Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Messages from the Mass Media

One of the most popular shows on telly at the moment is 24 in which Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) plays the consummate hero. It's interesting to note that the viewing public gives it a 9.5 out of 10 score. My friends watch it. My girlfriends all want to have Bauer's babies.
I've seen some of it, and I must admit three things.
1. I saw episodes out of order. Our cable provider seems to run two series of the same production simultaneously with copious reruns during the week, so I could watch episode 2 of the first series on say, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and episode 16 of the second series on Monday, Thursday and Sunday. So it was very confusing.
2. I did enjoy what I was able to follow.
3. Then I started to think about it in context of what was happening in the world, particularly in America.

Americans were hurting from the tragedy of 9/11. They wanted revenge - hence the attack on Afghanistan, the round up of suspects through Pakistan and the eventual war on Iraq. And they needed to believe the cause was right and just.
Then the Abu Grahib story broke. It was shameful and humiliating, dragging Americans down to the level of third world dictators.
Shortly after that I did a story on the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. Men held without trial and due process, indefinitely. The basis of the story was that the prisoners were on a hunger strike, and against world medical agreements - to which the US was a signatory, they were being force fed.
Most of the people I spoke to at the time wondered what the big deal was. Allow me to give you an extract of a man's account of force feeding: “About a dozen guards led me from my cell to the medical unit. There they straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril.
The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man -- my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit. . . . Grrrr. There had just been time for everything to start healing during the night when they came back in the morning and did it all over again,”
Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky wrote in the Washington Post, in an article that brings home the horror institutionalised force feeding. Bukovsky spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons where he was regularly force fed after going on a hunger strike.

This was not really what was happening in Gitmo. The pipes they used were smaller. As far as we know noses were not broken. But the general picture is the same, a gross violation of human rights, a torture in its own right, and a violation of medical ethics where doctors are forbidden to perform treatment without a patient's consent.
While doing the story, however, I met a man by the name of Mandouh Habib. He had experienced the loving attention of Gitmo's healers when they force fed him. Before that he had been snatched in Pakistan, rendered through Egypt where he was tortured with electric shocks, beatings and attacked by dogs. He was drugged, and told his wife and children had been raped and murdered. Realising that he was being drugged, he stopped accepting food.
This was Jack Bauer at his best. Doing what had to be done to protect Americans at home. What a hero.
But Habib was never brought to trial. He was never charged. He was and Australian citizen who apparently happened to be on the wrong bus at the wrong time. Today he suffers post traumatic stress and the physical consequences of his torture. No one has apologised or compensated him for his ordeal - but that is another story.
What shows like 24 fail to portray is the realistic consequences of torture. The blood, the vomit, the piss and shit, the broken human beings, many who end up dead, many who are completely innocent, who have nothing to "give" their torturer, those who end up permanently scarred and disabled as a result of torture. That a man hanged by his wrists suffers nerve damage that, depending on the time he spends like that, could be permanent or could result in him losing his hands. A person punched in the kidneys can suffer kidney failure and be on dialysis for the rest of their lives, if they survive.
Jack Bauer and other tough-guy heroes, of course, never tortures the wrong person. And the person they torture always gives them the vital information that allows them to save the day. In the viewers' consciousness the seed is planted that "torture is necessary sometimes, so it's okay".
In fact torture is an extremely unreliable method of extracting information. It assumes the person's guilt, and it assumes they have the information needed.

More often than not torture is used to extract confessions, or as a means of punishment. But any person - even JB himself - would confess to anything, given enough torture.

I don't mind torture as a device in telling the story. But it needs to be done realistically, not portrayed as a means that is justified in the end.

Take a look at some real victims of torture, before and after:

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?