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Torture: Where Empathy Dies A Slow Death

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Roar writer Kenza Essalama on the relationship between empathy and torture in reaction to the film, The Mauritanian.

When was the last time you really, truly felt compassion for a complete stranger?

The rise of slacktivism and sensationalism has indubitably transformed the landscape of empathy, but to acknowledge this trajectory is a privilege. For most of us, the pain of others is a distant and fleeting feeling. It’s a headline, it’s a Tweet, it’s a graphic photo on your timeline, all disappearing the moment you hit refresh. We are living in an incredibly dangerous time of transience.

When I ask myself the question I posed at the start of this article, my mind is uncontrollably drawn to the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Recently, I watched The Mauritanian, a rather star-studded but undeniably hard-hitting adaptation of his life. Slahi was detained at Guantánamo Bay for 14 years without charge, subjected to horrific torture techniques on the unsubstantiated basis that he had a loose connection to the 9/11 attacks. For me, torture is the greatest assault on humanity in existence.

Over the course of two hours and nine minutes, The Mauritanian delves into the legal battle surrounding Slahi’s devastating case, interspersed with graphic re-enactments of his torture. It makes for a harrowing watch. However, what moved me the most was not the Hollywood representation of this story. It was the few seconds of real footage played at the end of the film which showed Slahi finally returning to his home in Mauritania, surrounded by friends, family, neighbours and supporters. At this moment, sheer, unadulterated joy reverberates through the screen in a stirring celebration of community, but it is tempered by a bitter reminder that this happiness is the product of the endurance of unimaginable suffering.

Reproducing pain has come to be one of the most salient and problematic tenets of contemporary media. Why must an account of trauma be accompanied by a horrifying, gory image to make the front page? We consume words, images and data with an alarming hunger that is never quite satisfied. The endless scrolling we have come to take as a given is slowly destroying our ability to empathise.

The distancing and displacement of pain is a hallmark of the way torture has been represented in the media. Positioned as a far-away crime taking place in remote locations isolated from the real world, torture is an emblem of our decaying emotional connection to others. We have all seen the hundreds of films and series dedicated to glorifying the War on Terror as an action-packed, heroic Western adventure with no regard for shared humanity. Offerings like The Mauritanian may be less brash, but how applauded can this really be when Guantánamo Bay is still in operation? When 40 prisoners remain in detention there with no charge or trial? When across the world, torture continues to be used as a method of interrogation and punishment?

Hollywood has presented torture as exclusive to extreme counter-terrorism operations. In reality, it permeates the social fabric of countless nations, and the media-driven narrative of exceptionalism has irreversibly damaged our sense of humanity. In 2014, Amnesty International found that 45% of US citizens felt that torture was at times, “necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public”.

If this resonates with you, I implore you to read the stories of torture survivors. In any case, torture is prohibited in the most absolute sense in international law. Yet, it continues to form a subject of debate characterised by blurred lines. I don’t claim to have the solution to this concerning state of affairs, but it is clear that the expression of empathy today has at the very least devolved into a digitised, performative, lacking sentiment shrouded in false outrage. To condone torture is to admit the shattering of empathy. When the systematic abuse of human beings is socialised as defensible, I would argue that we have lost ourselves completely.

Comment Writer for Roar News. BA International Relations student.

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