The Rumsfeld-like Admiral Helena Cain of the Battlestar Pegasus sanctions torture and operates under martial law. She is semiotically linked to hawkish Bush administration officials by the habit of using a standing desk.
In a symbolic act of hand washing, Cain’s second in command, Colonel Jack Fisk defends the rape-torture of a Cylon prisoner, exclaiming “You can’t rape a machine….”
The Cylon prisoner Gina is left in a semi-catatonic stupor, “swallowed alive by the body,” after being beaten and serially raped on board the Pegasus.
Baltar finds her crumpled, manacled, bruised, and soiled. Her visible injuries are highlighted by the framing of the details of her face …
... ankles …
... wrists …
... and neck.
Baltar’s uncharacteristic display of compassion allows him to empathize with Gina as he painstakingly builds a rapport with her, eventually gaining valuable intelligence that could not be acquired through torture.
Pegasus soldiers boast about raping Gina and make light of the impending assault of Sharon, the Galactica’s Cylon prisoner. She is about to be “interrogated” by Lt. Thorne and his men, in what has now become the Pegasus’ standard operating procedure.
After her assault is interrupted, an abject Sharon seeks refuge under a blanket.
Crewman Specialist Cally Henderson protests the soldiers’ celebration of rape.
On BSG, the capacity for evil is not limited to our enemies or to a few “bad apples.” It is part of what we do in the name of war. The members of the Galactica struggle to regain their moral compass because, as Commander Adama puts it, “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving.”
BSG’s perspective may have been a dissident one in the US, but it is in keeping with other western democracies, as witnessed by the United Nations, which on March 17, 2009, convened a panel to discuss BSG’s treatment of terrorism and torture. James Edward Olmos, who plays Adama, is an outspoken defender of human rights.
The series troubles the easy dichotomy between hero and villain. Its human heroes are not pristine but flawed. Its Cylon adversaries are not evil incarnate but made in our image and capable of love. Their similarity is driven home in episodes that depict not only the Cylons but also the Colonials exercising extreme measures such as suicide bombing and torture, as the series explores the question — how different are we from the enemy?
This is put to the test in season 1 when a humanoid Cylon is discovered aboard the fleet. Lt. Kara Thrace is sent to interrogate him and learns that he planted a nuclear warhead, which is set to go off in a matter of hours. Motivated by this ticking time bomb, she continues her interrogation and has Leoben beaten by soldiers. After he breaks free and attacks her, she intones, “Now the gloves come off” and has him subjected to the near-drowning mode of torture known as waterboarding. The phrase “the gloves come off” — uttered by Cofer Black, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, at a Senate hearing in September 2001 and subsequently oft repeated — was widely associated with the Bush administration policy of covert rendition and torture. Kara’s use of it in connection to her use of waterboarding ties the episode to Abu Ghraib. [open endnotes in new window] Showrunner Ronald Moore has acknowledged that this episode, which first aired December 6th 2004, was influenced by the 2004 accounts of abuses at Abu Ghraib that came to light via photographic evidence (Bassom 74).
Kara justifies her torture of Leoben to President Laura Roslin by dehumanizing the enemy, as Colonials typically do, calling Cylons “toasters,” and the humanoid models “skins.”
But over time, as her torture fails to break him, his suffering breaks her tenacious grip on the belief that he is only a machine, the very thing that allowed her to torture him in the first place. So when the President, following on the logic that Leoben is no more than a dangerous thing, orders him summarily killed, Kara objects and expresses sympathy with him, going so far as to pray for him after he is air locked — executed by being forcibly ejected into space (“Flesh and Bone” 1.8).
In the end Leoben admits that he fabricated the bomb threat to prolong his life and to spend time with Kara, to whom he has a mysterious attachment. Had he been telling the truth, torture would not have changed anything; the bomb would have gone off. Unlike 24’s ticking bomb threat, which is always real, in BSG Leoben’s ticking bomb threat is a fiction, as is the scenario so central to the torture debate.
It is here — in the fictional device of the race-against-the-clock to save the innocent — that we see the contortions necessary for a liberal democracy to rationalize its turn to torture in violation of its basic principles. For if torture did not work, if it were not effective in protecting society, how could we justify it?
