Arguing for Torture: Using Articulation Theory to Understand George W. Bush’s Military Commissions Speech

Greg Wilson, Iowa State University

(Published: November 5, 2013)

Nearing the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush addressed the nation and outlined his plan to create military commissions to try suspected terrorists (President Discusses).1 As part of this address Bush also revealed the existence of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program to detain and interrogate suspected high-value Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives at secret prisons using what he described as an “alternative set of procedures.” At the time, questions were raised by the American citizenry, in the media, and in government circles whether these alternative procedures amounted to torture and whether this program violated international law, U.S. law, the Geneva Convention treaties, and/or some general moral code to which the U.S. President and U.S. government should adhere. In a letter to Senator John McCain following Bush’s speech, former Secretary of State Colin Powell warned, “The world is beginning to doubt our moral basis for the war against terrorism” (Jackson). And a New York Times editorial a month later argued, “Clinging to the administration’s policies will only cause further harm to America’s global image and to our legal system” (On Torture). By revealing the interrogation program and proposing the military commissions plan, Bush was trying to justify and validate his administration’s treatment of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld) that put government interrogators at risk of prosecution. He was also trying to develop a path forward for trying prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, but in doing this, he had to make a public (and potentially unpopular) argument for alternative interrogation procedures and what has since been determined to be torture by a comprehensive 2013 report from The Constitution Project on detainee treatment (Hutchinson et al.).

A substantial portion of Bush’s speech in 2006 details purportedly valuable intelligence gathered from detainees as part of this CIA program. Bush used these examples in an attempt to justify secret detention sites and alternative interrogation procedures. He described how this information led to capture of other suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives and to foiling planned attacks on the U.S. and its allies. The use of such “alternative” interrogation techniques is a remarkable revelation for a U.S. President to make during an address to the nation. The revelation was sure to bring intense scrutiny and inquiry, especially if these techniques were perceived to constitute torture. Yet just prior to Bush's speech came the U.S. Supreme Court decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld Dahlia, which as Dahlia Lithwick explains constrained Bush's speech:

The Hamdan decision demolished the argument that the President’s war powers were limitless and beyond review. It also meant that C.I.A. and other administration officials faced possible criminal liability for past and future acts of abuse. So the administration scrambled to both justify the torture and change the law.

Bush had little choice but to publicly move to protect government officials from prosecution by calling for legislation that directly addressed torture practices. In the last portion of the speech, Bush announces new legislation he would be sending to congress that would “clarify” what kinds of interrogation methods are legal for use by military and intelligence personnel and would also indemnify them against prosecution. But the largest portion of the speech is devoted to what Lithwick describes as the justification of torture. Bush needed to make a compelling argument that these alternative methods were necessary, just, and ultimately effective.

In this article I explore how President Bush constructs his argument for torture in the military commissions speech, and I use articulation theory as a framework to examine the mechanics of his argument. Articulation theorists such as Lawrence Grossberg and Stuart Hall develop high-level metaphors (maps, topology, lories, train cars) to explain (1) how articulation functions through and within discourse, and also (2) how concepts are linked together to accomplish ideological work for interest groups trying to shape cultural relations and cultural understandings. In this article I draw on Grossberg’s concept—the articulation of cultural practices to effects (or consequences)—to enumerate specific articulations of practices to effects in the military commissions speech. By doing this, we can drill down through high-level, abstract metaphors generally used when articulation theory is deployed to ground an explanation of articulation in rhetorical moves in the text.

Since articulation always happens within a cultural context, I also explore how the military commissions speech occurs at a kairotic moment when American popular culture was seemingly fascinated by torture and awash with media depictions of torture. Horror movies like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) used torture as a major premise, but even the remake of Casino Royale in 2006 included a prominent torture scene from the original book. On television, shows like 24 and Alias frequently depicted elite government agents using torture or being the victims of torture, but many other shows of that era (e.g. Lost) also included torture plot lines. I draw upon the work of Elaine Scarry, Marita Gronvoll, and Jennifer Ballengee to explain the cultural reception and perception of media accounts of real and fictional torture. Understanding the cultural context of Bush’s torture argument and articulations will further our understanding of how the military commissions speech functioned.

