The Torture Zeitgeist

Twisted bodies lay across a sandy landscape while a human face gazes emptily through an enclosure of sharp, metallic objects. A scene in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, or Guantanamo perhaps? No, it's from the latest Dolce & Gabanna advertising campaign.

While the fashion label's PR team claims its campaign has a "safari" theme, one can't help but make an automatic connection to reports of death and torture associated with the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

True, the hooded, winged image of a suspended Abu Ghraib prisoner has become one of the most recognizable symbols of anti-war protest. Street activists, mimicking corporate advertisers, have labeled the hooded icon with "Got democracy?" Another example is the "iRaq" protest poster, done in the style of the ubiquitous iPod silhouette ads.

But purveyors of commercial goods in turn seem to be taking a page from the protesters by translating the painful images into an aesthetic of inflicted suffering. Dolce & Gabbana isn't the only fashion house to promote "torture chic."

John Galliano's last runway show for his men's fall-winter collection featured models in ripped clothing, some of them in camouflage print, with makeup resembling blood or war paint.

Alexander McQueen's male models in his 2005 fall-winter show wore balaclavas. While military allusions are not unusual in the fashion world, their resurgence reflects society's current ambivalence about the methods our side uses in Iraq as well as in the war on terror.

Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, Harvard professor, psychiatrist and author of several books about the psychology of terror, told Bill Moyers in the television program NOW that we are obsessed with the idea of the terrorists as powerful and omnipotent. "I don't think the Islamist terrorists are in control of our gross national psychology, but they're involved in it more than perhaps they should be."

Is our desire to cut our enemies down to size through torture -- real or fantasized -- behind its sublimation into popular culture?

Torture is a regular occurrence in several popular weekly TV shows. Physical and psychological coercion is an occupational hazard for the sexy secret agents of "Alias" and the intelligence agents in "24" use torture to weed out the good guys from the terrorists.

"Man On Fire," a movie released last spring has Denzel Washington chopping off the fingers of a man one-by-one in order to extract information to save a little girl. And then there's the sadistic depiction of the torture of Christ in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which has reportedly "inspired" more intense worship among many Christian devotees.

Torture is linked with a greater good in these stories of heroism, subtly legitimizing the notion that since we are a country at war, we may sometimes use extreme methods to protect ourselves. Thus, while polls show a popular repugnance for human rights violations, there has been no visible rejection of torture, outside of activist and liberal circles. The Bush administration so far has escaped blame for the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay abuses, with prosecutions limited to the lower military ranks. Public outcry against the country's flouting of the Geneva Conventions has remained muted.

It seems that our threshold for shock and disgust has been lowered. "All the experiences we have are packaged" or mediated, explains culture writer Thomas de Zengotita, contributing editor for Harper's magazine. "People are deeply repelled and moved by something they see on TV, but they know there'll be another deeply repelling and moving image in three minutes."

Popular entertainment, awash in "reality" shows, adds to the piling on of vicarious emotional and physical suffering. Realistic video games ceaselessly simulate violence and pain. Kuma Reality Games, for example, lets one "experience" the battles fought by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as they "really happened." You can choose from a list of scenarios such as "Uday and Qusay's Last Stand" and "Fallujah Police Station Raid."

Indeed, as De Zengotita concludes, "Masses of people have been immersed in this mediation so long that they keep their distance. That's where apathy comes from." The virtual may only serve to anaesthetize us from the real. As artilleryman Richmond Shaw in the well-received documentary "Gunner Palace" chides the viewer, "For y'all this is just a show, but we LIVE in this movie."

Another GI warns, "After you watch this, you're going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave. You're going to talk about what I've said, and you'll forget me by the end of this (film)."

And perhaps you'll buy a killer Dolce & Gabbana number.

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