Images from Taxi to the Dark Side

Damien Corsetti offers his perspective on what happened at Bagram.

Lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith represents a number of Guantanamo prisons. He and other lawyers had to wage a long legal battle even to see them.

John Yoo calmly defends the President's authority as commander-in-chief.

Gita Gutierrez represents Mohamed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo.

An example of how the government releases official documents with so much "redacted" or blanked out.

Donald Hebb did studies on sensory deprivation as part of his research in behavioral psychology.

Hebb had volunteers isolated in a state of sensory deprivation...

...with goggles, blinders, earmuffs, and gloves.

They became extremely disoriented and hallucinated within three days. Note how the hooding is repeated across U.S.-controlled prisons, and the goggles used with Guantanamo detainees.

Water torture as used in the Inquisition.

Tony Lagouranis, a witness in Taxi and author of his own memoir.


Images from Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

Stanley Milgram designed an experiment in which people gave shocks of ever-increasing intensity to unseen recipients who screamed in seeming pain.

Definitions and prohibitions are written into law and shape policy.

These definitions define us as a country.

Charles Graner, widely thought of as the villain in the Abu Ghraib abuses, received this commendation shortly after the worst abuses occurred.

He was imprisoned for ten years primarily because the photos entered public circulation and shocked the world.

Megan Ambuhl married Charles Graner, and her presence as a witness challenges the viewer to take her words on her own terms or to consider her actions in relation to his.



Authorities and torture epistephilia

All the torture documentaries considered here make extensive use of interviews. Most use interviews from people who were MPs or MIs at Bagram or Abu Ghraib prisons. Three—Taxi to the Dark Side, The Torture Question, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, and Torturing Democracy—use voices of authorities and voice-over narration, with The Torture Question and Torturing Democracy, both made for PBS, using the voice-over narration as their major structuring device. Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure give a voice to interviewees who were actual participants in or witnesses to prisoner abuse; they are shot respectfully, often dramatically lit against a dark background. The films elicits empathy for them, many of whom had gone to prison or were demoted or dishonorably discharged for their crimes. Presumably they agree to appear because the filmmaker gained their trust and they now have the chance to tell "their side of the story."

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure both focus on the abuses first brought to our attention by publication of the shocking Abu Ghraib photos. However, Standard Operating Procedure does not open up to the "larger" issues by using authorities, as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib does; instead, it focuses on the circumstances behind the images and ways of interpreting the photos themselves. Some of the authority figures seen across a number of these films include contrastive analyses by Alberto Mora, General Consul to the Navy under Donald Rumsfeld, an early high-ranking legal opponent of "enhanced interrogation techniques," and John Yoo, Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Justice, who wrote numerous briefs giving legal support for the infamous torture memos, in particular a long 81-page legal opinion expanding justification for those same "enhanced techniques."[24] [open endnotes in new window] I am interested in the fact that Yoo agrees to speak in many of these films even though he knows he will be cast as a villain; and in each film where he appears he consistently presents his ideas in a quiet, measured, and logical way. His presence gives these liberal films the impression of fairly presenting the other side, unlike the films' use of television news excerpts showing figures like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld speaking. In those excerpts from TV news, government officials are represented in their own words in order to convey the voices of liars, megalomaniacs, and obfuscators.

Other explanatory interviews, which are intended to represent the filmmakers' perspectives more directly, come from scholars, such as Alfred McCoy, and journalists who have devoted much of their recent career to exposés and analyses of official U.S. involvement in torture, such as Mark Danner, Tim Golden, and Jane Meyer (who was also a consultant to Torturing Democracy). Lawyers interviewed include Mora, Scott Horton, Lawrence Wilkerson, Gita Gutierrez, and Clive Stafford Smith (the latter two are lawyers for Guantanamo detainees). The experts' voices are interwoven with the narration to present a relatively cohesive discussion within the documentary about an issue such as chain of command, the government's defining torture (away), specific techniques such as waterboarding, CIA involvement, or U.S. history, often since 9/11. In terms of the PBS films that rely on narration, Frontline (PBS) documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk's The Torture Question, although released in 2005, maintains its relevance today because it focuses on the chain of command that led to abuses.[25] In fact, those documentaries that open out to the wider issues surrounding torture all focus upon the way the Bush government and military officials covered up the chain of command, the details of which are laid out now in documents released by the Obama administration, filling in the gaps of what scholars, journalists, lawyers, and filmmakers could only intuit before.

