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May 20, 2005

Torture, Television & American Culture

Posted by S. J. Masty

The abuses carried out by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib are not a one-off. Such abuses are widespread and are a product of the culture fostered by American movies and cop shows, which glorify law breaking by the "righteous" in order to achieve "justice". This is the argument of S J Masty - a former Reagan speechwriter who then became a foreign correspondent and gave this up for development work, spending ten years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of its author alone. They are not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit has previously published articles - by Brendan Simms and Douglas Murray amongst others - in support of a neo-conservative foreign policy. The Social Affairs Unit will be publishing more on neo-conservatism in the future. The Social Affairs Unit regards the debate on interventionist foreign policy to be an important one and publishes this article as a catalyst for debate.

In one recent week an American soldier, Private Lynndie England, pleaded guilty to torturing prisoners in Iraq while lawyers for a Briton held in the American gulag at Guantanamo reported him being repeatedly sodomised as well as given forced enemas with toxic chemicals. Pvt England's trial then collapsed and prosecutors intend to begin again, with nobody expecting that even one of her commanding officers will be indicted.

Pvt England and a handful of others are fall-guys for a widespread American practice of torturing political prisoners. The New York Times recently reported that since 1994 at least 64 Islamists have been sent by the Americans to Egypt for torture and interrogation, while the State Department hypocritically criticises the Egyptian government each year for torture and human rights abuses. Yet it is a small symptom of an endemic pattern of governmental extrajudicial violence that is relatively new, deeply rooted in modern American popular culture, and worth a moment's consideration.

But first let us establish that the events of Abu Ghraib prison are not the one-off, freak occurrence that the Bush Administration claims. British officials speak privately of being "disgusted" at the widespread, vicious and what they call "unnecessary" torture inflicted by the American government on its political prisoners held in both well-known and secret bases around the world. Moreover it does not take long on the Internet to uncover credible media coverage of other innocent victims of torture in Guantanamo, Bagram and elsewhere.

The US denies it, often accusing the victims of being Al Qaeda members trained in giving misinformation - but the victims were interrogated, declared innocent and released. If they were terrorists, why did the Americans let them go? If they were not terrorists, then how can America claim that they are Al Qaeda people lying about torture? This is American government disinformation, and it does not bear up under scrutiny.

Also let us be clear that many of these torture victims, perhaps a majority, are innocent whether they are released or still in custody. It is fairly obvious when you think about how they came to be arrested.

Very few American officials speak Arabic, Baluch, Dari, Pushtu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Bengali or any other language likely to be spoken by Islamist terrorists between Basra and Jakarta. Virtually no American officials speak these languages fluently enough to understand people speaking in haste or under duress. So they can hardly be involved in selecting suspects – even if they could understand the language, they would not know the local political atmosphere, the composition of various political or religious factions or the individuals involved. So they pass the buck. Pressured by Washington to find suspects, these US officials pressure various Third World governments who pressure their own police – secret and otherwise.

These Third World policemen are intentionally underpaid, and expected to take bribes in order to earn enough to feed their families. They live without respect from their superiors or inferiors. So whom do they hand over to the American torturers? The local hot-headed Islamist teenager who just might be connected to terrorists but who certainly has equally hot-headed chums willing to shoot a cop in retaliation? Or the brother of the girl who won't sleep with the chief of police? Or the son of the peasant farmer who won't sell his tiny plot for the pittance offered by the mayor's firm of property developers?

Intentionally or not, Americans fill their gulags and torture chambers using a bureaucratic process with the primary objective of minimising risk to the operators. Mid-level American officials avoid displeasing their masters in Washington by irresponsibly pressuring Third World governments. Third World governments protect their overt and covert American funding by leaning irresponsibly on their own cops, and their cops play safe by irresponsibly arresting innocents. In this seamless way, other Americans, busy manning the gulags, are provided a steady supply of innocents to torture.

This wicked bureaucratic system, recalling Hannah Arendt's phrase "The Banality of Evil", explains why so many prisoners are declared innocent after two years or more of interrogation and torture by the Americans. But it does not explain the popular roots of such brutality, and one only need look at Pvt England's "happy snaps" to see just how enjoyable she and her colleagues found the process to be. Sadly, this is a small symptom of an even more virulent sickness pervading America.

It began in the 1970s with Charles Bronson movies such as Deathwish, where "drug-crazed hippies" murdered Bronson's wife, and when cops and courts dithered, he took the law into his own hands, meting out lethal "justice". It begat many other popular vigilante movies with and without Mr Bronson. What was once novelty is now orthodoxy. Today virtually every episode of every cop-show on American television portrays the heroes - the police - breaking the law in order to achieve some form of self-defined "justice".

