One day recently I found myself in a warehouse soundstage in downtown Los Angeles, trapped briefly in a faithful replication of an Abu Ghraib cell. There may not have been a better place to contemplate the entangled questions of art, life, and violence.
I was in town mainly for the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. But the day after my panel, I stopped by the set where director Errol Morris (a friend and colleague) was completing his first new film since the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. This as-yet-untitled documentary is a study of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The set designers had constructed a photographically precise representation of the Abu Ghraib cell block in which the famous prisoner-on-a-dog-leash, naked-human-pyramid pictures were taken.
I was inspecting the interior of one of the narrow, darkened cells on the set, and—for a few moments, anyway—escape was impossible. Outside the cell, the prop department had been applying a blowtorch flame to a realistic-looking mortar shell covered in a flammable glue mixture, and then dropped the smoking canister onto the concrete floor of the simulated prison corridor a few feet away. (The prison often took mortar fire during the time of the abuse within.)
The whole scene certainly gave one cause to think about violence and the complexities of its replication. During a break, Errol speculated, for instance, that if it hadn't been for the desire to turn torture and humiliation into media, into digital-camera "entertainment," into visual spectacle for the perpetrators' private enjoyment, the scandal may never have come to light—or never would have had the worldwide impact it did. (The human-pyramid picture, he said, was reputedly a "birthday present" for Abu Ghraib's dog-leash-wielding icon, Lynndie England).
And in that regard, I'd just been reading the galleys of the remarkable investigative account of Abu Ghraib by my friend Tara McKelvey ( Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War). In addition to documenting the fact that the photographs were just the tip of an iceberg—a concerted system of abuse run wild—the book features a fascinating chapter about the media scandal caused by the "man on the box" photo: the scarily gothic image of a hooded figure dripping electrical wires while standing on a crate in Abu Ghraib. Indeed, there was a replica of that crate (stenciled "Meals Ready To Eat—Individual") in the corridor outside "my" cell.
Did it matter if—as it turned out—there were two people claiming to be the hooded (thus faceless) man in the famous photograph? A man interviewed by the New York Times who claimed to be the one in the photograph turned out not to be, even though he apparently had been subjected to the same hooded, electrical-wire treatment.
Although media critics seized on this misidentification, isn't it more important, as the McKelvey book suggests, that it happened at all to anyone—and doubly important that it happened to more than one detainee? Or is the lesson that if your torture is not photographed, it's like the tree that falls in a forest?
Anyway, aside from the Arabic words scrawled on the walls and what looked like simulated blood spatters, the cell itself was no worse than other prison cells I've been inside, in San Quentin, Calif.; Huntsville, Texas; and Starke, Fla., say. (I mean as a reporter, thank you.)
What made Abu Ghraib different, as McKelvey's complex and chilling account makes clear, is mostly what went on outside the cells, unphotographed in the interrogation rooms, in the corridors, in the pervasive atmosphere of executive-branch-approved anything-goes violence inflicted on detainees who (according to government reports) were largely innocent of the insurgent involvement for which they were being tortured. It is probably true, as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in an astute piece on the famous photos, that their wide circulation eventually helped accustom Americans to the idea of torture. But McKelvey's account made me wonder how Americans would have responded if the unphotographed abuse had in fact been equally accessible visually.
Feeling trapped even momentarily, even in a simulacrum of such a site, led to my considering a theory I had about another convergence of violence and the media's representation thereof. I'd been trying to puzzle out that strange Sopranos moment, in Episode 3 of the new season, the one that aired less than a week after the Virginia Tech massacre, the one that featured "Carter Chong," a mentally troubled young Asian tech student (MIT) who befriends and then rejects Soprano mobster Uncle Junior and then attacks the aging gangster in a violent rampage.
What was that all about? Obviously the Sopranos episode was filmed months before the Virginia Tech killing spree. So it was clearly a coincidence, but what a coincidence. It caused me to revisit the issues raised when the videos made by Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer, came to light: Do such images help us understand the roots of violence? Or do they rather perpetuate violence and encourage copycats who murder to promote their images of themselves? I've found myself arguing both sides of the question in my head—without any resolution.
At first I thought the episode might be a form of subconscious anti-Asian prejudice on the part of The Sopranos, some old, buried Orientalist narrative of "inscrutability" combined with some contemporary stereotype of Asian youth in America.
These troubling racial overtones perhaps explain why the mainstream media seemed relatively silent about this weird, extremely touchy juxtaposition of violent American tragedy and violent American entertainment, even as the blogosphere and the chat boards were rife with references to the coincidence.