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Matt Stoller: How an Open Society Responds to Revelations of Torture

Matt Stoller,
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May 23, 2008

What is a law-abiding citizen in an open society to do when its government reveals that torture is a practice sanctioned by the highest levels of government? What are we to do when our political institutions — Congress in particular — will not hold our leaders accountable for torture, and in doing so, become complicit in the practice? If you watch the movie Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, or you read this blog or the hundreds of thousands of words written by outraged citizens on the subject, you have your answer: express your common decency and revulsion as often as you can, as creatively as you can, and as effectively as you can, so that our culture changes and rejects brutality as a practice.

Torture and America

What does cultural change look like? It’s hard to say. Since I used to write satire, and sometimes, when I have the chance, I still give it a go, I like to look at comedy for an answer. Comedy reveals something fundamental about how we as a culture communicate and relate to one another. Just as the court jester could tell the truth, often an extremely harsh truth about the king when no one else could, simply because comedy was perceived of as non-threatening, some types of comedy — in particular satire — allow us to accept truths about ourselves that we might otherwise find too difficult.

During the Scooter Libby controversy, I hired a George Bush impersonator to do the video blog above, to explain in satirical terms why he commuted Scooter Libby’s sentence. It’s worth watching, because even though torture is used as a punchline, it resonated with over 54,000 people who viewed it on youtube.

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The blog is an explanation of why Bush pardoned Scooter Libby. In the explanation, Bush taunts liberals who think he’s trying to cover up his own crimes, because, since he really doesn’t fear prosecution for anything, why would he even bother with a cover-up? Even thinking that he’d be motivated by the fear of being held accountable is, he says, “stupid”. He says: “I commit crimes all the time, right in the open, and nobody does anything about it. I start wars for no good reason, all kinds of laws. I torture people” And then the Bush impersonator delivers the punchline. He looks straight into the camera and says ‘Torture. Torture. TORTURE. I could walk out of the White House and shoot a kid, and no one would do anything about it.”

This was the first video we commissioned, and we did a series, on wiretapping and children’s health insurance. Eventually, we stopped doing these videos, because people stopped finding them funny, and began to find them a depressingly accurate portrayal of what they think Bush really thinks in private. In the video about wiretapping and FISA, for instance, Bush sits back and says that he might just put forward a law to make Watergate retroactively legal, “and then watch the Democrats have to pass that one too.” That just made our readers sad.

Still, it says something about our common decency that we find it funny that an actor playing Bush openly taunts the public about the monstrous nature of the government that he leads, and uses torture as the epitome of that characterization. The court jester is telling us that our leader is open and flagrant, even smirkingly joyful, about his own degradation of humanity. And we laugh, because we know that it is true and horrible. And we feel a sense of pain, because it is not just Bush who is torturing, it is all of us as citizens, who are allowing this to happen, each of us, as citizens.

What we find funny as a culture isn’t always high-minded truth masquerading as satire. Sometimes it reflects our baser instincts, and a desire to see cruelty employed as a mechanism of social control. Take prison rape, a subject given wide exposure through a variety of jokes which have as their punchline ‘pick up the soap’, or some variant thereof. Ezra Klein wrote about this cultural tolerance, even cooperation, of torture, in an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times.

Occasionally, we even admit that prison rape is a quietly honored part of the punishment structure for criminals. When Enron’s Ken Lay was sentenced to jail, for instance, Bill Lockyer, then the attorney general of California, spoke dreamily of his desire “to personally escort Lay to an 8-by-10 cell that he could share with a tattooed dude who says, ‘Hi, my name is Spike, honey.’

‘The culture is rife with similar comments. Although it would be unthinkable for the government today to institute corporal punishment in prisons, there is little or no outrage when the government interns prisoners in institutions where their fellow inmates will brutally violate them. We won’t touch you, but we can’t be held accountable for the behavior of Spike, now can we?

