U.S. Americans typically have responded to the release of the Senate Committee’s Report on Torture by debating either the morality or the efficacy of torture.  When opponents denounce torture as ineffective they do so because they believe that it does not provide the United States government reliable information about terrorism while those who disagree claim just the opposite. And when others decry torture on ethical grounds they do so because they believe torture an immoral way of securing national safety while those who disagree claim just the opposite. Either way, both debates center around whether or not torture represents an appropriate means to the end of self-defense against terrorism.

But what if torture serves another, even more primary purpose? What if, not foreign terrorists and their intransigent allies, but the U.S.-American public supplies the ultimate target of the torture wreaked upon the bodies hidden away in secret prisons scattered across pro-American parts of the globe? What if torture’s success lies precisely in its failure both to conform to long-recognized moral norms and to demonstrate with certainty that it gathers life-saving information.

We have misclassified torture. Rather than a strategy, I argue, the torture deployed in the war on terror operates as a soteriology, a type of salvation story.

To understand what I am getting at here, we have to remind ourselves that the stories people tell about themselves, even when sincere, are not always true. This owes as much to our finitude as it does to our sinful need for an excuse to keep on sinning. As even a casual reflection upon our own personal life stories surely demonstrates, we do not always do what we think we are doing or what we mean to do. Torture, then, is not just what its proponents mean it to be; it does not do only what they intend for it to do.

Torture produces paradoxical effects. Rather than calming fear, torture generates it. Torture does not soothe those it claims to protect, it alerts them to danger. It acts more like a siren than a balm. More than it projects unimpeachable power it announces incurable vulnerability. It does not neutralize a threat; it testifies to it.

Much like when a young child almost runs out into the rush of noonday traffic and encounters an extreme and unprecedented level of anger from her parent, the government’s reaction to 9/11 instructs us to be afraid in a way we did not know to be afraid before. Death, our parent’s anger teaches us, lies where we had not expected it to be.

Torture signals to the American people that they face a threat so massive, irrational, and evil that we have no choice but to take extraordinary and extra-legal measures to protect ourselves against is. The fact that the United States tortures proves that the United States must torture.

As a result, the more men are tortured, the more the people of the United States fear them. Paradoxically, when agents of the United States submerge Muslim in drowning waters or force them into stress positions, these completely powerless men appear more threatening to us, not less.

Just as the barbarity of torture counter-intuitively makes it seem not evil but necessary, so our inability to know for certain whether or not torture gathers life-saving information represents not a flaw of torture, but its greatest power. A team of torturers undoubtedly intends to coerce their subject to divulge information he would otherwise hide from them. But they toil at a task that can never be complete. How can we ever know when a person, especially one as evil, irrational, and super-humanly menacing as a terrorist, has told us all there is to tell? Just as it is much easier to prove that something exists than it is to prove that something does not exist, so it is easier to know that someone told us something than it is to know when she has told us everything.

If the terrorist were not so intransigent, irrational, and evil, the logic goes, then we would not need to torture him in order to convince him to tell us what he does. But he is and so we must.   In this way, the tortured can never really be exonerated. If he has not told us information pertaining to a terrorist plot, this does not mean that said information does not exist; it simply means both that we have not looked hard enough yet and that we cannot trust that our enemy is telling us the truth.   A person who believes in the existence of Monsters Bigfoot and Loch Ness can never really be convinced that they do not exist; even their absence proves their existence. Only existence qualifies as conclusive, and all signs point to the need for a continued search.

Thus, even when it provides no information about impending terrorism, it nonetheless provides one piece of information with certainty: we must keep torturing.

Just as we do not know what there is to know, neither do we know who knows it. Denying terrorism any political intent, we label it sheer evil. It’s not a strategy; it’s an ontological state, a menacing ghoul, the sum of all human fears. And as such, it is irrational, unpredictable, and all-encompassingly insatiable. Its perpetrators are equally so. We cannot know for sure whether or not a man, especially when he prays to Allah and lives in certain regions of the world, intends to slaughter innocent American civilians until we torture him.

Thus, while we can know in retrospect that we tortured the wrong person, we can never really be blamed for it.

These two paradoxical features of torture explain its operation as a soteriology, a type of salvation story. More than making us safer, torture convinces us that we inhabit a state of permanent mortal peril and that the government of the United States of America provides our only chance of survival.

Torture’s capacity to portray terrorism as an existential threat largely explains the curious transformation our culture has undergone in the wake of 9/11.

The 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, measures just how much we have changed. In that movie, a team of military lawyers, played by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, and Some Other Guy, respectively, attempt to bring Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, to justice for his ordering a so-called “Code Red” against an underperforming Private at Guantanamo Bay named Santiago. In this movie, Cruise and Moore’s characters are undoubtedly the good guys and Nicholson is even more unquestionably the villain.

The emotional climax of the movie comes near the end, when a youthful Cruise, corners a snarling Nicholson on the witness stand. Finally abandoning his façade of civility, Nicholson’s Jessup thunders the following monologue:

“You can’t handle the truth!…Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have the luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about in parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall…I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post.”

