Unveiling the rhetoric of torture : Abu Ghraib and American national identity
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This dissertation is guided by three central questions: Why did the Abu Ghraib photographs fail to generate widespread opposition to the Iraq War among U.S. citizens? How did U.S. political leaders, news media, and entertainment media rhetorically manage the impact of the violence at Abu Ghraib? Finally, what can the tortures at Abu Ghraib tell us about commitment to national identity and justifications for violence? I argue that the primary rhetorical, ideological work of national violence against a foreign other is to create and protect national identification that deflects potential critique of national policy and discourages alternative allegiances (e.g., those of race and class). In support of this argument, I analyze four sets of texts surrounding the scandal. First, I analyze the Abu Ghraib photographs. These photographs, revealing torture of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops, posed a serious challenge to American national identity and the prevailing rationale for war: namely, that the U.S. would liberate Iraqis from a torturous dictator and the threat of terrorism. The remaining types of discourse, then, can be seen as rhetorical attempts at damage control, containing and softening the edges of the visual records of violence against an enemy Other. For example, the second set of discourses I examine contains the legal memoranda outlining U.S. "coercive interrogation practices" dating back to September 2001. I compare these documents to the political speeches made by public officials during the 2004 presidential campaign. These texts, I argue, provide insight into the Abu Ghraib scandal's political context and illustrate how the scandal was ultimately managed by the Bush administration as a matter of private authority and prerogative rather than public accountability. Third, I explore mainstream media reports concerning Abu Ghraib in order to come to a better understanding of how violence is framed for public consumption. And finally, I analyze depictions of the torture within the popular television series 24. Because 24's plotline deals with issues of torture and terrorist threat, I argue that it can help us better understand both the social climate in which the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged and our current climate in which torture is still very much an issue.