University of California, Santa Barbara

Torture and the Future

Perspectives from the Humanities


Main Page | Project Description | Events/Lectures | Coordinators | Links | Giving | Contact


Project Description

Commenting on the photographs of prisoner abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib, Susan Sontag asserted in May 2004 that “these photographs are us”1. Sontag’s assertion captures one of the most critical issues in America today: Torture performed in the name of the protection of American security.

The goal of this two quarter-long project is to extend and intensify the conversations started in the series “Engagements: Human Rights and the Humanities”, a multidisciplinary forum dedicated to exploring how literature and the arts engage with the complex issues surrounding human rights and their violation in today’s world.2 With the ongoing public debate on the efficacy and legitimacy of torture, it is our responsibility not only to educate about the issues involved, but to take strong and well-informed stances of active opposition.

The Abu Ghraib pictures are “us” for several reasons.

First, because, as Sontag writes, “the issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such acts, but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely”. For the Abu Ghraib pictures, the answer to this question is beyond doubt. As Lisa Hajjar puts it, “recent investigations by the military itself and the media have documented torture as a part and consequence of official policy.”3

Second, these pictures are “us”, if we consider that, as Alfred McCoy documents with a petition signed by 481 prominent US professors, there is “surprisingly widespread advocacy of state-sanctioned torture among American academics,” including in the American Psychological Association, which does not discourage its members from participating in “national security endeavors”, a euphemism for the APA’s long involvement in military research and CIA behavioral experiments.4 The involvement in or condoning of any form of torture, or, to use another euphemism, “coercive interrogation”, by American academics shows that even in institutions of higher education, a significant number of scholars are “unaware of the absolute, unequivocal prohibition against torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of any person, including terrorist suspects."5

Third, those pictures are “us”, because the media entertainment complex is complicit with making torture an acceptable form of social containment. The attack on the Twin Towers has been used as the ultimate justification for pre-emptive torture as a means of averting the threat of yet another catastrophe. It seems likely that TV series such as ‘NYPD Blue’ and Fox Television’s popular CIA drama ‘24,’ have “open[ed] ordinary Americans to consider whether the torture of real terrorists is not only justifiable but imperative”, and thereby “have lent a hand in creating a public climate tolerant of governmental torture.”6

Fourth, these pictures are “us” if we take seriously an observation in Sontag’s essay whose implications lead to the very foundations of American democracy: “If there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880’s and 1930’s, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu Ghraib.”7 These pictures, no less than the photographs of lynching, unambiguously show that they “were meant to be circulated and seen by many people” -- they are, as the poses of the tormenters openly indicate, publicly avowable, “in part designed to be photographed”.8

These four points summarize the areas of investigation and discussion to be examined in the series.

1) “Democracy”. It is now a widely accepted fact that the democratically elected government of the United States engages in torture around the world, including in so-called “black sites”, into which dozens, if not hundreds of suspected terrorists are being “disappeared” without a trace. It is therefore necessary to question the consequences these practices have on the concept and practice of “democracy” in the United States, as well as on states whose human rights violations are routinely denounced by Western democratic governments, including the US. There is substantial evidence that other “democracies” do and have relied on torture, even after its absolute prohibition in the aftermath of World War II, starting with the French in Algeria and Indochina, the British in Northern Ireland, and the Israelis in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon. This subject of “democratic torture” will be one of the foci of this program.

2) Academia. It is necessary to question the consequences of the use of torture on the principles and practices of scholarship and education. By either openly or passively condoning torture, for example through our silence, we send a devastating message not only to our students, but also to the community at large: that the prohibition against torture is negotiable or even dispensable. Especially in the humanities, where cutting edge thinking explores concepts and experiences such as “responsibility”, “otherness”, “difference”, “memory”, “trauma”, our work and research become entirely irrelevant if, today, we ignore the implications of a re-legitimization of torture. Furthermore, in Richard Falk’s view, the perspectives of social science alone cannot adequately comprehend what is at stake. The humanities might offer more productive methods towards an ethics and politics of response and resistance.

3) Media. Representations of torture in popular media inform and influence people's consciousness and understanding of its underpinnings. State-sponsored torture and its transformation into a media spectacle must be examined as a rhetorical and iconographic structure of meaning, a structure that infiltrates our everyday lives. Thus, has the media spectacle of torture become integrated into the American social body? Are the codes of racial and religious profiling provoking a crisis on the nature of American identity? Further, the visual display of torture does not only evoke revulsion, but has been transformed into a form of visual pleasure that obscures the coordinates of democratic citizenship. We then need to consider representations of torture in the media as a psychological instrument of social coercion, and the effects such coercion has on the state of human rights and citizenship.