This "good" or permissible criminal behaviour by television's law enforcement officers takes several forms. Sometimes they blackmail citizens whom they believe to be insufficiently helpful – threatening an immigrant with harassment from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service if he does not inform on a suspect, or threatening a small business owner with tax audits. Other times they trick innocent people into abandoning their rights. Occasionally they imply that they may plant drugs or other illegal materials on a former offender if he does not cooperate. Sometimes they just beat suspects, or even beat innocent people from whom they want information.

Consistent throughout are four important assumptions common to virtually every episode of every series:
(1) the system is broken and the rule of law benefits evildoers;
(2) justice requires policemen to break the law;
(3) all suspects must be presumed guilty; and
(4) what is an acceptable level of cooperation with the police is only determined by the police themselves and no rights exist for anyone deemed uncooperative whether he is a suspect or not.
If you have "right on your side", then anything goes.

In an episode of Law & Order, a Russian immigrant is shocked that lawless American police behave like Soviet cops: "we police are the same anywhere", smirks the streetwise American hero of the series as his partner smiles and nods. It is a far cry from the quaintly upright television policemen of the 1950s, who taught children respect for rule of law. Our parents' generation, and ours, mocked them as our grandparents ridiculed cloying Tom Brown at Rugby. But those pasteboard figures conveyed real values that we may yet come to miss.

Now language is manipulated, on television and by real-life policemen, in order to dehumanise their targets. Calling someone a "suspect" implies that he or she may not be found guilty. So on television and in real-life, US law enforcers almost universally call suspects "perps" for perpetrators – and purging the language makes it easier to purge people of their rights. Orwell would recognise the process. So would John Calvin – America's uniformed, self-righteous bullies are the secular Elect incapable of sin.

Muslims are instructed to pray five times a day because repetition helps keep God foremost in their minds. Within memory, Christians observed the Angelus and other scheduled times for daily prayers. Buddhist practice is based on daily meditation. In the modern, Godless West, daily television has replaced daily prayer and, and the stupidest and most impressionable people watch it the most. As in God-based religions, the new daily rite reinforces moral (or properly put, immoral) values – in this case, extrajudicial brutality. A generation of daily repetition must have an effect, and violent bullying appears to be a major attraction in recruiting US law enforcement officials.

My elderly relatives, retired to Florida, are rock-ribbed, right-wing Republicans never known to utter the phrase "civil rights". They now complain that every 82-year-old, retired gynaecologist pulled over for a burned-out tail-light on his Oldsmobile is handcuffed, manhandled, hit or kicked, and occasionally knocked to the ground once or twice for good measure. Once noticed by the police, he becomes a "perp" and forfeits his rights.

Staid, middle-aged doctors in Michigan are afraid to write letters to newspapers complaining about local government for fear of being persecuted by the state, mostly by police or regulatory investigators. Accurate or not, their fear is genuine.

Recently an old friend, working in Washington, DC, with a minor law-enforcement agency, talked of her constant struggle to restrain junior colleagues who clearly relish any way in which they can abuse members of the public, dominate and swagger. These stories are anecdotal, of course, and throughout American history minorities have sometimes been subject to police brutality, but now everyone feels at risk. Nowadays I know of no American who denies that a nasty, unnecessarily authoritarian and bullying cop-culture is afoot across America.

It has been a long time coming and, after a full generation of televised indoctrination, some of its best graduates are busy around the world, wiring innocents to electrical generators. This may be why I meet so many people, from Africa to Asia, who smirk whenever they hear pious American officials lecture about human rights violations in the Arab world or elsewhere.

It also explains why so many young people prefer Osama to Bush – he appears less obviously hypocritical.
© S J Masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communications.

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This is the type of article on would expect to read in The Guardian - not to be published by the Social Affairs Unit. I do agree with S J Masty that the abuses on Abu Ghraib have been disaterous for the US in terms of PR and its international image - however I must strongly object to his use of the word Gulag to describe American prisons. This is the worst kind of Chomsky-esque moral relativism.

Posted by: D. Mouldon at May 20, 2005 07:39 PM

Firstly I would disagree with D. Mouldon about S.J.Masty’s Article being Guardianista: it is certainly not partisan. If it appears anti-Republican, then that is largely because they are in power at the moment.

Secondly, the use of the word ‘Gulag’. The American prison system may not be anywhere as gross as the Soviet one, but consider – the little dinosaurs of the early Triassic were nowhere near the size of the monsters of the Jurassic or Cretaceous, but they were dinosaurs none the less.

