Monday, April 24, 2006

Article Note: On Torture and Disregarding It

Citation for the article:

Henderson, Schuyler W. "Disregarding the Suffering of Others: Narrative, Comedy, and Torture." Literature and Medicine 24.2 (Fall 2005): 181-208.

I read the article via Project Muse.

Henderson explains how torture can be disregarded by people in the United States. The discussion is based on the now infamous photos of torture at Abu Ghraib. Starting from the memo between Alberto Gonzalez, now U.S. Attorney General, and Jay S. Bybee where torture was redefined, Henderson discusses how narratives are created that make torture seem, well, less like torture and more like funny pranks. Henderson's purpose for this paper:

". . . is to examine how torture can be placed into a narrative context where it can become justified and thus rendered less controversial as the context facilitates as the context facilities disregarding the suffering of the victims" (183).

The idea here is that the stories created around and about the torture incidents are really mechanisms to allow people to disregard torture and the suffering of its victims. Comedy comes in as another tool to facilitate the desensitizing process.

Henderson suggests that questions about the stories need to be asked. Questions such as:
  • "How is the story about torture being told?"
  • "What details are highlighted as important?"
  • "How do these narratives shield us from seeing the suffering of the victims?" (184).
The article goes a good way towards answering these questions. Henderson goes on to look at the narratives. First there is a narrative of "us" versus "them." Then there is the story of the "war on terror." These narratives make every member of (Western) society into a victim of the terrorists. What does this do?

"By arguing that we are all potential victims (which, with the threat of Islamist violence, may well be true), any cruelty can become reasonable in the name of self-defense. It is comprehensible that one might disregard another's suffering if that suffering can prevent one's own" (187).

As I read that passage, I recalled a certain passage in Orwell's novel 1984 where the protagonist breaks down and allows for someone else to suffer in order to spare himself. The mechanism Henderson discusses is not that much different. Additionally, the terrorist, depicted as indistinguishable. is also part of the story. Into this narrative mix, the element of comedy is added. After all, it can't be suffering if it is funny. The article's author argues that comedy serves to further dehumanize the victims, and by making torture into a prank, it makes it justifiable and even acceptable. To prove this, Henderson discusses some of the Abu Ghraib photographs as well as other press coverage, even quoting conservative talk radio pundit Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is one of the people who saw the torturers at Abu Ghraib as "people having a good time" who were blowing off steam (qtd. in 193).

The article provides an excellent scholarly analysis of how narratives shaped by the government and media serve to lessen torture. For readers who see the abuse in that prison for what it is, cruel torture, this gives a good explanation as to why it seems most of society is willing to dismiss events that the United Nations and other civilized nations see as torture.

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