Torture and our own complicity

Here's a timely guest blog item from Brian C. Jones:

There are two nightmares a newspaper writer faces. First, of course, is that nobody will read what he writes. Second, readers will come away completely confused about what the dope was trying to say.

This happened after a short “Rant” of mine appeared in the March 7 Providence Phoenix, headlined: “In the Abu Ghraib era, watching even staged torture is painful.”

The essay was about a series of plays offered by Pawtucket’s excellent Gamm Theater, highlighting government-sponsored torture, and my daydream I was so disturbed by watching the suffering of the play’s characters that I jumped up on the stage to rally other theatergoers to stop the abuse and “rescue” the victims in a gesture suggesting political action we ought to be taking in real life.

Later, one “review” of the article came in from a friend, who e-mailed me that she and other readers divided into two camps: “He hated it and didn't think a theater should be doing plays like that. 2) He was deeply affected by it and thought it was worthwhile theater.”

E-mail not having the space limits of a newspaper, I wrote back this long-winded “clarification,” which I submit here, with apologies, in case others also read and wondered:

I’m feeling terrible about torture these days and have been since 9-11, after which I first started to hear it was up for discussion as a tool in fighting terrorism. I remember hearing this kind of thing on the Steve Kass radio talk show (he's now the governor's communications director). Then it turned out that torture, in fact, had become an official tool of the government. And it's also been a staple on my favorite (this is true) TV program, 24.

 All during this time, I've been sulking, trying to think of what I should be doing about it, because both kinds of torture -- real and imagined -- demand citizen and audience action. But Citizen and Couchpotato Jones both have been doing nothing but fretting. When word came out about the network of CIA prisons offshore, I did think that I should at least be in front of the Federal Building on Friday afternoons, waving signs, with other badly-dressed people, at commuters. But of course . . . .

 More recently, and shortly before the Gamm visit, I read a terrific New Yorker piece which explored the use of torture on 24 and how lots of people -- including some in the government -- are upset about it and have moved to get the producers to tone things down (the government’s interest being that its own interrogators are also 24 fans and had looked to the program for guidance to its techniques, which don’t work in the real gulag). The New Yorker piece reinforced my thought that I should have been writing to the producers of the program myself and maybe hooking up with the fan blogs to campaign against the program’s approval of torture -- and its premise that torture works, every time.

 Fast-forward to the Gamm production. The play in question was so impressively done and so excruciatingly effective -- the theater group is exceptional -- that I really did want to leap onto the stage and carry out my daydream. In my mind, that would not have been a protest against what the theater was doing -- which I appreciated, even if I didn't enjoy. Instead, it would have been an attempt to become part of the play, and to bring the audience with me, in a statement that we could no longer just stay in our seats, waiting to see what would become of that poor family. Instead, we would rescue the three of them, not to halt the play, but to rewrite it.

Perhaps, if we as an audience, protest to the producers of 24 and insert ourselves in that TV program, and if we as an audience, join in the true spirit of the Gamm production and really react to what is going on an arms-length away, and not just applaud at the end of the show, then maybe we also will protest on the streets, write our Congress people, and use the other tools of democracy to make torture an election issue and change the way our country does business.

 Of course, this is the Gamm’s point, and I applaud the courage and commitment involved in the production. And my point certainly wasn’t to tell the theater company it shouldn’t depict this kind of objectionable human behavior. Nor was I saying I just want to go to feel-good plays (even though I'm always hoping they WILL be feel-good plays).

 Still, I am concerned about entertainment violence. The question is this: at what point does the depiction of violence become not a show of disapproval or discussion, but a closet or backdoor way of participating and indulging in it. For example, one of the themes of TV drama and movies is: “Let’s Scare the Girl.” The plot is always the same. A woman is being threatened, menaced, attacked by a monster man. Usually, things turn out okay in the end.

In the old, pre-lib days, after one or two hours of awfulness, the woman would be rescued; nowadays, toward the end of the show, the now-empowered woman herself turns the tables on the bad man. But throughout the process, the audience gets to participate in two kinds of violence: one is to beat up the woman for most of the show; the other is to use the attack on the woman as an excuse for vigilantism, to throw out the rule of law and do really bad things to the attacking man. So I think a lot of unpleasant human behavior in entertainment is vicarious violence, disguised as a morality exercise.

 I do think that there’s a point where the audience should walk out, hit the remote and not indulge itself in the modern version of watching the lions gobble up the Christians at the Coliseum. We should boycott events where boxers inflict brain damage and chickens cut each others’ throats with razor blades.

 But one of the issues I was mulling during my Gamm daydream was that if I and my fellow theatergoers had “stopped the show,” that would have done violence to art. You cannot have people burn books they don't like, prohibit movies they don't agree with, and outlaw TV shows. We can’t have sports fans swarming the field because our team is losing. We can’t go back to the days of throwing rotten tomatoes at the players, or roaring for the hook. There is absolute savagery in an audience getting into the act.

 So, in my daydream, as I debated a role as either patriot or mouse, I did think that simply walking out that night wouldn’t be enough. So I left a while later and on schedule, having done absolutely nothing, and feeling even more guilty than ever, if that’s possible.

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