." (Are you listening, Charles Krauthammer?)

Second, Surnow says about his show, "it's unrealistic, and it's not how the world works" -- except, as the Intelligence Science Board study reveals, "popular culture and ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk." In other words, a fictional television show -- one of whose creators himself acknowledges is not at all realistic, and which is entirely unsupported by any evidence at all -- is then translated into reality by our government, and it is all done in the name of "defending" us. And what is being translated from fiction (unsupported by any facts) into reality is the widespread, systematic use of violence and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other purpose whatsoever.

At this juncture, we have gone all the way through the looking glass.

Finally, we come to this statement from Surnow, referring to violent and cruel acts that are committed by our own "defenders": "And I don't want to know about it. I just want to be safe." This is the ultimate plea of the abject coward: "Protect me! Keep me safe! And don't ever, ever, ever tell me what you have to do! Just keep me safe!"

Many people in Nazi Germany said exactly the same thing. That is not exaggeration to any degree. It is literally true: watch The Nazis: A Warning from History, and you will hear people who supported the Nazis make similar statements. Such "justifications" are offered in the present day, many decades after the entire world came to know of the unending horrors perpetrated by Hitler's regime. Many (if not most) of the claims by Germans that they "didn't know" about the Third Reich's horrors during the period they were committed are not credible. Such claims cannot be credited at all now. And yet, many of the people interviewed in that documentary, interviewed in recent years, repeat the same rationalizations -- and they continue to believe them. Moreover, they expect us to accept their "explanations," and to be reluctant to condemn them. Far too many of us willingly comply.

The human capacity for denial is limitless. We destroy an entire country that never threatened us, and commit genocide -- and we will not acknowledge what we have done. We engage in widespread torture and brutality -- and we refuse to identify the nature and meaning of our acts. Our Congress passes the torture-dictatorship law -- and we do nothing. We become increasingly accustomed to inflicting grievous injury and death upon countless people, the great majority of whom are completely innocent -- and we tell ourselves that we only do so in our own "defense," and in the name of "civilization."

We are much, much farther down this road than most of us will acknowledge. But reality cannot be obliterated in this manner, simply because we refuse the speak the truth. In time, and if we do not radically change our course, we will all suffer the consequences of what we have done as a nation, and what we continue to do. Every day, we come closer to a nightmare world. 24 is only one of the many ways we have arrived at this moment. If enough of us don't become aware of what has happened to us and begin to change it, shows like 24 will also be a sign of the much worse nightmare that still lies ahead.

Related Essays:

At the Bottom of the Abyss: 24 as the Basis of National Policy

"Thus the World Was Lost"

The Dynamics of Rising American Fascism

Lies in the Service of Evil

On Torture (multipart series)