I New sources
Race, torture porn, and the menacing Black Muslimness of Five Fingers
Mika’il A. Petin
How are Muslims framed as the victims or villains within the social imagination of the United States to justify political and military actions during the era of permanent war? Seems like a facile inquiry at a moment of heightened Islamophobia. The reality is very messy, and the portrayal of Islam in U.S. popular culture, even messier. The counter-terrorism thriller, Five Fingers (2006), ends up dancing along the line of thought behind the above question. Directed by Laurence Malkin, and co-written by Malkin and Chad Thumann, the film is an intriguing cultural text because of the range of discourses it taps into. One of the most hotly debated, and real, moral dilemmas Five Fingers features is the standardization of torture by U.S. political and military powers to gain information. Ironically, for a period now, most of that abuse has been enacted against Muslims.
Broadly, this chapter touches on the national debate regarding torture during the Bush and Obama administrations, questions about the illegality of certain types of detentions, and the ramifications of American exceptionalism. More narrowly, the focus here is on how torture is deployed in this film, a psycho-political thriller. This chapter zeros in on the central villain in Five Fingers who is a Muslim of African descent named “Ahmat” (Laurence Fishburne) whose mix of race, religion, and gender in scenes when he is orchestrating and implementing torture are intended to make him easily identifiable as “evil” for moviegoers. Although, who he really is, what he is doing, and why become exceedingly more convoluted, because like other post-9/11 representations of Muslim men of color, Ahmat is linked to a duality. He is a manifestation of the post-9/11 era, the “torturer-hero,” which I combine with Evelyn Alsultany’s idea of the “simplified complex representations” to interpret how race works in this movie.1
Cut differently: Five Fingers against the genre
Five Fingers is unique, because of its perceived commentary on the cultural moment in counter-terrorism narratives after 9/11, and the fact that the story revolves around “torture porn,” the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the painful humiliation and suffering of others. My understanding aside, it should be expected that this film is a bit different if compared to notable torture porn franchises, such as Saw (2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010) and Hostel (2005, 2007,2011). The latter movies are about the spectacle of bodily annihilation, whereas scenes of mutilation in Five Fingers are secondary to a story that is much more polemical toward the U.S. government and the global North in general.
Something else that makes the film uncharacteristic of the genre is that the story’s torturer and primary villain is a sadistic Black man. In a broader historical context, people of color have rarely been represented as guileless main characters in horror flicks, brilliant supervillains in superhero movies, or calculated main antagonists throughout popular culture.2 People of African descent, in particular, infrequently inhabit the role of putting sufferers in chains and torturing them in modern narrative cinema. Likewise, the Arab sheik/White slaver stereotype in Jack Shaheen’s work notwithstanding, there are even fewer examples of Muslims serving as perpetrators of bondage on screen.3 In spite of the dearth, a calm, confident, and cerebral Ahmat leads a small, multicultural group of kidnappers, and administers the cruelty in Five Fingers. His African heritage - though the details of his background are unclear - and his individual difference as a Muslim are signified through accented speech, a full beard, and cultural attire (e.g., kufi, thobe, and prayer beads). Something else that is significant about him is his composition. He is a figure who is all too familiar, because of the filmmakers’ gleaning from readily available, pre-existing narratives in racial, geopolitical, and Orientalist discourses. With that type of design, it is easy for audiences to recognize and fear him.
To that end, the key surprising plot twist is that his identity is a ruse. The film is structured around the convention of the tormenter-victim dyad, and Ahmat is actually an American clandestine agent working for the CIA to extract information. His target is a seemingly northern European altruist, Martijn (Ryan Phillippe), who is set to depart to Morocco in order to perform what seems to be humanitarian work. At no point prior to his departure are there any hints to suggest that Martijn might have questionable motives. However, once he, a White Dutch man, arrives at the airport in-country, he is quickly abducted by some of Ahmat’s tawny fellow kidnappers, and immediately, the film’s conflict ensues.
