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Tortured Memories and the Culture of War

It is difficult to imagine how any democracy could not be corrupted when war becomes the foundation of politics.

Part of the Series

For the last decade, we have lived through a historical period in which the United States relinquished its tenuous claim to democracy. The frames through which democracy apprehends the lives of others as human beings worthy of respect, dignity and human rights were sacrificed to a mode of politics and culture that simply became an extension of war, both at home and abroad. At home the punishing state increasingly replaced the welfare state, however ill-conceived, as more and more individuals and groups were now treated as disposable populations, undeserving of those safety nets and basic protections that provide the conditions for living with a sense of security and dignity. Under such conditions, basic social supports were replaced by an increase in the production of prisons, the expansion of the criminal justice system into everyday life, and the further erosion of crucial civil liberties. Shared responsibilities gave way to shared fears and the only distinction that seems to resonate in the culture was between friends and patriots, on the one hand, and dissenters and enemies on the other. State violence not only became acceptable, it was normalized as the government spied on its citizens, suspended the right of habeas corpus, sanctioned police brutality against those who questioned state power, relied on the state-secrets privilege to hide its crimes, and increasingly reduced those public spheres that were designed to protect children to containment centers and warehouses that modeled themselves after prisons. Fear both altered the landscape of democratic rights and values and dehumanized a population increasingly willing to look the other way as large segments of the population were either dehumanized, incarcerated or simply treated as disposable. The dire consequences can be seen every day as the media report a stream of tragic stories about decent people losing their homes, more and more young people being incarcerated and increasing numbers of people living in their cars, on the streets or in tent cities. The New York Times offers up a front-page story about young people leaving their recession-ridden families in order to live on the street, often surviving by selling their bodies for money. Reports surface in the dominant media about unspeakable horrors being inflicted on children tortured in the “death chambers” of Iraq, Cuba and Afghanistan. And the American public barely blinks.

The Bush administration further eroded a culture inspired by democratic values, replacing it with a culture of war. During the last decade, the language and ghostly shadow of war became all-embracing, not only eroding the distinction between war and peace, but putting into play a public pedagogy in which every aspect of the culture was shaped by militarized knowledge, values and ideals. From video games and Hollywood films aided by the Department of Defense to the ongoing militarization of public and higher education, the notion of the common good was subordinated to a military metaphysics, war-like values and the dictates of the national security state. War was no longer the last resort of a state intent on defending its territory; it morphed into a new form of public pedagogy – a type of cultural war machine – designed to shape and lead the society. War became the foundation for a politics that employed military language, concepts and policing relations to address problems far beyond the familiar terrains of battle. In some cases, war was so aestheticized by the dominant media that it resembled an advertisement for a tourist industry. The upshot is that the meaning of war was rhetorically, visually and materially expanded to name, legitimate and wage battles against social problems involving drugs, poverty and our newfound enemy, Mexican immigrants.

As war became normalized as the central function of power and politics, it became a regular and normative element of American society, legitimated by a state of exception and emergency that became permanent rather than temporary. As the production of violence reached beyond traditionally defined enemies and threats, the state now took aim at terrorism, shifting its register of power by waging war on a concept, broadening its pursuits, tactics and strategies against no specific state, army, soldiers or location. The enemy was omnipresent, all the more difficult to root out and all the more convenient for expanding the tactics of surveillance, the culture of fear and the resources of violence. War was now a commonplace feature of American domestic and foreign policy, engaged in a battle that had no definitive end and demanded the constant use of violence.

It is difficult to imagine how any democracy could not be corrupted when war becomes the foundation of politics. Any democracy that makes war and state violence the organizing principle of society cannot survive for long, at least as a democratic entity. The country descended into a period in which society was increasingly organized through the production of both symbolic and material violence. A culture of cruelty emerged in the media, especially in the talk radio circuit, in which a sordid nationalism merged with a hyper-militarism and masculinity that scorned not merely reason but all those who fit into the stereotype of other, which appeared to include everyone who was not white and Christian. Dialogue, reason and thoughtfulness slowly disappeared from the public realm as every encounter was framed within circles of certainty, staged as a fight to the death. As the civic and moral center of the country disappeared under the Bush administration, the language of the marketplace provided the only referent for understanding the obligations of citizenship and global responsibility, undeterred by a growing war machine and culture that produced jobs and goods and furthered the war economy.

