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

By Anthony R. Brunello
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001 fear and anger shaped American attitudes in response to terrorism. Even so, this alone does not explain how Americans became open to the use of torture during the “Global War on Terror” that followed. By 2003 Americans were overwhelmingly supportive of war in the Middle East, not only in Afghanistan but also the invasion of Iraq. Enthusiasm for war only waned as the Iraq invasion became unpopular after 2006. During these years Americans were willing to accept the policy to use torture as a necessary tactic in the “War on Terror.”

Around 2004 the images and reports from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo revealed that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were torture. Americans displayed mixed emotions, but torture could no longer be ignored. The complacency and dangers inherent in this experience demand explanations. A fountain of revelations about America’s use of torture, (or as Vice President Cheney once called it “the dark side,”) have underscored the moral dilemmas, but few as poignantly as Eric Fair’s memoir Consequence (2016) and his essays in The Washington Post and the New York Times. Fair’s story is of a man who repeatedly returned to Iraq as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense--CACI (Consolidated Analysis Centers, Inc.), and the NSA. Fair’s view of his own complicity is so great that he said he deserved, “…my own mercy killing. As an interrogator, torture forced me to set aside my humanity when I went to work. It’s something I’ve never been able to fully pick back up again,” (NY Times, 2016).

Torture was justified, coated with rationalizations, and inspired by fear and anger, fostered by American political leadership that employed the language of national security to gin up a bellicose and aggressive tableau.

In Consequence, (2016), Fair said that as interrogators, he at no time thought they were doing anything “wrong.” Fair felt he always had the support of the American people and his superiors. The notion that they were doing anything immoral or illegal did not enter the minds of the interrogators as they went to work. The realization came later. Eric Fair’s sense of personal guilt came after he testified to a Justice Department lawyer in 2007 that he “tortured people the right way,” using the “approved techniques.” Far from heroic, Fair portrays a disorganized, chaotic, callous and brutal situation that harmed everyone involved. The experience challenged Fair’s Christian faith and had him wishing for his own death. Eric Fair and America accepted torture. Torture was justified, coated with rationalizations, and inspired by fear and anger, fostered by American political leadership that employed the language of national security to gin up a bellicose and aggressive tableau. In the process, the American political identity was a victim. What kind of American hero uses torture? Did the experience of torture and the war on terror distinguish competing American heroic identities?

An iconic image of the American hero was used and manipulated to justify the war on terror and especially the use of torture. This hero was a form of the hyper-masculine cowboy; a loner who answers to no one but himself and operates as an avenging spirit. The avenging spirit is easily mutated into the conquering crusader and global policeman who grants himself carte blanche to attack and punish “the Other.” This hero was a familiar vehicle for channeling American fear into a self justifying foreign policy, and yet it is a disfiguring image of the American identity. If the definition of identity is answering the question of “who am I” in the adult world, then the importance of the answer to the question is immense.

How a nation responds to terrorism has become a proving ground for new global strategies and foreign policy, as well as military interventions, reforms in domestic security policies, and advances in intelligence and data gathering. “The Global War on Terror” was also a proving ground for human and national soul searching, where the values and mores of people were challenged by violence and anger. Merciless acts of slaughter against defenseless civilians inspire the strongest reactions in people. In all of the fire and brimstone of this period, America’s tolerance of torture was a singular example of a reaction to terrorism.

The connection between torture and the American heroic identity in the 21st Century is that torture is dehumanizing to both perpetrators and victims and indulges in hate driven by fear. Torture disables human beings from being able to respond to a dangerous world with a certain idea of humanity in themselves. In 2002, while examining the legal ramifications of the use of torture, Michael Glennon asked what was then a common question: “Why not torture the terrorists?” (Glennon, 2002). Glennon found the legal answer to that question neither simple nor exculpatory. Glennon established that the legal grounds for torture require a lack of discernment and judicial deniability. As it turns out, the willingness to employ torture is essentially a moral crisis--and a blight and abomination that led in the recent American experience to a loss of credibility in the world. The moral failure of American torture in the 21st Century called into question the American heroic image. The notion of an “exceptional nation” was also cast in shadow. At the same time there was another heroic archetype available, equally powerful, exceptional, and quintessentially American: the personal subversive as hero or anti-hero.

