Why America is still in the grip of torture

Jessica Chastain play's Zero Dark Thirty's obsessive CIA hero.

Jessica Chastain play’s Zero Dark Thirty’s obsessive CIA hero.

Last week the LA premier of Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was picketed by hood wearing activists protesting its depiction of torture. In Washington, outside the Whitehouse, Codepink, the feminist peace group, were protesting the announcement that John Brennan, a former CIA analyst said to have supported the Bush torture and rendition programs had been nominated to be the Director of Central Intelligence.

Four years after George Bush left the Whitehouse and just as President Obama is about to be inaugurated for his second term. The issue of torture is still a raw wound in the American psyche.

Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, is an Oscars contender for best film but it has been causing controversy even before production began. It begins with graphic torture scenes and its critics say it leaves the impression that information extracted from prisoners under torture was critical in locating the al Qaida leader. Three US senators, Diane Feinstein chair of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Carl Lewin chair of the Armed Services committee and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, found this implication so disturbing they have sent a letter of protest to Sony, the picture’s producers. Naomi Kline went so far as to call Bigelow a Leni Riefenstahl apologist for torture.

The Senators wrote that their staff had reviewed 6 million pages of intelligence material in the course of a recent review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and it “is factually inaccurate” for the film to “imply that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden”.

The senators are fulsome in their condemnation of torture:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective.

The senator’s language about “going back to these dark times” seems to echo president Obama’s justification for not prosecuting Bush era crimes by stating that he believes the nation needs “to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

It is striking that in spite of her condemnation of torture Senator Feinstein took quite a different view of Brennan’s nomination, releasing a statement saying:

Clearly, Mr. Brennan has the qualifications and expertise to be the next CIA Director.  He has longstanding knowledge of the operations of this critical agency and also the strength to see that it follows the law.  I believe he will be a strong and positive director.

When it was rumored that Obama would nominate Brennan for the CIA job four years ago, at the start of his first term, Brennan was forced to withdraw from consideration because of his apparent support of Bush era torture policies. As a number of commentators have pointed out (here and here ) that four years on this does not seem to be an insurmountable hurdle. Polls suggest that more Americans now support torture as a valid policy in the fight against terrorism than they did four years ago.

It is tempting to argue that that is because the American public have become inoculated to the horrors of torture through its recurrent use in TV series like 24 or movies like Bigelow’s. That argument is an easy out. The more serious reason is that Obama has failed to hold anyone to account for the Bush torture and rendition policies. Even cases of brutal detainee deaths have been dismissed.  It is not just left wing activists who are calling these Bush era policies “war crimes.” In 2008 Major General Antonio Taguba who headed the inquiry into Abu Ghraib wrote:

“After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes…The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

Both Bigelow’s film and Brennan’s nomination have become lightening rods for controversy and protest because as Senator Feinstein and her colleagues wrote in their letter of protest:

The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience.

This stain will not disappear. Perhaps Obama is right that no good purpose will be served by prosecutions but perhaps he should learn from other countries who have initiated strong process of national reconciliation and accountability. In a 2009 conference presentation Paul van Zyl the former executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggested that America needed a similar process in the post-Bush era. It was briefly reported but is not an idea that gained traction.

There have been a series of reports and investigations such as the investigation into the CIA’s practices that Feinstein’s committee has overseen but the report has not been made public. Reports of the details of the Bush torture program have leaked out gradually through the hard work of journalists and activists rather than in a cohesive transparent process that is designed to come to terms with such a fundamental breach of national values.

Just as the Australian federal government has finally decided that only a full Royal Commission can address the national horror around child abuse only a national US commission of inquiry can hope to lay to rest the ongoing American and international horror around state sponsored torture.


Celebrities should come out

The New Yorker Festival 2012 - "Cloud Atlas" US Premiere, Followed By A Conversation With Aleksander Hemon And The Film's Writer-Directors

Lana Wakowski’s HRC speech negotiates the ethics of publicness much more adroitly than Jodie Foster’s Golden Globes speech


A lot has been written over the last few days about Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech. Foster’s meandering, oblique but strangely compelling speech was an immediate viral hit.

It was a coming-out speech although she didn’t mention the “l” word. But as rhetorician Sam Leith has pointed out this may be part of its power. It was as he points out a very deft performance not despite its ambiguity but because of it.

Last year another Hollywood megastar gave a coming out speech that drew comparatively little publicity.