Five Fingers can be read as a somewhat cautionary tale for Westerners traveling in less-developed countries. It relies on a common convention in the torture porn genre where the White “First Worlder,” or group of “First Worlders,” travels to some far-off place that is, or appears to be, a “Third World” country. Once there, they end up getting tortured, exploited, or killed by terrible people whose bodies are most often primitive, bloodthirsty, non-human, Black, Brown, and/or blatantly non-White. This contemporary trope can be imagined as a continuation of earlier colonialist films, such as King Kong (1933, 1975) and King Solomon’s Mines (1950, 1985), though the theme is more clear in films, such as The Ruins (2008),
Race, torture porn, and Black Mus limn ess 15
The Last Resort (2009), Turistas (2006), and the Hostel (2005, 2007,2011) franchise (Wetmore 2012).
In spite of everything that establishes Martijn’s victimhood as a “First World,” freethinking, White European man who precariously travels abroad, it is Ahmat who is the most interesting of the two. His “sadist Muslim maleness” paired with his agency on behalf of the U.S. is a common post-9/11 strategy (see Alsultany 2012). As I mentioned earlier, Ahmat encapsulates the constant theme of duality that routinely accompanies filmic and televisual representations of Muslims.4
Consider two comparable examples, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) from Traitor (2008) or Darwyn Al-Sayeed (Michael Ealy) in Sleeper Cell (2005-2006). Both of those characters are framed within the “good Muslim vs. the bad Muslim” binary where everything about them is entirely uncertain. The inference, of course, is that as Muslim men of color, they have plenty to hide. Black Muslim men are represented in narrative film and television series with new cultural meanings. Where they are frequently sensational and rarely prosaic, it is often the case that who they identify as and what they look like are the reasons they pose the greatest security threats to the nation - even as they are called upon to safeguard it. In the number of bifurcations Five Fingers offers, Ahmat synchronously symbolizes a racialized unscrupulousness that is commonly attributed to the entire “Muslim World.” At the same time, he embodies an assiduousness that the U.S. is a beneficent, postcolonial, democratic, and multicultural paragon for societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Race is relevant here, because it is necessary to consider how the United States authoritatively indicates who is bad, a thug, immoral, an enemy combatant, “not the best and brightest,” or a terrorist, along with who may be a helpless citizen, a defendable human being, and free. I bolster this argument along with Ahmat’s dual roles and subsequent actions by Edward Said’s notion that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority” in his seminal work Orientalism (1978) (21). It is conceivable then that the realities of the War on Terror stimulate an experience where Ahmat’s filmic subjectivity mortifies the film’s intended audience while they are concurrently enamored and entertained.
Pain of others while getting off: politics, representations, and consuming torture
Five Fingers takes full advantage of one-time public support for the perceived returns on torture or institutionalized interrogation tactics. From a civil liberty standpoint, the act of detaining an individual who is not formally charged with a prosecutable offense undercuts the ideal of egalitarianism in the United States. Hence, why the detainees who have been held in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for close to two decades have made plain the hypocrisy of U.S. democracy by their treatment.
Torture’s rise in the social imaginary of the U.S. can be tied to political and military powers assuming responsibility for how it confines and controls prisoners of war, enemy combatants, and suspected terrorists.5 The application of torture became a useful plot device on screens after 9/11 as national debates over its legality as a tactic by the U.S. government continued in reality.6 Images of torture in television and cinema have become a standard in disparate narratives ranging from action thriller films, psychological drama TV, and espionage films to melodramatic films. Scenes with varying degrees of intense bodily harm can be found on network and cable television, such as Fox Network’s 24 (2001-2010, 2014), NBC’s Hannibal (2013-2015), ABC’s Alias (2001-2006), CBS’ Criminal Minds (2005-present), Showtime Network’s Dexter (2006-2013), and in feature films, such as aforementioned Saw and Hostel series, The Passion of the Christ (2004), Captivity (2007), Wolf Creek (2005), The Girl Next Door (2007), Untraceable (2008), Quantum Solace (2008), and Zero Dark Thirty (2013). In face of pervasive torture, its availability does not provide clarity for why it has gained so much popularity in post-9/11 entertainment.