In the following sections, I first introduce Grossberg’s version of articulation theory and explain how I intend to use it to analyze Bush’s speech. Second, I introduce the military commissions speech and show how practices are linked to consequences within that speech. Third, I discuss cultural perception of torture discourse.

Arguing and Articulating Torture

In his military commissions speech, President Bush aligns his administration’s torture (detention and interrogation) practices with a set of ideological values. Bush wants us to believe that torture is good. Louis Althusser writes that ideology is the “representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The construction of that imaginary relationship is accomplished via articulation. Things that are and things that happen are ascribed meaning by those with authority and cultural capital. These meanings are sometimes value neutral, but often meaning is ascribed in a way that makes it clear what the authority thinks is good and bad in the world. Additionally, Michael Carrithers has pointed out that rhetoric often “seems closely related to moral evaluation,” adding that rhetors are not just “trying to make others (or themselves) ‘accept a definition of the situation,’” but “they are also trying to make others accept an evaluation of the situation, so that the rhetoric is morally compelling” (14).2 Using articulation theory to examine Bush’s torture rhetoric can elucidate how articulations function as moral arguments.

In the analysis of the military commissions speech below, I identify how the practices of torture are articulated (linked) to projected effects in Bush’s text to perform the ideological work of justification and validation. I show how Bush articulates torture program practices to positive effects in effort to generate positive support for the torture program in the ideological imaginary of the American people.

The theory of articulation developed in Lawrence Grossberg’s book We Gotta Get Out of This Place can show how Bush rhetorically connected post-9/11 torture program practices with effects that aligned with an ideological position that justified torture as moral, just, and necessary. Critiquing conservative religious and moral politics in the United States, Grossberg formulated a useful version of articulation theory and an anti-essentialist definition of cultural studies where rhetors and cultural groups seek to strategically ascribe certain effects to practices in ways that support and further their ideological positions. The anti-essentialist position Grossberg proposes looks for meaning in the effects of a practice, i.e., exterior to that practice. Thus, the identity of the practice arises in “all of those sites where its existence makes a difference in the world, at the sites of its effects” (Grossberg We Gotta Get Out 52-53). But with no identity guaranteed to a practice, the door is swung open for discussion of what practice is associated with what effect and vice versa. Thus established links are not “true,” but are simply connections that have been successfully articulated and are available (to a varying degrees) to be re-articulated.

While articulation theory is rooted in the work of Antonio Gramsci, it has been elaborated (e.g., Laclau and Mouffe; Grossberg “On Postmodernism”; Slack, Miller, and Doak; Jasinski; Herndl and Bauer; Hanczor; Deluca; Sikka) to formulate a neo-Marxist agency that relies on tactical action rather than cataclysmic revolution as a means to modify societal structures and societal relationships. Within this context, I argue that the rhetorical articulation of a practice to an effect is an ideological act. For example, consider the claim that same-sex marriage [practice] redefines what it means to be married [effect]. As Grossberg points out, articulation is not an essentialist act. There is nothing about same-sex marriage that necessarily implies redefinition of marriage, nor is there any necessary sense that redefining marriage is essentially bad, immoral, or dangerous. But such articulation, whether existing or newly formulated, resonates within certain ideological world views. Additionally, articulations seek to naturalize the link between a practice and certain effects. Associated with these articulations of practices to effects are implied values. The successful linkage of a practice with an effect does ideological work as it naturalizes a set of (positive or negative) moral values to the outcomes of a practice, and to the practice itself. So non-essentialist practices take on the ideological illusion of essentialist consequences.

