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<nettime> Susan Sontag on Digital Hall of Mirrors & Horrors
Alan Sondheim on Sun, 23 May 2004 17:51:18 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Susan Sontag on Digital Hall of Mirrors & Horrors

I'm forwarding this to the nettime list - I haven't seen it there before -
because it strikes at the heart of this country, the frat-boy mentality,
the ultra-violent manipulation of language which permits any degree of
actrocities. - Alan

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 21 May 2004 20:31:16 -0500
From: Harald E. L. Prins <prins {AT} KSU.EDU>
Reply-To: Visual Communications Discussion <VISCOM {AT} LISTSERV.TEMPLE.EDU>
Subject: Susan Sontag on Digital Hall of Mirrors & Horrors


          May 23, 2004

    Regarding the Torture of Others



For a long time -- at least six decades -- photographs have laid down the
tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western
memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable
power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems probable
that the defining association of people everywhere with the war that the
United States launched pre-emptively in Iraq last year will be photographs
of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by Americans in the most infamous of
Saddam Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib.

The Bush administration and its defenders have chiefly sought to limit a
public-relations disaster -- the dissemination of the photographs --
rather than deal with the complex crimes of leadership and of policy
revealed by the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of the
reality onto the photographs themselves. The administration's initial
response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the
photographs -- as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what
they depict. There was also the avoidance of the word ''torture.'' The
prisoners had possibly been the objects of ''abuse,'' eventually of
''humiliation'' -- that was the most to be admitted. ''My impression is
that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically
is different from torture,'' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at
a press conference. ''And therefore I'm not going to address the 'torture'

Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of
the word ''genocide'' while some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being
slaughtered, over a few weeks' time, by their Hutu neighbors 10 years ago
that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything.
To refuse to call what took place in Abu Ghraib -- and what has taken
place elsewhere in Iraq and in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay -- by its
true name, torture, is as outrageous as the refusal to call the Rwandan
genocide a genocide. Here is one of the definitions of torture contained
in a convention to which the United States is a signatory: ''/any act by
which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from
him or a third person information or a confession./'' (The definition
comes from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Similar definitions have existed for
some time in customary law and in treaties, starting with Article 3 --
common to the four Geneva conventions of 1949 -- and many recent human
rights conventions.) The 1984 convention declares, ''/No exceptional
circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war,
internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be
invoked as a justification of torture./'' And all covenants on torture
specify that it includes treatment intended to humiliate the victim, like
leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors.

Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit the damage of the
widening revelations of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and
elsewhere -- trials, courts-martial, dishonorable discharges, resignation
of senior military figures and responsible administration officials and
substantial compensation to the victims -- it is probable that the
''torture'' word will continue to be banned. To acknowledge that Americans
torture their prisoners would contradict everything this administration
has invited the public to believe about the virtue of American intentions
and America's right, flowing from that virtue, to undertake unilateral
action on the world stage.

Even when the president was finally compelled, as the damage to America's
reputation everywhere in the world widened and deepened, to use the
''sorry'' word, the focus of regret still seemed the damage to America's
claim to moral superiority. Yes, President Bush said in Washington on May
6, standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan, he was ''sorry for the
humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered
by their families.'' But, he went on, he was ''equally sorry that people
seeing these pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of

To have the American effort in Iraq summed up by these images must seem,
to those who saw some justification in a war that did overthrow one of the
monster tyrants of modern times, ''unfair.'' A war, an occupation, is
inevitably a huge tapestry of actions. What makes some actions
representative and others not? The issue is not whether the torture was
done by individuals (i.e., ''not by everybody'') -- but whether it was
systematic. Authorized. Condoned. All acts are done by individuals. The
issue is not whether a majority or a minority of Americans performs such
acts but whether the nature of the policies prosecuted by this
administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such
acts likely.


Considered in this light, the photographs are us. That is, they are
representative of the fundamental corruptions of any foreign occupation
together with the Bush adminstration's distinctive policies. The Belgians
in the Congo, the French in Algeria, practiced torture and sexual
humiliation on despised recalcitrant natives. Add to this generic
corruption the mystifying, near-total unpreparedness of the American
rulers of Iraq to deal with the complex realities of the country after its
''liberation.'' And add to that the overarching, distinctive doctrines of
the Bush administration, namely that the United States has embarked on an
endless war and that those detained in this war are, if the president so
decides, ''unlawful combatants'' -- a policy enunciated by Donald Rumsfeld
for Taliban and Qaeda prisoners as early as January 2002 -- and thus, as
Rumsfeld said, ''technically'' they ''do not have any rights under the
Geneva Convention,'' and you have a perfect recipe for the cruelties and
crimes committed against the thousands incarcerated without charges or
access to lawyers in American-run prisons that have been set up since the
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