The war abroad entered a new phase with the release of photos of detainees being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison. War as organized violence was stripped of its noble aims and delusional goal of promoting democracy and revealed state violence at its most degrading and dehumanizing moment. State power had become an instrument of torture, ripping into the flesh of human beings, raping women and most abominably torturing children. Democracy had become a shell that not only defended the unthinkable, but inflicted the most horrible mutilations on both adults and children deemed to be the enemies of democracy. But the mutilations were also inflicted against the body politic as politicians such as former Vice President Dick Cheney defended torture while the media addressed the question of torture not as a violation of democratic principles or human rights but as a strategy that may or may not produce concrete information. The utilitarian arguments used to defend a market-driven economy that only recognizes cost-benefit analyses had now reached their logical end point as similar arguments were now used to defend torture, even when it involved children. The pretense of democracy was stripped bare as it was revealed over and over again that the United States had become a torture state, aligning itself with infamous dictatorships such as those in Argentina and Chile during the 1970’s. The United States government under the Bush administration had finally arrived at a point where the metaphysics of war, organized violence and state terrorism prevented them from recognizing how much they were emulating the very acts of terrorism they claimed to be fighting. The circle had now been completed as the warfare state had been transformed into a torture state. Everything became permissible both at home and abroad just as the legal system along with the market system legitimated a punishing and ruthless mode of economic Darwinism that viewed morality if not democracy itself as a weakness to be either scorned or ignored. Self-regulation now drove the market and narrowly defined individual interests set the parameters of what was possible. The public collapsed into the private and social responsibility was reduced to the arbitrary desires of the hermetic, asocial self. Not surprisingly, the inhuman and degrading not only entered public discourse and shaped the debate about war, state violence and human rights abuses, but served to legitimate such practices. Torture was normalized and the promise of an aspiring democracy was irreparably damaged.

The United States under the Bush administration embarked on a war on terror that not only defended torture as a matter of official policy, but furthered conditions for the emergence of a culture of cruelty that profoundly altered the political and moral landscape of the country. As torture became normalized under the Bush administration, it not only corrupted American ideals and political culture, it also passed over to the dark side in sanctioning the unimaginable and unspeakable – the torture of children. While the rise of the torture state has been a subject of intense controversy, too little has been said by intellectuals, academics, artists, writers, parents and politicians about how state violence under the Bush administration set in motion a public pedagogy and political culture that not only legitimated the systemic torture of children, but did so with the complicity of a dominant media that either denied such practices or simply ignored them. The focus on children here is deliberate because young people provide a powerful referent for not only the long-term consequences of social policies, if not the future itself, but also because they offer a crucial index to measure the moral and democratic values of a nation. Children are the heartbeat of politics because they speak to the best of its possibilities and promises and yet they have in the last few years become the vanishing point of moral debate, either irrelevant because of their age, discounted because they are largely viewed as commodities, or scorned because they are considered a threat to adult society.

I have written in “Youth in a Suspect Society” that how we educate our youth is connected to the collective future we hope for. Actually, how we educate youth became meaningless as a moral issue under the Bush administration, because youth were not only devalued and considered unworthy of a decent life and future (one reason they were denied adequate health care), they were reduced to the status of the inhuman and depraved and subjected to cruel acts of torture in sites that were as illegal as they were barbaric. In this instance, youth became the negation of not only politics but also the future itself. But more is at stake here than making such crimes visible; there is also the moral and political imperative of raising serious questions about the challenges the Obama administration must address in light of this shameful period in American history, especially if it wants to reverse such policies and make a claim on restoring any vestige of American democracy. Of course, when a country makes torture legal and extends the disciplinary mechanisms of pain, humiliation and suffering to children, it suggests that far too many people looked away while this was happening and in doing so allowed conditions to emerge that made the unspeakable act of justifying the torture of children a matter of state policy. It is time for Americans to face up to these crimes and engage in a national dialogue about the political, economic, educational and social conditions that allowed such a dark period to emerge in American history and to hold those responsible accountable for such acts. The Obama administration is under fire for its embrace of many of Bush’s policies, but what is most disturbing is its willingness to make war, secrecy and the suspension of civil liberties a central feature of its own policies. Obama, in his desire to look ahead, recycles a dangerous form of historical and social amnesia and overlooks the political and civic pathology he inherited. Memory at its best is unsettling and sometimes even dangerous in its call for individuals to become moral and political witnesses, to take risks, to embrace history not merely as a critique, but as a warning about how fragile democracy is and what will often happen when the principles, ideals and elements of the culture that sustain it are allowed to slip away, overtaken by forces that embrace death rather than life, fear rather than hope, insularity rather than solidarity. Robert Hass, the American poet, has suggested that the job of education, its political job, “is to refresh the idea of justice going dead in us all the time.” Justice is slipping away, once again, under the Obama administration, but it is not just the government’s job to keep it from “going dead,” it is also our job – as parents, citizens, individual, and educators – not merely as a matter of social obligation or moral responsibility, but as an act of politics, agency and possibility.