Torture as morally corrupting
Torture on BSG is consistently shown as morally repugnant, but one form of torture in particular is brought in for condemnation: the homosocial act of sadism known as gang rape. During the second season, the Battlestar Galactica encounters another surviving battlestar, the Pegasus, who have onboard a Cylon prisoner, Gina, a Six model. Under the command of Lt. Alistair Thorne, men of the Pegasus crew have serially raped and beaten her. This torture has been authorized by their commanding officer, Admiral Helena Cain (“Pegasus” 2.10), who is semiotically linked to hawkish Bush administration officials by her habit of having no chair at her desk. Ronald Moore, in his Pegasus podcast, associates this habit with John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (2005-06), but ABC News also attributes this trait to Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense (2001-06). As with our own government, underlings may carry out torture, but the policy is sanctioned at the top. And as we labor to legitimate torture through denial (we don’t torture) and dismissal (waterboarding is not torture), so the Pegasus crew must vindicate themselves. In a symbolic act of hand washing, Cain’s second in command, Colonel Jack Fisk exclaims, “You can’t rape a machine…” (“Resurrection Ship Part II” 2.12). In a more truthful turn, Cain justifies the torture as revenge for the hundreds of crew members she lost when their defense capacity against Cylon attack was crippled by Gina’s sabotage. Here the raison d’etre of torture, to bolster a regime of power in the aftermath of a devastating defeat, is in the open.
As with Leoben, torture fails to produce intelligence, so Admiral Cain agrees to the scientist Baltar’s request to let him try a different method of interrogation. Baltar’s uncharacteristic display of compassion, which stems from Gina’s resemblance to his former Cylon lover, another Six model, draws her from the semi-catatonic stupor in which he finds her, crumpled, manacled, bruised, and soiled, to an alert state of terrible vulnerability. She is undeniably “swallowed alive by the body,” lost to herself. Baltar empathizes with Gina and painstakingly builds a rapport with her, eventually learning from her the function of the ship they have been scouting. When Cylon bodies die, their memories and personality migrate to a new copy of their body aboard a resurrection ship. After the enduring psychological damage Gina has sustained, she wants to die without being reborn, so she helps Baltar to identify the high value of the target so they will extinguish it.
Here, rapport-driven questioning is shown to bear fruit whereas torture is shown to be prolonged, ineffective, trauma inducing, and able to backfire. When Gina takes her own life later in the season, she does so through a suicide bombing that obliterates another ship (“Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II” 2.20). The ripple effects extend even wider, as the nuclear signature of that detonation leads the Cylons to the Colonial settlement one year later.
As difficult as it is to realize that Gina has been brutally serially raped over an extended period of time, it is even more difficult when Sharon, the Galactica’s Cylon prisoner is about to be “interrogated” by Lt. Thorne and his men, in what has now become the Pegasus’s standard operating procedure. They are acting under orders from Cain but without Galactica Commander Bill Adama’s knowledge or consent. Until now, in Adama’s custody, Sharon has been treated humanely despite her almost successful attempt to assassinate Adama, and she has in turn provided valuable intelligence. When Chief Galen Tyrol and Lt. Karl Agathon, both of who are in love with Sharon, learn from boastful Pegasus crewmen of her impending assault, they rush to her cell. Sharon is choked, struck, and pinned to a bunk to be raped before their arrival interrupts the attack. In the ensuing struggle with Tyrol and Agathon, Thorne is accidentally killed. The two battlestars nearly come to a firefight when Admiral Cain unilaterally court-martials the men, and Commander Adama demands she hand them back for a fair hearing.
The two leadership styles come to a clash most directly here. Adama may be military commander of the fleet, but all along he has had to negotiate with civilian authority, as embodied by the President and the Council. Cain has wielded unchecked authority and broaches no opposition. Having stripped the civilian ships they encountered of useful resources, she abandons them, as she does due process, in pursuit of a military agenda. Cain and her crew may be brutal towards their Cylon prisoner, but they are also ruthless towards the civilians who sought their protection, leaving them defenseless and impoverished. The brutality they unleash on Gina comes to be directed at their own. Brutality corrupts and propagates.
The sexual nature of torture
The version of Sharon’s attack that aired has Tyrol and Agathon interrupting it just as she is about to be anally raped by Thorne. The extended version of “Pegasus” on DVD includes a more drawn-out and detailed attack, one in which she is being raped when her rescuers reach her. The network objected to its explicitness. Ronald Moore explains why they opted to rachet up the duration and graphic details of the rape-torture scene:
Moore did not want to depict torture as something that could be excused. The edited version that went on air is suggestive and difficult to watch as it is. It is impossible for the audience to dehumanize Sharon, a richly fleshed-out character, the way that Cain’s men do. Thorne and his accomplices see Sharon and Gina as dangerous machines. In addition, the enjoyment these men derive from the gendered character of rape suggests they also see them on some level as women.