So, then, is the real issue not the photographs themselves but what the
photographs reveal to have happened to ''suspects'' in American custody?
No: the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated
from the horror that the photographs were taken -- with the perpetrators
posing, gloating, over their helpless captives. German soldiers in the
Second World War took photographs of the atrocities they were committing
in Poland and Russia, but snapshots in which the executioners placed
themselves among their victims are exceedingly rare, as may be seen in a
book just published, ''Photographing the Holocaust,'' by Janina Struk. If
there is something comparable to what these pictures show it would be some
of the photographs of black victims of lynching taken between the 1880's
and 1930's, which show Americans grinning beneath the naked mutilated body
of a black man or woman hanging behind them from a tree. The lynching
photographs were souvenirs of a collective action whose participants felt
perfectly justified in what they had done. So are the pictures from Abu

The lynching pictures were in the nature of photographs as trophies --
taken by a photographer in order to be collected, stored in albums,
displayed. The pictures taken by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, however,
reflect a shift in the use made of pictures -- less objects to be saved
than messages to be disseminated, circulated. A digital camera is a common
possession among soldiers. Where once photographing war was the province
of photojournalists, now the soldiers themselves are all photographers --
recording their war, their fun, their observations of what they find
picturesque, their atrocities -- and swapping images among themselves and
e-mailing them around the globe.

There is more and more recording of what people do, by themselves. At
least or especially in America, Andy Warhol's ideal of filming real events
in real time -- life isn't edited, why should its record be edited? -- has
become a norm for countless Webcasts, in which people record their day,
each in his or her own reality show. Here I am -- waking and yawning and
stretching, brushing my teeth, making breakfast, getting the kids off to
school. People record all aspects of their lives, store them in computer
files and send the files around. Family life goes with the recording of
family life -- even when, or especially when, the family is in the throes
of crisis and disgrace. Surely the dedicated, incessant home-videoing of
one another, in conversation and monologue, over many years was the most
astonishing material in ''Capturing the Friedmans,'' the recent
documentary by Andrew Jarecki about a Long Island family embroiled in
pedophilia charges.

An erotic life is, for more and more people, that whither can be captured
in digital photographs and on video. And perhaps the torture is more
attractive, as something to record, when it has a sexual component. It is
surely revealing, as more Abu Ghraib photographs enter public view, that
torture photographs are interleaved with pornographic images of American
soldiers having sex with one another. In fact, most of the torture
photographs have a sexual theme, as in those showing the coercing of
prisoners to perform, or simulate, sexual acts among themselves. One
exception, already canonical, is the photograph of the man made to stand
on a box, hooded and sprouting wires, reportedly told he would be
electrocuted if he fell off. Yet pictures of prisoners bound in painful
positions, or made to stand with outstretched arms, are infrequent. That
they count as torture cannot be doubted. You have only to look at the
terror on the victim's face, although such ''stress'' fell within the
Pentagon's limits of the acceptable. But most of the pictures seem part of
a larger confluence of torture and pornography: a young woman leading a
naked man around on a leash is classic dominatrix imagery. And you wonder
how much of the sexual tortures inflicted on the inmates of Abu Ghraib was
inspired by the vast repertory of pornographic imagery available on the
Internet -- and which ordinary people, by sending out Webcasts of
themselves, try to emulate.


To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's life, and
therefore to go on with one's life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious,
to the camera's nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is
to share in the community of actions recorded as images. The expression of
satisfaction at the acts of torture being inflicted on helpless, trussed,
naked victims is only part of the story. There is the deep satisfaction of
being photographed, to which one is now more inclined to respond not with
a stiff, direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events are in
part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin for the camera. There
would be something missing if, after stacking the naked men, you couldn't
take a picture of them.

Looking at these photographs, you ask yourself, How can someone grin at
the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? Set guard dogs at
the genitals and legs of cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded
prisoners to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And you
feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do
these things to other people. Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are
among the most common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration
camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too,
have done and do them when they are told, or made to feel, that those over
whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do
them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing
belong to an inferior race or religion. For the meaning of these pictures
is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators
apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures

Even more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be circulated and
seen by many people: it was all fun. And this idea of fun is, alas, more
and more -- contrary to what President Bush is telling the world -- part
of ''the true nature and heart of America.'' It is hard to measure the
increasing acceptance of brutality in American life, but its evidence is
everywhere, starting with the video games of killing that are a principal
entertainment of boys -- can the video game ''Interrogating the
Terrorists'' really be far behind? -- and on to the violence that has
become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant kick. Violent
crime is down, yet the easy delight taken in violence seems to have grown.
>From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American
suburban high schools -- depicted in Richard Linklater's 1993 film,
''Dazed and Confused'' -- to the hazing rituals of physical brutality and
sexual humiliation in college fraternities and on sports teams, America
has become a country in which the fantasies and the practice of violence
are seen as good entertainment, fun.