The American identity includes room for a definition of hero as a form of subversive anti-hero. The subversive hero defies conformist thinking, challenges authority and recoils at elitism and discrimination. This American hero as Personal Subversive is deeply embedded in the American identity like the “cowboy,” but in place of aggressive arrogance and swagger the personal subversive is plagued by self-doubts and capable of empathy. As American as concepts like freedom, liberty and patriotism, the American subversive hero opposes hypocrisy and prejudice. The subversive American hero speaks truth to power and blasts away at dominant social paradigms. An anti-hero of sorts, this American is deeply woven into the fabric of American identity and tends to define individualism in terms of standing up for the common good.

Saber rattling leaders who condemn multilateral cooperation in a complex global system are normally disdainful of humility, and such leaders conceive power in terms of militarism and nativist prejudices. Aggressive and chauvinistic leaders suggest that complicated problems are easily resolved by violence, but loud threats are associated with bullies--not heroes. Bullies humiliate “the Other,” and in doing so dehumanize people. Dehumanization leads to a dynamic that justifies torture, because the enemy are seen as animals that deserve the worst. The world is made dangerous by powerful bullies. The American tradition of the subversive hero is an antidote, and a source of alternative possibilities, visions and paradigms.

I: Witness to Torture

In 2008 Matthew Alexander returned home from Iraq. Alexander served 14 years in the Air Force, beginning in Special Operations and moving over to counterintelligence when he volunteered to go to Iraq in 2006. His team of interrogators were pivotal in breaking the case that targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Even so, his success was not based on the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Despite the successful mission, Alexander came home deeply disturbed about what he witnessed in Iraq, and took a courageous step forward to write about his experience, exposing what he saw as a “deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way” to conduct interrogations. He personally conducted 300 interrogations and supervised over 1,000 more, and in the process what Alexander saw left him shaken to his core.

“Amid the chaos, four other Air Force criminal investigators and I joined an elite team of interrogators attempting to locate Zarqawi. What I soon discovered about our methods astonished me. The Army was still conducting interrogations according to the Guantanamo Bay model: Interrogators were nominally using the methods outlined in the U.S. Army Field Manual, the interrogator’s bible, but they were pushing in every way possible to bend the rules—and often break them. I don’t have to belabor the point; dozens of newspaper articles and books have been written about the misconduct that resulted. These interrogations were based on fear and control; they often resulted in torture and abuse.

I refused to participate in such practices, and a month later, I extended that prohibition to the team of interrogators I was assigned to lead. I taught the members of my unit a new methodology—one based on building rapport with suspects, showing cultural understanding and using good old fashioned brain-power to tease out information” (Alexander, 2008).

Alexander’s methods achieved what the use of torture could not: the location of the most notorious and dangerous terrorist in Iraq. He found that rather than inspiring hatred and fear he could employ reasonable ways to appeal to suspects who were not al-Qaeda terrorists, but family men, Sunni tribes’ people trying to protect themselves from the Shiite militia. They were people caught in the fire of civil war and desperate to keep some hope of a future for themselves alive. As we know today, into this cauldron is often brewed the foundations for terrorist organizations and their recruitment of followers.

“Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners…The number of U.S. Soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitely known, but it is fair to say it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps America safe is beyond me— unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans,” (Alexander, 2008).

In 2006, Alexander tried to get his superiors to see the truth about his methods of interrogation versus the use of torture, appealing directly to Gen. George Casey, but was ignored. Looking back today we can connect the dots between those practices and the recruiting appeals of ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Most important was Alexander’s decision to write his story and bring to light the dangers of U.S. policies. Alexander indicts the American use of macho style violence, showing that it is not only immoral, and a violation of basic American values, but it was and will always be pathetically useless in gathering the kind of intelligence sought in thwarting terrorism. Alexander offers an image of the American hero as personal subversive who goes against the grain. This American hero embedded in the DNA of Americans as much as the two-fisted, square jawed masculine “cowboy” who shoots first and asks questions later.

II: Torture in the American Context

The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1989) defines torture as:

“(A)ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed, or is suspected having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to lawful sanctions,” (United Nations).

Why is torture believed to be immoral and yet so frequently justified in the name of security, freedom and justice? On the face of it torture defines itself out of existence. Most scholars and observers agree that torture is proven ineffective in gathering information or intelligence, it infuriates your opponents and allies, and there is considerable evidence that torture is destructive of both the victim and perpetrator. Alfred McCoy (from A Question of Torture, 2006) wrote in 2006:

“After two thousand years of Western judicial torture, from imperial Rome to America’s imperium, we should have ample experience to answer a… fundamental question: Does torture work? Does it produce accurate information?

