The banality of torture

Putting torture into the mainstream is not bad, since it reminds us just how common the practice actually is

By Nathan Bloom

Critics of Fox’s 24 have long argued that the show’s numerous depictions of torture are often gratuitous, damage America’s international reputation, and encourage American soldiers to view torture as a productive and justified military tactic. I hope they are wrong. Likewise, prominent political commentator Andrew Sullivan has lamented that 24 helps to “normalize torture in the public consciousness.” I hope he is right.

It bears pointing out how incredible it is that an intellectual as bright as Sullivan can make a statement like that without even a hint of irony. After all, the defining image of America’s majority religion is of a man being brutally tortured. Its very symbol is an instrument of torture, a symbol that countless Americans put on the walls of their homes and wear daily around their necks. If none of this has normalized torture in Americans’ eyes, what must they think they are seeing? The letter “T”?

While a sanitized, PG Christianity that downplays the starkness of suffering may be more comforting to its adherents, the classical version of the religion that dwelled on torture did have something going for it: It was not afraid to face the world of human experience in its entirety.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich panned Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ for obsessing in a “pornographic” way on Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion. One suspects, however, that Jesus himself did not find anything particularly pornographic about his manner of execution. Neither did the 10s of thousands of other men, women, and children crucified by Rome who collectively spent decades writhing in agony in the bitter embrace of wood and iron. How is it pornographic to depict their experience in art any more than it is, say, to dwell ad nauseum through hundreds of pages of text over the social maneuverings of 19th-century British aristocrats?

The fact is that torture should be normalized in the public consciousness because torture has been a normal occurrence throughout human history and still is throughout much of the world. It should be normalized because Americans tend to view the world through rose-colored glasses, to the detriment of their judgment.

Torture recently made headlines when a senior Bush administration official admitted that the U.S. government had tortured Mohammad al-Qahtani, who is suspected of being an attempted 9/11 hijacker. According to a New York Times report, the man was “kept in isolation and cold rooms, deprived of sleep, made to do dog tricks and broken by sexual and other humiliations too numerous to list.”

This is reprehensible and utterly unacceptable. But it is critical to keep in mind, as almost no one ever does, that not all torture is created equal. Without an understanding of this basic fact, many Americans argue that their nation has lost all of its moral authority and has become no different from its enemies. Alas, if only the French soldiers captured by the Taliban last year were tormented with sleep deprivation and made to bark like Fido. In fact, they were skinned alive. Al Qaeda torture manuals captured by coalition forces in Iraq describe in graphic detail the fundamentals of ironing men’s torsos and crushing their heads in vises. Many of us have difficulty comprehending the breathtaking possibilities of human pain and therefore distinguishing between the horrible and the infinitely horrible.

I have always been baffled by the sentiment common among my co-religionists that the Holocaust posed a unique theological problem. As later genocides have confirmed, that great tragedy was just one particularly awful horror on the wide continuum of human misery. If theology suffered a setback, it was only an easy theology that picks and chooses what it desires from the human condition. If we are to take the world seriously and see it clearly, then we need a brave reckoning with its deepest darkness.