I focus on this aspect of how information is presented in the documentaries because it points to "torture epistephilia"—an historically unique aspect of the torture documentaries as well as of the larger public discourse in the United States about torture since the publication of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004.[26] By torture epistephilia, I refer to the thirst for knowledge about official U.S. support of torture. To that end, reams of documentation have been published, in books and on the Internet and continue to come out, about this issue. To give a specific example, here I am writing an omnibus article about six films on the subject. To do this, I have 25 books in front of me, about fifty articles printed out from the Internet, at least 250 stored on my computer, and access to a "links" article I did earlier in Jump Cut on the Abu Ghraib photos.[27] In addition, many of these books and articles detail how many pages of reports and interviews their authors studied to write their syntheses. When Tim Golden published his groundbreaking article on Dilawar's murder at Bagram, he had access to a 2,000 page leaked file of the Army's criminal investigation into the case. Philip Gourevitch, who along with Errol Morris wrote the book accompanying the film Standard Operating Procedure, based the book on transcripts of the interviews done for the film ("more than 25 times the length of this book"), interviews and depositions from the Army's Criminal Investigative Division, and many other documents made available thanks to journalists and "leakers." Senator Carl Levin's 2008 Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, "Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody," released in its unclassified, complete version in April 2009, is 232 pages long with 1,800 footnotes, based on the testimony of 70 people and more than 200,000 pages of internal government documents. And the books on the subject are often also dense and long. The Torture Papers, edited by Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua Dratel, came out in 2005 and contained 1249 pages of documents gotten through the Freedom of Information Act; many of the later journalistic "revelations" could in fact be found in this book, but perhaps its scope made it daunting to read thoroughly.

What is the relation of all this to the documentary films about torture? Well, they are a short way to sift through all this information and come to an understanding of the situation in about ninety minutes. The viewer may gain only a provisional understanding but it's a beginning. In the United States, for many important reasons, "torture epistephilia" has led to an ever-expanding generation of documents and investigations, with no resolution in sight. And what would resolution consist of? A truth and reconciliation commission, trials against government officials? What would finally let us know, and mourn and move on? In the meantime the continued publication and analysis of more information continues at an explosive rate. Furthermore, among the documents themselves, many contradictions exist and many officials have testified in a way so as to put themselves in the best light. In one of the interviews published on the website for The Torture Question, Mark Danner explains the many investigations into Abu Ghraib abuses after the photos were published:

" The investigations themselves—there are a dozen of them depending on how you count—are a fascinating exercise in bureaucratic damage control. Anyone who wants to read these investigations can learn an enormous amount about what happened at Abu Ghraib, about what happened in Guantanamo, about the abuse of prisoners. One can read the statement of detainees, how they were abused. One can read descriptions in the Fay-Jones report and the Schlesinger [report] as well, very intricate descriptions of the kind of tortures that were applied. … You get a different message if you actually read what's in the report from what you get when you actually read what the investigator concludes in the executive summary…. There is no investigation that looks at the entire chain, that looks at the question of how policy, how what people decided in bureaucratic and executive officers in Washington actually determined what happened on the ground at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram and so on. …. If Americans read these reports, they'd discover a couple of things. One is that the abuse was much more thoroughgoing and systematic than they had been led to believe. That is, we're talking about beating that happened day after day. We're talking about systematic use of sexual humiliation. We're talking about systematic use of stress positions—and this is handcuffing people with their hands behind their backs up on a window, very painful things; systematic use of dogs to threaten detainees; beatings of such an extent that people are beaten into unconsciousness. This is in the reports, that kind of abuse."[28]

I cite Danner at length because he points to how we have relied upon, and must rely upon, interpretations of this mass amount of data. Documentaries, especially "serious" ones such as these, belong to what Bill Nichols calls the discourses of sobriety—legal, political, academic, ethical discourses. Such films are shot and edited for an argument; they investigate, interrogate evidence, explain, try to keep some elements from the past from slipping into oblivion. The films, especially those that use a traditional documentary form, endeavor to uncover something or get testimony from others who did, find causal structures, and finally tell a coherent moral tale. It is possible that in contemporary times, viewers crave such moral coherence as the torture documentary might offer, to create closure on a painful subject.[29]

