The Rhetoric of Torture, Expanded

by Jennifer Ballengee, Towson University

On May 7, 2004, the American businessman Nick Berg was beheaded on camera, in a video that immediately ran the circuit of the internet. The violent performance was the first of eleven videos of beheadings filmed and disseminated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi between September 20 and October 7, 2004. Overtly framing Berg’s beheading as a response to the torture and abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners by American soldiers, Zarqawi dressed Berg in an orange jumpsuit identical to those worn by the abused prisoners; the video ended with a speech in which more such deaths were threatened, in retribution for the disrespect and spilled blood of those who were mistreated in the Abu Ghraib prison.The Wound and the Witness
Although Zarqawi was publicly reprimanded by Al Qaeda and a number of Islamic scholars for the videos, the practice has recently been resurrected by the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS–also known as the Islamic State in the Levant, or ISIL), beginning with the graphic video depicting the murder of American journalist James Foley. Though the ISIS films are clearly echoing these earlier videos, the rhetorical situation in this most recent case differs in critical ways that bear examination.
There are significant differences between the 2004 videos and those being disseminated today: instead of the grainy footage and shaky hand-held camera work of the Zarqawi’s videos, these newer films feature clearer images, more complicated camera work (utilizing close-ups, pans, and sometimes multiple cameras), and sophisticated editing redolent of Hollywood action movies. Perhaps most importantly, speeches that accompany the beheadings in the ISIS films are delivered in English, clearly addressing an intended audience that is English-speaking.
Along with videos of beheadings, ISIS has been regularly producing a number of short films depicting mass executions, beatings, and explosive violence. In one such video, ISIS fighters take over an oil field, the camera cutting from running bodies to exploding buildings, as in any blockbuster action film. At the end of the film, the victorious fighters gather grinning widely, forefingers jabbing at the sky, laughing and shouting, “With the help of God almighty, we freed the power plant from the evil Bashar al-Assad Now we go to his headquarters. We’re coming to get you, Bashar!”1 Offering with their energized depictions of violence and victory the promise of more bloodshed, the films are being increasingly utilized for the recruitment of Westerners to the cause of ISIS. One of the most recent videos features French ISIS fighters burning their passports, urging attacks in France.

It is sometimes said that academic work is not relevant to contemporary understandings. Jennifer Ballengee’s work on torture is one of many examples of relevance. –ed.

Bypassing Al Jazeera or any other news outlet, the films go straight to blogs and social media2. In the films depicting the beheading of Foley and other kidnap victims held by ISIS, the prisoners wear the same orange jumpsuit, drawing a visual connection between the new films, the former videos, and, by extension, the abuses at Abu Ghraib that supposedly prompted the first the beheadings staged by Zarqawi.
The attack by ISIS on Abu Ghraib of July 2013, in which about 500 prisoners were freed (many of whom then joined forces with the Islamic State fighters), draws that connection even closer. It is now well known that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, was imprisoned for some time at Camp Bucca, another Iraqi prison run by the U.S. during the Iraq War. By means of that connection, ISIS frames its actions as serving the cause of vengeance and retribution. The video of the Foley execution, for example, pinned the blame for the action directly upon the US airstrikes upon Kurdistan that began in August 2014. (In response to the execution, the US vowed to increase airstrikes.) Likewise, ISIS is now apparently using video footage of the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, which followed the Grand Jury decision on November 24, 2014, to reach out to potential American recruits; tweets that urge the cause of ISIS encourage increasing violence, at times invoking via images and words the memory of the Muslim Malcolm X.
Back in 2008 I voiced concern in my book The Wound and the Witness: The Rhetoric of Torture that the introduction of torture into political rhetoric could introduce a ripple effect difficult to control. As I argue there, “the representation of the body in pain produces a polysemy that is difficult to delimit.3” Predictably, America’s stance on torture under the Bush-Cheney regime and the accompanying debate about torture’s definition, use, and viability resulted in a surge of references to and representations of torture–particularly waterboarding–in the news media, in television and film, and in the political rhetoric leading up to the 2008 presidential election. As the orange jumpsuits in the ISIS execution videos attest, that torture remains part of the rhetorical narrative of today’s events, both in front of the cameras and in the secret prisons run by ISIS. An October 26, 2014, New York Times piece describing the treatment of Foley and other kidnap victims noted that torture, including waterboarding, was a regular part of the treatment of those hostages4. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the U.N. have all reported that ISIS is using waterboarding and other techniques to torture prisoners.
The brutality of the ISIS beheading videos communicates more than the violent moment of decapitation; the films, in their depiction of rage and retribution, suggest a range of violent abuses of the prisoner that preceded the moment of death; and they seem to promise to the recruits they hope to persuade a wealth of violence to follow. Public executions such as these, the philosopher Michel Foucault argued, once served the general rhetorical purpose of inscribing the power of the sovereign upon the bodies of those executed 5. Yet, in a harrowingly postmodern manner, the message communicated by the ISIS beheadings far exceeds any clear boundaries.
The public sphere is no longer restricted to the presence of actual people in a central city square. These days the public sphere has moved from a specific arena of personal interaction to a virtual space, whose lack of boundaries and proliferation of data is dominated by the “image event”: an image whose popularity and iconic status allow it to function metonymically, in a kind of visual shorthand that stands in for much more complex phenomena6. Moreover the hybridity of ISIS, which combines conventional military and political strategy with terrorist methods, and whose religious designation of “caliphate” means it is not defined by geographic boundaries, makes it far from the sovereign figure that Foucault had in mind. The result of these factors is a rhetorical situation whose boundaries are undefined and expansive; the message emanating from this source thus has a viral potential. The “torture debates” that raged during the Iraq War primarily focused on the question of whether or not torture could or should be used to elicit intelligence information that might prevent the massive loss of lives7. The ISIS videos, on the other hand, present torture as a given aspect of the fight, not necessarily oriented toward any testimony or information at all, but rather part of a general rhetoric of violence itself, in all of its seductive, exciting, and destructive possibility. The result is a rhetorical message whose force is strengthened by its amorphously expansive possibility: rather than writing the power of the sovereign on the body, ISIS has built a narrative arc that ends with a mutilated body whose inhumanly violent end posits an explosive range of rhetorical possibilities.

1. Frontline, PBS, October 28, 2014.
2. Indeed, ISIS isn’t alone in this practice; as Mia Bloom noted in an August Washington Post article, a number of individuals have taken the initiative to make their own videos of the beheadings, or of themselves holding the severed heads after a beheading. The decision made by Facebook a little over a year ago to allow such films on the site (as long as the actions are condemned and not glorified) speaks to the fact that these are not isolated or rare postings. The Washington Post, August 22, 2014: Retrieved 11/25/2014.
3. pg. 134 (NY: SUNY Press, 2008).
“The Horror Before the Beheadings,” Rukmini Callimachi, NYTimes, October 26, 2014 (A1 and A14-15).
Discipline and Punish (NY: Vintage Books, 1979), see esp. pp. 3-69.
5. On the correlation of the “image event” and the proliferation of media, see Kevin Michael DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle,” in Readings on the Rhetoric of Social Protest, 2nd ed. (ed. Charles E. Morris III and Stephen Howard Browne, State College, PA: Strata Publishing, 2006 [244-265]).
4. Alan Dershowitz’s recent editorial in the Boston Globe (September 18, 2014) takes a stab at reigniting this question in the current context.

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