Terror and Torture in the 21st Century: Reimagining the American Hero

By Anthony R. Brunello
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 2/2 |

IV: Defining the American Huck Finn — The Subversive Hero

In the opening pages of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck informs the reader that the Widow Douglas intends to “sivilize” him:

“It was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.”

Huck then begins to live a life with his friend the escaped slave Jim, that subverts a whole way of living, a way of thinking and relating to the world. Huck and Jim turn away from a secure and smug world that thought itself to be decent and civilized. As any reader knows, the story of Huck Finn turns that definition inside out.

In Mark Twain’s story, Huck Finn in a moment of fear confronts the totality of his escape with the slave Jim down the river, and suffers from regrets. Huck asks himself what God would say and he experiences a moral quandary. Huck says:

“It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up on sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all,” (Twain, 301).

The “sin” Huck can’t hide from himself or god as he thinks of God, is the sin of stealing a slave away to set him free. In an effort to be free of that sin, Huck decides to write a letter that exposes Jim as a runaway and returns him to slavery. For a moment after writing the letter Huck feels good and as he says, “washed clean of sin for the first time.” But immediately Huck remembers his friendship with Jim, the adventures they had shared, and how Jim and he had saved each other’s lives. Most of all Huck remembers Jim saying that Huckleberry Finn was that last and only friend he had in the world. Huck is moved in his very soul and says:

“It was a close place. I took it up (the letter) and held it in my hand. I was trembling because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and I never thought no more about reforming….I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go whole hog,” (302)

In 1885, Mark Twain was demanding that Americans understand the real moral tragedy: the sin was slavery, and the hero Huck Finn knew more about morality and God than even he understood. Huck Finn, like the main character Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, or John Nichol’s hero Jose Mondragon in The Milagro Beanfield War, or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, is an outcast who challenges the pretensions of a conventional world filled with hypocrisy and prejudice. The chief characters from these American novels all represent outcasts who refuse to go along with social conventions that hide the arrogance and lies that ruin the lives of real people.

These characters are examples from a vast literary heritage and historical legacy of Americans who have resisted the tyranny of the majority. They live inside the central nervous system of American life and political culture: the American rebel and social critic; the personal subversive. They are thoughtful, act on their intuitions, and are willing to risk their lives, and even to “go to hell,” (as Huck Finn said) to trust their own internal moral compasses. For example, in John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, a poor farmer in Northern New Mexico who can trace his family from before the arrival of the Spanish, decides to fight against the elites who controlled the water rights for land development and profit. When Jose Mondragon illegally floods his ancestral property to grow a patch of beans in Milagro, he stands apart, and calls out with a voice filled with a majestic power barely seen some muddy New Mexican water and bean plants. The story is not about “growing some pintos.” Right and wrong are, once in awhile, easily distinguishable (Nichols).

As deep as the rivers that carved the Grand Canyon: the personal subversive has an instinct to do the right thing which would — in the eyes of the “correct” and “sivilized” world — appear to be exactly wrong. Standing up to what is intuitively wrong and disgusting is as American as are freedom, capitalism, and dying for one’s country. There is more than one way to understand American rugged individualism. Throughout its history, America has many times challenged “civilization” and in so doing, engendered new, revolutionary visions. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 the first thing he noticed was that people lived different lives in America. Tocqueville saw possible nobility in defiance to authority. Americans allowed for the greatness that lies within the human spirit to proliferate. As Tocqueville observed, Americans “believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare” (Tocqueville, 475).

Anti-heroes are everywhere in popular culture, literature and history, and they can take the shape of their times and come in many forms. For example, American 20th Century literature is replete with unforgettable characters in fiction: Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962), The Graduate, Charles Webb (1963), Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce (1966) and Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1969). These novels of the 1960s were among a host that expressed a rebellious counter-cultural moment in America. Even so, we can go back to earlier periods of the 20th Century and find (for example) the hard boiled detectives of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Nick Charles in The Thin Man, or Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon have that rough edge, slightly scandalous exterior, but in the end cannot help but do the right thing. Today anti-heroes dominate our screens and novels as America endures a kind of moral anxiety in a post-September 11th world. Batman has become The Dark Knight and Captain America struggles to know whose side he is on. Even so, the personal subversive goes far deeper than the anti-heroes of pop-culture. The subversive hero springs not only from popular culture, but right out of the lived history of American life to challenge power and speak truth. The following two profiles of James Baldwin and Rachel Carson are examples of the alternative hero.

