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Looking at Torture


We torture modernly in secret—in prisons, covert locations, other countries. At the same time our movies and television are full of violent images of mangling bodies and brutal interrogations. But the film and tv images belie reality and permanent damage. When James Bond was beaten mercilessly in the testicles he survived to soon woo his betrayer. We think we know what torture is like, but in fact we don’t look at it. The infamous Abu Ghraib photos were sanitized and often posed. The documentary tapes of actual torture and interrogation were destroyed or censored.

Former Vice President Cheney rejects the word ‘torture’ but extols ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and sneers at shrinking from them. To him the end of security justifies violent means. President Obama opposes torture as unlawful and immoral and not useful he but has ordered torture photos suppressed for national security reasons. He says he must protect our troops against the anger and violence the photos might incite. Though on opposite sides about the use of torture, both leaders cite war as a justifying reason. For Cheney war licenses torture; for Obama war requires concealment of torture.

This is logical as war is the usual and radical rationalization of torture. In war’s shadow torture even seems restrained. I do not destroy you because I think you a danger, I just hurt you until you submit to my superior right to live, until you give me what I want from you.

The ticking bomb scenario popularized in the tv series “24” and rationalized legally by Alan Dershowitz argues that to save many you can, even should, torture a few. Basically this is the economy and danger of war. We destroy the enemy who wants to destroy us. It’s us or them. Torture exists in a dangerous present tense. It is poised in pain. The images are not of dead bodies (as in the  mass graves, heads, hair, fillings, and skin lamps of Nazi footage) but of breathing bodies on the edge of death or terrible mutilation or hurt. Bodily vulnerabilities have always fueled fantasy—branding, flaying, sexual harm. Literature and movies approach, evoke, explore, and give catharsis about our bodies’ frailties. They are part of our imaginative human repertoire and as familiar as our fears. Imaginatively torture is in our consciousness. It is explicit in religious images of hell, which like the movies are artistic, imagined. They are not real, involving specific living people.

Many people see the tortured Christ as an emblem of human suffering. He is whipped, beaten, mocked, degraded, punctured, speared and nailed to a cross. His torturers carry out orders as he remains noble and forgiving. His drama is called ‘the passion,’ meaning the suffering story he enacts, as in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. What distinguishes that film from Braveheart is not the thorns, but the character of Christ who really survives the movie torment of torture and death for believers.  Christians often divide over whether to emulate the non-violent submissive Christ who reveals the violence of others by suffering it, or a resurrected Christ who returns with punitive judgment. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment  Christ has his right arm raised as if to smite rather than beckon to the reward for kindness to fellow men.

Torture invokes not only the sense of bodily pain and danger of death but large tropes about power. From spanking to eternal smiting the infliction of pain for a purpose triggers human fear and caution and debate.

Against movie histrionics and hysteria many professional interrogators argue that torture doesn’t work and instead foments war fury. That is why Obama wants the photographs hidden. People say that the US used to be known as decent to its prisoners of war. Many world citizens see us now as guilty of war crimes, violators of the Geneva Conventions, callously inured to our right to rule and dominate. The photographs document that charge.

Rumsfeld called the Abu Ghraib photos “radioactive” and deplored their publication. His labeling spun them as the danger, not the story they told. That story, the administration said, was of a few depraved people doing despicable acts, not our story. Cheney repeats the chant. But it is harder to spin razored and mutilated bodies than stories or fear. We should look at  torture. And we should confront the images that document its reality rather than hide the faces in fictions that they don’t exist. And we should expose as well the ugly sire of torture, war.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:

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