Lana Wakowski who, with her brother Andy, directed the Matrix Trilogy accepted a Visibility award from the American GLBTI rights group Human Rights Campaign and like Foster gave a quirky, endearing but much more explicit speech about her gender identity.

Both Foster and Wakowski spoke about valuing their privacy and both mocked the pantomime of confessional culture. But Wakowski’s critique has political bite while Foster’s is little more than a jokey jibe.

Foster said that she had already long ago done her coming out to friends and family but “now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show.”

Wakowski has also been out for over a decade to her friends and family – a process that started in Sydney while she was filming the Matrix – and like Foster she rejected the idea of parading her gender identity through the talk show mill. But unlike Foster her speech has real analysis:

I am completely horrified by the “talk show,” the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality.

Foster went on to mourn the lost virtues of privacy. Foster, now fifty, was accepting a career achievement award from the Golden Globes but as she noted she had been a star since she was three.

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy. Someday, in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.

Wakowski also talks about privacy but not as a nostalgic lost beauty. Again her reasons for valuing privacy and agreeing to give it up are more complex. Neither her nor her brother have done interviews for over twelve years. They valued the “egalitarian invisibility” of anonymity which gives you a particular access to civic space and allows a regular participation in public life, she says.

After completing their last film Cloud Atlas, for a variety of reasons they began to discuss whether they might do interviews. During these discussions Wakowski recalled a line from one of the characters in the film. The character says: “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden and I couldn’t allow that.”

Wakowski comments: “she says this aware that even at the moment she’s saying it that the sacrifice she has made will cost her her life…. I start to understand just how complex the relationship between visibility and invisibility has been throughout my life.”

In the rest of the speech Wakowski recounts a number of key incidents in her movement from invisibility to visibility.

We live in a radically new environment that media academic Jeff Jarvis calls “the age of publicness”. He argues that the fact that we now live much of what was once regarded as private in the public domain has brought great personal and communal benefits. It enables better collaboration. It breaks down taboos. It enables the “wisdom of crowds”. And it improves relationships. It enables gay men, lesbians and trans people to live open and productive lives.

Jarvis has written about this both as a media theorist and as a public survivor of prostate cancer. He argues convincingly that by going public about his cancer in talks and blog posts he not only contributed to an environment that may encourage other men to be tested but he gained lots of useful information and support in response.

Privacy advocates are quick to remind us about the ethics of privacy. In his book Public Parts Jarvis argues that we need to think about both the ethics of privacy and the ethics of publicness. While we are certainly obliged to think carefully and act respectfully when handling the informational lives of others, we also need to think ethically about the impact of our own public declarations. Ethics are about how we contribute to the public good and we do this as much through sharing publically as we do by respecting the private lives of others. Jarvis again uses the cancer example. By being public a breast cancer patient might inspire other women to get examined, or her public declaration may even reveal a up a cluster of cancers in her environment that need investigation.

It is strikingly clear that Wakowski has thought long and hard about the ethics of publicness while Jodie Foster remains focused on the values of privacy.

Wakowski realises the public good that comes from visibility – the lives that might potentially be saved – and knows this far outweighs any abstract value that might attach to her privacy. That is often what ethical decision making is about: weighing up the relative costs and benefits of two seemingly mutually exclusive actions. She concludes:

[As a teenager] I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world and it felt like my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others. If I can be that person for someone else [pause, applause] then the sacrifice of my private civic life may have value. I know I am also here because of the strength and courage and love that I am blessed to receive from my wife, my family and my friends. And in this way I hope to offer their love in the form of my materiality to a project like this one started by the HRC, so that this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds previously unimaginable.

There may well be complex personal reasons why celebrities remain in the closet but to justify it with a nostalgic appeal to the “beautiful” days of lost privacy is no longer ethically convincing.

Apocalypse 2013

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth...1000 years after the cataclysm

Jaden Smith stars in M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth…1000 years after the cataclysm


The last few years have begun with predictions of the Apocalypse hanging over us.

2011 was supposed to bring the Rapture with US preacher Harold Camping first saying it would come in May then readjusting his sights to October. Last year, of course, brought us the Mayan Apocalypse, which passed with lots of parties but no lasting fireworks just before Christmas.

With solar activity expected to reach a cyclical peak in 2013 this year was shaping up as another big year for apocalyptic fears however NASA have recently downgraded their predictions for solar storms. So does this mean that we can have a year off apocalyptic frenzies?

Probably not.

A look at Hollywood’s release list for this year tells us that 2013 will be anything but apocalypse free.

