This essay grew out of my lectures on the ethics of torture and orientalism during my time in the Humanities Core Program at UC Irvine (2014-2016). It is not an "ethics paper" on torture, but rather how the discourse surrounding torture in popular media can be understood as part of the larger evolution of orientalism. It's not quite a scholarly paper, but not quite a popular article either. Regardless of where this essay belongs, it was fun to write.
In December 2014 the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a comprehensive report on the use of torture by the CIA in the ongoing US war on terrorism. The report offered insight into some pretty gruesome methods, but more importantly, the report criticized the effectiveness of torture as a reliable form of intelligence gathering. Torture may be brutal, but the real atrocity is that it doesn’t work! Now, with the presidential primaries revving into high gear, torture is back in the national consciousness. Republican frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz often seem to be debating who would use torture more. Given the support for these candidates, it's worth looking into how the “torture debate” has unfolded in popular media and what this shows about who we are and how we conceive of ourselves.
We all agree that torturing another human being is wrong, right? Well, maybe it’s wrong in general, but surely there are exceptional cases that warrant the use of torture. Suppose we know that a group of terrorists has placed a bomb somewhere in a crowded metropolitan area. Furthermore, we have captured one of these terrorists and we know that he knows the location of the bomb. He’s not talking. Should we, perhaps, enhance our interrogation techniques? We might waterboard him, or apply pressure to various points on his body, or, you know, just shoot him in the kneecap.
So goes the “ticking time bomb” scenario (TTB). The scenario is a thought-experiment designed to pump our intuitions about morality: it’s not that we think torture is good or that we ought to torture people, it’s just that something awful like torture is justified and perhaps even necessary if it means saving lots of innocent people. As you listen to someone “stipulate” the conditions of TTB, you find yourself nodding along: well, I guess we should torture the guy!
As it so happens, terrorism is a very real threat in this world, and governments including the United States of America are, in fact, torturing people. TTB is not some idle thought experiment smoldering in the minds of wonky philosophers. TTB is playing an active part in discussions of torture, in portrayals of torture and those who deserve it. Last year, after the release of the Senate Torture Report, Dick Cheney, Antonin Scalia, and other dignitaries went on the record justifying the use of torture with TTB-style arguments. Indeed, they often double down on the use of torture. Not only do they not regret its use. They would do it again.
It’s easy to criticize TTB for being unrealistic, burdened with problematic assumptions, or as an unreliable guide to moral intuitions due to framing effects. My concern here, however, is not the ethics of torture per se. Rather, my aim is to show how TTB has come to play a certain role in the way we think and talk about torture and the “war on terror”. TTB has infiltrated popular consciousness and come to participate in a particularly insidious form of “orientalism” – i.e., those forms of discourse identified by Edward Said regarding our depictions of “the Orient”, our rhetorical manners of constructing an “us” (the West) as opposed to “them” (the Middle East, India, Asia, etc.). TTB is connected to orientalism because, as it so happens, the majority of torture being done in the name of the war on terror is done to Arabs. Several terrorist networks identify themselves with Islam, and Islamic and Arabic identity are largely identical in the mind of the Western world (although Arabs only account for 20% of the world's Muslim population). So, as a contingent matter of historic fact, debates involving TTB tend to affect Arabs and the depiction of Arabs.
But in order to understand how TTB has infiltrated popular consciousness and played a role in contemporary orientalism, we have to understand some basics of the ethical tradition in which TTB is rooted and from which it emerged. In what follows I will rehearse some platitudes of normative ethical theory, as it is taught in the Anglophone academy, in order to situate TTB in a specific form of ethical discourse. My object is not to engage in the discourse and play the game of “when, if ever, is torture justified?”. My goal is only to reveal the structure on which TTB depends, for better or worse.
