The Real Abu Ghraib Whitewash: "24" and Public Acceptance of Torture
When the Army Inspector General’s office concluded its inquiry into the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, many commentators were disturbed that the final report cleared virtually all of the high command of responsibility in the fiasco. Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, his three top deputies and all senior officials were spared official criticism on the assertion that their culpability was “unsubstantiated,” despite the fact that such outrageous treatment of prisoners of war by American soldiers is per se evidence of a chain or command dysfunction. Of the Army leadership, only Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of U.S. prisons in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004, stands in line for punishment.
We know better, of course. An independent inquiry into the incident, conducted at the instigation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger stated, “We believe that there is institutional and personal responsibility right up the chain of command as far as Washington is concerned.” Rumsfeld, it was revealed after the fact, twice offered his resignation, which President Bush did not accept. Because the resignation was not accepted, Abu Ghraib’s official saga is still that of aberrational misconduct by a handful of rogue recruits.
Democrats protested, Senator Kennedy fumed, and media wags who don’t host conservative radio talk shows called the Inspector General’s report a “whitewash,” which seems like a fair description. But the Bush administration whistled a happy tune, and the American public’s interest has been negligible.
Because, it must be said, the majority of the American public does not object to torture and abuse, if the objects of it are enemies, villains or criminals, or if the motive for it is security and self-defense. The public did not like the Abu Ghraib affair because of its effects on U.S. prestige. But the lack of widespread public indignation over the official shrug in reaction to Abu Ghraib and other examples of prisoner abuse is one of two strong indicators that torture is not the cultural taboo Americans claim it is.
The other indicator is the hit television series, “24.”
“24” is a gripping and incredibly fast-paced Fox television drama that each season purports to portray one crisis-packed day in 24 one hour “real time” episodes. For four seasons, “24” has chronicled fictional U.S. government efforts to foil one elaborate terrorist plot after another. The hero of all four is super-agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Bauer is amazing, and not only because he never sleeps, eats, goes to the bathroom or has to deal with a dead cell phone. He also is a true blue patriot, the favorite Mister Fix-it of two Presidents, fearless, honorable and he’ll torture a terrorist, suspected terrorist or friend of a terrorist without any hesitation whatsoever.
Sometimes he shoots them in their kneecaps, and sometimes he shocks them. A favorite is breaking fingers, one by one. A couple of seasons ago, Bauer had a subject of interrogation watch on a live television feed as another US agent threatened to shoot the subject’s child in the head (and did, although it turned out to be faked.) There’s always a compelling reason for Bauer’s brutality, of course: a nuclear bomb ticking away, ready to kill millions; a deadly canister of an unstoppable virus about to be opened; the President on the verge of assassination; World War Three just seconds from starting. And that’s good enough for America. “24” has increased its ratings every season, and is now consistently ranked in the top ten most viewed programs.
Now, if Americans regarded torture with the revulsion that the nation’s values and principles, not to mention its international treaties, would seem to demand, there is no way “24” would be a popular show. Jack Bauer is a torturer, and if torture is always wrong, that would make Jack Bauer a “bad guy.” Americans do not admire “bad guys,” because they see themselves as the “good guys” of the world. Americans, however, like Jack Bauer; if they didn’t like him, they wouldn’t watch his show.
Not that Jack’s kneecap-shooting, finger-breaking ways aren’t controversial. The many websites devoted to “24” include much criticism of his practices, often accompanied by the objection that the show “cheats” by setting up extreme situations that make torture easier to rationalize. That’s not cheating, however; extreme situations legitimately test the position that the moral, ethical and legal prohibition of torture must be absolute. Is never the standard, as our Declaration of Independence would suggest, or never unless it’s really, really necessary? “24” tells us that the latter is what Americans believe.
Thus, in America, the strictures against torture are not absolute; they are provisional, meaning that torture can be right under certain circumstances. To save the country; a million lives; the President what else? One’s family? A group of children?
In “Dirty Harry,” the 1971 film by famously macho director Don Siegel (written by the equally right-leaning John Milius), a police detective tortures a sadistic homicidal madman so he will reveal where he has buried–alive–a teenaged girl before she suffocates to death. Audiences cheered, and the actor who played the self-righteous torturer, Clint Eastwood, became an immediate superstar and the heir apparent to John Wayne’s role as America’s Hero. Sure: one child’s life saved by torturing a vicious killer. We approve!
When at a gut level we don’t object to torturing the bad guys, we’re not going to get exercised when they’re abused. This connection is illustrated by the widespread lack of public uproar over prison rape, despite the fact that it’s illegal, brutal, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment in its frequency, and has been a part of the prison culture for decades. They’re criminals, after all; who cares?
As long as the true alignment of ethical values in America tilts toward torture, social commentators, lawyers, journalists and scholars do us no favors by pretending it is otherwise. That is the real whitewash of Abu Ghraib, and it is far more serious in its long range implications than any Inspector General’s report. The majority of Americans find torture acceptable under certain circumstances. That belief is in direct opposition to the human rights principles that launched the nation, and either that belief has got to change, or America will change, for the worse. Ethicists, moralists, activists, journalists and critics of Abu Ghraib need to stop talking and writing as if everyone “knows” that torture is wrong, and start building a public consensus that it really is.
As Jack Bauer could tell them, it’s going to take a lot longer than 24 hours to do it.