Profile #1: James Baldwin

In a letter to his namesake nephew written in 1963, James Baldwin closed with the following:

"You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, James, and Godspeed."

The occasion for the letter was the 100 year celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, and at one point Baldwin tried to explain white folks to his nephew:

"They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity."

If Americans listen to the voice of James Baldwin, it is impossible to ignore the prescience of his mind and the relationship to current affairs. James Baldwin was born in New York in 1924. He never knew the identity of his real father, but was raised by his mother Emma Jones and step-father David Baldwin, a New York minister. Though raised with religion he knew very young that he wanted to be a writer. Relatively poor and struggling, James had to work to sustain his family, especially after the passing of his step-father in 1943. Along the way, he became immersed in the literary circles of Greenwich Village, and with the encouragement of Richard Wright, took a fellowship and became who we know today as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.

A novelist, essayist and playwright, he was also a chief activist in the Civil Rights movement, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. He was also a gay man. Black and gay in the 1960s, Baldwin was arguably the most respected literary voice of the Civil Rights movement. James Baldwin emerged as a standard so high that when Toni Morrison reviewed the recent book (2015) of Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), she proclaimed Coates to have “filled the intellectual void” left by James Baldwin. In 1963 in The Fire Next Time, Baldwin opened with the letter to his nephew that was so prophetic.

As Americans remembered the murders on June 17, 2015 in South Carolina killing nine people, it is fair to ask if 2063 (the second celebration of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation) will fulfill Baldwin’s prophecy? James Baldwin’s letter of 1963 cried out to modern Americans to confront a reality that contains a subversive and powerful message. Many white Americans in the 21st Century desperately cling to a false and dangerous identity redolent with images of 1963. The 2015 attack at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was perpetrated by a young man who had been sharing his ideas across a wide band of fellow-travelers on the social network for several years.

Americans run the risk of believing that terrorism arrives from alien or foreign sources, but may neglect to confront the terror against Black Americans that has continued for more than 300 years. In an article in The Nation (July 11, 1966) entitled “A Report from Occupied Territory,” James Baldwin recounted incident after incident of police brutality. Always writing with an eye to appealing to a white audience, Baldwin reported with blunt honesty the tales of undeserved punishment in colored communities whose view of the police was as if living in “occupied territory.” Baldwin wrote,

“This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled (Baldwin, 731).

The evolution of “Black Lives Matter,” and the 2015 events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, are manifestations of structural racial, social and economic oppression in America.

Throughout his life, James Baldwin was convinced that pretending a problem does not exist will not help America come to the full emancipation it needs from its history and legacy of racism. In the 1960s, James Baldwin could have been describing 2016. In a clear and heroic voice, Baldwin envisioned a future when America has finally lived through the last gasps of white identity politics. In the area of personal subversive, James Baldwin stands as a hero for the 20th and 21st Centuries. He died in 1987.

Profile #2: Rachel Carson

The best leaders tend to be people who are called to a cause, and are known for the sacrifice of their personal needs and interests to something greater than themselves. Few embody that better than Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring (1962). Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Pennsylvania. A shy but intelligent young woman, Carson loved nature, the outdoors, and especially the ocean. From an early age she was a gifted writer, and she did something unusual for a woman in her day: she went to college. Between 1925 and 1929 she managed to do research at Woods Hole in Marine Biology. She studied Zoology at Johns Hopkins, graduated from Hopkins with an MA in 1932 and began a period between 1932 and 1956 of working with the Bureau of Fisheries and eventually became a staff Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Carson produced several significant works in the 1940s and 50s, winning major awards for the book The Sea Around Us in 1952. Around this time two experiences changed the circumstances of Carson’s life: 1) Carson’s battle with breast cancer began; and 2) although she never married, Rachel Carson adopted the five year old son of her deceased niece and raised him as her own. As a naturalist Carson’s first love was the sea, but by 1959 she forced herself to turn away from the oceans and marine aquatic environments to address the problem of the use of pesticides and its effects on wildlife, people and the natural balance of the environment. Simultaneously, Carson fought the constant threat of her breast cancer which resulted in a radical mastectomy in 1960. For four years she worked tirelessly on the research that culminated in Silent Spring (1962) while deathly ill.