The success of an articulation might best be determined by its adoption by others in subsequent rhetoric; its adoption signals that it has been incorporated into an ideological worldview and is being maintained and reproduced through rhetoric. In a rhetorical frame, there is clear persuasive power in articulation. Like metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, articulation symbolically links two ideas, but it accomplishes ideological work differently than these other tropes. Metaphor, for example, can be defined as “the linking of two different spheres of experience to throw light on one or the other”(Carrithers 12). Even though Bruno Latour’s use of the term articulation in Pandora’s Hope is substantially different than Grossberg’s formulation, Latour’s usage further highlights the linking of different spheres to create meaning. He discusses Pasteur’s articulation of the lactic acid ferment or the soil researcher’s articulation of the clod of dirt in the pedocomparator in terms of bringing an object of research forward so that propositions can be made. Those propositions are transformative in that they allow researchers to argue that these objects are something else and not just themselves. Latour defines this act as “predication,” the need to define a term in other words to avoid a tautology.3

Saying that a practice is just a practice is tautological. Defining a practice by asserting its effects in the world is an opportunity to assign a moral or value judgment. The articulation legitimizes or delegitimizes the practice based on the consequences that are linked to it. And these consequences [effects] have meaning within the ideological framework of the person or group making or maintaining the articulation.

Grossberg’s focus on practices and effects is more useful as a focused tool for rhetorical analysis than the frequent scholarly conceptualization of articulation as the simple linkage of two ideas as if they were train cars or the cab and trailer of a lorry. While this imagery is easy to grasp, it is difficult to extend. Nothing in the military commissions speech can be productively described as being like a train or a lorry, whereas describing the linkage of practices and effects is immediately fruitful.

The Bush Military Commissions Speech

Bush’s introduction discusses the American experience of 9/11 and how it shaped government decision-making. The speech then moves to a long discussion of the secret CIA detention and interrogation program, finishing with a discussion of the military commissions' plan to prosecute these detainees and a discussion of the need to codify what is and is not torture so that government personnel are not subject to potential future prosecution. Looking closely at the text of the speech, we can identify places where specific practices are articulated to specific effects. For example, we can examine the linkage of practices and effects in this sentence from the second paragraph of the speech:

We watched the Twin Towers collapse before our eyes—and it became instantly clear that we'd entered a new world, and a dangerous new war. (President Discusses)

For the purpose of analysis I define practice as something that is, was, or should be done. Practices are not just things that happen; they are things that are actively done. I define effect as a designated consequence of the practice. Effects, likewise, are not things that just happen; they are presented as stemming causally from a practice. Again, articulation is the selective or strategic connection of a practice with a specific effect to imply an evaluative or normative argument.

In the above statement, we can identify as a practice “We watched the Twin Towers collapse before our eyes.” The repeated playbacks of the terrible scenes and the emotional commentary further turn the witnessing of a one-time event into a repeated practice. By speaking not of the event of the attack but the practice of watching the attack, the articulation is open to causal interpretation. We can see that this practice is articulated to two effects: we are in a new world and involved in a dangerous new war. These effects aren’t essential to the practice, but the ideological work of the articulations intends for the linkages to appear essential and natural. Upon “entering a new world,” it would seem plausible that rules would change. Upon entering “a dangerous new war,” it would seem plausible that drastic measures would be necessary and that people and property would need to be protected. The “instant clarity” also implies exigency. This and other articulations within the speech provide an ideological frame in which the detention and interrogation program is plausibly justifiable if the network of articulations is accepted as an argument.

There are multiple articulations in the speech that attempt to justify and validate the detention and interrogation program. I have listed articulations presented in this 37-minute speech in Table 1. The left table column numerically lists eight practices presented in the speech. The middle shaded column provides the effects to which each of the numbered practices is articulated. In several instances a practice is articulated to multiple effects. The first articulation in the table (the one described above) is straightforward in that the practice and effects are contained in the same sentence with little other verbiage. Other articulations required reading across several sentences and paraphrasing for the sake of parallelism in the table. The direct phrasings are not important to my analysis, as I focus on what is presented rather than how it is presented. For articulation number six in the table, I provide an implied and contextual meaning where there are no direct textual statements (While my analysis seeks patterns of articulation, the speech was not written with my analysis in mind.). The right column shows the theme of the articulation.

