Newspaper clippings pile up, revealing military involvement in secret “anti-terrorist” activities.
Time magazine cover image represents Reaganomics: cutting social spending, increasing military spending; tax cuts for the rich (and inflating a huge deficit).
Questioning one of the philosopher’s central assumptions, that the state can be discussed as if it were an individual human. The video begins to question the rhetoric of sliding from “we” citizens to the state to the state as personified in the President.
Headlines reveal the effects of Reaganomics: worsening conditions for the poor.
Videomaker Rosler continues the simple desktop style of presentation. She uses toys of military vehicles and toy soldiers to represent U.S. military activities.
Headlines reveal the Cold War connections between escalating military activity, foreign policy, and capitalist economics.
At her desk, Rosler looks at her face in a hand mirror. Key books for the analysis are on the desk — such as Amnesty International’s annual human rights reports and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.
Headlines about Reagan’s self-stated willingness to use nuclear weapons in both strategic and conventional wars underline the video’s case: it is actually the U.S. that uses nuclear weapons as a coercive threat and this is a form of state terrorism.
Video character-generated scrolls underline U.S. preparation for nuclear war.
Sitting in a car in Brooklyn, Rosler looks across the river at Manhattan, the imagined target of the philosopher’s “ticking nuclear bomb” fantasy. The 1983 image, with the World Trade Center as part of the cityscape, acquires another layer of irony post 9/11. In contradistinction to the philosopher’s fantasies, that attack was not part of a blackmail scheme and was decidedly low-tech and without warning. It could not have been forewarned or stopped by any amount of torture.
In contrast to the philosopher’s hypothetical victims, the actual victims of terrorism such as the “disappeared” in Argentina, the raped, tortured, and executed in Central America, and Palestine civilians in Lebanon are evoked.
The fantasy of persecution is contagious. To imagine disaster is in some way to desire it.
Rosler crowns Professor Levin a “philosopher king.”
A recurrent Latin American scenario to justify torture has been the proposition, “Suppose a little girl has been kidnapped” in the urban jungle? What police officer would not in good conscience torture half the city to find her and bring her home to her desperate parents? At present our script is different. We torture — or we don’t torture, the story goes, we subject our non-uniformed , stateless enemy combatants to moderate stress and pressure short of outright organ failure.[open endnotes in new window] And we do this to protect the Homeland and the republic from “bad news” that (in the words of Administration figures from George Bush to Condoleezza Rice to Colin Powell) “could take the form of a mushroom cloud.” Or we send our captured “evildoers” to other countries where they know what to do with them, our president has let us know, with a wink and a chuckle. In the 1980s, as we waged our dirty little — generally proxy — wars in Central and South America, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) manual for interrogation was leaked, causing great embarrassment and public disavowal by the military and the CIA and apparently its eventual removal from use. The impetus of our tactics for wringing information out of people using psychological techniques supposedly resulted from the observation of the apparent ease with which U.S. troops during the Korean War gave up information or joined the other side (this saw the birth of the term "brainwashing ”) as well as the earlier observation of the public confession of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty during his 1949 show trial for crimes against the communist state.
Techniques designed to break down personality were the subject of secret experiments for the next decades, with important research done by one of Canada’s most prominent psychiatrists working with U.S. forces. The more recent protocols for interrogation, the ones in use now — known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) — grew out of these investigations and were developed by psychologists training U.S. forces to withstand interrogation by an enemy. The planned-for methods attributed to the barbarians, or so the story goes, underwent a turnabout and were adopted as our own methods. These include, in addition to cruder methods, sleep deprivation, extreme isolation, and sensory deprivation, and the application of other means of softening people up psychologically, creating systems of rewards and manipulating their terrors, with the aim of making them emotionally dependent. (As a Latin American torturer supposedly remarked to one of his victims long ago, "We make reality in here.")
It should be no surprise that — presumably like all governments — our government abuses people when it decides it is in the national interest, no matter how narrowly that interest defined. What is different about the present moment is the country’s apparent willingness to publicly embrace cruelty, albeit by another name, and to insist on the need for astonishingly widespread, open-ended surveillance of the home population (a signal characteristic of a police state). These actions are carried out by the CIA and the military alike, although the CIA has never before, it seems, had such widespread involvement in detention and interrogation, as opposed to intelligence collection (spying), on the one hand, and covert operations (killing), on the other.