Silent Spring challenged the powers of the entire agricultural, industrial and chemical pesticide industry in America. Carson was accused of being a shrill know-nothing by nearly everyone including the AMA, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Federal Agencies, and a host of scientists who had built their careers and livelihoods around the eradication of pests and insects. DDT and other toxic agents were being used to douse farms, fields, waterways, school cafeterias and neighborhoods. The widespread use of these pesticides had become national policy as Americans dreamed of a “pest free” future. Silent Spring amassed the evidence and the research to show that the misuse of pesticides was poisoning our natural systems. The title Silent Spring referred to the die offs of fish and birds which Carson warned would result in future landscapes without birdsong. Opposed by a massive campaign financed by powerful corporate, industrial, and scientific forces, Carson was deluged by male voices who claimed her research was wrong.

Persuasively and subversively, Silent Spring espoused a paradigm changing theory of the relationship of the human being to nature and the environment (Lytle, 2007). At one point, one of Carson’s leading public critics, Dr. Robert White-Stevens, argued that Rachel Carson’s mistake was to suggest that the natural environment was a carefully balanced system wherein all creatures (including insects) had some role in preserving the ecosystems that sustain life and biological diversity (Lytle, 182-183). Dr. White-Stevens bluntly stated that what Rachel Carson had failed to realize was that, “Man, through science, is in the process of asserting his mastery over nature.”

Carson’s vision established the concept of ecosystems. The understanding of the diverse ecological relationships between biotic and abiotic elements in the environment transformed our discourse. Luckily, Carson gained the attention of the reading public, especially Secretary Stewart Udall of the Department of Interior, and President John F. Kennedy. Following the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, Secretary Udall at the request of President Kennedy called for Senate Investigations into the misuse of pesticides. Carson testified twice, under scrutiny at the U.S. Senate in 1963. Her testimony changed public policy and inspired the rise of the environmental movement as we know it today (Lytle). Tragically, Carson never realized her impact because she died of cancer in April 1964. Rachel Carson devoted the last five years of her life writing a book about a subject she was not seeking but felt called to address, and defending her science and her ideas. In so doing—she changed the world.

Rachel Carson did not seek applause, high office or wealth. She simply wrote a book—a quietly subversive, scientific book that altered history. Her resources were her gift of writing, her voice, her expertise. Her motives were not about personal self interest, but rather the good of all human kind and nature itself. Carson’s legacy sheds light on the impact of American torture in that there is a clear moral hazard revealed in looking at the world through the wrong lens. American values are inextricably linked to American identity.

V: American Values in Context

Torture is wrong. As David Sussman wrote:

“Perhaps this is why torture seems qualitatively worse than other forms of brutality or cruelty. The violence of war or police action may injure or insult an agent’s capacities for moral or rational self-governance, but such violence need not make the victim an accomplice in his own violation. Torture, by contrast, involves not just the insults and injuries to be found in other kinds of violence, but a wrong that, by exploiting the victim’s own participation, might best be called humiliation,” (31).

Torture is also ugly, messy, degrading and unproductive. Each soldier, each officer, and everyone involved in Iraq and the war on terror, all the way to President Bush, should have known, and they did know, that torture is not only wasteful; torture is immoral. Responsibility for this blindness began at the very top, where our President and his chief advisers pugnaciously and publicly proclaimed that the “gloves were coming off” and that the “international lawyers” can go to hell. America was going to “kick some ass,” [President Bush, 2003).

