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A Lecture on America’s History of Torture

Professor Kassem (left) and Professor Bayoumi discuss torture in American society. PHOTO/ @bklyncollege411 - Instagram
Professor Kassem (left) and Professor Bayoumi discuss torture in American society. PHOTO/ @bklyncollege411 – Instagram

By Jamilah Felix

Published: May 2nd, 2018

America has a history of torture and has glamorized the tactic for a long time, City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law Professor Ramzi Kassam and Brooklyn College English Professor Moustafa Bayoumi explained last Mon. April 23 at a lecture.           

The lecture “American Torture” was a part of the We Stand Against Hate series and was kicked off by Bayoumi spotlighting the critically acclaimed film Zero Dark Thirty and the popular drama 24. Bayoumi described Zero Dark Thirty as a film which “skated the line between Hollywood cinema and official propaganda.” He made a point to articulate that the research for the film was made available by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which puts the CIA in quite a powerful position when it comes to managing the content we consume.

Bayoumi credited television shows like 24 for the normalization of torture in American society. The show ran for nine successful seasons, accepted numerous awards, and spawned a movie.  Bayoumi also noted that the show’s literal ticking of the clock (to signify the 24 hours that the show takes place in are winding down) leads to a culture where torture is a necessity because there is no more time on the clock. Theoretically, there is nothing else heroes can do in this moment – but to torture, he explained.

The tagline for 24 on IMDB also supports this theory, as it is quoted as saying that “[Jack Bauer] races against the clock to subvert terrorist plots and save his nation from ultimate disaster.” It raises the question as to whether torture, which is illegal, has been/ is being used to glean information from enemies, or used as a tool.  Kassem explained that although torture has been declared illegal, both here and abroad, America has tweaked the descriptions of what constitutes “torture” by narrowing the definition and defining what they do as simple “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Kassem noted that the Office of Legal Counsel (under the Department of Justice) has “put out memos saying that it isn’t torture unless you are reaching the point of organ failure or death.” These memos aim to directly combat the universally accepted definition(s) of torture.

Bayoumi tasked the room to think about and understand the “continuities that exist from various administrations forward, so we don’t see the Trump administration as a rupture, but we understand its continuities from the past.” People in power like James Comey and Gina Haspel, who has recently been nominated to be the director of the CIA, are implicated in America’s history with torture. However, because previous administrations did not take the steps to go after those responsible for the torture being enacted in the past – which included people like Comey and Haspel – the Trump administration now has free reign to play with all of the torturous tools that previous administrations failed to clean up. Therefore, people like Haspel are able to run for powerful top spots where they will be able to wreak more damage without experiencing the repercussions.

While the room of students steadily digested this information,  Kassem closed out by reminding everyone that fifty percent of the electorate did not vote in the last election. This led to the electoral college voting in Trump – who is now having a field day reversing Obama’s attempts at ending torture in America. The minimum we can do is to stay engaged in our elections – local all the way to the top, understand what is being done with our tax dollars and hold the officials we’ve elected into offices accountable, Kassem said. He reminded the room that those overseas are the ones who will now be paying the price for our failure to keep Trump out of office. According to Kassem, people can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to what’s happening; the actions of Americans affect those far beyond our borders.

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