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"The Face of the Other" at Abu Ghraib


By: Maria Prudente


Americans, too, have done and do them [acts of torture] when they are told, or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented. They do them when they are led to believe that the people they are torturing belong to an inferior race or religion. The meaning of these pictures is not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators apparently had no sense that there was anything wrong in what the pictures show.

- Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” The New York Times

Outraged by George Bush’s re-election in 2004, my brother, Dominic, and his college roommate, Neil, attended a peaceful protest in Washington, DC. Neil threw a snowball in the direction of the White House, and both boys were subsequently tackled to the ground and pepper-sprayed by riot police. Neil was thrown into an unmarked van and driven away while my brother was left behind. My family felt the reaction was unwarranted and unjust, but the opinions from my high school freshman friends at the lunch table the next day unsurprisingly bordered on pitiless: the boys got what was coming to them. Many people in my hometown of Charlottesville romanticized Bush and supported his war on terror but, by the time of his re-election, had embraced the rising violent ethos of America. In the south, there was no space to question the climate of fear or to object to the idolatry of US troops or to the Confederate flags that hung from some rear-view mirrors. In our country, we learned to change the channel from news of civilian casualties in Fallujah or Baghdad to American Idol without concern.


Photos of torture from Abu Ghraib contain no sounds, but the bodies scream and cry for mercy.

In the same year of 2004, when Judith Butler published Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, The Economist forced Americans to shift focus from Us Weekly to their cover picture of a hooded man imprisoned at Abu Ghraib: an abhorrent reality. We remember the image: a hooded man, standing on a box with outstretched arms with electric hooks attached to his fingers. We collectively wondered who would do this to another individual and, more pressing, who was the face beneath the mask?

In Precarious Life, Butler analyzes Levinas’ “possible Jewish ethic of non-violence” to explain humanity and vulnerability of the self as it relates to the Other. She specifically characterizes the Levinasian ethical imperative of the ‘face’ as “the notion that others make moral claims upon us, addresses moral demands to us, ones that we do not ask for, ones that we are not free to refuse.” The ‘face’ is what Levinas believes makes us human; it is the “most basic mode of responsibility.” If recognition of the Other’s ‘face’ is the locus of moral obligation and the imperative “thou shalt not kill,” then wouldn’t these ethical concepts of love for the Other have sufficed to prevent the torture at Abu Ghraib?


Levinasian ethics could teach soldiers that the “face” of the Other is more than the physical representation because it is ontological and therefore inescapable.

My ethical relation of love for the other stems from the fact that the self cannot survive by itself alone, cannot find meaning within its own being-in-the-world…to expose myself to the vulnerability of the face is to put my ontological right to existence into question. In ethics, the other’s right to exist has primacy over my own, a primacy epitomized in the ethical edict: you shall not kill, you shall not jeopardize the life of the other. -Levinas


During the Iraq War, the lines softened between what is a crime in war and what is not. The Abu Ghraib prison was first turned into a US military detention center in 2003 and used to house captured Iraqis, many of whom were beaten, raped, and killed. In the Code of Conduct for US Fighting Force (1955), there is no mention of how a soldier should treat a prisoner but only how to self-preserve when captured. This code of ethics directly opposes Levinas’ idea that the “other’s right,” or that of an Iraqi prisoner, has “primacy” over the life of an American soldier. The mandate “Thou shalt not kill” inscribed on the ‘face’ serves as a reminder that there is life between the Self and the ‘face’ of the Other. But how would a soldier, trained only to kill, respond to this prohibition? Butler wants language to understand the demands of the ‘face.’ How do we know the Other is telling us not to kill when it does not speak? If a soldier's superior encourages him to interrogate detainees who may have intelligence of chemical weapons that threaten mass violence and murder, what will stop him from going too far? Butler writes that the root to understanding the demands of the ‘face’ is “to understand its meaning... to be awake to what is precarious in another life, or rather, the precariousness of life itself”. If the soldiers had understood the precarity of the prisoners’ lives in Abu Ghraib, would the rules of interrogation have evolved differently?


In our country, we learned to change the channel from news of civilian casualties in Fallujah or Baghdad to American Idol without concern.

To identify the ‘face,’ Levinas tells us it is not seen in its physical incarnation that might include a mouth, nose, and eyes; in fact, it is not exclusively human but rather a presence of “the human back, the craning of the neck, the raising of the shoulder blades.” Because the ‘face’ does not contain a throat, Butler attributes sound to it through the visuals: the vulnerability of the human body “agonized, suffering.” Photos of torture from Abu Ghraib contain no sounds, but the bodies scream and cry for mercy. The limp head and legs of a man with a leash around his neck, the contorted legs and dirty feet of naked men stacked in a pyramid on the floor, or the spine hunched forward to reveal bloody wounds on a man’s buttocks used for target practice. The soldiers in the photos smile wide enough to reveal their dimples, some giving a thumbs-up beside a corpse of a prisoner or smiling as they attempt to suture the bloody wound of a detainee left unconscious after a beating.

If recognition of the Other’s ‘face’ is the locus of moral obligation and the imperative “thou shalt not kill,” then wouldn’t these ethical concepts of love for the Other have sufficed to prevent the torture at Abu Ghraib?

“The face of the other in its precariousness and defenselessness is for me at once the temptation to kill and the call to peace; the “You shall not kill." Butler writes of the disarming aspect of Levinas’ claim that the vulnerability of the ‘face’ can drive the Self to kill. One has to wonder how so many soldiers participated in torturing prisoners yet later expressed their trepidations in carrying out those actions. What if the desire to inflict pain comes from within the individual, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way? Butler writes, “the non-violence Levinas seems to promote does not come from a peaceful place, but rather from a constant tension between the fear of undergoing violence and fear of inflicting violence.” We are familiar with the idea of being afraid of undergoing violence, but it is an altogether provocative notion that we fear committing violence. The soldiers’ behavior does not reflect Levinas’ claim that “the other’s right to exist has primacy” over their own; in fact, there is a sense of wild desire to take the torture further. Were the soldiers in Abu Ghraib tempted by the “precariousness and defenselessness” of the detainees and driven to torture them? What was keeping them from killing everyone that they mercilessly tortured?


We remember the image: a hooded man, standing on a box with outstretched arms with electric hooks attached to his fingers.

Butler suggests an answer, that there is a voice emanating from the ‘face’ of the Other or, perhaps, resonating inside of the Self. It is “God’s voice,” the only voice that is both non-human and human, as once spoken through Moses, a voice that says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Could a soldier differentiate the inner voice that drives him as his own as opposed to the voice of a divine being? Think of the figure of the hooded man with his outstretched arms that mirrored the sign of the cross. Is that evidence that the soldier hears the voice of the divine being? Does the non-human voice tell the soldier that he shouldn’t chain a man to a bed upside down, but the human voice tells him that it’s thrilling to watch someone asphyxiate? Does he hear both voices but listen to only one?


Does the hood serve not only to hide the “face” but also to mute the voice of the other? The photos of tortured victims at Abu Ghraib expose bodies bruised and bloodied while their faces are covered by a hood or otherwise obscured. Prisoners expressed that the reason the soldiers covered their faces with hoods was so that they could not identify who was torturing them. I have to wonder who the soldier was really protecting by doing this. Was this the soldiers’ way of dealing with the fear of “inflicting” violence, or was this a way to erase the “face” of the other?


In the south, there was no space to question the climate of fear or to object to the idolatry of US troops or to the Confederate flags that hung from some rear-view mirrors.