The longer these stark changes in accepted practice go on without causing the government to fall (in whatever way that might happen in our system), the more emboldened the government becomes, and the more such practices and their rhetorical accompaniments are normalized. The “harsh” tactics now in regular use, if not always publicly acknowledged, include not only beating, sleep deprivation, waterboarding and forcible injection of fluids into bodily orifices as well as other violations of bodily integrity, simulated preparation for execution, prolonged exposure to cold or heat, stress positions, confinement in tiny, dark (or conversely, permanently lit), very loud, unceasing music or muffled spaces but also, by and large, virtually all the things Nazis were vilified for doing — and perhaps more sophisticated torments.
Here is Charles Krauthammer, in his column cited above:
In the New Yorker issue out on the stands as I write, Jane Mayer describes the treatment of KSM (as Mohammed is called by his captors), supplying some of the details Krauthammer glosses over, and which the International Committee of the Red Cross has, in a confidential report, suggested is illegal according to international law. But Krauthammer, and no doubt millions of his fellow Americans, is reassured.
Just as President Bush today denounces the Taliban as brutal, cold-blooded killers but fails to consider what it means systematically to employ air force bombers, ordnance-dropping drones operated from an air base in the Western United States, or the newly announced bomb-carrying battlefield robots on a largely civilian population in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention landmines, cluster bombs, white phosphorus, or depleted uranium), the rationale surely is, “If we do it, it is all right.” If we violate international treaties and our own bodies of law in torturing people, surely it is all right. Can we doubt that the majority of German citizens under the Nazis thought that as well?
Back in 1982, I was pretty shaken by the pro-torture article and saw many ironies in the way it was embedded in that issue of Newsweek, one of the country’s top two weekly news magazines. There it was, among the aforementioned article about a New Realism in painting, as well as a hateful set of letters about the adoption of a new posture of “victimhood,” identified by the eagle-eyed right, in those long-suffering groups who had finally protested getting the short end of the stick when it came to voting rights, wages, and social and economic opportunities of all kinds: women, blacks, Latinos, gays, native people — all those "whiners" and "weepers" unsatisfied with their lot, along with criminals who did not want to be put to death, and the potentiators of all of that crap that made America weak and ungovernable… and economically less productive (because less disciplined by fears of unemployment) than Americans ought to be (and would be, darn soon).
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had brought about a different sort of New Realism, in which hard-hearted, “Go ahead, make my day” attitudes, expressed with a theatrically practiced nasty swagger and a steely glint in the eye, would replace empathy and “love” (a signature sixties’ idea). Jingoistic patriotism and militarism would replace Carter’s international focus on “human rights.” Never mind the conscious appeal to racism and Christian suprematism that underlay the new mood, calculated to bring America out of the Jimmy Carter post-Vietnam malaise into a “U.S.A! U.S.A!” moment. Conflating civil religion — always a favorite of the American right — with fundamentalist Christianity, Reagan told a gathering of evangelical ministers that the fact that the United States was set between the two oceans meant God had intended us to rule the Continent (compare Mr. Bush, Jr.’s, apparent discovery, 25 years later, that planes could cross the oceans and harm us).
In tune with this new aggressive national mood of triumphalism and assertive messianism, advertising began to feature outsize desires for luxury goods, powerful cars, big houses, financial services (this was the “Greed is good” era), and, not coincidentally, images of sexy (and often covertly submissive ) women and dominant white men, some of them appearing in this very issue of Newsweek. Ruling the continent meant, it seems, what had already been enunciated, early in the 19th century, as the Monroe Doctrine: the control of North and South — and, of course, Central — America and, for that matter, the Caribbean. This is what is colloquially referred to as “our backyard.”
My response to Newsweek’s feature was to make a videotape that would tie the pro-torture article to global and national trends — geopolitical “facts on the ground” and the presumed neo-imperialism exercised through information technologies, from data management to cultural products such as movies and music to advertising. I saw the pro-torture article as embedded in a stream of ads, letters, articles, and pictures designed to naturalize the U.S. worldview and simultaneously to instill fear in Americans through warnings about banking crises and a generalized xenophobia, a fear of the rest of the world. This was a bombardment of terrors and distractions that would decenter the citizens of the Society of the Spectacle and warn them to step back from the edge of political engagement into the cocoon of private preoccupations. I had no desire to make a discursive documentary that would deconstruct the torture essay point by point, poking holes in its sophistic arguments. Nor did I want to make a work as slick as advertising in its visuals or visually arresting through the use of torture photos, which I believed would replicate the pacification of viewers that is a hallmark of spectacle culture.