Film critic David Edelstein’s oft-cited New Yorker magazine article, “Now Playing at your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn” (2006), is the first attempt at making sense of the increase in images that show torture sequences. He rhetorically inquires, “why is America so nuts about torture?” and coins the new term, “torture porn.” In his rumination, he makes an attempt to decipher a lot of the perplexity in what moviegoers seem so eager to watch during the mid-2000s.7 Edelstein seems to think that some of what moviegoers are seeing today asks many of them to suspend moral judgments. Like other critics, he suggests that showing torture is popular now because of shifts in social attitudes and consumer tastes.
Provocatively, some commentators claim that new appetites for cinematic humiliation and higher degrees of corporeal pain on TV are related to the rapid integration of pornography into the cultural mainstream. As a consequence, the similarities between torture and pornography are all too obvious. For example, both torture and pornography feature forms of carnality, privacy, confined spaces, dominant-submissive binaries, abused bodies, and awareness of cameras for surveillance and voyeurism within diegetic spaces (Neroni 2015). Alternately, Linda Williams in “Film Bodies: Genre, Gender and Excess” (2000) highlights how torture - read as horror - and pornography are linked in that they share the bodily pleasure of ecstasy. Even so, the typical American consumer’s new found love for pain, dehumanization, and degradation on screen in the form of torture porn, Aaron Michael Kerner adds in Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11 (2015), is likely due to their being confronted with not only “allegorical narratives but ones laden with affect” (39). Thus, the argument can be made that both scenes of torture and pornography are similar in that they both offer forms of catharsis.
Fundamentally then, Five Fingers draws from that similarity. The film is paradoxically preoccupied with experiences of freedom and its control,
Race, torture porn, and Black Muslimness 17 something that can be found in torture and pornography. What’s critical for the U.S. political and military powers in the diegetic space of the film is to ensure freedom through Ahmat’s ability to gather useful information from Martijn’s tortured body.8
It does not immediately register that the title of Five Fingers comes from the desire to get necessary information by mutilating Martijn’s body, or specifically, his right hand.9 Martijn is a pianist from Holland who is worldly, open-minded, and middle-class. As an affable philanthropist, a refined artist, and a former financial professional, he is, for all intents and purposes, accomplished. Our attention as the audience is focused on his right hand, because it intimates his appeal and decency. At the same time, his status bespeaks a subtext of the supremacy of liberalism in the West that can be signified in the sign that is his right hand. There is a fragmentation of shots of his right hand that the audience is presumed to identify with. Camera angles in a few early scenes leading up to his abduction are meant to sway the audience to associate freedom with his body. Martijn’s right hand is fair-skinned, youthful, dexterous, minimally hairy, and without blemishes. However, to his detriment, the fact that it is also unencumbered and attached to a liberal and neoliberal body primarily suggests that it is literally as well as metaphorically exposed. Further, Martijn’s right hand can be understood as an allusion to Western vulnerability and eventual loss in the global War on Terror.
It is typical in the torture porn sub-genre that victims (as well as perpetrators) are not always innocent or guilty, but usually both. To the audience, Martijn does not appear to have anything to do with the War on Terror, but it later becomes more clear throughout the film that what looks evident can be deceiving. According to Kerner (2015), “The boundary between good and malevolence is difficult to ascertain in these narratives” (49). As Martijn’s origin story suggests, he is far from any battlefield, though in his situation, he is directly tied to the War on Terror, whether he knows it or not.
The specific use of the tortured body on screen is understandable if we allow ourselves to think through it in a Foucauldian filmic derivation of biopower.'0 In her book, The Subject of Torture (2015), Hilary Neroni argues, “Representations of torture today reveal new formal patterns of violence and their engagement with and often challenge to contemporary ideologies of biopower” (21). In other words, contemporary visual representations of torture have created new ways to view the body as a repository of information. Martijn in Five Fingers is drugged, kidnapped, and held by Ahmat, because his tortured, alienable body possesses critical details. “The ideas about the body,” Neroni (2015) continues, “which are at the heart of the contemporary torture fantasy are especially animated by a sense of urgency, a belief that time is running out” (15). Basically, the type of control where tortured, physical bodies are subjugated, then made to behave in certain ways becomes necessary on screen after 9/11 to circulate notions of U.S. political and military powers working actively to prevent future attacks.
