Thursday, December 20, 2007

Television as war crime propaganda medium

Prof: After 9/11, we see torture as normal

Samara Kalk Derby

Keifer Sutherland (left) appears as Agent Jack Bauer in a scene from Fox's "24," which shows scenes of violence and torture frequently.

Fox Broadcasting co.

Keifer Sutherland (left) appears as Agent Jack Bauer in a scene from Fox's "24," which shows scenes of violence and torture frequently.

Torture has become normalized in American society post-9/11 and that is why the public is not outraged when the U.S. government does it, a Beloit College sociology professor told a Madison audience Tuesday night in the Meriter Main Gate auditorium.

Carol Wickersham, an anti-torture activist who is also a Presbyterian minister, showed a picture of actor Kiefer Sutherland, who plays a counterterrorism agent on the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning Fox show "24," and asked if anyone in the room knew who he was.

The group of 30, members of the Dane County chapter of the United Nations Association, was silent.

"It's Jack Bauer, the star of '24,' " she said. " '24' is one of the most popular shows on television and '24' shows torture every single show."

According to Fox publicity materials, Bauer helps prevent major terrorist attacks on the United States, saving both civilians and government leaders. Wickersham acknowledges that the show is "very well done" and that it is compelling drama. But at the same time, she said, the program has helped normalize torture as a part of American life and culture.

Prior to 9/11, torture was shown two or three times on an average season of network television. After 9/11, it's been closer to 67 times a season, she said. Before 9/11, torture was always done by the bad guys. Now torture is usually done by the good guys, she added.

"This is a huge sea change in American culture and those of us, including me, who don't watch television need to understand that this is going on," Wickersham said.

A group of West Point generals went to Hollywood to talk to the producers of "24" and asked them to tone it down, telling them that soldiers in the field are passing around DVDs of the program, and instead of following U.S. military rules of engagement, they are using Jack Bauer's rules of engagement.

"And what did the producers of '24' say? 'No. Our ratings are really good,'" Wickersham said.

When the photographs from the U.S. military's Abu Ghraib prison came out Wickersham was
working on the national peacemaking conference for the Presbyterian Church.

"I was horrified," she said, adding that there was no longer plausible deniability that torture was occurring. "It was outrageous that people weren't more outraged."

Wickersham is coordinator of No2Torture, which sprung from the 2005 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference as a grassroots movement to take a stand for the humane treatment of prisoners captured and held by the United States and its allies following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

She is also a board member of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, which is composed of about 300 faith-based groups. Members came together from across the political and theological spectrums to basically say the same thing, Wickersham said, "which is, torture is

a moral issue. And it is always wrong. There is no exception to this rule."

To take action against torture, Wickersham encouraged the local United Nations Association crowd to mobilize friends, family and neighbors. "If we are going to take action we have to learn how to frame the conversation," she said.

There are two important questions to answer when it comes to torture: What is torture? And do we do it?

The definition of torture from article 3 of the Geneva Conventions uses the phrase "humiliating and degrading treatment," adding that "it's sadism if one person does it to another. It's torture if a nation does it."

Do nations have a right to interrogate people? she asked. "I think most of us would say yes. There is a right to hold people for questioning if you believe they may have committed a crime or an act of war."

One of the things to remember is that prisoners who are being held in Guant namo have no access to the evidence against them. Most of them haven't been charged with any crime, she said.

have examined the victims of torture.

In terms whether of the United States engages in torture, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President George Bush have both stood up and said the United States does not torture. Wickersham said she'd like to believe that, but she is instead listening to a host of others who say the opposite is true.

That list includes former prisoners and their attorneys; human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights; former interrogators and guards have come forward and talked about it; military lawyers; the international Red Cross; The Center for Victims of Torture; physicians and psychologists who

"What we say is that it was a few bad apples," Wickersham said. "That was the line that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney used. We prosecuted the Lynndie Englands and the Charles Graners, the low-level soldiers who committed the torture."

Original article posted here.

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