In his book, Stripping Bare the Body (2009) Mark Danner argues the following:

“When it comes to torture, it is not what we did but what we are doing. It is not what happened but what is happening and will happen. In our politics, torture is not about whether or not our polity can ‘let the past be the past’—whether or not we can ‘get beyond it and look forward.’ Torture for Dick Cheney and for President Bush and a significant portion of the American people is more than a repugnant series of ‘procedures’ applied to a few hundred prisoners in American custody during the last half- dozen or so years—procedures that are described with chilling and patient particularity in the authoritative report by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Torture is more than the specific techniques—the forced nudity, sleep deprivation, long-term standing , and suffocations by water, among others—that were applied to…’high valued detainees’..at the ‘black site’ prisons secretly maintained by the CIA on three continents.

Torture, as the former vice president’s words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics….For many in the United States torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to ‘do anything to protect the American people,’ a manly readiness to know when to abstain from ‘coddling terrorists’ an do what needs to be done. Torture’s powerful symbolic role, like many shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed. But that doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary.

Torture is at the heart of the deadly politics of national security,” (521-522).

America’s saving grace is a foundation in ideas that transcend individual people, their prejudices and their times. This saving grace has frequently allowed for the possibility of a better future, foreshadowing a time when other men and women like Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Frances Perkins, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Rachel Carson, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Muhammad Ali, and Matthew Alexander, could take their lives, ideas and words and suffuse them with new meanings and bold dreams. The hero as the personal subversive challenges conventions and conformism. When confronted with the immorality of torture and the “group-think” of humiliating violence, there is an American who stands apart and thinks in new ways, and whose courage is measured by dreams that suggest that we can do better as human beings.

Jimmy Carter, in Our Endangered Values, said the following:

“Our nation is clearly divided on the basic response to the international challenges that confront us. It is almost universally assumed that the American homeland will never be completely secure. There will be a lasting threat of terrorism, most likely from relatively weak organizations that could not hope to challenge any aspect of our overwhelming military strength.

What are our best responses? Is it better to cherish our historic role as the great champion of human rights, or to abandon our high domestic and international standards in response to threats? Is it better to set a firm example of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and their further proliferation, or to insist on our right (and that of others) to retain our arsenals, expand them, and therefore abrogate or derogate control agreements negotiated for many decades? Are we best served by espousing peace as a national priority unless our security is directly threatened, or by proclaiming an unabridged right to attack other nations unilaterally to change an unsavory regime for other purposes? Is a declaration of “You are either with us or against us” superior to forming alliances based on a clear comprehension of mutual interests? When there are serious differences with other nations, is it best to permit direct negotiations to resolve problems, or to brand those who differ as international pariahs–and to refuse to permit such discussions?” (Carter, pp. 162-163).

The questions posed by President Carter were seriously contested after the September 11th 2001 attack. Today Americans worry over the prospect of future terrorist attacks. For example, back in November 2008, less than a dozen armed terrorists ravaged India and set both Pakistan and India on a potentially destructive course to conflict. In 2010, a few packages of explosives shipped by air changed the way we travel and the security we must endure at airports. On April 15, 2013, two brothers forever changed our mental images of the Boston Marathon. In Paris, France, and San Bernardino, California, in 2015 we learned once again that a tiny force can create a great deal of damage, grief and death. Many perceived threats are real. What is a nation to do?

One plausible, democratic, and subversive answer is to “live with it” and find intelligent ways to “live through it.” Torture is not an acceptable response to the reality of our world. To allow terrorists to influence behavior, policies and even mores, aids the terrorist to victory. More important, the failure demonstrated by America through its indulgence in, development, and export of torture techniques over the past eighty years has been among the worst options of all. If we learned anything in our recent history, it is that the “impending threat scenario,” so often depicted in a television series like 24 Hours, and in so many films and novels, where there is a ticking time bomb, and only hours until detonation, is an unlikely scenario conjured in fairy-tale and Hollywood drama. It is exceedingly rare to have the villain in your grasp, who with just the right amount of torture, will “spill the beans” and the world will be saved. A doomsday sequence worthy of Robert Ludlum or Alfred Hitchcock; it makes for thrilling stories, but hardly reflects the world as we encounter it.

America has democratic values that first and foremost proclaim the protection, maintenance and expansion of human rights. The use of torture is inspired by fear, anger, vengeance, loss of control and ignorance. These passions: (fear, anger, vengeance and ignorance), are among the greatest threats to America’s interests and image. They are also the greatest threats to the core of American civic virtues. The effective values of a powerful democratic nation are more likely to be humility, thoughtfulness, intelligence, lawfulness, introspection and understanding. Creativity and courage derive from virtues such as these.

