We Report, You Decide

A Simple Case For Torture, or How to Sleep at Night, Revisited


In 1982 I picked up a copy of the leading newsmagazine Newsweek with a painting on the cover, a modest portrait of a seated, ordinary looking young woman, but with exposed breasts. The headline was THE NEW REALISM. I flipped through to the first article, a full-page guest editorial, “The Case for Torture.” I was shocked, as I was meant to be, for this article was a provocation. US president Ronald Reagan was belligerently ratcheting up the Cold War, smashing Jimmy Carter’s détente by planting nuclear Cruise missiles in Western Europe … and some obscure nut had made his way onto Newsweek’s front page arguing for the US to embrace torture as policy? Officially, of course, the nation was on the side of justice and human rights. Torture by the Latin American military and death squads reportedly took place under the eye and even the tutelage of the US—all unreported in the mainstream. News of widespread torture and brutalization of prisoners and suspects in Vietnam had likewise been swept under the rug. As signatory to the Geneva Convention, the United States insisted on the need for dignified and humane treatment of military prisoners—at least in public.

The Newsweek screed was written by one Michael Levin, an unknown philosophy professor at The City College of New York. His argument mixed sentimental fears for hypothetical kidnapped infants, and their parents’ equally hypothetical desire to torture the perpetrators, with fear of Arab plane hijackers (a repetitive scenario in the 1970s), and fear of a lunatic with an atom bomb in Manhattan—where, of course, City College stands. The answer to Levin’s inevitable question, “Won’t WE turn into THEM?” was predictable. Levin argued that, just as it had been honorable to try to murder Hitler in1944, torture, judiciously applied, far from marking a descent into barbarism, was a moral imperative. Could you sleep at night if your prissy scruples led to the death of 6 or 8 million innocent New Yorkers?

In 1982 a public argument in favor of torture was deeply anomalous. Jump to the present. Here is Charles Krauthammer, prominent “neoconservative” writer and a trained psychiatrist, in late 2005: “The Truth about Torture: It's time to be honest about doing terrible things.” He begins by categorizing types of enemies and reaches the heart of his subject:
Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets compli¬cated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.
Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty. [end Krauthammer quote]

The distance from 1982 can be seen by the emergence of men like Krauthammer, in the company of many willing to resurrect the arguments of Carl Schmitt—a legal and political theorist in Germany, a Nazi Party member referred to as "Crown Jurist of the Third Reich”—on the necessity for secrecy in government and the suspension of the rule of law in wartime to legitimize exigent situations— or “states of exception.” Thus, legal policy in wartime —however defined— is formed around government-identified needs. In the US, Schmitt’s ideas were put in fateful combination with those of the German Jewish émigré professor Leo Strauss.

In Strauss’ authoritarian theory of government, rulers are far superior to the masses of the governed, who must be kept ignorant of most policy issues. A populist “myth” must cover a hidden elite truth: an exoteric message hides the esoteric one, the true meaning of the text. A Straussian would argue that Machiavelli’s only fault was to fail to keep his prescriptions secret. At the University of Chicago in the 60s, Strauss’s students were known as a “cabal,” with a reputation for forming “truth squads” harassing those who disagreed with their ideas. A number of Strauss acolytes went on to seize the reins of the US Republican Party. Members in and around government, academe, and influential small policy journals have included Paul Wolfowitz, Allan Bloom, William Kristol, Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Kagan. Some are ex-Trotskyist neo-conservatives, and most display their statist enthusiasm for war making and empire.

Under a ferocious secrecy, the US has returned to the business of protecting its global hegemony, and a requisite step has been the identification, for public consumption, of a new, quasi-mythical set of “evildoers” to replace the fallen Evil Empire (as Reagan’s speech writer dubbed the Soviet Union back in 1982). The new evildoers are the Muslim Other, an enemy coalesced in the persons of criminal attackers such as those who brought down New York’s towers in 2001. Understanding the motives and tactics of Muslim militants and their supporters, who intend to massacre civilians in the US and allied countries, is critical to deterring them. But the question remains of who we are, of our values and practices.
The eight years of Bush and Cheney have gone far toward instituting elements of a police state and a fantastic surge in war-related expenditure, as outlined by, among others, Chalmers Johnson, by the retired military officers at the Center for Defense Information, and by military historian Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich calls the increasing militarization of US foreign policy semiwar, a term coined by James Forrestal, the first postwar Secretary of Defense.

