The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's executive summary on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation program has been met with outrage across the media. The report's revelations of post-9/11 torture, deception, and its pages of redacted names, dates, and places are all equally distressing.
The media coverage surrounding the report is disproportionately focused on an analysis of the failure to produce viable intelligence. The dehumanizing behaviors that comprise torture itself don't seem to be the point of contention in these pieces. The media by and large has framed America's torture of the past decade as a national disgrace because it wasn't the right "kind" of torture—the efficient, justifiable, intelligence-producing kind that leads to captured terrorists.
Over the past two days, lazy outlets have dredged up images of Osama bin Laden in order to cultivate tabloid intrigue among the public—did we or did we not execute Osama because of intelligence obtained from "enhanced interrogation?" The exhausting "torture vs. enhanced interrogation" semantic arguments of the past decade have been resurrected in part by the predictably awful US right-wing, as evidenced by the likes of noted Islamophobe Rep. Peter King, who clearly hasn't read the report and finds this an opportune time to parrot neoconservative talking points about what keeps America safe. And then there's the gruesome practice of "rectal feeding" that occupies many ledes around the web. Whole pages are dedicated to turning tortured bodies into a spectacle, but there is nary as impassioned or widely disseminated a critique of the medical-ethical violations of this practice, or a critique of empire, of the nebulous US geopolitical maneuvering that sets the groundwork for human rights abuses. This is as much a criticism of intelligence-gathering tactics in the United States as it is of the country's entire framework for assessing the post-9/11 era, replete with years of spectacle, manipulation, and apologism for a decade of warmongering. In the wake of these revelations, there must be greater impetus on the part of media gatekeepers to make systems of power visible to the public, especially when they act so brutally.
I can't help but remember the 2013 series of tweets from an Amtrak Acela passenger who overheard former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden giving an "anonymous" interview over the phone where he defended his detention and interrogation policies during the Bush era, dismissing "torture" as a mere legal term. Even more upsetting was the end to the piece where the eavesdropping informant posts a pic with Hayden, declaring him to be a "gentleman" despite their cool, plush-seated disagreement about denying people their humanity and getting away with, quite literally, murder. Architects of torturous policies like Michael Hayden walk free today.
Among more insidious media moves, there's been the New York Times and their rather tone-deaf decision to run with US Army veteran and former interrogator Eric Fair's sappy op-ed, which outlined his sense of feeling tortured and traumatized from having participated in actually torturing people. While Warscapes Associate Editor Melissa Smyth offers a comprehensive response to the piece here, it must be noted that the American liberal media's preoccupation with the figure of the perpetrator has reached a new high.
Earlier this year, commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda, the NYT also ran a shocking story titled "Portraits of Reconciliation." Here, former génocidaires posed hand in hand with victims of the genocide in what seemed like a glaringly uncomfortable photo shoot—forced, overwrought, and without reconciliation, forgiveness, or healing in anyone's eyes.
What are we to make of this need for celebrating the figures of the perpetrators? When done with the appropriate intellectual apparatus and detail, this enquiry into the perpetrator's psyche and mind can certainly lead to productive understandings of what drives state-sanctioned violence. But when played out on a hollow backdrop with no concern and no attempt to humanize the actual victims of torture, it becomes nothing more than the media's attempt at silencing the victim. The media becomes openly complicit in the heinous acts. Acts that are suddenly given many layers of justifiability and meaning.
When stories like this are amplified by social media, they produce myriad mis-en-abymes—realities struggling to place themselves, an infinite mirroring. Tweets lead to retweets, shares lead to reblogs, and lists are made about other lists. A paradoxical process of obfuscation occurs. We're left with an abyss of information bereft of critical touchstones and no real time to reflect on what is happening around us. When entire footnoted pages are reduced to listicles and lascivious clickbait, the space for true systemic critique about what led to these abuses narrows. Culpability is slowly eroded and the chance that this behavior is recognized as criminal becomes all the more elusive, especially when it concerns state-sanctioned violence perpetrated on such a grand scale.
Jason Huettner is Blogs Editor for Warscapes.