Volume 73, Number 4 | May 26 - June 1, 2004

Talking Point

Sorrow and shame: Has America produced a generation of torturers?

By Andrei Codrescu

Has Internet porn turned the United States into an S&M chamber of horrors?

Have we finally been media-tized to a point where we can’t tell real torture from playacting? The images from prisoner-torture in Iraq look like sadomasochistic porn, but they are not. Real people are suffering in them. The torturers are not some rogue sadists who slipped somehow past psychological profiling to get into the Army; they are American kids who’ve seen their required share of violent movies and porn, the same kids who like to binge drink at frat parties, the same kids who occasionally kill somebody during hazing at their school.

These kids are my students — not literally — but they could be. Since the beginning of these new wars, I’ve been looking at my students with new eyes, and new respect. The 19-year-old in the R.O.T.C. uniform who only yesterday mumbled his way through an oral examination in my class might be killed next week. I feel both compassion and worry for these kids.

Some of them are already veterans and have returned to class looking very much the same on the outside. For us at home, only a year has passed: for them, an eternity. I don’t know what goes on behind their still-untroubled-looking eyes, except one thing: Experience — of the kind that humanity has endured and expressed with anguish forever — the subject of much of the literature they are studying.

What is also clear now is that these kids have vast knowledge beyond this literature: Hollywood superheroes for whom mere moral questions are a trifle as they slash and burn everybody in their path, Internet porn that treats human beings like toys in games of power, and video games that give the player endless license in dealing with the enemy. These things are also my students’ culture, a culture a hell of a lot more lively than the plodding texts of authors still asking ethical and human questions.

Despite all this, I think that my students know the difference between right and wrong, and few of them are unable to distinguish between reality and fiction. It would be all too easy to blame the increasing quantity of stupefying junk for the sadism of our torturers in Iraq, but the truth of the matter is that abuse and torture of prisoners is as old as warfare itself. And it would be granstanding for me to say that this is not the America I came to as a refugee from a totalitarian regime, because I came to America in the mid-’60s and I remember the massacre at Mai Lai.

There are many Americas: there is the America of Jimmy Carter’s human rights, and then there is Lt. Calley’s America. What is new is the ease of documenting such crimes, and with this ease, the realization that this sort of thing can no longer go on. Nor should the murderous carelessness pouring out of the sewers of so-called “entertainment.” That much unethical matter is bound to have a stupefying, as well as a dehumanizing effect. But there is no longer any place to hide inhumanity: our technology is compelling us into the light. I like to think that my kids are still sane and capable not only of feeling shame, but knowing as well what they feel shame about, and also that they are on display — permanently.

Codrescu is a writer. His new book is “Wakefield,” a novel.



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