Practice Effect Theme of Articulation
1. We witnessed 9/11 attacks. • We are in a new world.
• We are involved in a dangerous new war.
The Nature of Terrorism
2. Terrorists behave in unconventional ways. • Information on their tactics can only be learned directly from terrorists. The Nature of Terrorists
3. We need to be able to detain and question captured terrorists. • Innocent lives will be saved.
• The war will be won.
• Future attacks will be prevented.
• Terrorists will be unable to rejoin the battle.
Successful Interrogation
4. We cannot divulge details of interrogation practices. • Terrorists would be able to adapt and learn to resist questioning. The Nature of Terrorists
5. We successfully use interrogation techniques. • Attacks have been averted, operatives have been captured, and networks have been broken up based on information we have gathered. Successful Interrogation
6. Department of Justice and Central Intelligence Agency lawyers have reviewed and approved techniques used.
Interrogators are carefully chosen/screened and trained.
• [Not linked to a specific effect in the speech]
• Implied effect: The treatment of detainees is not unlawful or unreasonable.
• Implied effect: The treatment of detainees is not out of control.
• Perhaps the real implied effect here is “U.S. practices do not qualify as torture.”
Permissible Treatment of Terrorists
7. We must continue to detain and question captured terrorists. • Ongoing threats will be addressed.
• Life-saving information will continue to accrue.
The Nature of Terrorism, Successful Interrogation
8. Military and Intelligence personnel perform this tough and important work. • These personnel should be thanked for saving lives not persecuted or prosecuted.
• We owe them clear rules on what is and is not torture so they won’t be prosecuted
Appropriate Treatment of Interrogators.

Table 1. Articulations Contained in George W. Bush’s Military Commissions Speech. Practices Named in the Speech are Articulated to the Effects Shown.

Walker and Walsh use a similar approach to code for articulations in Rachel Carson’s drafts of Silent Spring, looking for articulations of uncertainty as topoi. Alternately, I am coding for articulations of the nature of terrorism and terrorists, permissible treatment of terrorists, successful interrogation, and appropriate treatment of interrogators. These are the articulation themes shown in the right column of Table 1. I show below how these articulations function as moral arguments in favor of torture.

The Nature of Terrorism. The first articulation in the chart discussed above links a collective American experience of the 9/11 attacks to the effect of the transformational nature of terrorism (entering a new world) and the involvement in a war that is different than past wars (new and dangerous). Articulation seven on the chart also addresses the nature of terrorism as an ongoing or never-ending threat. Indefinite continuation of the interrogation program [practice] is articulated to attention to ongoing threats and ongoing collection of information about terrorist activities. The new world of vigilance against terrorism implies that the detainee interrogation program, once established, must endure. The first articulation makes this later articulation plausible, linking American’s horrific visual experience of the 9/11 attacks to a through-the-looking-glass existential crisis where a constant state of threat exists. Articulation seven then presents the detention and interrogation program as an ongoing inevitability. The argument being developed here is that in a world of terrorism, we are going to have to torture because torture saves lives. The immorality of torture is rhetorically weighed against the morality of saving lives.

The Nature of Terrorists. Articulations two and four seek to define the nature of terrorists as a justification for the detention and interrogation program. Bush articulates the unconventional tactics of terrorists to the need to gather information directly from them:

In this new war, the most important source of information on where the terrorists are hiding and what they are planning is the terrorists, themselves. Captured terrorists have unique knowledge about how terrorist networks operate. They have knowledge of where their operatives are deployed, and knowledge about what plots are underway. This intelligence—this is intelligence that cannot be found any other place. And our security depends on getting this kind of information. (President Discusses)

In this new world, the unknowable practices euphemistically require finding intelligence directly from terrorists. Later in the speech, Bush also says he “cannot describe the specific methods used” [practice] during interrogation, because it will help terrorists to “resist questioning, and to keep information from us” [effect] (President Discusses). The chosen effects for these articulations portray terrorists in a morally negative light and construct terrorists as appropriate subjects for torture. If these articulations are acceptable arguments, torture seems both required and appropriate. As Bush says, “…our security depends on getting this kind of information.”

