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London Review of Books
June 3, 2004

Between Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture
By Slavoj Zizek

Does anyone still remember 'Comical Ali', Saddam's information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who, in his daily press conferences, heroically stuck to the Iraqi line in the face of the most glaring evidence? (He was still claiming that TV footage of US tanks on the streets of Baghdad were just Hollywood special effects when the tanks were only a few hundred yards from his office.) He didn't always fail to make sense, however. Confronted with claims that the US army was already in control of parts of Baghdad, he snapped back: 'They are not in control of anything - they don't even control themselves!' I was reminded of that when news of the weird goings-on in the Abu Ghraib prison broke a few weeks ago.

George W. Bush was understandably keen to have us understand that the photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated by US soldiers did not reflect what America stands and fights for: the values of democracy, freedom and personal dignity. That the case turned into a public scandal was, in some ways, a positive sign: in a truly 'totalitarian' regime, it would have been hushed up. (In the same way, it is a positive sign that US forces did not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: a truly totalitarian power would have behaved like a bad cop who plants drugs then 'discovers' evidence of the crime.)

However, although the photographs were only made public at the end of April, the International Red Cross had been sending the US and UK authorities reports of abuses in military prisons in Iraq for months, and the reports were ignored. It wasn't that the authorities weren't getting any signals about what was going on: they simply admitted the crime only when (and because) they were faced with its disclosure in the media. The immediate reaction of US army command to the photographs was surprising, to say the least: their explanation was that the soldiers hadn't been properly taught the Geneva Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners of war. Nowadays, it seems, soldier have to be taught not to humiliate and torture prisoners.

The contrast between what happened latterly at Abu Ghraib and the 'standard' way prisoners were tortured during Saddam's regime is striking. Instead of the direct, brutal infliction of pain, the US soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. And instead of the secrecy practised by Saddam, the US soldiers recorded the humiliation they inflicted, even including their own faces smiling stupidly as they posed behind the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners. When I first saw the notorious photograph of a prisoner wearing a black hood, electric wires attached to his limbs as he stood on a box in a ridiculous theatrical pose, my reaction was that this must be a piece of performance art. The positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a tableau vivant, which cannot but call to mind the 'theatre of cruelty', Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, scenes from David Lynch movies.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Anyone acquainted with the US way of life will have recognised in the photographs the obscene underside of US popular culture. You can find similar photographs in the US press whenever an initiation rite goes wrong in an army unit or on a high school campus and soldiers or students die or get injured in the course of performing a stunt, assuming a humiliating pose or undergoing sexual humiliation.

This, then, was not simply a case of American arrogance towards a Third World people. The Iraqi prisoners were effectively being initiated into American culture: they were getting a taste of the obscenity that counterpoints the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, that on 6 May, Donald Rumsfeld admitted that these particular photographs were just the 'tip of the iceberg', that there are stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder. In early 2003, the US government, in a secret memo, approved a set of procedures to put prisoners in the 'war on terror' under physical and psychological pressure in order to secure their 'co-operation'. The 'excess' at Abu Ghraib is the reality behind Rumsfeld's statement, a couple of months ago, that the Geneva Convention is 'out of date'.

In a recent NBC debate about the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, one of the arguments used in ethico-legal justification of their status was that 'they are those who were missed by the bombs.' Since they were the target of legitimate US bombings in Afghanistan and accidentally survived, no one can complain about what happens to them afterwards as prisoners: whatever their situation, it is better than being dead. Such reasoning puts the prisoners in the position of the living dead. Their right to life is forfeited by their having been the legitimate targets of murderous bombings, so that they are now examples of what Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer, the one who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, his life no longer counts. (There is a passing similarity between this situation and the - legally problematic - premise of the 1999 movie Double Jeopardy: if you were condemned for killing a man and later, having served your time in prison, you discover that he is still alive, you can kill him with impunity since you can't be found guilty twice of the same act.) And just as the Guantanamo prisoners are located, like homo sacer, in the space 'between two deaths', but biologically are still alive, the US authorities that treat them in this way also have an indeterminate legal status. They set themselves up as a legal power, but their acts are no longer covered and constrained by the law: they operate in an empty space which is, nevertheless, within the domain of the law. The recent disclosures from Abu Ghraib make plain the consequences of putting prisoners in this space 'between two deaths'.

The exemplary economic strategy of modern capitalism is outsourcing: subcontracting another company to take on the 'dirty' aspects of material production. Ecological and health regulations are much slacker in, say, Indonesia than in the West, and by outsourcing parts of its production process there, a Western global company can avoid responsibility for any 'necessary' violations. Are we not seeing something similar with regard to torture? Isn't torture being 'outsourced', left to Third World allies of the US who aren't troubled by legal problems or public protest? Such outsourcing was explicitly advocated by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek immediately after 11 September 2001. 'We can't legalise torture; it's contrary to American values,' he wrote, but went on to conclude that 'we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.' Today, America doesn't trust its allies to do the job properly; the 'less squeamish' partner is the disavowed part of the US government itself (the CIA has been teaching the techniques of torture to US allies in Latin America and the Third World for decades).

Who can forget the Department of Defense news briefing in February 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld pondered the relationship between the known and the unknown: 'There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.' What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the 'unknown knowns', things we don't know that we know, which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the 'knowledge which doesn't know itself', as Lacan used to say. Rumsfeld thought the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns', the threats from Saddam that hadn't been foreseen. The Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the real dangers are: in the 'unknown knowns', the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the flipside of public morality. (In Britain, the exposure of The Mirror's photographs of British abuses as fake has allowed government and public alike to repress, for the moment, their own 'unknown knowns'.) Bush was wrong: in the photos of humiliated Iraqi prisoners, what we get is, precisely, an insight into 'American values'.