PEN 2013: Our Collective Failure



Americans are way too flippant with their use of the word "hero." Professional sports players, first responders, soldiers, presidents, CEOs, and everyday folks (often doing everyday things) have all been called heroes. The accolade has been watered down so much it has lost all significance. Hero, then, is not a term I use loosely.


When David Frakt completed his reading on the opening night of PEN World Festival of International Literature, I wanted to stand up cry out "HERO!" Frakt (his essay forthcoming on The Mantle) recalled his efforts to free Mohammed Jawad, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, based on the argument that U.S. abuse of and lawless actions toward Jawad negated the United States' right to try him in court. Jawad was the first prisoner to testify under oath about torture at Guantanamo. In 2009, after spending six years in prison, Jawad was repatriated to Afghanistan.


In her opening remarks at the "Going on the Record: Resistance and Writing" panel, Lynne Tillman talked me down from my hero worship of Frakt. If we consider Frakt a hero, she said, we exempt ourselves from complementary action, for heroes are placed in a realm that exists separately from that of us mere mortals. Those who act bravely should remain in our world, remain human, to serve as inspiration that we can achieve the same. (Heroes! They're just like us!)


The continuing abuses at Guantanamo deeply troubled and puzzled Aleksander Hemon who mused on the American culture of abuse. What is the logic of continuing to torture when there is no substantial evidence that it produces results? The answer might be found in American culture itself, he suggests, a culture that elevates the use of force as a way to solve problems. One need only look at dominant video games and Hollywood movies where the good guy always wins because he is deft at using force and violence to achieve his ends.


Pointing out the impacts of violent movies and video games on society has become de rigueur when speaking about violence in the United States, but the problem goes deeper. It is not just violence that makes for a popular movie; the popularity of a violent subgenre—the torture movie—is problematic. In recent years, the proliferation of masochist horror films like the Saw and Hostel franchises indicates a dramatic shift in our popular psyche: we have long since been desensitized to violence on the big screen, and now we are becoming accustomed to torture. We have a very serious problem when "torture porn" is a thing.

We need not go as far as torture, however. The popularity of police dramas, in which police roughly interrogate criminal suspects in cold, dark rooms further cements the idea that rough interrogation works. Good cop, bad cop, we always get our man.


In real life, however, how do we get from interrogation to torture?  How did the abuses at Guantanamo Bay (and elsewhere) get so out of hand? Alberto Mora spoke of the phenomenon "force drift," which is the tendency of interrogators to exert increasing amount of force against non-compliant prisoners. Mora explains that the "the level of force applied against an uncooperative witness tends to escalate such that, if left unchecked, force levels, to include torture, could be reached."


In an interview, Dr. Michael Gelles, a psychologist with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (1991-2006), discussed the cruel policies being carried out at Guantanamo Bay: 


"A policy of cruelty. And I would say, from my background, there was a sadistic trend to this. This was sadistic, and the sadism that was being thought about, developed, and implemented, I think was a function of fear, that we had been—we had been terrorized, and we were fearful, and we were going to ensure, like in anybody's wish, that we would not be frightened, because we would eliminate and control that which made us frightened. That's a little psychological; you can edit that however you want. But that's what I think. I would say a policy of cruelty and there was clearly a sadistic element to it, and if you begin to think about the origins of, you know, of sadism—and there was a sense of fear around being—fear, a sense of fear."


We Americans have collectively absorbed the idea that might makes right. We promised ourselves: if torture does not produce results immediately, eventually it will, and therefore retroactively confirm our abusive practices. This is the argument made by George W. Bush who, backtracking on claims of weapons of mass destruction, retroactively justifies the invasion of Iraq because the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.


This retroactive justification, some say, is an implicit argument in Zero Dark Thirty. In his review of the movie, Eric Anthamatten argues that torture was made easier because the Other—the detainee—was metaphorically defaced, and therefore made sub-human or not human at all. David Frakt points out that in Guantanamo, this went further than just forcing the prisoners to wear hoods (so no eye contact could be made): prisoners were assigned numbers and referred to as those numbers, rather than their names, and even the guards removed their name tags and went by nicknames. Ostensibly the latter move was to protect the identity of the interrogator, but in reality it further removed the human element from the dialectic exchange.


The United States, it appears, is a consequentalist society, one that agrees that the ends justify the means. Human dignity and the rule of law be damned.


We have failed on so many levels.


Where, for one, is the outrage? There is an enormous amount of indifference in this country, says Mora, that allows abuses to continue and accountability to disappear. Our apathy is a tacit form of approval. Our silence has allowed Barack Obama to skirt the issue of closing Guantanamo for too many years.


We have also failed in our imagination. We have failed to imagine a culture that can solve problems using the rule of law rather than the barrel of a gun. This failure is manifest in our entertainment, in our homes, and in our governmental policies.


David Frakt, Alberto Mora, Darrel Vandeveld, and others have stepped up for what is right. It is now incumbent upon us to step up for them, to elevate all of us to the level of the hero.



Aleksander Hemon, Culture, David Frakt, Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights, PEN 2013, Prison, Torture, Violence, Morality, Ethics