Pictures of Torture

By Rebecca Gordon
Nov 1, 2010
The classic Abu Ghraib photograph

Last Friday I took a colleague’s liberation theology class for him, while he was at a conference. He’d asked me to talk about torture, particularly in the context of El Salvador’s wars in the 1980’s and 90’s.

“But be sure to show them some pictures,” he said. “Otherwise, they won’t really understand what you’re talking about.”
This request presented a two problems.
First, although the internet abounds with images of torture (a Google search will bring up hundreds of thousands in a few seconds), many of these are fictitious representations. They are recreations, artists’ renditions, the products of imagination. Unlike the monitory spectacle of public execution, today’s institutionalized state torture goes on in secret. The results of torture – the mutilated bodies of the tortured – do often “appear” in public places. But torture itself is private ritual. That privacy lies at the heart its mechanism: the sufferer has been cut off from all the usual landmarks – temporal, physical, and social – of ordinary life. She or he is alone; no one knows what is happening to her. Indeed one of the most profound forms of torture, as Atul Gawande has shown us, is solitary confinement.
Abu Ghraib prisoners were often menaced by dogs
It’s not that torturers don’t record their efforts. We know, for example, that the CIA meticulously documented their 183 waterboarding sessions with Khalid Sheik Muhammed. We know they videotaped them, and that in spite of the damning evidence those tapes contained, they were loath to destroy them.
Nor is the CIA alone in their careful documentation of torture. Meticulous, even punctilious record-keeping turns out to be a common feature of torture regimes. In A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lawrence Weschler quotes Jaime Wright, a Brazilian Presbyterian minister who oversaw a five-year clandestine project to photocopy thousands of accounts of torture by the Brazilian police:

“The Brazilian generals,” he told Weschler, “were technocrats.… they were obsessed with keeping complete records as they went along."

At least one detainee was badly bitten. This is one of the second batch of Abu Ghraib photos, published by in 2006.
The generals never thought they would be prosecuted for what they were doing. As another informant told Weschler, “They imagined that they were laying the groundwork for a civilization that would last a thousand years – that, far from having to justify themselves for occasional lapses, they would be celebrated by all posterity for the breadth of their achievement.”
Similar records were kept by torturers in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. And, presumably, by torturers working under U.S. authority as well. This doesn’t mean, however, that such records are intended for public view. This is particularly true in the case of regimes that project a democratic identity in the world, that call their dictators “President,” and retain some or many of the outward signifiers of a democratic society. It is even more true of torture regimes that actually are democracies.
So images of state torture do exist. But they’re not easy to find. With one exception: thanks to the bravery of Army Specialist Joseph M. Darby, who reported the abuse to his superiors, and the relentless reporting of Seymour Hersh we do have a small sample of the 10,000 or so images of torture at Abu Ghraib. But the Abu Ghraib pictures are not the careful record keeping of trained torturers. The reason we have these images at all is because they were taken by a bunch of amateurs – the reservists who were given the task of “softening up” detainees before they were given to the OGA* men and private contractors for “real” interrogations.
 Wounds inflicted by "less-than-lethal" rounds
I ended up showing my colleague’s students images of Abu Ghraib, because that’s what there is to show. I figured that these pictures would have no impact, that they’d have long ago been inoculated through frequent exposure. But these undergrads were 12 and 13 when CBS broadcast the first pictures of Abu Ghraib on 60 Minutes. Even the now-iconic image of a hooded, wired-up man standing on a box with arms outstretched was new to them. To their credit, they were horrified.
I saved the pictures for the end of the hour I had with these young people. I wanted to give them some context first. I wanted them to understand that torture like this, even the amateur efforts of folks who were prison guards in civilian life, does not arise spontaneously in moments of extremity. I wanted them to understand the institutional, organized, nature of torture.
But I delayed showing the pictures for another reason: I wanted them to understand that by exposing the victims of torture, we risk dehumanizing them yet again.
Torture regimes regularly speak of their victims as non-human. They are “vermin,” “animals,” or, as in Chile under Pinochet, “humanoids.” The effect of torture is in fact to strip the victim of all the ties to the physical and social world that make her human. She no longer knows where she is in time and space, she has lost all connection to the people who make up her world, and in many cases has been forced to betray them. The torture victim may begin as a person who, in the torturer’s view, has forfeited moral rights, but in the end she becomes a being who has forfeited her personhood.
At least, that’s what pictures like these would seem to suggest: these are not human beings, but animals, like the man led on a leash by Lynndie England, or the naked men stacked like Legos into pyramids.
 Human Lego blocks?

 I want people to know what torture really is, so it can be stopped, and those responsible can be brought to justice. But the very act of revealing torture’s reality risks increasing its dehumanizing power. Elaine Scarry has expressed this dilemma in her excellent book, The Body in Pain, writing about the letters Amnesty International sends to supporters. Such letters:

"…must at once be characterized by the greatest possible tact (for the most intimate realm of another human being’s body is the implicit or explicit subject) and by the greatest possible immediacy (for the most crucial fact about pain is its presentness and the most crucial fact about torture is that it is happening). Tact and immediacy ordinarily work against one another; thus the difficulty of sustaining either tone is compounded by the necessity of sustaining both simultaneously."
How much more tact is needed when we display pictures of torture?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

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