Thirdly, if only someone could open the mind of President Bush (today’s version of the Roman Emperor) when he reads the Bible, so that he might consider how easily the Romans perpetrated injustices against the early Christians in seeking to do favours to the local bigwigs.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 21, 2005 09:10 AM

Very amusing piece. The real reason Lynnie Egland's trial fell apart was because it was over-lawyered by her defense team. They put specialists on the stand who declared that due to lack of oxygen at birth Lynnie was incapable of making critical judgements. Then to reduce her sentence, Lynnie plead guilty to her charges. The judge found these two points to be at such odds he ordered a new trial. They must start again at the begining.

Posted by: Janet Jackson at May 22, 2005 04:02 AM

The characteristic of the gulag system was that the camps were 'islands', embedded within Russia, where an alternative (or perhaps more intensified) moral, physical and cultural regime was in force parallel to that in the rest of the country. The US of course has the 'advantage' (for itself) that its camps are outside America. This is just a globalisation of the gulag concept. It's not right and if we don't like it we should say so whatever our political views.

Posted by: David Conway at May 22, 2005 07:06 AM

An interesting article particuarly given the authors credentials. I particuarly agree with the point that the US media influences peoples behaviour. The current 'yob culture' debate in the UK highlights the issue that many people are mimicing the behaviour of the youth culture in the US. The hooded top is not a result of the lack of male status due to changing employment patterns for men and women as posited by Ken Livingstone this week. It is rather a direct consequence of watching rap music videos which reflect US not European social problems.

Posted by: A Smith at May 22, 2005 10:43 AM

Doesn't it boil down to the fact that you can no more have "law and order" than you can be a meat-eating vegetarian?

A basic principle of the rule of law is that no effort be spared to ensure that only the guilty are punished. It follows from this, as night follows day, that some criminals will "get away with it" and it ought to surprise no one that -

(1) Authoritarians exist who would be prepared to punish innocent people in the name of imposing order;

(2) The media supply the market which demands authoritarian fables (you'd be the first to complain if they didn't);

(3) Authoritarians are attracted to law enforcement as a career.

Of course this piece is appropriate on this site - it drives to the heart of the issue for the Right to-day (I'm still not sure how neo-conservatives differ from the old-fashioned kind) - that there is no logical or emotional linkage between whole-hogging economic liberalism of the "taxation is theft" variety and social conservatism - come an election the standard-bearer of the Right has to craft a platform that fudges this lack of linkage, and endure the slings and arrows of the purists in each camp... to say nothing of the derision of his/her opponents - ask Michael Howard!

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at May 23, 2005 12:19 PM

Mr Masty writes: "Nowadays I know of no American who denies that a nasty, unnecessarily authoritarian and bullying cop-culture is afoot across America."

I am an American, and I deny that a nasty, unnecessarily authoritarian and bullying cop-culture is afoot across America. I would suggest that his elderly relatives who complain that every octogenarian pulled over for a traffic violation can expect to be instantly bashed about and hung by the heels are … how can I put this diplomatically? … suffering from a touch of senile dementia.

Despite the author's exaggerations, he does raise serious issues about the crudeness or incompetence of American interrogation methods in Iraq. If he is correct in what he says is going on, than the system clearly needs reform. I do not know what the facts are because I am luckily a long way from the sharp end, and have no inside sources. How does Mr Masty come by his information?

Most U.S. television is garbage, like most U.K. television and that of every other country I know of. Whether TV violence actually affects the behaviour of those who watch it has been debated for decades, and there is little hope of proving the case one way or another. Whether TV scripts showing bent cops help undo the minds of the cerebrally challenged is probably equally unverifiable. Personally, I believe intuitively that large quantities of violence and bad behaviour on the telly do have negative social fallout. I wish that TV programmes offered better role models.

Perhaps in his next article Mr Masty will explain what a country with freedom of expression should do to prevent the vigilante syndrome he sees on our cop shows.

Posted by: Rick Darby at May 27, 2005 05:31 PM

I was in the service for 8 yrs, and never in my life seen such act. I believe that these soldiers should be punish for their actions. We all suppose to love one another, not this crap going on. These soldiers arn't laughing now are they? They make us American people look bad. The pictures that I see, there is no remorse. How would they fill by being put in their shoes. I say do upon them as they have done until others. They thought it was a joke. We all should be treated equal. This just isn't the way we where train. What has happen to our American people?

Posted by: veronica at September 26, 2005 10:18 AM
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