TV UK, 4 March

Guantanamo - from realpolitik to reality TV.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Another decent Dispatches this week (Channel 4 on Monday), albeit with a silly title. To be fair, though, ‘Is Torture a Good Idea?’ was hooked on the fact that increasing numbers of people, notably in the US government, argue that it is.

The producers even found a wild-eyed US academic willing to appear on television and endorse the torturing of a suspect’s infant son. At first he said the authorities should threaten to do this – indeed, that, you may remember, was the moral fudge contrived by Jack Bauer in the fictional 24 – but when pushed, Professor Michael Levin of City University, New York said that actual torture of children would be okay.

Levin may be something of a wacko, but the programme was also able to quote now infamous passages from official government documents endorsing the infliction of great physical pain and various psychological techniques on prisoners themselves. Whatever has gone on in the past (torture was certainly not invented at Guantanamo), the attempt to come up with public, legal justifications for this sort of abuse is doubly disturbing, and perhaps offers an insight into the peculiar character of the war on terror more generally, with its hysterical emphasis on security confusingly spliced with the rhetoric of human rights and the rule of law.

Dispatches did not go into that, but it did usefully dismiss the silly hypothetical justifications for torture, specifically the ‘ticking bomb scenario’. This is what Jack Bauer was faced with, a bomb somewhere in the USA and a suspect who knew where it was. Cue infant son. In reality, as a former CIA man pointed out, this has never happened (the ticking bomb part, anyway). And in any case, there have to be serious doubts about the reliability of information extracted by torture: ‘You can make anyone say anything’, the man said.

More important than that, though, the ticking bomb scenario clearly does not apply to Guantanamo, where suspects have now been held in grotesque conditions for several years, let alone to Abu Ghraib or Camp Bread Basket, where a motley collection of defeated soldiers and looters were subjected to ritual humiliation for what exactly? The programme concluded that torture is not a good idea, then, even in the terms in which it is justified by those bright-eyed wonks rather sloppily described here as neocons.

In order to understand what torture is really about, you have to look elsewhere, and it was rather insightful of whoever commissioned the torture season to include a programme on the US prison system (Wednesday night), where there is little of the drama of 24, but plenty of degrading, demoralising and ultimately boring abuse, institutionalised if not strictly legal. Spurious military justifications aside, what goes on in Guantanamo may well have more in common with the miserable culture of prisons in the US itself than it has to do with any sinister neoconservative calculation.

The point has been made before on spiked that the Abu Ghraib pictures resembled something from reality TV, with its unwholesome emphasis on exposure and emotional distress, and unveiling (which is to say shamelessly cultivating) the dark side of human nature. Appropriately enough, then, the Channel 4 season also included its own reality show, The Guantanamo Handbook (late on Monday night), in which volunteers were subjected for 48 hours to the nightmarish treatment described by former inmates.

A couple of the volunteers said before the exercise that they approved of such techniques to extract information, and they soon changed their minds. This rather twee didactic function of the programme was surely unnecessary for the majority of the viewers, who were more likely to have been disappointed by the tameness of the abuse. This is not in any way to diminish the horror experienced by real prisoners, but simply to observe that it isn’t very televisual, and the idea that pushing a handful of volunteers around for a couple of days can illustrate it, itself diminishes that horror.

The one insight to be gleaned from the programme concerned not the prisoners but their abusers. What was striking was how pathetic they seemed: petty, mean, anything but martial. Far from being a tough and determined response to a changed world, as imagined by advocates and often conceded, practically if not morally, by critics of the ‘neocon ascendancy’, the abuse meted out in Guantanamo and elsewhere speaks of fear and moral confusion in high places, trickling down through the ranks, and finding expression in behaviour that resembles that seen in MTV’s Jackass rather than Jack Bauer’s 24.

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Topics Politics


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