Instead, “torture” would be invoked through the steady bombardment of the viewer by ordinary forms of corporate information transmission, mixed in with more reliable sources. The scene was set for the work in the video studio, in my waterfront loft, and in the city; with the use of books and toys; but most of all amidst the barrage of print, radio, and television that was coming to mediate (some might say dominate) our daily lives and experience, both private and public. The tape was meant as a meditation of sorts on the worldview implied by Levin’s article, taking up a few of its risibly offensive arguments but trying to look past it through the information blitz.
The work opens with a car ride across the Manhattan Bridge into Lower Manhattan backed by a music score (recorded by a band I had met in Banff, Alberta, where I began working on the video) and a reading of most of Levin’s article. Throughout, the relationship between economic and political insecurity is stressed, just as Levin’s article is shown to be placed next to an ad showing a sleepless man worrying about his money that nonetheless offers the reassurance that America’s banks are secure.
The first ten minutes on the work center on the article, employing what was then an innovation: large words isolated on or moving across the screen and very tight pans across print images and headlines.  The separation of visual and audio tracks begins. With ordinary people reading a voiceover script interrogating Professor Levin’s article, the work moves into a blizzard of articles that slide past the screen, their headlines teasing the eye, a visual ballet on which was overlaid an intermittent crawling text and, on the soundtrack, radio clips accompanying the script. The visual and sound clips address terrorism; the Red Army Faction (the “Baader-Meinhof” group) and the draconian German responses; the torture of women; U.S. and worldwide economic trends; and advertising. One section asks if the torturer will be a civil servant, and at what pay grade, and whether an injured torturer would receive workmen’s compensation; in reality, of course, torturers, like executioners, are shielded from public view. The central focus of the video is on state terrorism and torture primarily in Central and South America, often with U.S. complicity, as well as on the newly prominent nuclear brinksmanship, not to mention the way in which the media convey government messages and disinformation.
The voiceover comments:
The video, using text and various found footage and images, explores the commands reportedly given to the Latin American torturers to feel no pity toward their victims; in a “torture class,”
(In the current battles there has been repeated testimony by U.S. soldiers that abuse and torture of prisoners, as suggested by some of their trophy photos from Abu Ghraib, were treated as an occasion for partying and group hilarity.)
A further section of the work details the particular abuses heaped upon women, children, and babies, both those detained and tortured and those left behind when men are abducted and killed. It then spends some time exploring Hannah Arendt’s concepts of totalitarianism and relating them to developments in Latin America:
The voiceover continues:
In an interlude, a tenor sings an a cappella song whose lyrics center on economic woes, jungle imagery, the new investment value of art, and the taste for authoritarian leadership and patriarchalist neo-neo-expressionist painting in times of uncertainty. It begins,
In a later verse:
From the video’s voiceover:
On the screen this text appears:
As usual, we project onto those we call our enemies the criminal acts we want to commit.
The final section of the video uses philosopher Michel Foucault’s portentous discussion, in Discipline and Punish, of the role of torture and hanging in the public square and their changing effect through time on the sentiment of the crowd, whose growing restiveness finally led executions to be moved out of public view. (Reform movements presumably led to the eschewal of torture in favor of confinement and “correction.”)
A hand reaches into the frame and places a tiny gold crown on the photo of the torture column’s author, as the characteristics of the strongman political leader appear on the screen.
The final words, a quote from Adorno (from his book Minima Moralia) are apparently spoken — thanks to the miracle of video editing — by an ABC reporter standing on a street corner somewhere. They are, in part:
The work closes with a series of propositions, both chanted and floating on the screen, suggest what might make authoritarianism attractive, even to a democratic electorate.
A Simple Case for Torture is a work begun in 1982 about the saber-rattling militarism and “small wars” that were held to be the picture of war fighting for the foreseeable future (despite the constant invocation of the nuclear threat). Some of this picture has stayed the same, but, as I have argued, among the worst contemporary developments is the all-but-public official embrace of torture as a regular method of obtaining information from detainees and terrorizing everyone else, along with the concomitant suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the arrogation to the president of monarchic privilege, and the advancing of a surveillance society. That society is also increasingly divided into the very rich and the poor, in a process that long ago was called, by Noam Chomsky and others, the Latin Americanization of the United States. That process has always included the use of physical abuse, torture, disappearance, and extra-judicial killing as part of the arsenal of coercion on behalf of economic and political elites. The task falls, as it always has to the citizens, to press back against these abuses and to work to create a human community marked by justice and universal rights.