Further investigation of the onlooker

Figures 29 and 30, from two separate films: Green Zone (Bevan et al. & Greengrass, 2010) and Unthinkable (Weber et al. & Jordan, 2010), narrate the discomfort of two different onlookers. Figure 29 narrates the onlooker scratching his neck and looking away and to the side, while figure 30 shows a female onlooker covering her mouth and looking down. Aside from the specific body language of these two onlookers, close-ups and the diegetic sound of the torture victims’ groans and whimpers are used to highlight the onlooker’s emotion rather than to gain the sympathy of the audience on behalf of the torture victim.

Rules versus caring

Upon even deeper examination of the concept of guilt, an important question emerges: does onlookers’ conflict arise from the feeling that they (i.e. Americans) should adhere to a rule without exception (i.e. the United States’ anti-torture policy, even in the case that such information could be used to save innocent U.S. lives), or does their guilt arise from watching another person suffer? Furthermore, what does this particular body of film suggest about viewers’ guilt—i.e. from which path does their guilt originate? Sagan (1988) illustrates the distinction between conscience and superego (feeling that rules must be adhered to without exception) by referencing “Huck’s dilemma” from the book Huckleberry Finn. While Huck’s racist superego demands that he must turn his runaway slave companion to authorities, his loving conscience longs to protect his friend. While Huck’s dilemma is clearly delineated by Sagan (1988), it is unclear where the onlooker’s guilt originates. Even though Sagan (1988) suggests that caring for others comes from an early identification with a nurturing mother, it is unclear if in fact the onlooker cares personally about the pain being inflicted upon the torture victim or is uncomfortable because rules are being broken and an exception to the United States’ strict pro-human rights position is being made.

Evidence of caring

In some moments in films that depict torture, the onlooker does in fact feel for the pain of the torture victim. For example, the character Agent Brody (from the film Unthinkable) attends to the torture victim with a towel after the prisoner has been heavily hosed with cold water, which demonstrates at least the appearance of someone who cares about his pain. Similarly, Freeman’s character (the onlooker) in the film Rendition yells “enough, enough” mid-electrocution of the torture victim. However not only do these attempts appear weak in alleviating the torture victim’s overall pain, but also both onlooker-characters are narrated through the bulk of their respective films as standing by, fully knowing that torture is occurring, in addition to the fact that these two specific characters also physically participate in torture.

The ambiguity of the onlooker’s caring is further elaborated through the artistry and cinematic techniques used in these films. For example, in one scene Agent Brody’s physical stance is facilitated by an angled camera, suggesting an uncertainty or hesitation about the torture occurring in the next room over (figure 31). Then, seconds later, the camera squares up to her shoulders narrating a more resolute body posture (Figure 32). While in the first figure she appears uncertain about whether the torture should occur, the squaring of her shoulders to the camera suggests that ultimately she believes in the necessity of the torture. A different scene from Body of Lies (Scott et al. & Scott, 2008) narrates of a close-up Ferris’ character (the onlooker). He appears to be not only in discomfort but anguish as another man is tortured. By choosing to narrate a close-up of Ferris’ face, rather than a shot of the torture victim being beaten, Ferris’ anguish feels more important than the torture victim’s pain. He appears to be in disagreement with the torture by not participating and the look of anguish upon his face, yet he does not make any physical efforts to stop it. Thus he and other onlookers are able to play both sides of the fence (i.e. at times feeling pain for the torture victim, and at other times passively and even actively participating in the torture), while the rationale for their discomfort is not clearly delineated.

Conflict within the superego

Aside from the demands the superego places on the self to protect innocent U.S. life, it is also a rule violation to harm another person. The superego[3] [open endnotes in new window] is instrumental in controlling the sadistic impulses of the id by adhering to rules that work in protection of the greater good. However, a tension exists between the part of the self that feels that they should participate in torture in order to protect innocent U.S. lives and the part of self, also governed by the superego, which feels that it is wrong to hurt another person. While Sagan (1988) stresses that people who perform evil acts on other people are not necessarily evil in nature but are working under the banner of a racist, classist and/or sexist internalization of cultural values, he neglects to resolve the part of the self (i.e. superego) that feels it must adhere to a no-harm policy. Lifton (1986) helps to illustrate the demands of an authoritative superego based on his research about the famous Nazi concentration camp doctors. Lifton (1986) stresses that these particular doctors were not psychopaths, but misguided idealists who were working strongly under the “banner of the superego” (Sagan, 1988). They also thought of the idea of death camps as a necessary component in the elimination of disease. Carveth (2010) explains that although outsiders viewing the Nazi doctors’ actions would like to think of them as “sadistic, id-driven psychopaths” (p. 109), they were neither brilliant, nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive. They were by no means the demonic figures (sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill) people have often thought them to be. Based on the presence of this psychological tension (struggling between the desire to protect innocent life and at the same time the desire to do no harm), the onlooker (and U.S. audience) may be experiencing some degree of emotional paralysis (as evidenced by their discomfort, yet passively standing by as the torture occurs). On an emotional level, their paralysis might also serve as punishment for condoning torture.

“Assertion of the ideological”

When considering the larger implications of this study and what it might mean in terms of gaining the U.S. support for using torture on real life terror suspects, Davis’ (2003) theory on the “assertion of the ideological” is useful to consider. Davis (2003) explains that individuals, rather than resolving the “ego shattering trauma” of events like 9/11, will do almost anything in their power to make sure that their experience of pain has been “fully constituted” (Davis, 2003, para. 3). Thus audiences, through their identification with the onlooker, get to play out fantasies of being the freedom-loving, do-gooder American while simultaneously reaping the benefits of torture and engaging in fantasies of sadistic and sexual pleasure. Davis (2003) argues that the only way to move forward beyond tragedy is to recognize, be aware of one’s loss and mourn it without trying to fill voids through wishing or causing destruction to others.

As Nancy Hollander (2010), a defense lawyer who has famously represented a number of thought-to-be terrorists, poignantly summarizes:

“I was more afraid of the reaction to the terrorists than of the terrorists themselves ... What kind of question is ‘Why do they hate us? We know that for years the aim of this country’s foreign policy has been to control others’ resources and governments’ ... there is this constant battle: on the one hand, this terrible thing that has happened; and on the other, the retaliatory revenge strategy that was developed almost immediately, which I could not bear.” (Hollander, 2010, p. 5)

By participating in the discourse utilized in this particular body of film, U.S. film watchers are afforded the luxury of not having to own their own destructive impulses and as such, not having to know their own sense of loss as a result of 9/11. Without having to acknowledge one’s destructive impulses, one does not have to mourn and therefore acknowledge how one’s participation in film-watching might be contributing to the real-life treatment of U.S.-held terror suspects. Audience members can therefore engage in guilt-free watching, without being labeled a watcher or even someone who enjoys watching torture. After all, the audience member is not the onlooker, even though their identification may be tied up in this particular character.

Additionally post 9/11 films with torture scenes in them appear to suggest that a country can actually obtain something real (e.g. information to prevent future terror attacks) on a consistent basis through people’s passive participation in torture (Salek & Flynn, 2013). The films do not narrate the ineffectiveness of torture, or how innocent people have been and continue to be tortured at U.S. hands. Instead, they focus on the necessity of torture and our passive participation. Films only become relevant to a large number of people if the films reflect, augment or deny some aspect of the current wave of thinking. Thus successful or even moderately successful films communicate and reflect the current culture of thinking, even if a given film is thought to be merely fantasy-based (Salek & Flynn, 2013).

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