The past two millennia are rich with examples that confirm, time and again, Ulpian’s (Roman jurist, Imperial Official and stoic philosopher—228 AD) dictum from the third century A.D.: “the strong can resist torture and the weak will say anything to end their pain,” (McCoy, 203).

Torture is renounced as criminal by the U.S. Constitution [in the 8th Amendment: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,”]. The Supreme Court has recognized torture as implied in the 8th Amendment since the mid-1800s. Moreover, U.S. law forbids torture. The federal anti-torture statute is formally known as Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C of the U.S. Code. The law consists of three sections (2340, 2340A, and 2340B), which define the crime of torture and prescribe harsh punishments for anyone—an American citizen or otherwise—who commits an act of torture outside of the United States. (Domestic incidents of torture are covered by state criminal statutes). A person found guilty of committing torture faces up to 20 years in prison or even execution, if the torture in question resulted in a victim's death.

The Federal anti-torture law was added to the books in 1994 as part of the United States' efforts to ratify and comply with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Torture has long been defined in the category of cruel and unusual by the courts, states, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, and certainly in the code of the International Community. All the same, America found itself early in the 21st Century as a symbol of the very kinds of inhumane acts that were claimed against those who (as representatives of the Axis of Evil,) attack innocents and commit acts of terror and torture.

Torture–or the intentional infliction of great pain, whether physical or psychological, in the act of “interrogation”--requires that its perpetrators and victims be placed in a distinctive social setting and relationship to one another. Victims of torture must feel themselves to be completely at the mercy of, and dependent upon their captors, while the interrogators must feel omniscient, impenetrable and in complete control. Alfred McCoy wrote:

“Thus, much of the pain from all forms of torture is psychological, not physical, based upon denying victims any power over their lives. In sum, the torturer strives ‘through insult and disqualification, by means of threats…to break all the victim’s possible existential platforms.’ Through this asymmetry, the torturer eventually achieves complete power and reduces the victim to a ‘condition of total or near total defenselessness. …[T]he psychological component of torture becomes a kind of total theater, a constructed unreality of lies and inversion, in a plot that ends inexorably with the victim’s self-betrayal and destruction. To make the artifice of false charges, fabricated news and mock executions convincing, interrogators often become inspired thespians. The torture chamber itself thus has the theatricality of a set with special lighting, sound effects, props, backdrop all designed with a perverse stagecraft to evoke an aura of fear,” (McCoy, 10).

In David Sussman’s essay, “What’s Wrong with Torture” (in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2005) the author argued:

“I do not construe the wrong of torture as just that of disregarding, thwarting or undermining the victim’s capacities for rational self governance. Instead, I argue that torture forces its victim into a position of colluding against himself through his own affects and emotions, so that he experiences himself as simultaneously powerless and yet actively complicit in his own violation. So construed, torture turns out to be not just an extreme form of cruelty, but the pre-eminent instance of a kind of forced self-betrayal, more akin to rape than other kinds of violence characteristic of warfare or police action,” (Sussman, 4).

Torture creates a bizarre and anti-human series of relationships that are ruinous to everyone involved.

According to Alfred McCoy (pp. 13-14), there are five objective factors to consider in the dynamics of torture, endemic to the practice, and not all of which pertain to the harm done to the victim.

(1) “…Torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of omnipotence. Once torture begins, its perpetrators—reaching into that remote terrain where pain and pleasure, procreation and destruction converge—are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of potency, master and control.”

(2) “….States that sanction torture often allow it to spread beyond a few selected targets to countless suspected enemies. When U.S. leaders have used torture to fight faceless adversaries, Communist or terrorist, the practice has proliferated almost uncontrollably.”

(3) “…Torture offers such a persuasive appearance of efficient information extraction that its perpetrators remain wedded to its use, refusing to acknowledge evidence of its limited utility and high political cost.”

(4) “…Even when exposed to public scrutiny, torturers arouse such fear and fascination, attraction and revulsion, that they are rarely prosecuted for their crimes.”

(5) “…A nation that sanctions torture in defiance of its democratic principles pays a terrible price. For nearly two millennia the practice has been identified with tyrants and empires. For the past two centuries its repudiation has been synonymous with the humanist ideals of the Enlightenment and democracy. When any modern state tortures even a few victims, the stigma compromises its majesty and corrupts its integrity,” (McCoy, 13-14).