Conclusion: The Lessons of Torture and the American Hero

Not surprisingly, America had contending images of heroism in a changing world. Can the cowboy or global policeman remain compelling as either justification or inspiration in a diverse and complex global system where everything and everyone is connected to everything else? The American Hero equally reflects American values where humility and common decency run against the grain of manly convention, militarism and braggadocio.

The aggressive and chauvinistic model of hero has always had dangerous tendencies. First, it suggests that problems may be solved by the use of force. Swaggering threats have always been the stock and trade of bullies who are ashamed of their fears. In politics, simplicity is often appealing, but subtlety and complexity requires that people accept responsibility for consequences and choices. Second, the aggressive and chauvinistic model places foes and competitors outside as the other: something inferior and inhuman. Fear leads to hatred and disgust, and this makes the use of torture against the other tolerable, expedient, and justified. The world does not need more angry, fearful bullies who resolve complex problems by killing them--and feel justified in doing so. One of the most masculine of all popular heroes, the champion prize-fighter Muhammad Ali, was an ideal example of a strong man who was committed to doing right and spreading justice. Ali always spoke truth to power.

In The Gentle Subversive, the author Mark H. Lytle makes the following observation about Rachel Carson’s legacy:

“As one frustrated critic of Carson remarked, ‘Those worried about the arrogance of playing God should realize that we have forged an instrument of salvation, and we choose to hide it under our robes.’ To that charge the gentle Rachel Carson might have said that those who saturate the fabric of life with chemicals bring to their campaign ‘no humility before the forces with which they tamper.’ The subversive Rachel Carson might have suggested that such arguments show a ‘lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.’

Above all, the gentle subversive advocated a holistic ethos that located humans within the web of life. She urged parents to nurture in their children ‘a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote to boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength,’” (Lytle, 227).

The American hero for the 21st Century may benefit from a less masculine, more patient system of virtues. Political leaders have great influence on the heroic images of a nation and America has always had as much claim to standing against bullies as being one. Like Rachel Carson, humbly speaking truth to power and making the right choices is not weakness; it is an “unfailing antidote.” It could be the symbol of the greatest strengths of a Republic growing up into its maturity.


Alexander, Matthew. (2008). “I’m Still Tortured by What I Saw in Iraq,” The Washington Post. Sunday, November 30, 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2008.

Artz, Lee and Yahya R. Kamalipour, Eds. (2005). Bring ‘Em On: Media and Politics in the Iraq War. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Baldwin, James. (1998). Collected Essays. New York: The Library of America.

Carson, Rachel. (2003). The Sea Around Us. New York: Oxford University Press. [1950]

Carson, Rachel. (2002). Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. [1962]

Carter, James E. (2006). Our Endangered Values. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Danner, Mark. (2009). Stripping Bare the Body: Politics, Violence and War. New York: Nation Books.

Fair, Eric. (2016). Consequence. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Fair, Eric. (2016). “Owning Up to Torture,” New York Times, March 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/opinion/sunday/owning-up-to-torture.html.

Glennon, Michael. (2002). “Terrorism and the Limits of the Law,” Wilson Quarterly 22 (Spring 2002), 12-19.

Lytle, Mark Hamilton. (2007). The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCoy, Alfred W. (2006). A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

McKelvey, Tara. (2005). “Unusual Suspects.” The American Prospect, January 14, 2005. http:/prospect.org/article/unusual-suspects; 1-16.

Nichols, John. (1974). The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Sussman, David. (2005). “What’s Wrong with Torture?” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 33:1, 1-33.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. (2007). Democracy in America. Ed. Isaac Kramnick. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. [1835]

Twain, Mark. (1979). Huckleberry Finn. Pennsylvania: The Franklin Library. [1885]

United Nations (1989). “Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or punishment.” www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html.

United States Code. Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113c; sec. 2340, sec. 2340a, sec. 2340b.

United States Constitution. (1788). Amendment VIII. https:1/www/gpo.gov/

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