Torture's Tortured Cultural Roots

Sometimes you have to break a few heads to make an omelet: Denzel Washington and persuader in
Sometimes you have to break a few heads to make an omelet: Denzel Washington and persuader in "Man on Fire." (20Th Century Fox)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

If you're addicted to Fox's "24," you probably cheered on Jack Bauer when, in a recent episode, he snapped the fingers of a suspect who was, shall we say, reluctant to talk. Maybe you hated yourself a little bit for it, but you watched, and you got it: Yessssss!!!! Torture's a no-brainer here. Jack's got to save us all from imminent thermonuclear annihilation. Never mind the Geneva Convention, bring on the electroshock machine!

In pop culture, we approve of rogue heroes saving the day by any means necessary. It's all about getting the job done, and in getting the job done, there will always be casualties of war. And anyway, the bad guy deserved it.

It's not so simple, of course, when as a nation we're confronted with our own culpability. Witness Pfc. Lynndie England, the baby-faced Army reservist who yesterday pleaded guilty to seven counts of prisoner abuse -- not torture, mind you -- at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (No one, apparently, wants to utter the T-word.) It's hard to forget that picture of England leading an Iraqi prisoner around on a leash, but no one seems close to resolving the question about whether she and the other soldiers were pulling a Jack Bauer, or acting on the orders of a higher-up. Even her judge seemed to express doubt over at least one of the charges levied against her, questioning whether England knew it was a crime to pose for that picture. (After a brief recess, she told the judge she did know it was illegal.)

In the real world, we're all doing a soft-shoe over the oversize primate in the courtroom.

We can't seem to figure this torture thing out, but it's playing front and center in our lives. Watching "Fear Factor," we squirm with disgusted delight as rodents run over bound and gagged contestants. (Or we grab the remote.) It's a hoot in the video game Shellshock: Nam '67. It's cringe-inducing comedy in an expletive-laced bit from the Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 album debut: "I'll [expletive] pull your [expletive] tongue out your [expletive] mouth. . . . BLAOWW!!"

But looking at real pictures of real people being humiliated and hurt is another thing altogether, something we'd rather not talk about. Or face.

Indeed, as Americans, we're a conflicted lot when it comes to torture, the forced subjugation of the will. A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll revealed that a majority of Americans were against forcing prisoners to be chained naked, threatened with dogs, with drowning, with the type of things alleged to have gone on at Abu Ghraib.

And yet 39 percent were willing for the government to "torture known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks in the U.S."

Back in the day, torture was a cultural shorthand for evil, one of the worst things that can happen to someone. If you saw "Marathon Man," you won't soon forget the sight of Dustin Hoffman, trapped in a dental chair as the maniacally evil dentist, played by Laurence Olivier, went to work on his teeth. Vincent Price was a portrait in malice in "Witchfinder General," moving about the countryside, eliciting confessions from women by torturing them, and then burning them at the stake.

In Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," there was honor among thieves. Until, that is, Michael Madsen pumped up the volume on his boombox, dancing around the warehouse with a razor blade as he sliced off the ear of an undercover cop. And then doused him with gasoline. Then he was a bad thief.

Depicting torture was a way to establish a villain's bad guy cred, or to show that our hero or heroine has lived through some horrific things. Take Mel Gibson's paranoid taxi driver in "Conspiracy Theory." Turns out they really were out to get him, submerging him again and again, head first, into a toilet, his eyes peeled wide open.

But something shifted along the way. Perhaps we can blame it on 9/11, from the resulting xenophobia and fear. Perhaps not. What is indisputable is that the tone and tenor of our attitude toward torture, as it's played out on small and large screens, has changed to a macho, mantastic approach where vengeance is best served not cold but piping hot on a silver platter.

There are two things at work here: The notion of retribution, of anointing oneself judge and jury and doling out what is so richly deserved. And the jazzed-up jolt of the sexiness of it all, a violent one-upmanship where the stakes are ratcheted up, movie by movie, TV show by TV show, video game by video game.

If we're convinced of the good-guyness of our heroes, we cut them some slack when they're administering the beatdowns. They're just the men in white hats flattening out the playing field, wresting crucial information out of the Muslim, the Bad Guy, the Other. In last year's "Man on Fire," for example, Denzel Washington played John Creasy, a former CIA operative who calmly and methodically opens up a can of whup-ass, torturing and killing the gangsters of Mexico City who kidnapped a girl he was charged to protect. As the audience, we are meant to understand that Creasy had no other choice. He was a man doing what he had to do. It's all good.

In "Sin City," torture is actually fun. There's the getting-even part, sure, but then there's the sheer adrenaline kick out of watching Bruce Willis, as the hard-boiled detective with the soft spot for Jessica Alba, tear the Yellow Bastard limb from limb and watching all that yellow stuff ooze out onto the mostly black-and-white film. We've become so desensitized to violence that torture takes on an erotic charge, another way to woo the audience.

Eroticism certainly played a part in Lynndie England's torture of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Sexual humiliation was a big part of the game. So what then are we to make of her, and yesterday's mea culpa? Is she just a cultural boogeywoman, a Halloween costume that so many of us donned last October? Or is she emblematic of something more, the old funhouse mirror reflecting back at us?

One doesn't watch hijackers fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and come out unchanged. And we didn't. In many ways, we've become tinier and more afraid, dividing our world into Us vs. Them. It's easier that way.

So much easier to believe, as Jack Bauer tells his lady love, Audrey, when she protests a little too strongly about the breaking of the fingers: "You know what I did was absolutely necessary."

That's his story, and that's our story, too. He's sticking with it. And we'll be sticking with him, long after Lynndie has been carted off to military prison.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company