What formerly was segregated as pornography, as the exercise of extreme
sadomasochistic longings -- as in Pier Paolo Pasolini's last,
near-unwatchable film, ''Salo'' (1975), depicting orgies of torture in the
Fascist redoubt in northern Italy at the end of the Mussolini era -- is
now being normalized, by some, as high-spirited play or venting. To
''stack naked men'' is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to
Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio
show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The
observation -- or is it the fantasy? -- was on the mark. What may still be
capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh's response: ''Exactly!''
he exclaimed. ''Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens
at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we're going to ruin people's lives
over it, and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are
going to really hammer them because they had a good time.'' ''They'' are
the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on: ''You know,
these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having
a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?''

Shock and awe were what our military promised the Iraqis. And shock and
the awful are what these photographs announce to the world that the
Americans have delivered: a pattern of criminal behavior in open contempt
of international humanitarian conventions. Soldiers now pose, thumbs up,
before the atrocities they commit, and send off the pictures to their
buddies. Secrets of private life that, formerly, you would have given
nearly anything to conceal, you now clamor to be invited on a television
show to reveal. What is illustrated by these photographs is as much the
culture of shamelessness as the reigning admiration for unapologetic


The notion that apologies or professions of ''disgust'' by the president
and the secretary of defense are a sufficient response is an insult to
one's historical and moral sense. The torture of prisoners is not an
aberration. It is a direct consequence of the with-us-or-against-us
doctrines of world struggle with which the Bush administration has sought
to change, change radically, the international stance of the United States
and to recast many domestic institutions and prerogatives. The Bush
administration has committed the country to a pseudo-religious doctrine of
war, endless war -- for ''the war on terror'' is nothing less than that.
Endless war is taken to justify endless incarcerations. Those held in the
extralegal American penal empire are ''detainees''; ''prisoners,'' a newly
obsolete word, might suggest that they have the rights accorded by
international law and the laws of all civilized countries. This endless
''global war on terrorism'' -- into which both the quite justified
invasion of Afghanistan and the unwinnable folly in Iraq have been folded
by Pentagon decree -- inevitably leads to the demonizing and dehumanizing
of anyone declared by the Bush administration to be a possible terrorist:
a definition that is not up for debate and is, in fact, usually made in

The charges against most of the people detained in the prisons in Iraq and
Afghanistan being nonexistent -- the Red Cross reports that 70 to 90
percent of those being held seem to have committed no crime other than
simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in some sweep
of ''suspects'' -- the principal justification for holding them is
''interrogation.'' Interrogation about what? About anything. Whatever the
detainee might know. If interrogation is the point of detaining prisoners
indefinitely, then physical coercion, humiliation and torture become

Remember: we are not talking about that rarest of cases, the ''ticking
time bomb'' situation, which is sometimes used as a limiting case that
justifies torture of prisoners who have knowledge of an imminent attack.
This is general or nonspecific information-gathering, authorized by
American military and civilian administrators to learn more of a shadowy
empire of evildoers about whom Americans know virtually nothing, in
countries about which they are singularly ignorant: in principle, any
information at all might be useful. An interrogation that produced no
information (whatever information might consist of) would count as a
failure. All the more justification for preparing prisoners to talk.
Softening them up, stressing them out -- these are the euphemisms for the
bestial practices in American prisons where suspected terrorists are being
held. Unfortunately, as Staff Sgt. Ivan (Chip) Frederick noted in his
diary, a prisoner can get too stressed out and die. The picture of a man
in a body bag with ice on his chest may well be of the man Frederick was

The pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in
which we live. Indeed, it seems they were necessary to get our leaders to
acknowledge that they had a problem on their hands. After all, the
conclusions of reports compiled by the International Committee of the Red
Cross, and other reports by journalists and protests by humanitarian
organizations about the atrocious punishments inflicted on ''detainees''
and ''suspected terrorists'' in prisons run by the American military,
first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, have been circulating for more
than a year. It seems doubtful that such reports were read by President
Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice or Rumsfeld.
Apparently it took the photographs to get their attention, when it became
clear they could not be suppressed; it was the photographs that made all
this ''real'' to Bush and his associates. Up to then, there had been only
words, which are easier to cover up in our age of infinite digital
self-reproduction and self-dissemination, and so much easier to forget.

