The Despotic Act: How Abu Ghraib Reflects Back To the Western World

In Boris Groys’ Art Power text, he states that, “the heroic act transforms the hero’s body from a medium into a message” (Groys 131). Is it conversely true then that the despotic act transforms the despot from medium to message as well? When dealing with the issue of torture inflicted by a given authoritative group, I would argue that this must be true. A given individual or individuals can be deified and become heroes in a given context or moment without being any more heroic than the next person outside of the circumstance. For instance, most passengers on the flight that was heading for the White House on September 11, 2001 had never been involved in hand to hand combat with terrorists or anything that would constitute a national sense of heroism. That is not to say that they are not heroes none-the-less. They are, in fact, quite heroic for their deeds, and at the same time, victims of terrorism. But when flipping the roles, the terrorist attackers are considered heroic in their circle of friends and seen by them to be the victims of the western devils. So the matter boils down not to acts but to ethical evaluations. This leads to the next issue at hand. The pictures from the Abu Ghraib torture case show a level of degradation that has rarely been publicized for the general citizen to see. What is definite when viewing these pictures, is a certain level of violence. What is not so definite, without ethical deliberation, is the nature of the events taking place. As stated earlier, the particular act or acts do not define the lives of the soldiers outside of the context as being despotic or cruel, but in this instance, they are despots. And, flipping the roles once again, the prisoners are now victims themselves. So what can be said of these examples? Who is correct in each situation? The answer lies in the evaluation and the stipulations set for doing so.

The major argument of the American government has been that of two very distinct forms of ethical theory. First, many politicians and military officials have held a stance of religiously based moral absolutism. Centered in a good versus evil, us and them, cut and dry, Jesus against the mighty Mohammed, thrilla’ in Manilla type of showdown. It’s major argument lies in the firm belief that whatever is done to the captives or soldiers of the Islamic extremists is sanctioned by God and morally upstanding as it is helping to destroy evil. While this argument offers a solid and unwavering viewpoint that holds firm in all cases where evil can be easily identified (i.e. whenever it is convenient to Christian leaders), it still lacks any basis in reality at large. Even if you believed that Jesus wants you to bomb Kabul, you can’t prove it in any definitive way. The second major ethical proposal is utilitarian in its ideology. The Dick Cheneys of the world see the protection of American interest and safety as the most desirable end and most important end for any action or inaction. That much is highly noble, at least for Americans. The issue lies in the theory and what it can therefore justify. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which is what I would consider this year’s Super Bowl halftime show) are sanctioned by the desire to bring the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. In this case, the greatest amount of American people, and more likely white, christian, Americans, are the ones that the U.S. Government and military had in mind. In their mode of thinking, anything that saves the lives of those deemed innocent is fair play. In this way, they play the fence between the moral absolutists and the utilitarian rule. The powers that be define the enemy as evil and against God and America (whom we all know blesses us on a regular basis as part of a sweet marketing deal he has with the Federal Reserve to get his name on every bill), and this gives the utilitarian the right to deem their tactics justifiable. The good, the bad, and the ugly have already been defined for them. In this way, the rationale has become quite self centered and has isolated the American people from the rest of the world. As, Demarco stated in his work Moral Theory “ At its best, the defense of morality on the basis of a self centered notion of rationality is amoral. At its worst, it supports immoral action” ( Demarco 128).

So we can easily see that a new message is being transmitted in the Abu Ghraib scenario. The despotic act has made messages out of the individual perpetrators. They send a message of a frightening moral absolutism that will stop at nothing to enforce its beliefs on the evil enemy. To the world outside of the United States, this must be the view that they are forced to gaze. In the U.S., we, as mortified citizens, have to confront what Eisenman calls the “shock of the uncanny”. According to Eisenman, “ the uncanny is a thing that has the capacity to congeal thoughts, disorient the senses, and occlude reason” ( Eisenman 15). This is the interesting problem when viewing these torture images from the prison. We are forced to approach a feeling of disturbance that is coupled with an odd familiarity. We know of this capacity for despotic action. We have seen it in our history. We have classified it as evil, as morally corrupt, and as signs of oppressive tyranny. But our social rationale has deemed this necessary for the greatest good. Reason, in this case, has been occluded. We are on both fronts threatened. It would be lax of us not to do what we can to protect our people but just as morally absent to allow that same oppression to take place elsewhere. We feel trapped by these images. Trapped because these images have inserted the identity of American as despot and the real notion that in some way, these images victimize us as well. What soon gives way however, is the understanding that while these images have given us a false identity, they also turn our authority figures into a message. Evil, oppressive, torturous, ruthless, religious idealists with a penchant for destruction and victory for their people at any cost. A group of individuals who believe that God is on their side. A group that believes that soldiers are martyrs and that their way of living, nay, their way of BEING, is under attack. What is most haunting about this message? Its the same message that our government gave us about Islam. Word for word. To say that torture is no more than an enhanced technique is moral cowardice. And to condone the things you condemn in others is hypocritical and callow. Identity is the most important factor in ethical reasoning but it is entirely up to the individual to present their image and to identify what they believe of themselves in each instance. As a nation, we must image ourselves as progressive, peace seeking, and forward moving. Our identity must be truthful and forever seeking the true good of the American citizen. Otherwise, we may very well be fighting with our own reflection. Oh Narcissus, how was it that you came to waste away?

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