Normative ethical theory: “the big three”
If you have taken an introduction to ethics class in an American university at some point over the past few decades, odds are you were presented with a basic landscape of normative ethical theory consisting of three main options: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. As noted, I’m just rehearsing some platitudes in what follows. These are the basics of how normative ethical theories are taught to undergraduates. There are loads of details, objections, responses to objections, refinements, and developments that I must leave out here. But like I said, I’m not interested in when, if ever, torture is justified according to these theories. I’m just developing a simplified picture of the basic landscape so that we may see the particular moves one can make in the game.
Consequentialism, utilitarianism in particular, teaches us to evaluate the morality of an action solely in terms of the outcomes it brings about. The “utilitarian calculus” brings scientific rigor to ethical debates by attempting to quantify the goodness – i.e. the overall “utility” – of different possible courses of action. John Stuart Mill summed up the overarching guideline to consequentialist reasoning: act such that you bring about the greatest overall good for the greatest number of people. Of course, the devil lies in the details, but this style of ethical inquiry has proved especially popular (e.g., Princeton philosopher Peter Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism and the recent “effective altruism” boom).
Rather than focusing on possible outcomes, deontology evaluates the morality of an action solely in terms of rights, duty, rationality, and good will (deon is Greek for “duty”). Formulated by heavyweight German philosopher Immanuel Kant, deontology teaches us to adhere to a kind of duty that we autonomously impose on ourselves upon considering the demands of practical reason. Kant summed it up with his “Categorical Imperative”: act such that the maxim guiding your action could be universalized. For example, lying is necessarily immoral. Not because of the consequences it brings about, but because it is inherently irrational. When you tell a white lie, the maxim governing your action is something like “lie when convenient if no one is seriously harmed”. But this maxim could not be universalized, for then there would be a widespread and constant suspicion that people are lying. If this were the case, lying would no longer work since lying only works if people generally trust one another. The very rationale of your action undermines itself. But what if the stakes are much higher? Should you lie to the Nazis banging on your door as you shelter a Jewish refugee? Kant still says no, and people are still arguing about it. The point, however, remains: moral deliberation consists in evaluating the internal logic of possible courses of action.
The first few weeks of your semester are over. You’ve got a pretty good handle on consequentialism (although it seems to demand weird stuff sometimes). You have the gist of Kant, but then actually trying to explain it in your own terms gets shaky (see above). But you seem to have the hang of all this. Normative ethical theory consists in the formulation of the most general rule of action upon which all specific rules are based. Ethics is a game of explaining what you should or shouldn’t do. Ethics is all about what makes actions right or wrong. Then your professor drops the game changer on you: virtue ethics. Virtue ethics isn’t about doing, it’s about being. It’s not about conduct, it’s about character. Ethics is not an abstract game of formulating rules that constrain our actions. It’s a matter of cultivating stable dispositions that make you a good person. “Virtue” comes from the Greek arête, meaning “excellence”. Different domains of human activity demand different forms of excellence, i.e. cultivating distinct virtues: courage is the disposition to manage fear appropriately; generosity is the disposition to manage wealth appropriately; temperance is the disposition to manage pleasure appropriately; and so on. The right thing to do in a particular situation is to do as the virtuous person would do. Specific conduct is secondary to stable character traits conducive to human flourishing.
With these three approaches to ethics on the table, we can see how TTB functions in the torture debate. It is easy to see how torture is justified for the consequentialist. It’s a numbers game. The suffering endured by the one tortured still goes in the negative column, but the potential death and suffering averted and lives saved far outweigh his suffering, however intense. For the Kantian, it’s not so simple. Deontology gives us the resources to “stick to our guns” about the inherent evil of torture. To torture someone is to treat them as a mere means, to violate the intrinsic value of another as a source of rationality in the world. Likewise, the virtue ethicist would probably see practicing torture as antithetical to cultivating the proper moral responses to the suffering of others, and therefore advise against it. But herein lies the cunning of TTB: the ticking time bomb scenario is so extreme that both the Kantian and virtue ethicist will likely find a way to make an exception. In so-called “tragic cases”, there is simply too much on the line, too much at stake. TTB demands consequentialist reasoning. If you are not playing the numbers game in this scenario, you are allowing scores of people to die for the sake of your own moral integrity, and that just seems wrong.