Diabolo Cody’s remake of the Sam Rami classic The Evil Dead continues the zombie explosion of recent years while Brad Pitt also gets to run from a zombie apocalypse and go all out to protect his family in World War Z

Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Tom Cruise, Will and Jaden Smith and Guillermo Toro all have post-apocalyptic blockbusters scheduled and this year we even get apocalyptic comedy. The Shaun of the Dead team are back with Worlds End where five mates unite for a pub crawl that could literally end all pub crawls.

Closer to home the National Geographic Channel’s new season of Doomsday Preppers begins this week. Their episode guide promises stories of a tornado-fearing farmer building an underground Noah’s Ark for his animals and a family man preparing for a nuclear-powered terrorist attack. The series brings us weekly stories from the survivalist movement who are going all out to prepare for the worst.

When Doomsday Prepper’s first season launched last year it fitted the 2012 zeitgeist but the new season has a more eerie resonance with the widely reported news that the Sandy Hook school shooter’s mother, Nancy Lanza, was a prepper.

As J. M Berger pointed out in Foreign Policy it is far too easy to blame either his mother’s enthusiasm for guns or her survivalist beliefs for the horrific events in Newtown. However survivalist doomsday beliefs have been associated with a number of other terrorist and shooting deaths. Berger points out that there is very little research about the mental state of preppers. However he believes “anecdotal observations” point to a higher incidence of mental illness among hardcore preppers than in the general population. He adds:

The nature of their beliefs and social networks may create obstacles to diagnosis and treatment. There can be fine lines between reasonable fear, intense fear, and irrational fear, and some preppers subscribe to conspiracy theories that are completely nuts, focused on supposed threats from sinister “chemtrails” to the Illuminati (or both and then some). World ending, conspiratorial beliefs are easy to dismiss as symptoms of possible mental illness but sociologists, psychologists, theologians and literary scholars who have studied apocalyptic narratives and beliefs are more inclined to speak of them as a form of sense making. We do after all live in a nerve wrecking unstable world where in fact preparation for disaster is anything but crazy.

Apocalypse is the Greek name of the last book of the Christian Bible and colloquially it has come to mean a world-ending catastrophe because of that book’s fiery visions of plaques, famines, earthquakes, wars and global slaughter. But the word is Greek for “revelation” or “unveiling”. The proliferation of apocalyptic myths are in fact trying to tell us something, trying to reveal something. And their message is just as much about a possible golden future as it is about a gloomy end. The apocalyptic myth is uniquely associated with the utopian: they are two sides of the one coin. The bible’s Book of Revelation is filled with horrible world-ending visions but it ends with the promise of 1000 years of peace.

Even Hollywood’s slate of apocalyptic disaster films aren’t as black and white as they seem. Western Australian academic Mick Broderick has suggested that rather than analyse these films, which undoubtedly celebrate a dazzling array of cataclysmic moments, under the rubric of the “aesthetics of disaster,” as Sontag famously did, they ought more rightly be seen as being primarily about survival.

The apocalyptic myth, which seems to exist in one form or another in all cultures, is doing what all classic myth does. It is trying to hold in tension two opposite possibilities and imagine what might emerge.

American writer Rebecca Solnit might be described as an archetypal apocalyptic writer. She first came to fame with a book that contrasted the disaster impregnated landscape of the Nevada nuclear test site and the paradisiacal Yosemite National Park. In her latest book A Paradise Built in Hell she has written about how communities come together and surprise with their resourcefulness in times of disaster. Just before Christmas last year Solnit issued a call to arms claiming 2013 was “Year Zero” for the planet. Like other activists Solnit is concerned that we are reaching a tipping point in the ongoing environmental crisis, perhaps a point of no return. But Solnit like a true apocalypticist uses this grave fact to point towards a revelation:

The reasons for acting may be somber, but the fight is a gift and an honor. What it will give you in return is meaning, purpose, hope, your best self, some really good company, and the satisfaction of being part of victories also to come. But what victory means needs to be imagined on a whole new scale as the news worsens.

She spends the rest of her article outlining the proliferation of creative grassroots responses to climate change rather than the standard list of worsening indicators.

Theologian Catherine Keller calls this attitude “counter-apocalyptic”. It is not ignoring the disaster to come nor is it merely anti-apocalyptic, which runs the risk of buying into easy black and white posturing of its own. It is a posture of hope that stands firmly in the swirl of apocalyptic omens predicting bad endings and dreams a future. A future that Solnit reminds us is only built through imagination, hope and hard work.

A shorter version of this was published in The Conversation