Ahmat and Five Fingers are situated amid this context. The necessity of torture on screen and in reality drives home the point that the safety and security of the lives of U.S. citizens depend on these extreme methods. U.S. political and military powers have a long history of authorizing “justifiable” practices domestically, such as chattel slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment camps, and the killing of African American political subversives. In a lot of ways, Ahmat and Five Fingers dismiss those histories, because of greater concerns for answering two pressing questions of the present and future: Are U.S. political and military powers doing enough to provide safety for U.S. citizens, and when will they have gathered enough intelligence?
Freedom ain’t free: Ahmat as the torturer-hero
To reiterate my earlier claim, Ahmat is a post-9/11 creation on screen, the torturer-hero. He is concurrently positioned in Five Fingers as the primary opponent to freedom through a terrorizing Muslimness and freedom’s unequivocal defender as a hard-core clandestine agent unconcerned with collat-erality. Besides the film’s tagline, “What price would you pay for freedom?,” the film’s struggle revolves around Martijn’s privilege, impunity, and aspiration for physical freedom, while Ahmat’s role as sanctioned arbiter is to negate such liberties.
So much of what is taking place in our social imaginary in terms of racial subjectivities plays out in U.S. popular culture. Again, Black Muslim men like Ahmat are represented in narrative film and television series with new cultural meanings. What this means is that who they identify as and what they look like in the diegetic space are the reasons they pose the greatest security threats to the nation. This is the case even though, as bell hooks observes in We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (1990), “[Wjhite and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists ... the eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to terror” (176). This quote is especially useful in better comprehending the images linked to how we read both Ahmat’s and Martijn’s races in relation to liberalism in Five Fingers.
With Ahmat specifically, I rationalize his dual function as the torturerhero to mean that he is a stand-in for U.S. political and military powers willingly pursuing policies that maximize their survival. His dual identity provides good reason for U.S. cultural imperialism, transnational security, and military expansionism just when the United States ardently seeks to protect its reputation as the world’s lone supporter of liberation, modernization, and self-determination of peoples deemed as subjugated in other countries (Scholte 2005; Jarmakani 2008).
The development of the torturer-hero is a new one after 9/11. Bonnie Mann describes the role in Sovereign Masculinity (2014) as “a new figure
Race, torture porn, and Black Muslimness 19 of American pride” that takes shape from the “myth of torture in the social imaginary” (191). Clearly, Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) propensity for torture in Fox’s 24 (2001-2010, 2011) and how torture produces intelligence that leads to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty (2013) are two recognizable examples (Mann 2014). Making the connection to the advent of torture porn, Kevin Wetmore insists in Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema (2012) that three identities emerge to create space for the torturer-hero to come into existence: “Americans as victims, Americans as heroic defenders of freedom, and Americans as torturers” (100). Additionally, in terms of a generic convention, Ahmat exemplifies the notion that in torture porn, evil, generally, does not exist, and perpetrators of torture are not wantonly killing their victims. More appropriately, they deal with complicated issues that involve ethics. To this point, Kerner (2015) attests that torture porn reveals “the more complex moral truths about the nature of violence, innocence, retribution, and the inversion of moral order that are hidden behind the official narrative that the Bush administration and conservative pundits peddle” (53).
In the larger ethical questions that Ahmat engages, his duality as a bad Muslim and a good clandestine agent is different from what we associate with Darwyn from Sleeper Cell and Samir from Traitor. All three characters typify Alsultany’s simplified complex representational strategy where “positive Muslims characters” are employed to acknowledge TV producers’ and filmmakers’ sensitivity to the effects of stereotyping (Alsultany 2012). Darwyn, Samir, and Ahmat can be viewed as embodying varying degrees of patriotism. Contrarily, Ahmat as a torturer in particular fully embraces the untrustworthiness that the Samir and Darwyn wish to avert. He fully dons the disguise of radical fundamentalist in order to protect the national interests of the United States and its allies, similar to Samir and Darwyn. It seems that the message that gets communicated through the images of Ahmat, Darwyn, and Samir collectively is that in order for Muslims in the U.S. to prove they are patriotic flag-wavers, they should surveil their own communities, and voluntarily relinquish their civil liberties by divulging their deepest secrets if the U.S. security-state needs them to. Alternatively, Ahmat immerses himself in Orientalist stereotypes to extrajudicially interrogate his captive, surreptitiously inflict the U.S. security-state’s sponsored pain to gather intelligence, and authorizes the elimination of the victim as to not leave a trail of evidence.