The torture discourse
I speak of the torture debate as a “discourse” here because my analysis focuses on the way our representations of some subject matter – in speech, writing, media – are also ways of exercising power. Said’s monumental Orientalism (1978) unpacks how 19th century European fiction, anthropology, and artwork participated in constructing various conceptual dichotomies to distinguish European culture from “the Orient”. The West is rational while the Orient is a land of passion and sensuality. The West is civilized while the Orient remains a barbaric frontier. And so on. These dichotomies were part of the process of “knowing” about that part of the world. But the “knowledge” here is not “acquired” through “discovery” as we typically understand knowledge to be. Rather, this “knowledge” is constructed, and this construction participates in and is continuous with the exercise of European colonial power over the Middle East, India, etc. In other words:
The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (Orientalism, 5-6).
Said was not the first intellectual to analyze knowledge as a form of discourse that structures power relations. He takes his cue from French philosopher Michel Foucault who famously practiced what he called “archaeology” on the forms of discourse that govern our understanding of mental illness, sexuality, and democratic institutions. For Foucault, knowledge is not a system of mental representations or “ideas” in our heads that more or less accurately model the world. Rather, he talks about knowledge as organized systems of representations embodied in images, texts, and patterns in our ways of talking to each other – i.e. discourses. Furthermore, these “discursive structures” are not value neutral. They are inherently connected to existing political facts and the various ways people exercise power over one another.
Foucault’s understanding of knowledge as discourse is often considered part of his critique of European Enlightenment ideals (although the story is actually more complicated than this). Kant famously characterized “enlightenment” as a kind of maturity through rationality. This is not the place to go into a detailed discussion of the nature of European enlightenment, but now we are in a position to see some of its basic ideals on display in the torture discourse.
Foucault’s notion of discourse draws an intrinsic connection between knowing and exercising power. Said employed this notion to show how Western “knowledge” of the Orient was connected to ruling over it, to managing it “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (Orientalism, 3). The idea here is that a truly reflective vantage point, a purely neutral and objective standpoint from which to survey the world, is an Enlightenment myth. The Enlightenment period inaugurated a series of conceptual dichotomies (reason vs. emotion; maturity vs. immaturity; thinking vs. feeling; civilized vs. barbaric) that subsequently came to structure the Western construction of the Orient.
Said made these dichotomies and their effects plain to see in Orientalism; but they are equally apparent in the ethical discourse that emerged in Enlightenment Europe. Both utilitarianism and Kantian deontology are forms of ethical generalism. That is, they posit a single overarching rule that applies in all circumstances and serves as the ur-justification in all moral decision making. In other words, both of these theories participate in the Enlightenment dream of rationality as a kind of detachment—as an objective vantage point from which to survey the moral landscape of the world and to grasp its essence.
Kant thought that when it comes to moral deliberation emotions of all kinds are “blind and slavish”. Even sentiments like sympathy, which would seem to compel us toward the good, “are burdensome to right-thinking persons”. Utilitarianism may seem less dehumanizing since it allows for one’s personal feelings to factor into moral deliberation. After all, if we are seeking to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, then that will include one’s own emotional wellbeing. But this form of reasoning still takes part in the Enlightenment flight from the “burden” of our emotional and embodied existence. It makes one’s own emotional life into yet another factor to be quantified and calculated. As Bernard Williams pointed out, utilitarianism effaces individual identity, making everyone into a mere “locus of causal intervention in the world”.
But if we regard Enlightenment ethical discourse with some suspicion, which is precisely what one does if one regards something as a discourse, we can begin to see how it has come to play a role in contemporary orientalism. From this Foucauldian perspective, one can trace the role of TTB in the torture discourse and see what kind of rhetorical move it is. Gordon Hull, philosopher at the UNC Charlotte, has done precisely this. Hull (2008)argues that the “relentless” justification of torture using TTB makes torture seem necessary and thus rational, which is all a way of making it appear to be a legitimate exercise of rational governance rather than a merciless exercise of “naked sovereignty”. Pondering the need to torture by posing TTB-style scenarios “sanitizes” it, and this makes us feel better: “How better to wash one’s hands of an act of barbarism than by presenting it as an act of accounting?”.
