Payback time

It doesn't stop at Abu Ghraib. All of America is awash in violent revenge fantasies -- including me.

By Charles Taylor

Published May 14, 2004 10:08PM (EDT)

Rarely are movies as in sync with the news as "Man on Fire" is with the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. In the movie, Denzel Washington plays some sort of unspecified former military operative drifting through Mexico, who is hired as bodyguard to a rich man's daughter (Dakota Fanning or, as she should be known, The Littlest Replicant). When the tot is kidnapped and presumed dead, Washington goes on a vengeance mission in which he tortures and murders foreigners to find the guilty parties.

"Man on Fire" has a different tone from "Dirty Harry," "Death Wish," "Walking Tall" and the other '70s vigilante movies that took their cue from the law-and-order ethos of the Nixon years. The mob justice mentality (and the visceral talents of directors like Don Seigel and Phil Karlson) that whipped up audiences at those pictures is replaced by a sodden depressiveness meant to reflect the spiritual crisis of its hero. The director, Tony Scott, actually has the stones to include -- straight-faced -- a scene of Washington screwing the cap back on a bottle of Jack Daniel's and reaching for the Bible instead. The little girl, we are given to understand, represented the boozer's path back to life. Her kidnapping leaves him in a world where only violence and vengeance are open to him.

That doesn't mean we're not meant to cheer him on as he duct-tapes a man's fingers to a steering wheel and then chops off the digits one by one, cauterizing the bleeding stumps with a car cigarette lighter; or when he shoves an explosive butt plug up one bad guy's bottom and counts off the five minutes the man has left before he explodes from the inside out. (A digital readout in the corner of the screen helpfully allows us to keep track of the man's final moments as well.) "Man on Fire" doesn't ask us to waste time thinking the tortured and murdered are human beings. The people Washington punishes are evil Mexican scum who have (presumably) murdered a blond bright-eyed angel girl. As Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said of the inmates at Abu Ghraib, "They're not there for traffic violations ... They're murderers. They're terrorists." Like Harry Callahan and Buford Pusser and Charles Bronson's urban angel of death, Washington is willing to do the dirty work that's necessary.

Presumably, it's easier for audiences to cheer him on because he's Denzel Washington in the full righteous mode that can make this sometimes great actor a stalwart bore. He's easier to accept as our representative than Lynndie England, with her dead, thick features suggesting the sort of deep, dangerous ignorance that makes you edge away from people on the street or avert your gaze at a bar.

"Man on Fire" topped the box office the weekend it opened, which in itself is no great feat, although it does look to be a hit. And there is by itself nothing contradictory about Americans cheering Washington on as he metes out his brutal justice and being disgusted by the photos that have come out of Abu Ghraib. (We all accept things in movies that we wouldn't accept in real life and, despite what some cultural watchdogs would like to believe, we can tell the difference.)

But the question that has disturbed me most during the Abu Ghraib scandal is how much of the disgust is genuine? And where does disgust end and the phoniness of shock begin? White House spokesman Scott McClellan characterized his boss's reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos he saw at the Pentagon on Monday as "one of deep disgust and disbelief that anyone who wears our uniform would engage in such shameful and appalling acts" [italics mine]. Disbelief? If George W. Bush is so clueless about the reality of war that he can't imagine American soldiers abusing prisoners, then he is clearly too naive and too ignorant of history to occupy the post of commander in chief.

Worse atrocities than the ones that have -- so far -- come out of Abu Ghraib have long been a part of war, and Americans have not been unwilling participants. In 1943, Life magazine ran a photo of a nice, middle-class girl from Phoenix contemplating the boiled skull of a Japanese soldier sent to her by her soldier boyfriend. The message he has sent her is visible in ink on the top of the skull. Paul Fussell included the photo in his book "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" after a reference in the New Republic to collecting Japanese skulls as souvenirs prompted letters claiming nothing of the sort ever took place.

We are in a much deeper state of denial about everything having to do with this war. Every setback, every looming disaster has, often by Donald Rumsfeld, been declared an exaggeration of the media. It appears as if Rumsfeld would be most comfortable with a media operating the way the National Review's Jonah Goldberg suggested it should when he wrote that CBS should be ashamed for broadcasting the photos from Abu Ghraib. He wasn't contesting CBS's right to do so or denying the barbarism of what the photos showed. He simply seems more concerned about public knowledge of the acts than with the acts themselves.

This isn't even the strangest contortion of logic to come out of the coverage of the war. We are operating in "War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery" territory when it's deemed antiwar to show photos of the flag-draped coffins of the war dead, or to read their names, as Ted Koppel did on "Nightline" a few weeks back. The suggestion is that patriotic Americans should not bother themselves about the war dead. Certainly Bush, who has not attended any funerals of the soldiers he sent off to die, has not bothered himself about them. It's perfectly fine for Bush and his supporters to talk about the sacrifices of our troops and the hardships they face but not to acknowledge that sometimes what these people are sacrificing are their very lives. By that same logic, it becomes a smear on our troops to suggest that the military should hold itself to a higher standard than the torture and abuse that went on at Abu Ghraib.

