Making Torture Beautiful

11 June 2005

by Jeff Sharlet

In 1989, Andres Serrano dunked a crucifix in a vat of urine and took a photograph of it and called it “Piss Christ.” It was beautiful. Lush, and also far from blasphemous; indeed, it seemed squarely in the sturdiest tradition of artistic reverence for the sacrifice Christ is said to have made for those of us restricted to the flesh, to those of us bound by bones and blood and water coursing through us. But some on the Right saw it as sacrilege, and called for not just for the defunding of the artist Serrano but for his universal denunciation.

Which makes me wonder: Will they do the same now that he has made U.S. foreign policy appear as equally sensuous? Now that he has made torture beautiful? And what about all the liberals who rallied around the cause of “Piss Christ”? Will they even notice that their cause celebre has returned to give form, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, to Joseph Lelyveld’s seductive case for a mutilation of flesh and psyche he ultimately accepts as inevitable?

Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times, has written a lengthy exploration of the civic silence that attends the ongoing practice of what he refers to as “torture lite” — practices that were they to be used against an American, in America (and surely they are not; surely our prisons are models of fair and democratic punishment, beacons, in fact, to criminals ’round the world) would be the occasion for a crude sequal to “Piss Christ,” a work we might call “Shit on a Constitution.”

Lelyveld is, of course, horrified by such practices; and he makes no effort to pretend that they’re not the close relatives of good, old-fashioned proper torture, the kind that has been shown by study after study to reveal no information, to serve no ultimate purpose other than erotic terror. We hear politicians opposed to torture, politicians who know that torture does not work, even politicians such as John McCain, who was tortured himself, declare that in some cases, well… well, what? Lelyveld opens with a literally fantastic premise: “…let’s for argument’s sake put aside the most horrific, shameful cases, those of detainees who died under interrogation: that of Manadel al-Jamadi, for instance, whose body was wrapped in plastic and packed in ice when it was carried out of an Abu Ghraib prison shower room a year and a half ago, where he’d been handcuffed to a wall; or Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who, elsewhere in Iraq, appears to have been thrust headfirst into a sleeping bag, manhandled there and then, finally, suffocated.”

Yes; let’s put that aside even as we showcase it, let’s flatter ourselves that we are men and women of realpolitik even as we linger on the Arab “thrust headfirst into a sleeping bag”; let’s stay high-minded and hardnosed and celebrate with touching sadness our deep understanding of the darkness within men’s hearts through our acknowledgment of what is, after all, in essence, a skull fucking. It’s a heavy burden we bear, knowing such things.

This is the central rhetorical thrust, as it were, of what Lelyveld, in one subhed, calls “candor and complicity”: An acknowledgement of the original sin of man: Our lust for torture even when torture does nothing but hurts. There is something almost spiritual about such a belief, a conviction of an inner truth; that, at least, is the implicit attraction of such an argument. And there is something wholly sexual about it, as well; that is as explicit as Serrano’s accompanying fetish photos. Neither notion is really true. The dark inner truth Lelyveld flirts with is only half of the drama that takes place between torturer and tortured. And the sexuality of Serrano’s photographs suggest a relationship that does not exist; this isn’t S&M because there’s no “M,” there’s no consenting masochist; there’s only a victim and a sadist.

Torture is not a subtle perversion, one we all share. It is not a coded language with which empire and rebel whisper to one another. It is something some people do to other people. It comes about through a series of decisions. It is not inevitable, it’s chosen. The torturer must choose; his or her bosses must choose; the media must choose; and the rest of us must choose. And we have chosen. We chose torture.

Our choice requires economic and political support. It relies on an infrastructure. So, if Lelyveld really wishes to understand our choice, why, in thousands of words dedicated to the ultimate “inevitability” of such a response, could not a few be spared for the other choices? Torture, suggests Lelyveld, is a constant temptation to nations. Is it possible, then, to avoid putting ourselves in temptation’s path? To make decisions that don’t lead to torture? I don’t mean anything so romantic as a chaste foreign policy, the diplomatic equivalent of see-no-evil abstinence education. I mean politics. Torture is not inevitable: It is the product of politics. And those can be changed.

How much more seductive the prospect of, as Lelyveld’s title suggests, “interrogating ourselves.” Look at the picture again:


It’s like “Piss Christ,” really, the faceless Arab crucified for our sins. Isn’t it shameful? Isn’t it seductive? The beauty!