Monday, 13 October 2008

How Torture Became Culturally Acceptable in the UK

You may have heard about the recent advertisement that the BBC pulled after numerous complaints. In the UK you have to buy a TV licence every year, it costs £139 (€187; US$265). This money goes to fund the state-run television organisation the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) which now has six television channels and about ten radio channels. The fine for not paying it is £1000 (€1260; US$1780) and if you do not pay that then you get sent to prison. The number of people being imprisoned (usually women are heavily over-represented for this crime) has been falling, in 1996 it was 157 people; in 2000, 20 people, though there were fines and community service orders instead. In 2001 almost 400,000 people were prosecuted for not paying their television licence, but I guess the bulk paid up because the previous year only 2,149 reached court. In the mid-1990s however, more women were imprisoned for not paying this licence than for theft, prostitution, fraud and forgery, attacking people physically, burglary and robbery or drunkenness, so it is a gender-specific crime. Men are more likely to continue defaulting on their payments but eight times less likely to be imprisoned than women. This may say something about how courts perceive the two sexes, and to some degree that in general women are less likely to commit any crime than men are. With various forms of watching television now available there is mass confusion: do a I need a licence if I watch on my computer or my mobile phone? The licence is a state fee so even if you do not watch the BBC channels you still have to pay.

Anyway, people are being fined and imprisoned for not paying their licences and the BBC is effective at catching them. However, this does not seem enough. They feel the need to terrify people into paying the fee and this is where the advertisements came from. They were introduced in April 2008 and faced immediate criticism. They have been likened to scenes from 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' saying that they know where you live, who you are, etc. This is a standard tactic of government departments in advertising, another regular example comes from the so-called Driver Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA).

The most alarming BBC advert featured the consequences of being imprisoned for not paying a TV licence, showing a man in prison and screams coming from a shower block with the tagline that detector vans can always find you watching an unlicenced television and implied that you could also be found in prison. The clear implication is that the prisoner is being raped in the shower block. The BBC admitted it had gone too far with this advertisement but felt that its softer approach in the past had not been successful. Prisons are violent, dangerous places the world over, people are raped in them, but it seems disgraceful that the threat of this should be used to get people to pay a £139 fee. Why does the BBC not cut out the middle man and simply have a van full of rapists which it drives round to the house of any defaulter and lets them in on the defaulter as a punishment rather than go through all the difficulty of sending them to court? Why is homosexual rape more tolerable for prime-time television than heterosexual rape or lesbian rape which is much more likely to be the case given the profile of those imprisoned for not paying?

The only real complaint about the campaign that attracted attention came from the very avuncular presenter Noel Edmonds who worked for the BBC for thirty years and now is on Channel 4. In September he said that he was going to stop paying his TV licence in protest at the heavy-handed approach that the BBC was adopting in its adverts. What is shocking is that there was not more widespread protest and from presenters with gravitas. Perhaps they are fearful of possible treatment from the BBC. How has it happened that the broadcasting corporation whose 'mission' (and it is on their website) is to 'Inform, Educate and Entertain', not to 'Terrify, Arrest and Punish'? I suppose this is part of the 'permissive atmosphere' that you find in authoritarian states. It does not need the dictator to say that various state bodies should act in a certain way, it just needs him to signal that he will do nothing to hinder them if they do. With the Blarite steps towards authoritarianism, this 'permissive atmosphere' has appeared and so state bodies now feel free to try to terrify people into compliance.

This incident got me thinking about how acceptable torture has now become in everyday culture. The BBC advert went out at prime-time which means that children, certainly teenagers would see it. How would you like to explain to a 13-year old or an 8-year old why that man is screaming? Yet, to the BBC supposedly a cornerstone of British culture, it is acceptable. This is because torture has become acceptable. People talk about how television and computer games have made violence commonplace, not something that I accept, but I do agree they can raise our tolerance for such things. The focus is always on the violence by the individual but in fact it works even more effectively for violence by the state. All of this stepped up in 2001 following the 11th September attacks in the USA. This was the excuse the US government had been waiting for and seemed to allow them to do anything now to counter their perceived enemies. It is ironic that in the 1970s the USA led the way in criticising the USSR for its human rights record and in the 1990s, China. Yet in the 2000s the USA has led the way in eroding human rights, snatching people from across the World to be tried under their jurisdiction (well in fact, that legal black hole which is Guantanamo Bay). We had not seen anything like this since the 1960s when Israeli snatch squads roamed the World seeking out former Nazis to abduct and take to Israel for trial. At least in the case of the Israelis generally they had loads of evidence against the people they took, the Americans do not even have this which is why so many of these prisoners have been held for so long and have to be tortured to get anything that will stand up in court.

