Academics and Research

Sociology professor’s new book explores torture debate

In “Talking About Torture,” Del Rosso traces how the public discourse evolved over time, how the memos authorizing various torture techniques were worded, and how the public responded to the shocking truth of photographs vs. the dry and clinical language of investigation reports.

In “Talking About Torture,” Del Rosso traces how the public discourse evolved over time, how the memos authorizing various torture techniques were worded, and how the public responded to the shocking truth of photographs vs. the dry and clinical language of investigation reports.

“We do not torture.”

In the years before Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans could read that statement, bypass the box marked “False” and check the one labeled “True.”

And then came Abu Ghraib.

“Abu Ghraib disrupted everything,” says Jared Del Rosso, assistant professor of sociology and author of the recently released “Talking About Torture: How Political Discourse Shapes the Debate” (Columbia University Press, 2015). The public’s perception of a virtuous Uncle Sam and of troops scrupulous about the Geneva Conventions — “that all kind of came crumbling down when the story of Abu Ghraib broke,” Del Rosso says.

Dominating headlines just a year after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the story introduced the public to what came to be called “‘Animal House’ on the Night Shift” at Abu Ghraib prison, then under the control of U.S. troops. Via various media sources, Americans encountered a vast gallery of photos showing inmates — often naked and hooded, sometimes bloody and bruised — chained to beds, seemingly clipped to electrical conduits or leashed like dogs. Some of the images included smiling U.S. troops, their thumbs up in a gesture of approval. Taken together, the images undermined a “good guys/bad guys” narrative that favored the guys flying the stars and stripes.

“It provoked a national conversation. What are we looking at? We don’t expect Americans to behave in this way. And we don’t expect to see photographs of Americans behaving in this way,” Del Ross recalls.

That highly charged conversation began just as Del Rosso was pursuing graduate studies at Boston College, where he was especially interested in how visual material — including the images of war — shapes our perceptions of the world. “Like most Americans, I’ve been a spectator to all these kinds of violent acts,” he says. “We learn about it from the media, and we think about it through our politics. And I’ve wondered, what does it mean to encounter violence in this way?”

Thus began a years-long inquiry into how the country’s political class reckons with torture, whether practiced at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo Bay or in various “black sites” set aside by the CIA for “enhanced interrogation.” His research not only shaped his book, it also provides the framework for a seminar he teaches for first-year students: Torture in the Modern World.

In “Talking About Torture,” Del Rosso takes readers through hours of torture-related Congressional hearings, as well as reams of official memoranda and reports. He traces how the public discourse evolved over time, how the memos authorizing various torture techniques were worded, and how the public responded to the shocking truth of photographs vs. the dry and clinical language of investigation reports. “The documents try to tell us what has happened,” he explains, but lacking visual impact, they fail to convey how dehumanizing torture is.

Del Rosso also examines how the discourse came to reject certain terms in favor of others and how it embraced particular metaphors: Is the practice best described as torture, abuse or “enhanced interrogation”? Was Abu Ghraib an “isolated incident” involving a few bad apples, or was it sanctioned by military brass? This exercise, he suggests in the book’s introduction, “allows us to see how U.S. self-identity, national values and violence align.”

Take the case of the “ticking time bomb,” a simple but powerful symbol employed by officials from the George W. Bush administration to frame the torture debate and silence critics. With its similarities to a movie script or an episode of the television suspense drama “24,” the argument was structured like this: A bomb is about to go off. Detainee A has pertinent information he won’t relinquish. There is only one guaranteed way — distasteful but effective — to extract that information and save hundreds or thousands of innocent lives.

“It’s a compelling image,” Del Rosso explains, “because it allows us to know things that we [don’t] know: that there is a bomb; that the threat is imminent; that the person we have is connected to that attack. It allows us to imagine the torturer motivated solely by that threat and his need to thwart that threat.”

Just as important, he adds, “the ticking time bomb gives us no risk of innocence,” and it makes it easy for proponents to “forget the complexity of violence and torture. That’s why it’s so useful, that’s why it’s so compelling.”

But the time-bomb scenario, Del Rosso argues, leaves out questions about torture’s effectiveness. It also neatly sidesteps the fact that “when you get right down to it, torture becomes a sheer act of brutality,” an act that considers the person on the receiving end “as a lesser being, a lesser human, if human at all.”

“Talking About Torture” also examines how politicians and officials have limited —and sometimes expanded — the discourse, depending on which political party is in power in Congress and thus chairing the applicable hearings. With political power, he notes, comes control over who is called to testify, who is kept at bay and thus how the narrative is framed.

That power over the narrative extends long after a power shift, Del Rosso notes. Thus, when Democrats gained control over the two houses of Congress in 2006, their attempts to delve into the torture question were dismissed as “playing politics” or “rehashing old news.” This response may even have conditioned the public’s largely indifferent reaction to the January 2015 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s damning 534-page report on CIA torture.

All of this troubles Del Rosso, who worries that the debate on torture has not only become mired in euphemisms and apathy, but that it has led to unexamined polices with long-lasting ramifications.

Consider the military’s use of drones for targeting terrorism suspects. As Del Rosso explains it, killing an alleged terrorist via a drone strike eliminates the need for detention and questioning.

“Detention is fraught now. It is difficult for the Obama administration to figure out what to do with people they capture,” he says, noting that detaining someone at the Cuba-based Guantanamo Bay detention center is out of the question, given the president’s vow to close the facility. And in the face of political pushback, imprisonment on U.S. soil is equally problematic. “Politically, we’re in this position right now where the use of drones is less controversial than detaining,” Del Rosso says.

Other ramifications of torture have been equally overlooked, but Del Rosso hopes that the passage of time will allow for a more robust — and productive — talk about the practice.

“There’s still too much that we don’t know,” he says. “And we as a society have not fully reckoned with the simple facts of the matter and also the human costs of torture. We can’t speak openly about it; we rarely recognize the victims of it. And we’ve not even begun to think about what it may have done to some of our fellow citizens as torturers. And I think we have only just begun to think about how torture has changed the culture.”

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