[Marxism] Susan Sontag: What Have We Done?

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon May 24 10:29:31 MDT 2004

Great commentary today by writer, literary critic and 
theorist Susan Sontag on the meaning of the photographs
of US torture at Abu Ghraib. Her writings are often so
dense and obscure that you have to read and re-read them
to get the idea. But not this time. She uses the phrase
"we" in a way which obscures the main responsibility for
the torture, which is clearly with those who ordered it.

She links the smiling faces of the hands-on perpetrators 
eloquently to the images of lynch mobsters documented in 
the stunning volume called WITHOUT SANCTUARY. Clearly 
Sontag is an individual who retains a deep moral center. 

After 9-11 Sontag critiqued the orgy of self-congratu-
latory patriotism in a way which earned her praises from
some and rebuke by others. She's very much on target now.
Hers is an essay which should be put in the hands of all
who have human feelings and are troubled by the torture
images at Abu Ghraib, not to speak of those also troubled
by the images of Israeli soldiers destroying Palestinian
homes and shooting protesting Palestinian children. 

Among Sontag's most compelling points are:

To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one's
life, and therefore, to go on with one's life, oblivious,
or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera's non-stop
attentions. But it is also to pose. To act is to share in
the community of actions recorded as images. The expression
of satisfaction at the acts of torture one is inflicting on
helpless, trussed, naked victims is only part of the story.
There is the primal satisfaction of being photographed, to
which one is more inclined to respond not with a stiff,
direct gaze (as in former times) but with glee. The events
are in part designed to be photographed. The grin is a grin
for the camera. There would be something missing if, after
stacking the naked men, you couldn't take a picture of

You ask yourself how someone can grin at the sufferings and
humiliation of another human being - drag a naked Iraqi man
along the floor with a leash? set guard dogs at the
genitals and legs of cowering, naked prisoners? rape and
sodomise prisoners? force shackled hooded prisoners to
masturbate or commit sexual acts with each other? beat
prisoners to death? - and feel naive in asking the
questions, since the answer is, self-evidently: people do
these things to other people. Not just in Nazi
concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by
Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, do them when they have
permission. When they are told or made to feel that those
over whom they have absolute power deserve to be
mistreated, humiliated, tormented. They do them when they
are led to believe that the people they are torturing
belong to an inferior, despicable race or religion. For the
meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were
performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that
there was anything wrong in what the pictures show. Even
more appalling, since the pictures were meant to be
circulated and seen by many people, it was all fun. And
this idea of fun is, alas, more and more - contrary to what
Mr Bush is telling the world - part of "the true nature and
heart of America".

It is hard to measure the increasing acceptance of
brutality in American life, but its evidence is everywhere,
starting with the games of killing that are the principal
entertainment of young males to the violence that has
become endemic in the group rites of youth on an exuberant
Already the backlash has begun. Americans are being warned
against indulging in an orgy of self-condemnation. The
continuing publication of the pictures is being taken by
many Americans as suggesting that we do not have the right
to defend ourselves. After all, they (the terrorists, the
fanatics) started it. They - Osama bin Laden? Saddam
Hussein? what's the difference? - attacked us first. James
Inhofe, a Republican member, from Oklahoma, of the Senate
Armed Services Committee, before which secretary Rumsfeld
testified, avowed that he was sure he was not the only
member of the committee "more outraged by the outrage" over
what the photographs show. "These prisoners," Sen Inhofe
explained, "you know they're not there for traffic
violations. If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these
prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're
insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on
their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment
of those individuals." It's the fault of "the media" -
usually called "the liberal media" - which is provoking,
and will continue to provoke, further violence against
Americans around the world. More Americans will die.
Because of these photos.

There is an answer to this charge, of course. It is not
because of the photographs but of what the photographs
reveal to be happening, happening at the behest of and with
the complicity of a chain of command that reaches up to the
highest level of the Bush administration. But the
distinction - between photograph and reality, between
policy and spin - easily evaporates in most people's minds.
And that is what the administration wishes to happen.

"There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist,"
Mr Rumsfeld acknowledged in his testimony. "If these are
released to the public, obviously, it is going to make
matters worse." Worse for the US and its programmes,
presumably. Not for those who are the actual victims of
torture. The media may self-censor, as is its wont. But, as
Mr Rumsfeld acknowledged, it's hard to censor soldiers
overseas who don't write letters home, as in the old days,
that can be opened by military censors who ink out
unacceptable lines, but, instead, function like tourists,
"running around with digital cameras and taking these
unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against
the law, to the media, to our surprise". The
administration's effort to withhold pictures will continue,
however - the argument is taking a more legalistic turn:
now the photographs are "evidence" in future criminal
cases, whose outcome may be prejudiced if the photographs
are made public. But the real push to limit the
accessibility of the photographs will come from the ongoing
effort to protect the Bush administration and its policies
- to identify "outrage" over the photographs with a
campaign to undermine the American military might and the
purposes it currently serves. Just as it was regarded by
many as an implicit criticism of the war to show on
television photographs of American soldiers who were killed
in the course of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it
will increasingly be thought unpatriotic to disseminate the
aberrant photographs and tarnish and besmirch the
reputation - that is, the image - of America.

After all, we're at war. Endless war. And war is hell. The
only good Indian is a dead Indian. Hey, we were only having
fun. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren't
going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a
thousand words. And there will be thousands more snapshots
and videos. Unstoppable. Can the video game, "Hazing at Abu
Ghraib" or "Interrogating the Terrorists", be far behind?

C Susan Sontag 2004


The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of
reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright
deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV
commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed
to follow the event seem to have joined together in a
campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the
acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on
"civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free
world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed
superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific
American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware
of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word
"cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to
those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high
in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in
order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally
neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators
of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is
O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken,
although this was a day that will live in infamy and
America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this
was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who
assures us that America still stands tall. A wide spectrum
of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly
opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this
Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more
than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of
thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in
Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American
intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options
available to American foreign policy, particularly in the
Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of
military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear
much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded,
self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress
seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious,
reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials
and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy
of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider
their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building
and grief management. Politics, the politics of a
democracy-which entails disagreement, which promotes
candor-has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all
means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A
few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand
what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.
"Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I for
one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that
America is strong? But that's not all America has to be.

-Susan Sontag

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