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Torture Chic

While former BadEditor Aaron Shuman serves a 4-month sentence in federal prison for opposing U.S. state sponsorship of torture, a new "torture chic" creeps into prime-time television.

Today, 15 March 2005, former Bad Subjects editor and co-director Aaron Shuman reports to U.S. federal prison to serve out a four-month sentence. His crime? “Crossing the line” during a protest at the infamous School of the Americas, an international academy of torture, where members of foreign militaries train with U.S. experts on interrogation and, well, torture. “The line,” in this case, is an absolute and arbitrary border that protesters cannot cross, lest they be charged with trespassing at the school. Aaron and thirteen others were charged with criminal trespass. The line exists to simply the punishment of protesters. By way of comparison, antiabortion protesters who trespass at clinics around the U.S. are often given fines or even suspended sentences.

There have been protests at the School of the Americas for years now. When I interviewed at Santa Clara University in 1998, the president of that school, a Jesuit, had participated in such protests. But the penalties for “crossing the line” have recently been increased as the U.S. has escalated its so-called War on Terror. The message is clear: so long as free speech does not issue a direct challenge to U.S. military prerogative, it will be tolerated. It is haunting and frightening that the police-prison complex is now in the business of defending the military’s right to use torture.

It seems that the War on Terror has occasioned a new and frightening turn to the right in American discussions of torture. From attorney-general candidates who think that Geneva Convention protections for prisoners of war are “quaint,” to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, to the CIA’s “rendering” operations where prisoners are secretly deported to countries where torture is openly practiced, the American government and its various military and paramilitary organs are unilaterally declaring new rules for the game of war. While there has been some outrage in mainstream press coverage of this ugly turn, no real mass protest has erupted. In this climate, the work of groups like School of the Americas Watch, which organizes an annual protest, is more important and more urgent than ever before.

The recent explosion of news coverage of torture is paralleled in American popular culture. We watch a lot of action-adventure television in our household, and I can’t help noticing that three prime-time television shows have had extended scenes of interrogations that use torture: Alias, Battlestar Galactica, and Twenty-Four. On Alias, most of the main characters have undergone some form of torture in the course of the series’ unfolding. All of them bear emotional scars, but the scars come not from the torture; they come from familial conflict. On the remake of Battlestar Gallactica, where the cylons (robotic bad guys) now look like humans, a lead character tortures a cylon to try and get information out of him. Since “he” is a machine, at no time does the show raise any serious moral questions about its characters’ interrogation practices. Of course the most outrageous case is Twenty-Four, which has featured torture in its interrogations for its entire run. This year, the twist is that people who are tortured by the protagonists quickly turn out to be good guys and help in the fight against terrorism, once the torture demonstrates that they are pure. After being tortured by protagonist Jack Bauer on suspicion of collaboration with terrorists (it turns out he had no knowledge he was selling software to terrorists), one character helps Bauer in hacking into a company’s database and even takes a bullet for Bauer. A woman who works back at the base asks for a raise and cleared records after she is tortured on the erroneous suspicion that she is an enemy mole. Her boss accedes and the character goes back to work as if nothing happened. When a new boss arrives and the character insists that her bizarre deal is still honored, she is summarily fired. On an earlier episode, the secretary of defense (himself something of an enigmatic character, but not unsympathetic) has his own son tortured.

It is perhaps a bit simplistic to read popular cultural texts literally. But while the U.S. government cracks down on protests against very real and very hidden torture, the explicit representation of torture is, in some cases, the new chic shocker in action-adventure television. Forget psychological arguments about media effects. We are living in an age where discourse around torture makes it causal, routine and unexceptional. Forget prime time: in the real world, where victims of torture take years to recover, and where it has largely been discredited as an interrogation technique, we should be very afraid. Torture is anything but a casual business. We know this because the U.S. government sends decent, peaceful people to jail to taking a stand against it.

Send a message of support to this year’s 14 prisoners of conscience at:

Learn more about School of the Americas Watch and their campaign against the U.S. military’s sponsorship of torture on foreign soil at:

Copyright © Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.