Torture Porn 

Here's to the pseudoliterate Puritans of the U.S. of A.

If you want to get through to the American public, don't put it in words -- put it in pictures. And if you really want the average American to perk up and pay attention, make the pictures about sex. From Janet Jackson's nipple to Iraqi prisoners' penises, nothing does it for us like sex.

For two years now, organizations like Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been telling us that George Bush's imperial drones have been abusing prisoners beyond the limits of the Geneva Conventions. These organizations have long warned that prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo are being humiliated, tortured, and (in some suspect cases) murdered in the name of the war on terror.

The ICRC has issued regular press releases for the past two years about prisoners being deprived of sleep for days, made to endure extremes of cold and heat, exposed to near-drowning, and tied up and forced to contort themselves for hours in positions of agony -- all of which adds up to torture by anybody's standards except, perhaps, those of Donald Rumsfeld.

And for two years, Mr. and Mrs. America have paid no attention. You see, like pre-literate 3-year-olds, Americans need to see the pictures to understand the story.

America's newspapers and magazines now know their proper role in the media arena: Their role is to tell Tom Brokaw, CNN, and Fox what pictures to show, so at least some small bit of the news can actually get through to the American public. Thank you, Seymour Hersh. Thank you, The New Yorker. Nobody reads what you have to say, but hell, if you can direct Peter Jennings and Bill O'Reilly to the pictures -- especially if they're pictures of piles of naked people with, ooh la la, leering young women in the foreground -- we'll sure as heck look at those.

Because Americans don't read. And we love both sex and the shame it makes us feel.

My guess is, if the only pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib had shown fully clothed prisoners being threatened by attack dogs or electrodes, the American public would have shrugged the whole thing off by now. But bring sex into those pictures, and we suddenly weep and gnash our teeth in self-loathing. There's nothing a Puritan loves better than to beat himself up over sex.

What else can you expect from a nation that, on the one hand, has made Internet sex sites the biggest industry on the Web and, on the other, falls into a red-faced faint over JJ's Superbowl boob?

So perhaps that's the real reason for our "outrage" over what happened at Abu Ghraib prison: We hate ourselves for loving torture porn. For the American public, what happened in Abu Ghraib is really a sex scandal. You watch: When the pictures of grinning young women in uniform and naked young men in bondage stop coming out, and the story is merely about suffocation, electrocution, and other forms of individualized terror, the American public will turn their attention somewhere else.

If it's not in pictures and it's not about sex, we just don't care.

Are other prisoners, in other places we don't know about, being tortured by Americans or their proxies? Most Americans will never know, even if Hersh tries to tell us. We can only hope that among the soldiers and intelligence agents "debriefing" those poor souls are a few with their own digital cameras. n

Ed Weathers writes occasionally for the Flyer Web site, MemphisFlyer.com, where a fuller version of this essay is posted.

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