For most of Five Fingers, Ahmat personifies the post-9/11 development of the Black jihadist who intends to terrify the First World from without or within. Karin Gwinn Wilkins states in Home/Land/Security (2009) that, historically, Hollywood presents villainous Arab, Middle-Eastern, and Muslim characters as dehumanized, non-White, raced with foreign accents, and distant from cultural centers in the United States, so it is harder for audiences to identify with them. Here, I think of real-life individuals, such as Edward Archer, Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, Hassan Edmonds, and Jonas
Edmonds, who were in police custody, but widely known for their interests in joining the monstrous ISIS several years ago.
The parallels are simple. The aforementioned Black jihadists - and by extension, Ahmat’s invaluable religious fundamentalist persona - bear some resemblance to the centuries-old Orientalist trope of the Moor or “male Muslim monster” (Arjana 2015). Sophia Rose Arjana describes the characterization of the Muslim monster in Muslims in the Western Imagination (2015) as “hyper-masculine - aggressive, overly sexual, and violent,” that can be “characters that also function as tableaux of desire and fantasy” (11). This is not to say that Ahmat is a “male sexual predator” before he identifies himself as an agent. Rather, he fully embraces all of the associated derogatory attitudes and traits of a non-White, sadistic, terrifying, un-American, or non-European Muslim as part of his cover.
What’s even more striking about Ahmat is how much he is made to emulate the late, abominable terrorist leader, Osama Bin Laden. In an early scene, Ahmat holds an AK-47 to shoot Gavin (Colm Meaney), Martijn’s British handler on the ground in Morocco. In terms of wardrobe, for the majority of the film, Ahmat wears a white kufi and thobe. However, in the moment when he murders Gavin, astute viewers are momentarily reminded of a popularized, undated image of Bin Laden firing an AK-47 that surfaced in certain news media outlets and circulated within the emerging visual culture days after 9/11. The similarities between Ahmat and Bin Laden seem more convincing if we also take account of them both appearing to be piously calm, inclined toward premeditation, and able to manipulate their victims. Neither of them wants to expose their locations, though they also have some connection to Africa.11 What’s more, both men orchestrate their respective forms of terror from isolated spaces - Bin Laden in a dark, primordial, and far-flung cave, and Ahmat in a damp, dingy, and run-down warehouse - that seem retrograde, if not uninhabitable.
Nevertheless, a message is made clear to viewers. The cultural formation of Ahmat as the Muslim monster is that he not only is eager to shed Western blood but also is absorbed in the tense relations between the rest of the world and Western civilization. This is not unlike the generic way extraterrestrial life, ’Merica rednecks, Appalachian hillbillies, and post-apocalyptic zombies are represented in post-9/11 horror films. According to Wetmore (2012), in the horror genre, “Terrorists and monstrous aliens and evil shadow creatures are conflated and equated into an equivalent threat” (44). Five Fingers is not a horror flick, but it does depend on the horror genre’s current convention of difference.
Just like in horror films, the use of dissimilar bodies in juxtaposition to Whiteness is partially what scares us. There are no frightening figures in Five Fingers like Jason from the Friday the 13th or Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street film franchises. It’s just a callous Ahmat who acts as the synecdoche of real global northern fears held by some U.S. citizens and western Europeans of being imprisoned, tortured, or killed by creepy,
Race, torture porn, and Black Muslimness 21 swarthy Africans. The Somalis in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Captain Phillips (2013) come to mind. That metonymic quality is what makes Five Fingers so believable.