Unlike 24, BSG shows the sexualized character of torture, which often involves symbolic forms of sexual degradation and pain inflicted directly on the genitals or other sexually coded regions of the body. As Susan Sontag argues in “The Photographs Are Us: Regarding the Torture of Others,” violence and sex are routinely conjoined in both the torture practices of Abu Ghraib and the photographs taken there (which mixed soldier’s torture shots with amateur pornographic shots). 24 studiously avoids any suggestion of sexual overtones to Bauer’s torture practices, so that when Jack tortures Audrey’s husband with a live electric wire, he targets Paul’s chest, not his nipples or genitals. The program also directs almost all of Jack’s torture practice against male suspects, further stifling the suggestion of sexual sadism, which is so much a part of real-world torture practices.
BSG depicts the human struggle with the less heroic face of violence. It stages the torturer’s inability to recognize the subjectivity or suffering of his victim in a self-critical light. It suggests the cost of this brutality to the society that sanctions it. The mercilessness of the Cylon attack primes them for reprisals, and the knowledge that the enemy is not human seems to license any act. But in the end, the Cylons turn out not to be that different from us, for better or worse. And the price of brutality is shown to be too dear to pay. The us-them dichotomy is vexed for viewers as early as the pilot, and for members of the Galactica starting in season 1. But the demonizing goes unchallenged aboard the Pegasus, as it does on 24. On BSG, the capacity for evil is not limited to our enemies or to a few “bad apples.” It is part of what we do in the name of war. And in the end, it comes back to bite us, a painful reality 24 is loathe to admit. As Commander Adama puts it, “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving” (“Resurrection Ship, Part II” 2.12). The Galactica at least knows when it has lost its moral compass and fights to regain it. 24, like Dick Cheney even now, adamantly denies wrongdoing. Its producers fret about the cost to Jack Bauer’s soul but seem unconcerned about the nation’s.
Unlike the producers or star of 24, Reiko Aylesworth, who played Michelle Dessler on 3 seasons of the show, is able to raise the troubling question the show avoids:
Aylesworth identifies the moral quandary Surnow’s series is unwilling to confront, in stark contrast to Moore’s BSG.
24 premiered during the first half of the first Bush term, BSG during the second term. Both Bush administration terms were chronicled by a pandering press, loath to risk White House retaliation and the label of “unpatriotic” by asking hard questions. Aided by television news’s well-established capitulation to market forces, in which unsubstantiated infotainment drives out socially necessary information, the Bush administration stifled open debate about government-sanctioned torture practices. It was popular culture, protected by the smokescreen of entertainment, which raised variegated sides of the issue more frankly. By asking us to consider the incompatibility of torture and a just society, BSG reframes the Bush administration position on this issue. It asks us to examine how much we surrender when we turn to torture. In contrast, 24 tackles the issue in a manner that reinforces Bush administration policy on torture, presenting it as the dirty but necessary work of the state. And, as Jack Bauer often asks other law enforcement officers to “walk away” from the scene of impending torture, so 24 over the years asks its viewers to walk away from holding government officials accountable for sanctioning torture. So ingrained in public consciousness is 24 with the pro-torture position that it has become shorthand for the ticking time bomb defense. In 2007, talking on a panel in Canada, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia “repeatedly cited Fox’s 24 and its fictional hero Jack Bauer as the authorities in support of his views about torture” (Horton). According to the Wall Street Journal, Scalia asserted:
Appearing on another panel, “24 and the War on Terror: Can Truth Learn from Fiction,” Kiefer Sutherland reported that when he flew in from NY that day, a woman across the aisle stared at him for so long that he looked over and said: “It’s a TV show,” much to her relief (DVD feature accompanying Bennett). It is too bad Sutherland was not there to inform Scalia of the same.
Given the disparity between the reach of a cable series and a network hit, 24 would seem to have had the greater public impact. It helped to promote tolerance of torture not only by embodying the practice in the sympathetic and heroic figure of Jack Bauer but more significantly by popularizing the ticking bomb scenario which links torture to intelligence gathering. The advocacy of torture hinges on this confluence of unrealistic circumstances. Without it, torture does not gain much traction. This is the function of the ticking bomb scenario. This is the function of 24 in the arena of public opinion.
BSG, despite its smaller reach, served to articulate a dissident perspective, one disseminated not only through the normal publicity channels of interviews given by Moore and Eick but through other paratextual products including Ronald Moore’s blog, David Eick’s video blog, episode podcasts created by Moore, webisodes, and extensive DVD commentary, often touching on the program’s political subject matter. This dissident perspective was also expressed by Obama when he asserted the need to “reject the false choice between our security and our ideals” (qtd. in Shane). For a time it seemed that BSG had won the discursive battle, but subsequent policies of the Obama administration suggest that this battle is far from being decisively won.