Bacevich traces the declining power of citizens and Congress to this covert doctrine of governance, in which the president is conceived of as “the commander in chief” rather than a civilian head of state, a “unitary executive” rather than in charge of one branch of government among a triad of coequals. Finally, the government operates by a rule of secrecy that fits well with Straussian and neoconservative ideology.

Under these doctrines the US is being stripped of many long-held legal and ethical principles—including such foundational elements as habeas corpus. If the question is, won’t WE turn into THEM, our barbarian opponents, the answer surely depends on defining the characteristics of THEM. But by the mythos of this point of view, they are the forces of darkness and we are the forces of light; therefore, anything we do is done for the cause of good.... We cannot become evil barbarians; we cannot become THEM.
But while our identity is fixed, theirs is not. Then how do we identify THEM aong a horde of Others? The answer is simple: Any group or individual, anywhere, showing serious dissent from our policies evokes the suspicion that that person, group, or nation could become an active opponent and rise to the level of enemy.

We have a list of national candidates: Iran, Syria, North Korea, even Pakistan, and the old familiar enemy, Russia. But potential enemies also now include US citizens. Any designated outrage will justify to a believing public the most barbaric and inhuman treatment of our enemies, all for the cause of good. Incidents are invented—the Gulf of Tonkin incident during the Vietnam War— or framed as part of a campaign of disinformation—the Iranian speedboats in the Straits of Hormuz last month, US citizen Jose Padilla’s vanishing dirty bomb plot. Disinformation, or systematic government lying, also termed psyop, or psychological operations, is used against the home audience. The systematicity of the message—what George Bush has called “catapulting the propaganda”— creates others as THEM: subhuman, fanatical, indefatigable murderous, beastly terrorists. This Manichaean figure of the Enemy has been with us a long time.

Al Gore (channeling Harold Lasswell’s 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War and advertising and public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays’s 1928 book Propaganda) recently wrote: "the potential for manipulating mass opinions and feelings initially discovered by commercial advertisers is now being even more aggressively exploited by a new generation of media Machiavellis." Who are they? It is sufficient to name one, Rupert Murdoch, and sufficient to look at his creation of the US TV network Fox, under the leadership of Republican Party operative Roger Ailes. Fox relies on Murdoch’s long experience in trolling the bottom of the print media tabloids in England and Australia, exploiting gossip, scandal, and demagoguery. Like most of Murdoch’s outlets, Fox’s programming “catapults” its demagogic political message, whose Machiavellian slogans are “We Report, You Decide” and, more to the point, “Fair and Balanced.” (An essay could be devoted to that particular slogan, since their specialty is of course framing discourses. Let me simply observe that surveys have regularly shown that the more people watch Fox, the less they know about public events; the signal delusion here is that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the events of September 11. )


A recurrent Latin American scenario justifying torture has been the localized politico-sexual proposition “Suppose a little girl has been kidnapped” in the urban jungle: what police officer would not in good conscience torture half the city to find her and bring her home to her desperate parents? Our current script is different. We torture—rather, we DON’T torture, the story goes: we subject our non-uniformed, stateless enemy combatants to any pressure short of outright organ failure, according to the standard provided by White House lawyers Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and David Addington— to protect the Homeland and the republic from “bad news” that, famously, “could take the form of a mushroom cloud,” invoking the technological cliché of the ticking time bomb. Or we send our captured evildoers to other countries “where they know what to do with them,” our president has let us know with a wink and a chuckle—to the Dark Side, in the words of Vice President Dick Cheney in 2001, who added: It’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

In the 1980s, during the dirty little proxy wars in Latin South America, the exposure of the draconian Central Intelligence Agency manual for interrogation caused public “embarrassment” and government disavowal. Our psychological pressure tactics supposedly resulted from observation of the ease with which US troops in Korea gave up information or defected (this saw the birth of the term "brainwashing”) as well as the earlier public confession of Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty during his 1949 show trial for crimes against the state. Techniques designed to break down personality were the subject of secret experiments for the following decades, with important research done by one of Canada’s leading psychiatrists working with US forces. The current protocols for interrogation—known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape)— grew out of these investigations and were developed by psychologists training US forces to withstand interrogation by an enemy. To underline: "The feared methods attributed to the barbarians underwent a turnabout and were adopted as our own."