Similarly, Ahmat’s mask of Muslim Africanness works because of the persistence of colonialist and global North ideas about race and corruption in Africa. Granted, as Sherman Jackson asserts in Islam and the Blackamerican (2005), the Black American experience in the United States is not identical to the Third World colonial experience for the colonized in Africa (cf. Marable and Aidi 2009).12 Still, it is the fused values of the “Dark Continent” and the notion of the “Black Muslim Scare” that Ahmat triggers.13 As the film’s chief victimizer, Ahmat’s Blackness, Muslimness, manner of speech, style of dress, environs, aura of hyper-violence, and all-around otherness among additional traits make it impossible for the intended audience to identify with him. Everything about his assumed Black African Muslim identity motivates viewers not to connect with him, but more with his victim, Martijn, whom they might decide is culturally refined, seemingly harmless, and just easily more relatable. It is never meant to immediately register that Martijn is the real terrorist, because Orientalist and nationalist discourses racialize who are the perpetrators. In a sense, the contrasting racial meanings make it impossible for viewers to see each man any different. To draw from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967), the juxtaposition of the two men is a “massive psycho-existential complex,” where “[Not] only must the black man be black, he must be black in relation to the white man . . . The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man” (110).
The emotions we as the audience experience from Ahmat’s maltreatment of Martijn and its repulsiveness are slowly transformed into appreciation once we become embroiled in what must be done by the torturer to acquire the information from his abductee. Ahmat is not at all likable for the majority of the film, because he is so unnerving. In contrast, once it is revealed that Martijn is actually a terrorist sympathizer looking for who he thinks is a retired chemist named “Hasan Fikri” to carry out a global terror attack -Martijn says, “A dozen 9/1 Is all over the world” - that revelation signals the moment that Ahmat’s methods are excusable as security-state-sponsored tactics. In a way, the film performs a sleight of hand to mask American monstrosity until the very end.
A means for Ahmat to hide his monstrosity throughout the film is through his use of language. It is really how he keeps up his ruse until he is ready to uncover his true identity. He passes himself off as a Nigerian - possibly -and uses two different accents: one to disguise the fact that he is an American and the other to identify himself as an American. He does not speak a common Nigerian dialect, such as Hausa and Mande, though he says some common Muslim words in Arabic and speaks in English with distinct African intonations. His performance of an African-intoned speech has an impact on us. From the beginning of the film until its climax, we do not imagine that Martijn is violent, because Ahmat’s monstrous otherness as a Black African Muslim easily frames his raced body as, in Fanon’s (1967) terms, “the symbol of Evil,” as the “torturer,” and as “Satan” incarnate (188-189).
The other aspect of Ahmat’s duality - him being a hero - is also signaled through his use of language. In the film’s denouement, Ahmat and one of his fellow accomplices Aicha (Gina Torres) convince Martijn to provide the names of some Dutch terror cell members to prove that he is not lying, and indeed, part of the network like them. They have been telling Martijn that they doubt his claim of being connected, and instead, think he is actually a CIA operative. That bit of information, in their logic, explains how he was able to steal one million U.S. dollars to fund his food assistance program for malnourished youth in the Rif mountains of Morocco without there being an international manhunt to arrest him. Aicha tells Martijn that they already possess the list of names for members in the Dutch cell, though Mar-tijn’s name is not on it. Both Martijn and Ahmat agree to simultaneously write down the names of the cell members on separate sheets of notebook paper to prove the other is not lying. In this tense moment of the film’s climax, they scribble names on sheets of paper then exchange them. The camera angle from over Martijn’s shoulder displays what he is holding in his hand: a half sheet of paper with the handwritten words, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” on it. At the same time, there is a voice-over with Ahmat’s speech pattern gradually transitioning from an African-intoned English to intonations normally consistent with American English to demonstrate that he is one of the good guys and not a fundamentalist. Needless to say, the change in speech reveals that everything has been a charade. Ahmat tells a stunned and befuddled Martijn, “You have been most cooperative,” before we see Martijn’s captors (i.e., Ahmat, Aicha, and Dark Eyes) through his teary eyes. Ahmat and Aicha leave the open space of the warehouse, and Dark Eyes (Said Taghmaoui) fatally shoots Martijn.14