But the audience is not meant to cheer this exhortation. The movie soars to resolution when Nicholson’s character is arrested upon his descent from the witness stand. This is when the audience cheers.

Afterwards, the subordinates who actually executed the Code Red ordered by Nicholson are convicted of “conduct unbecoming of conduct befitting a U.S. Marine” and are dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps. Although the audience feels sympathy for them and believes them good people, we recognize that they did wrong.

The movie ends happily, and Colonel Jessup’s logic is repudiated. If the movie unfolds as a type of showdown between two versions of America, then Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, the defender of law and order, prevails over Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup, the purveyor of might makes right lawlessness (of course each America must be represented by white males. Eyeroll). Not Jessup but Kaffee stands as the true protector and guardian of what makes us truly American.

But, if in 1992, we rooted against Jessup and cheered his arrest, then in 2004, we re-elected him Vice President in the form of Dick Cheney. Listen closely: in the speeches of Dick Cheney one hears the voice of Jessup. Except instead of being taken away in handcuffs, Jessup/Cheney brokers law and order: from pariah to protector; law-breaker to law-maker; renegade to executive in just a few short years.

Torture stands as a type of symbol for the war on terror itself: we must do dirty things in order to survive; our actions may sometimes be tragic, but they are never unjust. In this way, it has changed the way we think about all those who fight the war on terror, even those who do not engage in torture. And now movies like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper top box office charts.

We have changed in yet another way.  More than at any point in recent history, we corporately express gratitude to soldiers newly returned from war. To commemorate Veteran’s Day, professional basketball players wear camouflage-colored uniforms; the NFL newly dedicates a week to the celebration of Veteran’s Day.

We thank them so profusely because, unlike ever before, we owe everything to them. Like to write stuff on facebook? Thank a soldier for that. Like to watch or play professional and college football? Thank a soldier for that. Like to ask questions? Thank a soldier for that.  Like doing Crossfit? Thank a soldier for that.  Like to write songs?  Thank a soldier for that.

We believe all of this even though, as David Masciota of Salon points out,

“no American freedom is currently at stake in Afghanistan…[and] the war in Iraq…had nothing to do with the safety or freedom of the American people. The last time the U.S. military deployed to fight for the protection of American life was in World War II—an inconvenient fact that reduces clichés about ‘thanking a solider’ for free speech to rubble.”

Increasingly, we appreciate members of the military not for what they have actually done (and indeed, many have done things worthy of praise) but what we believe we need them to do: save us from death.

jesus-and-soldiersIndeed, contemporary U.S.-Americans talk about the military much like Christians talk about Jesus. Operating as a type of theological pidgin, Christian notions of salvation comprise the grammar while militarism supplies the vocabulary for this post-9/11 civil-religious discourse. (Perhaps this helps to explain why Christians support the torture deployed in the war on terror at higher rates than any other group of U.S.-Americans.)

As songs like the maudlin First Gulf War anthem, Proud to Be An American, demonstrates, the belief that we owe our very lives to the sacrifices of soldiers is not entirely brand new. But it typically came and went like a fever, seizing us only for a moment. Telling a salvation story, torture has turned Jessup into a hero. His credo now represents not just a slogan chanted in response to fleeting circumstance, but a soteriology that secures our existence. They are God-like and we live only because of them. More than we aspire to “support the troops,” we feel obliged to thank them.

Torture tells us that we are powerless over death and in need of salvation. Torture also shows us who our savior is, the military agents of the United States of America. Quite simply, torture teaches us that, without them, we would all be dead.

If you do not believe, then it is only because you can’t handle the truth.

3 thoughts

  1. Katie, this is excellent. I have intuitively felt for some time that there was a soteriological aspect to the discourse around torture, in the sense that we as Americans were treating it as our only hope of salvation from terrorism; but you have articulated it very clearly here and drawn further connections that hadn’t occurred to me. Thank you.

    I believe the events of 9/11 quite literally traumatized the nation, and thus produced (and continues to produce) responses that are all out of rational proportion to the actual events.

    While I was reading this post, especially the passage that culminated with
    Thus, while we can know in retrospect that we tortured the wrong person, we can never really be blamed for it.

    I was reminded of the tortures carried out by the Inquisition, and of the witch hunts in colonial America. But I’m not sure what connection my brain is trying to make there.

  2. In discussing “A Few Good Men”, I think there is something important missing. The audience isnt fir Tom Cruise and against Jack Nicholson because of thr relative merits of their positions. They are on the side they are because that was the deal they made when they bought the ticket.

    The villain isn’t a villain because their actions are bad, their actions are bad because they are the villain. Similarly, the hero can do almost anything and still be the hero. This is a relatively harmless way to watch movies, but a terrible way to be in the real world.

    “X is bad”, “We do X”, and “We’re the good guys” are contradictory. People have no difficulty in resolving this, though. They don’t even need to be lied to; they have all the material and inclination needed to lie to themselves.

    The lie may eventually rejected, once it is remote enough to not affect identity (“sure, THAT was bad, but we’re great NOW”), but… we’ll just be ripping off one bandaide to put on a new one…

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