What is different about the present moment from 1982 is the public’s apparent willingness to embrace systematic cruelty, albeit by another name, and to insist on the need for astonishingly widespread surveillance of themselves (a signal characteristic of a police state). These actions are carried out by the CIA and the military alike, although the CIA has never before been so deeply involved in detention and interrogation, as opposed to intelligence collection (spying), on the one hand, and covert operations (killing, sabotage), on the other. The longer these stark changes are accepted without bringing the government down (in whatever way), the more they and their rhetorical frame are normalized.

The “harsh” tactics now in regular use, if not always publicly acknowledged, include beating, sleep deprivation, waterboarding and forcible injection of fluids into bodily orifices as well as other violations of bodily integrity, prolonged exposure to cold or heat, stress positions, confinement in tiny, dark (or conversely, permanently lit), blasting with deafening, unceasing music or sensory deprivation, along with creating systems of rewards and manipulating fears, with the aim of making prisoners emotionally dependent— virtually all the things Nazis were vilified for doing, in the Allied press, by legal authorities in the postwar Nuremberg trials, and in a floodtide of popular postwar movies.

Here is Charles Krauthammer, in his column cited above:
We have recently learned that since 9/11 the United States has maintained a series of "black sites" around the world, secret detention centers where presumably high-level terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been imprisoned. The world is scandalized … [but] I feel reassured. It would be a gross dereliction of duty for any government not to keep Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isolated, disoriented, alone, despairing, cold and sleepless, in some godforsaken hidden location in order to find out what he knew about plans for future mass murder. What are we supposed to do? Give him a nice cell in a warm Manhattan prison, complete with Miranda rights, a mellifluent lawyer, and his own website?… Let's assume (and hope) that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been kept in one of these black sites, say, a cell somewhere in Romania, held entirely incommunicado and subjected to [this] kind of "coercive interrogation.” [end Krauthammer quote]

In the New Yorker in 2007, reporter Jane Mayer described the treatment of Mohammed, supplying some of the details Krauthammer glosses over, and which the Red Cross has, in a confidential report, suggested violates international law. But Krauthammer, and no doubt millions of his fellow Americans, proclaims himself reassured, tranquil.

Just as President Bush today denounces the Taliban as brutal, cold-blooded killers but fails to label as state terrorism, or otherwise consider what it means, systematically to employ against a largely civilian population in Afghanistan and Iraq, air force bombers, ordnance-dropping drones operated from an air base in the Western US, or bomb-carrying battlefield robots (not to mention landmines, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, and depleted uranium), we understand that the rationale surely is, “If we do it, it is all right.” If we violate international treaties and our own bodies of law in torturing people, surely it is all right, since WE ARE ALWAYS RIGHT. Can we doubt that many Germans under Nazi rule assumed so as well?


Back in 1982, I saw many ironies in the way the pro-torture article was embedded in that issue of Newsweek, along with a discussion of a New Realism in painting, as well as a hateful set of letters about “victimhood,” the new rightwing label for the protests of those long-suffering groups who protested electoral disenfranchisement, labor exploitation, and social and economic disadvantage of all kinds: women, blacks, gays, Latinos, Asians, native people—all those “whiners” and “weepers” unsatisfied with their lot, along with criminals who did not want to be put to death, and the potentiators of all of that crap that made America weak and ungovernable… and economically unproductive.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 had brought about a New Realism, in which hard-hearted “Go ahead, make my day” attitudes, expressed with a nasty theatrical swagger and a steely glint in the eye, would replace “love” (that signature Sixties’ idea). Jingoistic patriotism replaced Carter’s focus on international human rights. Never mind the conscious appeal to racism and Christian suprematism that underlay the new mood, calculated to turn the post-Vietnam malaise into a “USA! USA!” moment. Conflating civic religion—perpetual favorite of the American right—with fundamentalist Christianity, Reagan told a gathering of evangelicals that the fact that the United States was set between the two oceans meant God had intended us to rule the Continent (compare Bush, Jr.’s, apparent discovery, 25 years later, that planes could cross the oceans and harm us). In tune with this new mood of aggressively messianic triumphalism, advertising began to feature outsize desires— for luxury goods, financial services (because Greed is good), and sexy and often submissive women— some of the ads in this very issue of Newsweek.


My response to Newsweek’s feature was to make a videotape that would tie the pro-torture article to global and national trends— geopolitical “facts on the ground” and the presumed neo-imperialism exercised through information technologies, from data management to cultural products such as movies, music, and advertising.