So now the pictures will continue to ''assault'' us -- as many Americans
are bound to feel. Will people get used to them? Some Americans are
already saying they have seen enough. Not, however, the rest of the world.
Endless war: endless stream of photographs. Will editors now debate
whether showing more of them, or showing them uncropped (which, with some
of the best-known images, like that of a hooded man on a box, gives a
different and in some instances more appalling view), would be in ''bad
taste'' or too implicitly political? By ''political,'' read: critical of
the Bush administration's imperial project. For there can be no doubt that
the photographs damage, as Rumsfeld testified, ''the reputation of the
honorable men and women of the armed forces who are courageously and
responsibly and professionally defending our freedom across the globe.''
This damage -- to our reputation, our image, our success as the lone
superpower -- is what the Bush administration principally deplores. How
the protection of ''our freedom'' -- the freedom of 5 percent of humanity
-- came to require having American soldiers ''across the globe'' is hardly
debated by our elected officials.

Already the backlash has begun. Americans are being warned against
indulging in an orgy of self-condemnation. The continuing publication of
the pictures is being taken by many Americans as suggesting that we do not
have the right to defend ourselves: after all, they (the terrorists)
started it. They -- Osama bin Laden? Saddam Hussein? what's the
difference? -- attacked us first. Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a
Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, before which
Secretary Rumsfeld testified, avowed that he was sure he was not the only
member of the committee ''more outraged by the outrage'' over the
photographs than by what the photographs show. ''These prisoners,''
Senator Inhofe explained, ''you know they're not there for traffic
violations. If they're in Cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're
murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably
have American blood on their hands, and here we're so concerned about the
treatment of those individuals.'' It's the fault of ''the media'' which
are provoking, and will continue to provoke, further violence against
Americans around the world. More Americans will die. Because of these

There is an answer to this charge, of course. Americans are dying not
because of the photographs but because of what the photographs reveal to
be happening, happening with the complicity of a chain of command -- so
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba implied, and Pfc. Lynndie England said, and
(among others) Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican,
suggested, after he saw the Pentagon's full range of images on May 12.
''Some of it has an elaborate nature to it that makes me very suspicious
of whether or not others were directing or encouraging,'' Senator Graham
said. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said that viewing an
uncropped version of one photo showing a stack of naked men in a hallway
-- a version that revealed how many other soldiers were at the scene, some
not even paying attention -- contradicted the Pentagon's assertion that
only rogue soldiers were involved. ''Somewhere along the line,'' Senator
Nelson said of the torturers, ''they were either told or winked at.'' An
attorney for Specialist Charles Graner Jr., who is in the picture, has had
his client identify the men in the uncropped version; according to The
Wall Street Journal, Graner said that four of the men were military
intelligence and one a civilian contractor working with military


But the distinction between photograph and reality -- as between spin and
policy -- can easily evaporate. And that is what the administration wishes
to happen. ''There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist,''
Rumsfeld acknowledged in his testimony. ''If these are released to the
public, obviously, it's going to make matters worse.'' Worse for the
administration and its programs, presumably, not for those who are the
actual -- and potential? -- victims of torture.

The media may self-censor but, as Rumsfeld acknowledged, it's hard to
censor soldiers overseas, who don't write letters home, as in the old
days, that can be opened by military censors who ink out unacceptable
lines. Today's soldiers instead function like tourists, as Rumsfeld put
it, ''running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable
photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to
our surprise.'' The administration's effort to withhold pictures is
proceeding along several fronts. Currently, the argument is taking a
legalistic turn: now the photographs are classified as evidence in future
criminal cases, whose outcome may be prejudiced if they are made public.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John
Warner of Virginia, after the May 12 slide show of image after image of
sexual humiliation and violence against Iraqi prisoners, said he felt
''very strongly'' that the newer photos ''should not be made public. I
feel that it could possibly endanger the men and women of the armed forces
as they are serving and at great risk.''

But the real push to limit the accessibility of the photographs will come
from the continuing effort to protect the administration and cover up our
misrule in Iraq -- to identify ''outrage'' over the photographs with a
campaign to undermine American military might and the purposes it
currently serves. Just as it was regarded by many as an implicit criticism
of the war to show on television photographs of American soldiers who have
been killed in the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it will
increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the new photographs and
further tarnish the image of America.

After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell, more so than any of
the people who got us into this rotten war seem to have expected. In our
digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't going to go away. Yes, it
seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders
choose not to look at them, there will be thousands more snapshots and
videos. Unstoppable.


/Susan Sontag is the author, most recently, of ''Regarding the Pain of

Cyberculture {AT} zacha.org http://www.cyberculture.zacha.org/

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