The 'permissive atmosphere' was very apparent in the Iraq War of 2003 especially the Abu Gharib prison torture. It is clear that ordinary soldiers felt it was acceptable to torture prisoners. In common with torturers from the past notably Germans and paramilitary units of their allies, they were happy to be photographed carrying out these acts. No-one on the ground in Iraq questioned this behaviour; there were no moral questions about it despite the USA very loudly proclaiming itself a Christian country. The Iraqis (like the Vietnamese thirty years earlier) had been so de-humanised in the eyes of the average American, that treatment of them no longer fell within the bounds of what is acceptable for a human. These American soldiers no longer saw their prisoners as human beings, just objects to be abused. This happened in Vietnam too where the Vietnamese became 'Charlie' or 'VCs' not people. The atrocity of My Lai is well known (but too rarely mentioned these days) and it is becoming clear US soldiers in Vietnam were committing other atrocities, the activities of the so-called Tiger Force in the Vietnamese highlands in 1967 came to light in 2003. Quotes from former members of the unit were similar to these days: 'I knew it was wrong, but it was an acceptable practice.' and 'If they ran we shot them, and if they didn't run we shot them anyway.' This unit alone slaughtered hundreds of civilians and I am sure there are many others that will never be revealed. Knowing this is often the standard behaviour of their troops, in 2003 they sought exemption for all US troops from any war crimes charges, the only country in the World that would have been permitted this. Even though they did not get it, the arrogance of such a demand is alarming.

The USA may feel its troops have a right to commit war crimes and carry out torture if they choose, but the rest of the World generally seems to accept this. The focus in the UK seemed to skip past any concern about what was being done at Abu Gharib and instead focus on whether Lynndie England one of the soldiers photographed carrying out torture was a lesbian and so was asserting female control over men which she then sought to publicise across the internet as some sort of threat to male hegemony. How had the focus shifted from 'US troops carrying out torture' to 'lesbian challenging men through torture'? Given that she was pregnant by the time of her trial there might be questions about her sexuality. People seem happy to accept that torture was going on and somehow were more upset at frivolous explanations for the uses it was put to. This is as appalling as the 'causal nexus' explanation for the Holocaust carried out by the Germans in the Second World War, i.e. blaming Stalin's massacres for provoking Hitler's. Both were simply evil men who wanted to kill, there is no need to find a connection.

The reason why people could allow such attitudes without questioning the basic wrongness of torture I believe is because popular culture has shifted us this way. Torture features in serious, if popular television series. I am sure there are many I could mention but many I have not seen. I did watch 'La Femme Nikita' TV series (1996-2000) and in that torture was a weekly occurrence for a sinister US organisation. One week an agent happened to run into an old girlfriend while on a mission and so was routinely tortured by his own side to find out if he had given away anything. Psychological and physical torture were a weekly part of this series. Torture also appeared in another spy series 'Alias' (2002-06), though in less quantity. There was a sense that it gave these series 'edge'. The series 'Lost' (2004-10) also featured abductions, mental and physical torture. One of the lead characters is a former torturer from Iraq and the characters 'The Others' accept torture as a normal way to defend themselves, directed by their charismatic leader. They even blame the heroes of the series for 'making' them use torture. This has parallels with the USA's attitude especially to the Iraqi population, there are parallels to Vietnam too. I imagine these are deliberate on the part of the writers. A UK one is 'Spooks' supposedly an authentic series about the work of Britain's Security Service commonly known as MI5. It started in 2002 and has now run for seven series and does not look likely to come to an end, partly as the cast keeps on being renewed as individual characters are killed. This tries a very British approach on the counter-espionage/terrorist role and shows that even the UK's allies and leading people in the UK cannot be trusted. However, again torture both mental and physical is used. If this is going on in British prisons for real, then there are a lot of UK officials who should be hauled in front of war crimes tribunals too.