We have few pieces on the table now and you may be wondering how they all fit together – what, exactly, does TTB have to do with contemporary orientalism? Recall, orientalism is an organized system of representations embodied and embedded in texts, artifacts, patterns of verbal behavior, etc., that constructs the Orient by orienting us in relation to them. Orientialism is a style of dealing with “the Orient” that is part of and continuous with exercising different forms of power. Furthermore, European Enlightenment inaugurated a system of conceptual dichotomies that structured both Western orientalism and ethical discourse. To be ethical is to be rational, and whether one is a utilitarian or a deontologist this demands a certain detachment from one’s feelings in order to remain objective. Rationality is a kind of maturity characteristic of thoughtful, law abiding, civilized European society. The Orient, however, is a land of feelings. It is a barbaric frontier, or at least not quite civilized. It is a place of passion and romance, but also danger. Its inhabitants need our care, but also our discipline.
But the Orient of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries has presented a new threat: international terrorism. Accordingly, orientalism has evolved. Thus, while we continue to exercise very real physical, military, geopolitical, and economic power over the Middle East, we contemplate TTB as a way of coping with (and thus exercising power over) our own moral discomfort. TTB gives us a detached perspective on terror, whereby we assume a calculative attitude that provides a kind of moral assurance. But the way TTB plays this role goes beyond academic and political debates about torture, and this is precisely what grants it such a significant role in the pernicious evolution of contemporary orientalism. We can see TTB in popular media, and not just in its explicit incarnations in shows like 24and Homeland. Consider the waterboarding scene from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):
We see a faceless Arab body, arms tied, pinned down by American soldiers. As they pour water onto his towel-covered face we hear muffled cries and grunts of pain and suffering. This is intercut with repeated shots of Jessica Chastain’s pained grimace. This waterboarding business is really hard on her. She can’t bear to watch it. The towel is finally removed from the Arab’s head and we are met with something face-like, but not recognizably human. It is as if a corpse has bubbled up to the surface of some awful swamp, convulsing as air escapes its cavities. Cut to Jessica Chastain. She looks down, squirming, loosening her collar. This is really tough on her, she’s the one who needs some air. “This what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over.” Indeed, the struggle seems to be over, but who has really been defeated in this scene? They did not get any information. The Arab was nothing but a writhing corpse while the pain on Jessica Chastain’s face was palpable.
Now consider the heart-pounding trailer from American Sniper (2014):
An American unit slowly proceeds through the war torn hell-scape of Iraq. Bradley Cooper sits perched above it all, his ability to survey the entire landscape intrinsically connected to the power he has over it in the form of a sniper rifle. A hostile Arab on a cell phone appears at the end of his scope, the thought that “Maybe he’s just calling his old lady” is literally laughable. A woman and child emerge from a building. As these traditional non-combatants emerge, “from director Clint Eastwood” flashes across the screen, signaling the immediate revelation of what’s “really going on” in this film. Cut to a happy flashback of Bradly Cooper’s wedding. Those were better times. Back to the woman and child. She’s not walking normally. She’s not like the women back home where it’s safe. She’s handing something to her child. Cut to Bradly Cooper’s memory of being handed his newborn son. We care for our children. They hand rocket-propelled grenades to theirs. “Did you say a woman and a kid?” comes a muffled voice through a walkie-talkie. We see Bradly Cooper’s magnified eye peering through the scope of the rifle. Cut to another memory, this time of his wife shedding a tear. She is in pain. All is not well at home. The tension is audible as we realize that the threat is not simply “over there,” but one that exposes our vulnerability back home. Cut to Cooper mourning stoically on a plane full of American-flag-draped caskets. Death is returning to the homeland. Pulsating sound effects and an eerie shrill fill our ears as the scenes are intercut with greater and greater speed. The child is clearly a threat. All is not well back home. The scenes all run together. It is unclear if anywhere remains safe. He begins to squeeze the trigger and we see the pained look on his face as he girds himself for what his duty demands.