III: The Story of Selwa (2005)

Tara McKelvey reported in 2005 of the arrest, interrogation and treatment of an Iraqi woman she called “Selwa.” Selwa was arrested at her home in Samarra, Iraq, on September 24, 2003. Soldiers entered her home and in front of the family, including the children, Selwa was taken and eventually transported to detention in Tikrit, 100 miles northwest of Baghdad. McKelvey describes Selwa’s situation in a way that lends insight into the particular nature of dehumanizing relationships. For example, in Tikrit, Selwa found herself among 700 other Iraqi prisoners, mostly male, living in tents. The soldiers dragged prisoners out on the ground and made them crouch with their arms above their heads in 100 degree heat. If anyone complained, they were forced to place their face against a wall and stand for hours.

While at Tikrit an American officer assigned Selwa to the job of collecting human urine and feces. The waste was placed into metal barrels, mixed with lighter fluid and set it on fire. Selwa was forced to stir the mixture for its effective disposal. According to the report, an American officer lit a mixture of feces and urine in a container and ordered Selwa to stir. After hours of work she became tired, and told the officer she could no longer do the job. A sergeant came up at that point and told Selwa to keep stirring. The sergeant whispered in Selwa’s ear: “If you don’t, I will tell one of the soldiers to fuck you.” Selwa reportedly stirred for two more hours and eventually fainted to the ground. In October, a month later, Selwa was delivered to Abu Ghraib prison, (McKelvey 2005).

In a U.S. Department of State report cited by Tara McKelvey in the American Prospect, 42 women were held at Abu Ghraib in the manner as “Selwa” was imprisoned. In his 2006 book, Our Endangered Values, former President Jimmy Carter wrote:

“The terrible pictures from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have brought discredit on our country. This is especially disturbing, since U.S. Intelligence officers estimated to the Red Cross that 70 to 90 percent of the detainees were held by mistake. Military officials reported that at least 108 prisoners have died in American custody in Iraq, Afghanistan and other secret locations just since 2002, with homicide acknowledged as the cause of death in at least 28 cases. The fact that only one of these was in Abu Ghraib prison indicates the widespread pattern of prisoner abuse, certainly not limited to the actions or decisions of just a few rogue enlisted persons, (Carter, Our Endangered Values, 2006, 122).

How many accidental deaths were a result of physical abuse and torture? History may never record the number, but what Selwa’s story reveals is the un-heroic nature of torture and bullying. There is no justification for the employ of torture for it will not lead to victory nor make a better world. Dehumanization is the condition where all are stripped of human dignity.

In A Question of Torture (2006), McCoy gave a careful examination of the development of psychological and physical torture developed by the CIA in the 20th Century and during the Cold War, and outlined the history of the training and export of these techniques around the world (e.g. Argentina, the Philippines, Central America, Africa, etc.). Beginning in 1947 and through the 1950s, the CIA in collaboration with the American Psychiatric Association, and a host of U.S. trained academic psychologists seeking grants from the National Science Foundation as well as many other government sponsored grant sources, developed an array of physical and psychological techniques today known as “enhanced interrogation.” As the Cold War progressed through the 1960s the CIA through U.S. AID and the Office of Public Safety (or OPS) propagated these techniques around the world, teaching counter-insurgency teams and anti-communist regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America the arts of modern torture. By 1971, the operation had trained over one million “police officers” in 47 nations.

McCoy’s research showed the immense evolution of torture techniques shared and employed by Americans since the end of the Second World War. Today no American can honestly say that Americans “do not engage in torture.” Indeed, Americans helped design the most sophisticated and widespread torture methods of the modern era. The revelations after 2003 of the practices used in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo and elsewhere throughout the world during the “War on Terror” were the most recent chapter in the story of America’s application of physical and psychological torture. In light of the scholarly chronicle of American torture it matters that we understand its effect on what it means for America. The American heroic identity and sense of exceptionalism faces a critical test, but the alternative lies within America itself. There has always been an alternative to the violent bully in the American tradition. For example, Mark Twain confronted the American identity as regarded slavery in the 1800s through the character of Huckleberry Finn. Slavery, like torture, was an abomination and Huck Finn symbolized a very different American hero. What follows is an examination of the subversive American hero beginning with Huck Finn.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Even before his inauguration, President Barack Obama made it clear that he believed torture was morally reprehensible and promised that under his administration the U.S. would no longer practice torture.1 Accordingly, on April 16th, 2009 Mr. Obama and the U.S. Department of Justice authorized the release of C.I.A memos detailing... MORE»
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This article explores the way in which Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds challenges the myth of the American hero and criticizes the glorification of war cinema by satirizing the viewer directly... MORE»
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