4) Heritage. We need to reflect on a heritage that may resonate in today’s practices of torture and is mirrored in the lack of public outcry. Jean Améry wrote in 1966, that “half the French nation rose up against the torture in Algeria. One cannot say often and emphatically enough that by this the French did honor to themselves. Leftist intellectuals protested. Catholic trade unionists and other Christian laymen warned against the torture, and at the risk of their safety and lives took action against it.”9 We need to ask how what seems to be a massive public indifference can be understood beyond the influence of mainstream media. Can this indifference be understood as embedded in a specifically American tradition, for example in a concept like “American exceptionalism” that, in the past, has allowed the US to routinely make “a mockery of the principles enshrined in international law, while officials opportunistically utilized its moral-legal rhetoric to castigate enemies”?10 Are there unspoken links between the acceptability of torture, on the one hand, and, for example, what Dennis Childs has termed the “slavery of the 20th and 21st centuries”, American prisons, and the death penalty?11 Mark Dow’s research on the “American Gulag” of US Immigration Prisons describes the horrifying conditions of torture, abuse, civil death in US immigration prisons.12 Avery Gordon’s most recent work uncovers the links between military and civilian prisons, and shows that Abu Ghraib needs to be reflected on in this context. The human rights violations on American soil and their deeply rooted causes have to be scrutinized if our investigation into human rights abuses abroad is to be productive.

1 Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others”, New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004,

2 The first event of this series featured Mark Lee, on January 19, 2006. The event was attended by about one hundred students and faculty. The second event featured Richard Falk, on May 22, 2006.

3 Lisa Hajjar, “Our Heart of Darkness”, Amnesty Magazine, Summer 2004. As McCoy notes, “the Justice Department memos, and the administration consensus they reflected, would lead, in the coming months, to widespread use of more brutal methods by both CIA and military interrogators.” A. McCoy, A Question of Torture, New York, Metropolitan Books, 2006, p. 124. See also Lisa Hajjar, “Torture and the Lawless ‘New Paradigm’”, 9/12/05: Documents of a US Army investigation of a military intelligence battalion stationed in Mosul, Iraq, prove in January 2004, that “torture and abuse of detainees was routine and was considered acceptable practice by U.S. soldiers.” ACLU Lawyer Amrit Singh, quoted in: McCoy, A Question of Torture, p. 177.

4 McCoy, A Question of Torture, p. 178 and 183. According to McCoy, “the APA’s code of ethics has stricter, more specific standards for the treatment of laboratory animals than for human subjects such as the Guantánamo detainees.” (Ibid., 183)

5 Human Rights Watch World 2006. "Events of 2005," Human Rights Watch and Seven Stories Press, 2006. As the investigator for human rights organizations, Eric Stener Carlson writes, the “prohibition against States employing torture is so deeply entrenched in customary international law that it falls under the category of jus cogens, meaning there is no greater class of prohibition. Torture, like slavery and genocide, is something so forbidden, so dishonorable for a soldier to engage in, that, even in times of total war, there is no legally acceptable excuse for it, ever. No justifiable situation. No escape clause.” Eric Stener Calron, “The Pear Tree: Is Torture Ever Justified?” Clarity Press, 2006.

6 Tomdispatch: Alfred McCoy on How Not to Ban Torture in Congress, The popularity of NYPD Blue is reflected in the fact that, according to ABC’s website, the show, “presently in its 12th season on ABC, is one of the longest-running police dramas in broadcast history. Since its network debut in September 1993, the series earned 27 Emmy nominations in its first season, won the coveted award for Outstanding Drama Series in its sophomore year and received Emmy Awards for writing and directing in its fourth and fifth seasons. NYPD Blue has received an astounding 82 Emmy nominations, winning 20.”

7 Susan Sontag, loc. cit.

8 Susan Sontag, loc. cit.

9 Jean Améry, At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, 1966, Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 23

10 Lisa Hajjar, From Nuremberg to Guantánamo: International Law and American Power Politics,

11 See Dennis Childs, Formations of Neo-Slavery: The Cultures and Politics of the American Carcereal State. Dissertation, UC Berkeley, 2005.

12 Mark Dow, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, UC Press, 2004.

Main Page | Project Description | Events/Lectures | Coordinators | Links | Giving | Contact