What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Torture — (The Bleader)

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The Bleader

Posted by Whet Moser 

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 at 11:20 AM

Throughout the course of the Burge trial, the Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes wrote obsessively about it, in part because of a perceived lack of attention given to the case by major media outlets (with the clear exception of WBEZ and Vocalo, which wisely employed John Conroy to cover it). While I’m grateful that he did so and don’t entirely disagree with the broader point, I’ve tried to emphasize my belief that there’s a greater problem in American media generally with regards to writing about torture, which greatly overshadows any coverage, or lack thereof, about Jon Burge.

Today Will Bunch has a column (via Atrios) about a new Kennedy School of Government study (PDF) about the coverage of torture that’s pretty surprising. Waterboarding was generally referred to as torture in major American newspapers until, amazingly… when it broke that American soldiers had waterboarded ­i.e., tortured ­prisoners.

Bunch’s takeaway: “I do think this report frames a much broader problem in America, which is that we’ve lost our ability to distinguish right from wrong on its most basic level, because of our need to filter everything through some kind of bogus political prism.”

I don’t think it’s “politics,” necessarily. I think it stems in part from deference to authority, and in particular military and law enforcement figures. That deference has great value­if we didn’t trust cops generally, they couldn’t do their jobs. (Even on the most basic level, everyone knows to pull over when a cop car is in pursuit.) We trust cops because we have to for the system to work, and in the vast majority of cases, that trust is warranted. Sometimes it’s not, but that instinctual trust­and watching cops part an intersection like Moses, it’s very much instinctual­doesn’t go away easy.

And I didn’t really get that sort of hesitation, or eerie minimalization, from the coverage of the Burge trial. Which may stem from having read much of the outstanding coverage of torture in the military by The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the NYRB in the broader context of an American media landscape that employs prominent apologists like John Yoo and Marc Thiessen.

I’ve discussed some theories as to why local coverage of the Burge trial might not have been as prominent or aggressive as Rhodes or others thought it should have been. But one thing that’s been in the back of my mind is the sad figure Burge cut as an isolated, sick old man long separated from the city he served with considerable professional success and at times with legitimate heroism. Is he haunted? Broken? I can’t say, and perhaps no one can. But I can’t shake the feeling that whatever the justice system will deprive Burge of is and can never be comparable to what he’s done to himself.

John Conroy made his reputation covering Burge, but the former cop’s not the only torturer he’s written about (nor the only injustice Conroy’s written about with such skill and precision). In 2007 he profiled Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator living with his past as a torturer:

I think it was because I had been on Zoloft and Wellbutrin and decided to stop taking that stuff, and I guess you’re not supposed to just stop. So for three days and nights I didn’t sleep and I’m seeing things and hearing things. I’m hearing talk radio­it’s news about Iraq. It was in my head but it didn’t sound like it was in my head. Even after she told me I was hearing this stuff, I didn’t believe it. I would walk around her house and her refrigerator would be singing German folk songs. I’d step out on the back porch and I’d hear Lou Rawls. It should have been obvious to me that I was losing it, but I kept trying to convince myself that I really am hearing this stuff. So I ended up in the emergency room at the VA. . . . Finally I just fell asleep from exhaustion and then I was OK.”

Or, from Conroy’s Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, his interview with Vietnam vet Don Dzagulones:

Dzagulones returned to Detroit. His re-entry into normal society was difficult. The next several years were marked by insomnia, nightmares, many fistfights, serious consideration of suicide, and a certain paranoia, a feeling that “Armageddon was about to happen” and that therefore the best thing he could do for himself and his family was to remain in top physical condition.

Read up on torture and the odds are you’ll find a torturer like you. Lagouranis is a well-read college graduate who attended St. John’s College, a quirky great-books school that I’m familiar with and considered attending as well; it’s a regular destination for kids who went to alternative schools like me. Conroy saw parts of himself in Dzagulones and Bruce Moore-King, a Rhodesian army vet turned writer who tortured children to get village elders to talk:

I asked him if he felt any guilt about his performance as a torturer. He acknowledged and showed none. There are two Bruce Moore-Kings, he told me, and the one who so casually tortured children and adults had been dead for a long time.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I suspect the reticence, whether comparatively minor in the case of Burge or considerably more stark in the case of military interrogation coverage, has to do with the general and natural difficulty of discussing and defining torture. The act of torture emerges not just from base human instincts like vengeance and fear, but also from the higher abstract concepts that our civilization is constructed upon, like deference to civil and military authority and patriotism. And it may generate a not-entirely-misguided sympathy to the torturer as well as the tortured. When that unease is explicit, it reads as conflict; when it’s implicit, it reads as the eerie absence that Bunch and Rhodes found when reading and writing about torture.