The torturer can almost never be the hero. That penultimate scene of the fatal shot described earlier leaves two crucial questions unanswered: Is the U.S. security-state - namely the CIA - devoid of morality, and can it be that we in the United States are the real monsters? I am resolved to believe that Ahmat makes it hard to answer those questions - one of the reasons I see him as such an important representation of contemporary, post-9/11 Muslim identity. We as filmgoers and a nation have to assess what has greater value. The maintenance - and constant purveyance - of the liberalism of our democracy is our greatest achievement, but at what costs to the potential illiberalism of others? The U.S. covets its reputation within the international community as an unchallenged proponent of liberty and self-determination for peoples in other nations while it maintains the most advanced intelligence community and military force in the world. Correspondingly, just as the U.S. seeks to “modernize” the rest of the world through its ideas
Race, torture porn, and Black Muslimness 23 regarding global capitalism and democracy, Ahmat as a character stands in as a paradox: The U.S. is both the lead opponent and defender of liberalism. In actuality, international esteem for democratic values without exerting covert and overt force is a chimera. While it is hoped or wished for, it is, in fact, illusory or impossible to achieve. The United States was on a course of self-help by banning the use of interrogation techniques that resembled torture in 2009, because its political system was concerned about its own preservation. Kerner (2015) is correct about the difficulty in cleanly making out the heroes from the villains precisely because, “it is not just the terrorists that frighten us, then, but ourselves, or at least those who are waging the War on Terror on our behalf” (24).
- 1 In her book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media, Alsultany argues that simplified complex representations are the new normative way of presenting raciality in a “post-race era.” “These representations,” she suggests, “appear to challenge or complicate former stereotypes and contribute to a multicultural or post-racial illusion” (21).
- 2 See Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, “The Absence of Black Supervillains in Mainstream Comics” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and Robin R. Means Coleman’s Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present (2011).
- 3 See Jack Shaheen, The TV Arab (1984); Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture (1997) and Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (2001).
- 4 See Alsultany’s Arab and Muslims in the Media (2012); Sasha Torres’ “Black (Counter) Terrorism” (2013); Melani McAlister’s “A Virtual Muslim Is Something to Be” (2010); and Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin’s Framing Muslims: Stereotyping and Representation After 9/11 (2011).
- 5 Public disclosures that the U.S. military as well as some intelligence agencies engaged in inhumane treatment of prisoners ignited a national conversation over the morality of the U.S. committing human rights violations. Public pressure mounted against the U.S. government’s sanctioning of “enhanced interrogation techniques” of captured insurgents and enemy combatants when the U.S. Supreme Court declared such practices were unconstitutional. Disapproval was especially sharp when photos of the Abu Gharib prisoner abuse scandal were released by the Associated Press along with reports by Amnesty International in 2003. The male and female soldiers involved in the scandal were court-martialed, but claimed they were operating within U.S. military guidelines. I think what is more important regarding the photos of prisoner abuse is that we as U.S. citizens need to understand our collective culpability.
- 6 The United Nations Convention against Torture prohibits practices that cause severe pain or suffering. After 9/11, public opinion within the United States supported torture as an effective means, though there was limited evidence to confirm that it produced the intended results. Some maintained that the need for torture, whether stress positions, simulated sex acts, music torture, waterboarding, or sleep deprivation, supersedes concerns about its application (Demello 2013).
- 7 In the ascendance of torture porn, competing ideas about what qualifies as torture porn develop. A multitude of movies and TV shows contain scenes of unspeakable behavior, humiliation, and psychological trauma, but both Aaron
Michael Kerner in Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11: Horror, Exploitation, and the Cinema of Sensation (2015) and Kevin Wetmore, Jr. in Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema (2012) offer specific formulas for the sub-genre. For Kerner and Wetmore, the backstory leading up to the scenes of torture and psychological intimidation appear to be believable. There is an emphasis on narratives based in reality where a human agent is more recognizable than an abstract idea. Both acknowledge how the acts are witnessed through some form of surveillance. Although they diverge when it comes to the reason behind the torture. Wetmore insists that the reasons why the torture is happening are not fully clear, while for Kerner, the torture happens because U.S. citizens or the First Worlders are always victims. Also the perpetual victimhood of the First World sanctions the reversal of violence through unrestrained retribution. Whereas Wetmore declares that torture victims do not inevitably become torturers, Kerner puts forward that since 9/11, Americans have lost their connection to the moral high ground with their new capacity to commit torture upon prisoners of war, enemy combatants, and detainees.