What is the Arab in these scenes other than a mere conceptual placeholder? We are not presented with human beings, only a potential source of information, a potential threat (women and children included). Arabs are ticking time bombs. Any one of them could be a threat. We need to eliminate the threat, or at least manage it. But this inevitably brings about a profound moral discomfort. Jessica Chastain cannot escape the feeling that what she is witnessing is disgusting. Bradley Cooper is traumatized by the terrible task he is being made to endure.
And that’s precisely the point: torturing people and shooting children are indeed terrible. But these are necessary burdens we must bear in the name of justice. The logic of suffering on display in these kinds of films matches the logic of TTB. This is a particularly subtle and insidious evolution of orientalism because it completely washes over the actual bearers of the pain and suffering – i.e. Arabs – and constructs a narrative in which we are the ones who are made to suffer. Hannah Arendt pointed out the same logic in Eichmann in Jerusalem:
Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler—who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself—was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!
In fact, this terrible burden we must bear is yet another way that the Arab continues to cause us to suffer. We aren’t even the one’s torturing. They are the ones torturing us! Dick Cheney explicitly performed this rhetorical backflip while defending “enhanced” interrogation last year after the Senate Torture Report was released:
Here we see Cheney double down on the “necessity” of waterboarding, all while asserting that we are not torturers. Torture is what the terrorists did to us, we are told. But this is NBC, not Fox, so we shouldn’t expect unadulterated Bush administration apologetics. Sure enough, just as the viewer is wagging her finger at that awful grump Cheney, we get the paragon of American virtue: Senator John McCain. Regardless of whether you agree with his hawkish policies, you have to respect John McCain. He’s a war hero after all (although even this consensus appears to be eroding). McCain really was tortured, and here he is taking to the Senate floor to denounce it. McCain knows (from personal experience!) that “the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence”. This sounds like yet another consequentialist denunciation. It’s not that torture is wrong per se, but it just isn’t effective. But then we get McCain taking a different angle. “It’s not about them, it’s about us, it’s about us. What we were, what we are, and what we should be.”
And this brings us back to that curveball your ethics professor threw you in that intro class: virtue ethics. Virtue ethics isn’t about broad generalizations abstracted from fantastic thought experiments, it’s about being a certain kind of person. Furthermore, virtue ethics is ancient. We find virtue-based forms of ethical inquiry in ancient Greece and China. It’s not a product of our rationality-as-detachment fetishizing European Enlightenment ideals. But if John McCain is to be our exemplar of virtue in this story, allowing us to get past Kant’s esoteric abstraction and utilitarianism’s bloodless cost-benefit analysis, then we are still left with a hint of dissatisfaction. For McCain’s plea remains entrenched in an us-and-them orientalist dichotomy. It’s not about them, he tells us. It’s about us. About what kind of people we are as a nation, and who we ought to be. Surely, this emphasis is preferable to Cheney’s flat-footed table pounding. But it remains part of an elaborate way of constructing our own (national) identity, and thus as a way of having power over “the other” – i.e., whoever ends up at the opposite conceptual pole. It continues to efface the suffering of those on the painful end of America’s Middle Eastern footprint. And thus even as we recoil from the horror of torture, we do so because of what it does to us, rather than what it does to the one tortured. The Arab remains a mere conceptual placeholder, a site of pure possibility, a figure seen through the scope of a sniper rifle, a writhing body being water-boarded. And where is the real suffering located? Right here at home. The “torture debate,” the ticking time bomb scenario, and popular depictions of the war on terror are connected by a common thread: it’s not about them, it’s about us.