As our jokes and cultural products show, we can claim no ignorance. We know of the abuses, and we know of the rapes. Research by the University of South Dakota’s Cindy Struckman-Johnson found that 20 percent of prisoners reported being coerced or pressured into sex, and 10 percent said they were violently raped. In a 2007 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 60,000 inmates claimed to have been sexually victimized by other inmates during the previous 12 months. Given the stigma around admitting such harms, the true numbers are probably substantially higher.

This legacy of cruelty has produced Bush and his enablers in Congress in both parties, but it is part of a long-standing culture of machismo that we must leave behind. In 2007, 60,000 people (or more) were raped or sexually assaulted in government-sanctioned and controlled facilities, and the cultural response is one that minimizes, dehumanizes, even encourages others to share their experience. With 2.35 million Americans in prison, more than one in every hundred Americans, it’s clear that seeing human beings as chattel is embedded into the very structure of our economy.

While large numbers tell a story about bureaucracy, and what we find funny tells a story about culture, I will give my personal story about the dehumanizing aspect of violence, and what it does to an ordinary person. About two weeks ago, I was hit pretty hard in the face by an attacker. I was on the street, a man called to me, I turned around, and the man hit me in the face before I had time to even see him coming. He quickly ran, and when I finally picked myself off the street, he was three blocks away. Now, I thought that taking a punch is a time-honored tradition in American culture; I even box as a hobby. But what I found, after going through a raw violent attack, is that while fighting might be a tradition, pure violence in which one person is able to damage another person, swiftly and viciously, with no opportunity for resolution, has an unexpected permanence.

While the physical symptoms of being struck — nerve damage to my face, a black eye, some broken cheek bones, and whiplash — aren’t surprising, it was the psychological element that was truly jarring. Suffering from a week of depression and lethargy, loss of work and productivity, and general bitterness and anger is a humiliating for a 30 year old male in this culture. I am quite fortunate, considering that this was not state-sanctioned, the pain is relatively mild compared to waterboarding, and it is unlikely to happen again. Still, I have a harder time remembering little details, for a few days I looked in closets out of fear that someone is there, and I feel a sense of foreboding when anyone — friend or family — tries to touch me for a hug or a handshake. This will go away in time, as most victims of a violent attack will tell you, even though experiencing that sense of powerlessness is hard to forget.

After this (relatively mild) episode, I simply cannot imagine a prison rape, or torture, or state-santioned violence in any form leaving anything but a broken shell of a person behind, and a broken set of individuals who have done the dehumanizing act. And that, really, is the point of torture, to destroy and strip someone of their humanity and their capacity to love, remember, hate, or even feel, and to turn the torturers themselves into animals. It is why we find it both tragic and funny when an actor portrays a government leader joyously expressing his scot-free pursuit of destroying souls. It is why it is a searing indictment of our culture that prison rape jokes are so prevalent, something historians will look back on and mark akin to minstrel shows as a shameful illustration of a late 20th century and early 21st century cultural tolerance for brutality.

While the last five years have seen a horrific public shaming of our country and a widening set of practices that officially sanction or come close to officially sanctioning torture, perhaps this is an opportunity for us to roll back brutality in all its forms. Perhaps, to cleanse what we as a country have allowed to happen in our names, we must look at all our cultural institutions, and begin to recognize that a cultural that tolerates, encourages, and laughs at brutality, is a culture that demeans itself and elects as leaders those who would seek to turn us all into animals. That our society’s public conversation has moved from an implicit approval of torture in the form of prison rape and rendition to an explicit debate in which the Vice President argues in favor of water-boarding is an opportunity to change the way that we think about ourselves, our relationship to one another, what we allow to happen in our names so long as there are walls that prevent us from seeing, and ultimately, whether we can throw off our own shackles of inhumanity.

I think we can. I think we are. And so, while torture is a great evil, it must be confronted, and for the first time in decades, we have been forced to publicly make the case for common decency. And that is the right response.

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