- 8 The Bush administration reached the conclusion that either by covert operatives infiltrating terror networks, or by the most efficient method of relentlessly interrogating detained suspected terrorists, it needed better intelligence. Officials on behalf of the White House corresponded with attorneys, such as John Yoo, from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to verify the legality of practices the U.S. government intended to use to draw out information (Lewis 2005). Never mind that torture is widely considered to be damaging, unproductive, and demoralizing, plus illegal in the international community (e.g., prohibited by the Geneva Conventions (1949) and Additional Protocols (1977)). Yoho and the DOJ drafted the torture memos and responded to White House inquiries that detainees could be interrogated almost to the moment when death seems imminent (Lewis 2005).
- 9 Human hands are instrumental for brain function and development. From an evolutionary standpoint, according to neurologist Frank R. Wilson in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (1998), our hands are often overlooked as banal, though they have been essential for human beings learning how to speak, think, behave, hunt, eat, and basically, survive at every stage for many millennia. The right hand is socially dominant over the left hand throughout the majority of the world. It has long connoted a number of qualities across many cultures in recorded history, Wilson (1998) remarks, having been viewed as “divine, benign, lucky, clean, adroit, quick, strong” (148).
- 10 Michel Foucault’s concept of biopower in The History of Sexuality (1978) demonstrates how the “docile body” was discovered to be an “object and target of power.” He theorizes biopower as the way bodies are defined and controlled by the political state and throughout society. “A body is docile,” Foucault (1978) offers, “that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved” (136).
- 11 According to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004), Bin Laden funds acts of terror throughout northern Africa, and first appears on the CIA’s radar while he is assembling a small army of jihadist warriors in Khartoum, Sudan.
- 12 Jackson (2005) has written extensively about the mode, Black Orientalism, that pits Black conservatives and Afrocentrists against Black cosmopolitans, PanAfricanists, and African-descended Muslims. He also explains that in many ways the Black Americans share some similarities with the Black folk in the Third World, but in other ways, the two are drastically different. Jackson gives the example of European colonial masters establishing “French, British, and German
Race, torture porn, and Black Muslimness 25 schools and civic organizations to ‘civilize’ the best and brightest among their subjects” (165). Concurrently, Black Americans attended segregated schools, fought in segregated armies, and lived in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
- 13 Edward Curtis (2013) describes the “Black Muslim scare” as Black Muslim manhood embodied in Malcolm, the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Muhammad Ali posing “the greatest threat to the liberal promise of civil rights” in “The Black Muslim Scare of the Twentieth Century: The History of State Islamophobia and Its Post-9/11 Variations” (76).
- 14 After a jump-cut between the open space and the control room, Ahmat changes clothes from his kufi and thobe to a green single-breasted business suit and a black overcoat. His change in wardrobe conveys the male professional style that he is now civilized. He debriefs with his team and then congratulates everyone on a job well done. Gavin, who is neither dead nor British, approaches Ahmat, who asks him to return to the Internet to connect with other would-be jihadists. He steps outside the warehouse, and we learn that they are not in Africa but on the Hudson River across from New York City. The film absolves the CIA of the practice of extraordinary rendition by placing the team in the United States the entire time. In a suave American accented English way, Ahmat asks Aicha if she would like to grab a drink with him, which further affirms the actuality of American invulnerability. The final scene of Five Fingers is a wide-angle shot of the Statue of Liberty. Set against the bright blue sky with the sounds of seagulls and soft jazz playing in the background, the icon of liberty punctuates the theme of the film.
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