I saw the pro-torture article as embedded in a stream of ads, letters, articles, and pictures designed to naturalize the US worldview while instilling fear through warnings about banking crises and a generalized xenophobia, from which the National Security State would magnanimously insulate us. This bombardment of terrors and distractions would decenter the citizens of the Society of the Spectacle and lead them to dive into the cocoon of private preoccupations.

My work, A Simple Case for Torture, or How to Sleep at Night, was not a discursive documentary and did not employ torture photos that would, I thought, reinforce the pacification of viewers that is a hallmark of spectacle culture. Instead, “torture” was invoked through the bombardment of the viewer by ordinary forms of corporate information transmission and the content of voiceovers.

The work invokes Hannah Arendt’s concepts of totalitarianism:
In the last and fully totalitarian stage … the concepts of the objective enemy and the logically possible crime are abandoned, the victims chosen completely at random…. The innocent and the guilty are equally undesirable. The change in the concept of crime and criminal determines the new and terrible methods of the totalitarian secret police ... undesirables disappear from the face of the earth; the only trace they leave behind is the memory of those who knew and loved them, and one of the most dif-ficult tasks of the secret police is to make sure that even such traces will disappear....

The voiceover continues:
Disappearance was used by the Nazis in the occupied territories in the Forties under the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) Decree to dispose of people “endangering German security” by means of what Field Marshal Keitel described as “effective intimidation.”

As many critics have objected, torture’s yields are often unreliable, turning the argument from its ethical basis to a utilitarian one; but that is irrelevant to its prime function, which precisely is to intimidate both occupied peoples and the captive audience at home and beyond.

Ordinary people read the script interrogating Professor Levin’s article. One section spends time asking about the torturers’ likely employment status, whether as civil servant or military employee; in reality, of course, torturers, like executioners, are shielded from public view. U.S. General Antonio Taguba’s 2004 report on the Abu Ghraib abuses claims that the commander Steven Stephanowicz encouraged his Military Police to terrorize inmates, and "clearly knew his instructions equated to physical abuse." A handful of low-level soldiers were prosecuted. But torturers are, increasingly, contract laborers, like the interrogators employed by the secretive, 1.6 billion-dollar firm CACI, implicated in some of the Abu Ghraib abuses. Mercenaries from various countries and contractors with names like KBR, Halliburton, Triple Canopy, Blackwater, Dyncorp, and Custer Battles, make up about half the US forces of all types in Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps elsewhere. They are exempt from law. "’It's insanity," Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, said in 2004: ‘These are rank amateurs and there is no legally binding law on these guys as far as I could tell. …’ Repub¬licans aim to privatize and “outsource” police and penal functions in the “homeland” as well.


In my tape, a tenor sings a cappella about economic woes, jungle imagery, the new investment value of art, and the taste for authoritarian leadership in times of uncertainty.

When the economy shrinks, the whole world shrinks.
Darkness and chaos press in all around …

Look out for your money, your kids and your wife
If you don’t want to worry the rest of your life.
Money money money money money.
Green is gold, gold is green
No rate of profit is really obscene
As long as I can get it.
Gold is the color of all the best things
Gold is the color of oil and big paintings. ....


The final section of the video uses Michel Foucault’s discussion, in Discipline and Punish, of the ambiguous role of torture and hanging in the public square. Then a hand reaches into the frame and places a tiny gold crown on the photo of Michael Levin, the torture column’s author, as the characteristics of the “strongman” appear on the screen, among them:


.... The final words, a quote from Theodor Adorno (from his book Minima Moralia), are apparently spoken by a TV reporter standing on a street somewhere. They are, in part:

Psychology knows that he who imagines disasters in some way desires them…. The fantasy of persecution is contagious. … The fulfillment of persecution fantasies springs from their affinity to bloody realities…. Even the worst, most senseless representations of events, the wildest projections, contain the unconscious effort of consciousness to recognize the fatal flaw by which society perpetuates its existence.
The work closes with a series of propositions that might make authoritarianism attractive, even to a democratic electorate.



What about the present situation? Along with the all-but-official embrace of torture to obtain information from malefactors and terrorize everyone else, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the arrogation to the president of monarchic privilege, and the advance of a locked-down surveillance society, the US is also increasingly divided into the very rich and the poor, a process long ago called, by Noam Chomsky and others, the Latin Americanization of the United States. That process of arrogation of wealth has always included the use of physical abuse, torture, disappearance, and extra-judicial killing as part of the arsenal of coercion on behalf of economic and political elites. The task falls, as always, to ordinary people, to press back against these abuses and to work to create a human community marked by justice and universal rights.

Martha Rosler