The photos coming from Abu Ghraib look as if they sprang from some homemade version of "Salo." You'd have to have something of the cretin in your soul not to be disgusted by them. It's no surprise that that cretin resides in Rush Limbaugh, who called the psychological torture no worse than a Skull and Bones initiation. And it apparently also resides in Inhofe who, during Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's testimony on Tuesday, declared himself "outraged by the outrage." But his contention that the prisoners were terrorists and murderers with American blood on their hands is a lie corrected by Taguba's report, which states that 60 percent of the prisoners were merely picked up in sweeps. Inhofe may have been more presentable a spokesman for this point of view than the father of the girl who was escorted to her prom by Spc. Jeremy Sivits, who faces a court martial proceeding over his role in Abu Ghraib. Speaking to CNN, the girl's father said Sivits should be brought home and given a parade. He didn't see why Americans should be held to a higher standard than Iraqis who dragged American bodies through the streets. This is a view that may be gaining currency. A reader writes into Thursday's New York Times, "At least the prisoners at Abu Ghraib did not have their heads cut off and videotaped."

Those comments, and the comments of Inhofe, who thinks it's unpatriotic to be concerned over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, suggest how left and right might come together over Iraq. If it hasn't already, the brutality at Abu Ghraib is sure to be branded not an aberration but business as usual for America and the military. And clearly, there are many who support the war who think that there's not much to worry about if it is business as usual -- who think that it should be business as usual. Both sides are arguing for accepting a vision of America that exceeds the self-hating one of the Vietnam years -- America with the brakes off, with all pretense of restraint and all ideas of honorable conduct abandoned. This is an argument for America not as representing a better possibility, but as meting out justice that aims to equal any violence done to it. This is self-hatred as the road to self-celebration, an embrace of our worst impulses in the name of strength and unity.

The smiling faces of the guards in the photos that have come out of Abu Ghraib transmit a palpable pleasure in the role they have chosen to play. And no matter how far up the chain of command this scandal goes, let's not use the Nuremberg defense to fool ourselves. England and Sivits and the others chose to follow orders. As Mary McCarthy once wrote, "Nobody by possession of a weapon can force a man to kill anybody. If somebody points a gun at you and says 'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you to kill your friend. That is all."

We should be able to look at the photos from Abu Ghraib and make a distinction between what is happening in them and what we think our country and our military should represent. But I don't think even the most appalled among us can look at those photos and feel clean. Not just because we, like the torturers in the photos, are Americans and that these people now represent us to the world, but because their impulses are not alien to us.

Since 9/11, I'd guess that nearly every one of us has had thoughts of torturing someone. (I confess that I'd like Osama bin Laden to be dropped naked by helicopter into Times Square at rush hour and told he can live if he can survive for one block. And I find it hard to become indignant over the New York Times report of the harsh interrogation methods used on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.) We have all been the heroes of the vigilante movies playing in our minds.

It's to be expected that movies will play on our collective revenge fantasies. But at their best, movies can also force us to confront the implications of those fantasies. That's what "Man on Fire," with its depiction of murder and torture as the way for the lone, righteous Denzel Washington to regain his soul, doesn't do. And it's what the 2002-03 second season of "24" did so unsettlingly.

Playing on the "ticking bomb" scenario that is often used (and not stupidly) to justify torture -- the premise was that terrorists were planning to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles -- the show invited us to imagine our most extreme revenge fantasies. And then it showed us those fantasies being played out. In one of several torture sequences, we watched as a terrorist sees a live closed-circuit broadcast of black-hooded operatives machine-gunning his 9-year-old son (the fact that it is staged doesn't make his anguish any less real). It doesn't matter that later in the show, the hero, Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), is tortured with a scalpel dipped in sulfuric acid. It didn't erase the brutality of seeing a man believing he is watching his son murdered. There was no turning away, no easy out allowing us to pretend that we hadn't fantasized something like this, and no way to escape the show's insistence that the horror of reality always trumps imagined horrors.

There was no ticking bomb at Abu Ghraib, just torture at its most elemental -- done for the sheer pleasure of the humiliation and violence it inflicted. But the justifications that are peeping out through the seemingly uniform chorus of disgust -- the soldiers were following orders; it was no worse than what Iraqis had done to us; these people weren't in prison for traffic violations -- are the voices of people who cannot or will not confront the implications of their own revenge fantasies. The justifications suggest that the war in Iraq is generating a self-hating image of ourselves, an image that fulfills every grotesque caricature of us. The axiom used to justify the worst excesses of the Vietnam war -- "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it" -- has come back to haunt us. We are the village.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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