In fact, that's the usefulness of these documentaries, and what makes them stand apart from the news, which not only flows by us with its everyday presentation of death and casualty, both domestic and foreign, but which also elicit our spectatorial filtering strategies that we have developed both in relation to television and the Internet. We know in advance what interests us and what we want to "let through." Such strategies may sadly also keep viewers from seeking out these documentaries on DVD or the Internet. We've narrowed what we will look at. In addition, there seems to be too much information about torture. And it is a painful subject to pursue. Darius Rejali, author of the historical compendium, Torture and Democracy, made such a problem clear to me when I went to hear a lecture. He wittily introduced his talk with this comment, "Coming to hear me on one of your free evenings is about as enjoyable as going to the dentist."[30] Researchers and writers on torture, and the filmmakers who take up that topic, know that their very subject matter filters out potential readers and viewers. In terms of cinematic viewership, for example, people who choose not to see a film on torture may think torture is a terrible aspect of U.S. policy that happens without their consent, that they cannot do anything about, that its reality has to stay outside of what happens to them. The act of seeing the film—going to see a torture documentary in the theater (and few people did) or renting one on DVD or viewing one online—is already a political act, indicating a certain kind of subjective readiness on the part of the viewer. This may include a readiness to look at atrocity, a sense of moral urgency, or, as I indicated above, a felt need to integrate ideas about this issue now.

Finally, in terms of torture epistephilia, these films often have a large web-based amount of documentation to accompany them. For example, the Torture Archive sponsored the film Torturing Democracy, and its website plans to include a searchable database of more than 7,000 original documents, running over 100,000 pages. In addition, many of the witness used as authorities in the documentaries have written books, maintain blogs, or otherwise have an active online presence. For example, Mark Danner, who recently leaked and wrote about the previously secret International Red Cross Report on the Treatment of Fourteen “High Value Detainees” in CIA Custody (Feb. 2007), maintains a website with the text of all his essays, and all of Tim Golden's pieces are archived by The New York Times.[31] To research the topic of torture is to take a tour of some of the most morally provocative writing of our time.

Limits on torture epistephilia

Feature-length documentaries have to edit to an approximately ninety-minute length. So a director's pursuit of knowledge cannot be replicated in the film. As a documentary incorporates voices of authorities, it needs from them succinct summaries of their idea, memory, approach, or position. In terms of public knowledge, as one who chooses to follow the "torture news," I am interested in what the current pursuit of knowledge on this topic includes and where it stops. Often without question the documentaries seen here rely on prevalent liberal cultural narratives about threat, religion, body, torture, law, history, and human rights. In public discourse, much of what appears in the documents released by the Department of Justice or to the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act relate to U.S. policy decisions. In contrast, in U.S. researchers and reporters have had far less to say about the experiences, social structures, and history of the Iraqis and Afghanis, including detainees. It is because he can rely on these liberal cultural assumptions—and limits to the pursuit of knowledge—that President Obama can so easily dismiss prosecuting the culpable with the admonition, "We must look forward, not back."

Furthermore, there's something peculiar about liberal torture epistephilia in the United States right now, the desire for ever more information and analysis without ever putting a punctuation mark to the topic, a kind of compulsive logorrhea that surely must stand as a symptom for a larger social disorder. Emblematic of the disorder is President Obama's release of so many legally incriminating documents with no further judicial process in mind. Of course, Jump Cut and I continue to advance such analyses but we must also consider to what end we do this, and if the outpouring of documentation itself could come to an end.

If torture seems a benchmark of what civilized society must reject, it is also clear that bodies are easy to hurt and torture appears regularly across history throughout the world. A moral response to torture, while necessary, is not enough. Part of the reason that the documentation of current U.S. participation in torture proliferates at such a rate is that that our responding to the realities uncovered by that documentation faces the barriers of political and economic realities in the United States, realities that leftists would summarize by the term "neoliberalism." Let me give an example: anywhere from 70% to 90% of the prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan—held not as POWs but as possible suspects in the "war on terror" (formerly labeled enemy combatants)—are innocent, caught up in neighborhood sweeps after an attack. Because they do not have any legal rights, they have no course of action to gain their release. As President Obama expands the war in Afghanistan, this kind of mass imprisonment without due process will continue.