All of these series have had high viewing figures both in the USA and the UK and I imagine other parts of the World. They show torture as being something necessary and generally having to be used as a weapon in the war against even more evil people. I know moral ambivalence is 'sexy' these days and is probably an accurate reflection of where people stand, but it does push on the acceptance of such behaviour in real life, especially when in the context of 'them' and 'us' which our governments have been pushing hard right through the 2000s. It also encourages us to think the way that people did in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR, not to be concerned if a neighbour or even a family member is arrested, clearly they are wrong and dangerous. Our popular culture is teaching us how to live in an authoritarian state without complaining; to accept that whatever is done however horrific because it is 'necessary' for our 'safety'. You need to remember that the organisation that ran the Terror of the French Revolution was the Committee of Public Safety.

So, I suppose we should not be surprised, if by now, after years of such popular and state propaganda, that the BBC feel it is alright to use such imagery and such threats to encourage people to pay a £139 fee. The question is, given how so few people raise any questions about such methods, how far do we go with the next step?

P.P. 18/11/2008: I had forgotten two more popular television programmes which contributed to the 'normalisation' of torture in the British media. The first was the inclusion of scenes from the Japanese television programme, 'Endurance' in which contestants were voluntarily tortured in a number of ways including sleep deprivation, prevention of urinating, bloating with food, deprivation of food, beating, exposure to creatures such as insects and reptiles often to the face (in actions reminiscent of scenes in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four') and so on. This was shown every week on 'Tarrant on TV' (began in 1992 and still running), certainly in the 1990s, I have not seen it for years. In some ways it was a racist feature inviting the audience to laugh at Japanese behaviour but also it made torture seem something comic rather than alarming. Many of the elements of 'Endurance' particularly exposure to creatures to the face and being forced to eat unpleasant things is a core element of 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' which has been running each year since 2001 with this year's series being watched by nearly 9 million people. Possibly even worse than featuring torture in drama, having it in so-called 'reality' shows makes it seem very normal, and almost to be expected.

P.P. - 05/04/2009: It is interesting that this past week the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, a permanent committee made up of MPs from all parties will begin examining the allegations that have come to light over the past two years about British involvement in torture, especially in connection with the war in Afghanistan and action by the Pakistani Internal Services Intelligence body ISI and the US Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay to which prisoners from Afghanistan and Iraq have been flown and held without charge and tortured. In addition, there is the particular case of Binyam Mohamed and other British complicity in torture. Both MI5 (the UK's internal Security Service) and Greater Manchester police have admitted involvement in this torture already.

The fact that a civilian British police force has been involved is even more alarming. I know the Greater Manchester Constabulary have been dangerously odd since the days of Sir James Anderton (nicknamed 'God's cop' for his fundamentalist proclamations) as its Chief Constable (1976-91) and his outrageous statements about purging the city on a kind of religious basis that harks back to the witchfinders of the 17th century. The committee will also investigate the use of British Dependent Territory Diego Garcia for rendition (i.e. kidnap) flights to the USA, oversight of private security companies (i.e. mercenaries) employed by the Foreign and Commowealth Office and incredibly sexual abuse at the British embassy in Baghdad. It is apparent civil service standards deteriorated so far as to be like those of some third rate dictatorship not that of a supposedly leading democracy in the world.

In such a culture of self-righteousness of course torture will be seen as acceptable. I doubt the select committee, whose members are chosen by the prime minister of people previously involved with MI5 or MI6, will probe too deeply, at least some evidence of the shameful behaviour of British bodies is coming to light and makes ridiculous any attempt to portray the UK as a bastion of human rights. Rangzieb Ahmed arrived in the UK having been tortured by the ISI with three of his fingernails missing, so this torture that the UK is supporting is of the most medieval kind. It is sickening.

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