In think Phillips brought up some important questions in the opening pages of his book. Thus far, we have focused largely on photographs and their efficacy, or possible lack thereof, in preventing violence. As Sontag concludes and as we discussed on Thursday, such excessive analysis of photographs creates distance and can be problematic in that people begin to obsess over the photographs themselves instead of acknowledging the actual content of the photographs, a far more challenging task. Photographs serve a function in so far as they can make things “real,” as Sontag discusses regarding the Bush administration and the photos of Abu Ghraib. However, once photographs have brought such issues to light it is critical that we shift our focus from the photographs to the actual content they depict in order to make any sort of progress in understanding and preventing violence.
Phillips asks the important question of why American soldiers turned to torture. Moreover, what causes soldiers to deem torture acceptable in the context of war? In his introduction, Phillips briefly outlines various psychological studies that suggest that perfectly normal, moral human beings will engage in violent and abusive behavior under certain conditions. This is exemplified in Phillips book and the This American Life episode, both of which elucidate the transformative effects of war on soldiers. I also saw evidence of this in the Brody article when he discusses the labeling of Afghan prisoners as “enemy combatants” as opposed to soldiers, which one U.S. soldier expressed made him more comfortable with abusing detainees. When I read this I couldn’t help but wonder why this distinction made a difference. What circumstances led this soldier to reason that torturing soldiers was morally wrong, but torturing enemy combatants was justified? Phillips also briefly questions why torture is still permitted when most Americans oppose it and scientific evidence suggests that torture is a relatively ineffective means of obtaining information. Thus, it seems that lower level soldiers turn to torture more as the result of psychological turmoil than as an attempt to advance a political agenda.
When looking to understand torture from a political perspective, as Brody argues, it is critical to acknowledge the structural causes that have led to the acceptance of the use of torture. Criticizing the lower level individuals who actually carry out torture is relatively useless when we recognize this as a psychological phenomenon. As Phillips suggests, many individuals can be moved to abusive and cruel actions under unimaginably stressful circumstances. The real issue, then, is why individuals in higher positions of authority have approved such tactics. This is particularly critical to question, as Sontag points out, when our entire justification for using torture in the first place is the prevention of similar acts being taken against the U.S. It is difficult to declare to want to liberate Iraqis from oppressive situations when we ourselves our oppressing them. In other words, how can we possibly expect other countries to take seriously our claims that we want to liberate them by establishing governance rooted in virtues that we clearly lack ourselves?