Torture Reality ≠ Torture Portrayal
Amnesty International describes torture as “A global crisis of barbarism, failure, and fear” (“Torture in 2014”). I think we can all agree that torture is indeed a global crisis and an international human rights issue. The question remains, however, do we apply Amnesty’s description to all acts of torture equally? Is torture in developed, particularly Western, countries more accepted than torture in the Global South?
The prevalence of torture throughout both developed and developing nations suggests that levels of development do not directly correlate with the occurrence of torture. The U.S, for example, continues to use torture in the name of national security and intelligence gathering; Spain and New Zealand join the U.S with their use of torture by law enforcement; Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all continue to accept and utilize intelligence that was obtained through illegal torture. All of these (and many more) developed, Western countries have direct and explicit ties to torture. But how often do you hear (via government officials, news outlets, etc.) about torture in these countries?
Research conducted on the media portrayal of Abu Ghraib reveals significant deficiencies in the reporting of torture by U.S news outlets. The research report explains:
Even when provided with considerable photographic and documentary evidence and the critical statements of governmental and nongovernmental actors, the nation’s leading media proved unable or unwilling to construct a coherent challenge to the administration’s claims about its policies on torturing detainees (Bennett et al, 2006).
The lack of demand for change by the U.S media directly results in a weakened perception of torture by U.S citizens. It has been established that torture occurs at all levels of development; the portrayal of torture, however, appears to play a significant role in the determining what actions receive attention, and what is categorized/ accepted as torture.
A Blurred Line
Though there is an international definition of torture, established by the UN Convention Against Torture, there remains a blurred line on what actions constitute torture. In a recent interview with NBC, John Brennan, director of the CIA, stated that the “agency will not engage in harsh enhanced interrogation practices” such as waterboarding (Engel & Windrem, 2016). In response to comments made by presidential candidates, Brennan said, “I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Not once throughout the interview did Brennan refer to CIA actions as “torture.” He continually used the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” when discussing the horrific acts of the CIA.
Even Lester Holt, the reporter summarizing the interview said, “Waterboarding is a controversial technique used in the past that many call torture” and that the CIA would no longer implement “harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). This rhetoric leaves dangerous room for the possibility that waterboarding is not actually torture (which we know is incorrect). When viewers hear “enhanced interrogation” over and over, “torture” begins to feel less significant. It was not until the very end of the report that the word “torture” was actually used. Waterboarding is indeed torture, yet some continue to refuse to call it what it is.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says he doesn’t believe that Waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding undoubtedly is an act which inflicts severe pain and suffering with the intent of obtaining intelligence, therefore falling under the UN definition of torture (“United Nations”). Cruz said, “Well under the definition of torture, no it [waterboarding] is not” (Kampmark, 2016).
The UN’s definition of torture is just loose enough to provide governments with grey area. Personally, I feel that “pain and suffering” should be descriptive enough for individuals to know what actions constitute torture. When it comes down to national security, however, those words take on a new weight and continue to be exploited, manipulated, and redefined by governments across the world.
Western Nationalism & Rationalization
As I began to explore in my post on Guantanamo Bay, and again in my post on media portrayal of torture, the United States attempts to legitimize torture in the name of national security. The rhetoric surrounding much of Western torture is centered on the safety of citizens. Governments harness the fear of their citizens, and present torture (what they call “enhanced interrogation”) as a necessary avenue of intelligence gathering. Even though the CIA senate torture report deemed Guantanamo torture unsuccessful at gathering useful and/or accurate information, governments use fear and nationalism to gain the backing of their constituents.
The 2016 U.S presidential elections have focused heavily on torture and its use to combat terrorism. Republican candidates generally support “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) against suspected threats, and have exemplified the exploitation of fear that Western governments frequently use. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in particular have voiced (loudly) their beliefs that torture is absolutely necessary for U.S and international security.
In several GOP debates the topic of torture has been discussed; almost always, these discussions frame torture as something that the government has no choice but to perpetrate. Ted Cruz once stated, “I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Trump has said on multiple occasions, “I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” (Engel & Windrem, 2016). Following the recent Brussels attack, Trump stated that he would close U.S borders and, “would try to expand the laws to go beyond waterboarding” (Minnis, 2016). Even in these few examples you find the appeal to fear; the threat that without torture the lives of U.S citizens are in danger.
Trump’s rhetoric specifically focuses on the other-ing of religious groups, ethnic/racial groups, and nations. He presents certain groups as un-American and a threat to national security, which has detrimental consequences. Of course Isis is a threat, but not every Muslim is a threat; of course some terrorist attacks happen by immigrants, but not every immigrant is a terrorist. By focusing on an “us vs. them” plot, Trump is able to convince a large group of Americans that torture is necessary. He uses his slogan of “Make America Great Again” to promote blinding nationalism.
The reality of torture is that it is not necessary, or even consistently effective, for preserving national security. Much of the Western torture I found was perpetrated by some of the highest government officials, of which rely on the rationalization of torture in the name of America’s safety. While these Western countries are torturing behind locked doors “in the name of national security” they are simultaneously demonizing non-Western countries (ex: Nigeria, Syria, Mexico, the Philippines, etc.) for torturing (“Torture in 2014”).
Development & Torture: A Summary
I began my first blog post a tad unsure of where my research would take me. My research has enlightened me immensely and exemplified the discord between the portrayal of torture and the reality of its occurrence. Here are some of the key findings, highlights, and points I hope you takeaway from my posts:
- Torture is not directly related to the level of development of a country; it occurs across the globe in countries of varying development.
- Media portrayal of torture significantly impacts the public’s perception, tolerance, and categorization of torture; the portrayal of torture is not necessarily accurate to reality.
- Mutua’s “Savage, Victim, Savior complex” can help explain the media portrayal of torture (Mutua, 2001).
- Western/ developed torture is more widely accepted, while non-Western/ developing torture is demonized and criticized.
- Western torture often relies on nationalism and rationalization to legitimize government use of torture.
Thank you for reading and learning with me throughout these posts!
Bennett, W., Lawrence, R., & Livingston, S. (2006). None Dare Call It Torture: Indexing and the Limits of Press Independence in the Abu Ghraib Scandal. Journal of Communication, 56, 467-485. Retrieved April 12, 2016.
Engel, R., & Windrem, R. (2016, April 11). Director Brennan: CIA Won’t Waterboard Again — Even if Ordered by Future President. NBC. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/director-brennan-cia-won-t-waterboard-again-even-if-ordered-n553756
Kampmark, B., Dr. (2016, April 9). Keeping Torture “Fashionable”: The US Presidential Elections. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://www.globalresearch.ca/keeping-torture-fashionable-the-us-presidential-elections/5519442
Minnis, G. (2016, March 23). Donald Trump’s Brussels Response: Close US Borders, Use Torture Tactics. Latin Post. Retrieved April 12, 2016, from http://www.latinpost.com/articles/118977/20160323/donald-trumps-brussels-response-close-us-borders-use-torture-tactics.htm
Mutua, M. (2001). Savage, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights. Harvard International Law Journal, 42(1), 201-209. Retrieved March 3, 2015.
United Nations, Convention Against Torture. (1994, July 16). Hrweb. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html
Torture in 2014: 30 Years of Broken Promises. (2014). Retrieved April 12, 2016, from https://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/act400042014en.pdf