To give another example of the limits of the current public discourse around torture, while waterboarding and banging people against a wall may be eliminated from the torture repertoire, stress positions, sensory deprivation, sleep disruption, and solitary confinement probably will not. We know now that the detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq will not be given the rights of habeus corpus or legal representation won for prisoners at Guantanamo unless those rights are won by court cases pursued all the way through the U.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, as Naomi Klein points out in one of the few analyses of torture that goes beyond promoting a struggle for human rights, moral outrage against abuse needs to look at the system that generates that abuse, in this instance, occupation by the U.S. military. Citing Simone de Beauvoir's analysis of French use of torture in Algeria, Klein writes:

"… occupation could not be done humanely; there is no humane way to rule people against their will." (126)

Klein's analysis in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is one of the few that ties torture—in Chile, Indonesia, Argentina, Iraq—to a neoconservative economic mandate: that times of turmoil after a catastrophic event provide governments and capital their greatest opportunity to make "orchestrated raids on the public sphere."

"Shocked societies give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect."[32]

Klein explicitly ties torture to neoliberal economic goals of turning all of society into a market, including privatizing what government has provided or that belongs to the commons. Thus, the Iraq War provided the occasion for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to enact their long-held dream of privatizing the military. And there is a particularly damning instance of using the 9/11 catastrophe to encroach on former "rights":

"The Bush White House began planning for torture in December 2001, set up a program to develop the interrogation techniques by the next month, and the military and the CIA began training interrogators in coercive practices in early 2002, before they had any high-value al-Qaida suspects or any trouble eliciting information from detainees."[33]

As the Levin report indicates in its timeline of how torture policy developed, the very shock of 9/11 impelled the extension of national policy into directions of greater coercion and control, a policy tied to Cheney's doctrine of unlimited powers for the "commander in chief" in times of war. Michel Foucault might have tied this kind of torture research-and-development to the relation between power and knowledge in the modern state, with expanded power leading to and drawing from an expanded knowledge of how to control people by penetrating ever further into the smallest interstices of their lives. In this instance, the people that the administration turned to at this time for developing new interrogation techniques were two psychologists working as private contractors for the CIA and the military's SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) program, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Their directive was to reverse engineer the resistance training given to military personnel to help them survive capture. With no experience in the military, these men were and remain entrepreneurial behavioral psychologists, denounced by others in their field, both other SERE trainers and key members of the American Psychological Association.[34] That the government developed policy on such an important issue in this particular way makes the connections between catastrophe, torture, and privatization absolutely clear.

As torture epistephilia generates ever more documentation and analysis, that documentation is, of necessity, pared down and reshaped as it enters the narrative of a documentary film. Documentary viewers themselves are a self-selecting group, likely those who pride themselves on their pursuit of knowledge. Interestingly Klein's thesis may point to why many of these otherwise well-informed people might not want to see torture documentaries. In fact, there's a larger system that demands understanding and confrontation. For a viewer who does not have the larger picture in mind, the problem of torture may seem interminable and insurmountable. The kind of mastery that Bill Nichols attributes to documentary may not seem like enough mastery to motivate viewers to watch these films. But this hesitancy may also come from a sense that such a film would be "hard to watch," that is, that it would make an emotional demand. And so it is that I need to turn to another, inescapable aspect of the torture documentary, its emotional tone.

When considered from this aspect, it becomes clear to me that in considering the parameters and limits of epistephilia as it applies to subcategory of torture documentary, I have not adequately defined this kind of film, especially in its relation to the viewer. The torture documentary does not just condense knowledge about the subject and implicitly call us to action; it also provides a viewing experience that elicits strong emotions and an empathetic body response. Such a response has ties to other genres, especially pornography and horror. Most of the filmmakers under consideration here have dampened down potential voyeuristic fascination in favor of analysis, but some, especially Standard Operating Procedure and The Road to Guantanamo, have chosen to work with that response as part of a call to remembrance and activism.

Camp Ganci, the tent prison at Abu Ghraib, houses many thousands of Iraqis who voices and stories have never been heard. The Abu Ghraib photographs take on many different layers of meaning and circulation across the world, where they may be seen more than in the U.S..
IEDs not only inflict losses on the United States, but the perpetrators often send videotapes of such explosions to television. Viewers receive them as generic "insurgent attacks." Once seen, the specific incidents are largely forgotten within days. In contrast, the stubborn, silent rubble speaks to lives whose loss and disruption are narrated only by family, neighbors, and friends—but for years to come.

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