Permissible Treatment of Terrorists. Furthermore, articulation six characterizes the permissible treatment of terrorists by explaining how the detention and interrogation program has been vetted in terms of law, treaty, policy, and practice. At one moment in the speech Bush states that the interrogation program has undergone legal review and that interrogators received appropriate training.

This program has been subject to multiple legal reviews by the Department of Justice and CIA lawyers; they've determined it complied with our laws. This program has received strict oversight by the CIA's Inspector General.… All those involved in the questioning of the terrorists are carefully chosen and they're screened from a pool of experienced CIA officers. Those selected to conduct the most sensitive questioning had to complete more than 250 additional hours of specialized training before they are allowed to have contact with a captured terrorist. (President Discusses).

These practices of review, screening, and training are articulated by implication to the effects that interrogation practices were legal and reasonable and were not out of control. Pictures and accounts of the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib had been reported in the news media in April of 2004. Bush is differentiating those previous rogue actor practices from what he is presenting in this speech as a more carefully considered set of practices. This articulation argues that there are permissible ways to torture terrorists. Even though Bush clearly states, “I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture,” he is making a case for an alternative set of interrogation techniques that he fears might be mistaken for torture and lead to the prosecution of interrogators as war criminals (President Discusses). Even though he wants to keep the specifics of the practices in an unspeakable gray area, he attempts to morally justify these practices as non-torture because lawyers have determined where the line is between torture and non-torture. Interrogators presumably have been trained not to cross that line.

Successful Interrogation. The theme of articulations three, five, and seven is successful interrogation. The practice of torture is articulated to past effects and future needs. In articulation five, Bush claims that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah (a Saudi Arabian national captured in Afghanistan and mistakenly believed by the U.S. to be a high-level Al Qaeda leader) led to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh (a Yemeni national who is believed to have been an intermediary between Al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers) and that the subsequent interrogation of both led to the capture of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Bush also credits the interrogation program with the capture of other terrorists, foiled plots, and the break-up of terrorist networks. These successes in the war on terror are credited directly to the practices of the detention and interrogation program, but harsher realities are obscured. The New York Times reported that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in the month of August 2002 and that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 (Shane). In this case, the ideological work of this articulation is not in the choice of the effects, but in the choice of the practice. The linkage is dubious. Numerous reports, including a 2013 retrospective report on detainee treatment,4 casts doubt on whether any valuable information was gained via torture practices during the detention and interrogation program. By articulating unspoken torture practices to the tangible capture of prisoners, Bush is attempting to justify the extreme measures the program involved.

In articulations three and seven, Bush argues for the future value of the detention and interrogation program. He justifies the ongoing need for the interrogation practices by articulating them at various places in the speech to the past accomplishments [effects] of saving lives, winning the war, keeping terrorists off the battlefield, preventing attacks, and reacting to ongoing threat:

To win the war on terror, we must be able to detain, question, and, when appropriate, prosecute terrorists captured here in America, and on the battlefields around the world....Were it not for this program, our intelligence community believes that al Qaeda and its allies would have succeeded in launching another attack against the American homeland. By giving us information about terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else, this program has saved innocent lives. (President Discusses)

For Bush, winning the war on terror means preventing attacks and saving innocent lives. By articulating torture practices to past successes (the effects of foiled attacks and saved lives), he is also arguing for continuation of torture practices if the need to foil attacks and save lives extends into the future. Bush is arguing that the ends justify the means, but articulation theory helps us understand that no ends are essentially connected to particular means. The means and ends are articulated together to accomplish ideological and cultural work; in this case, foiled attacks are dubiously connected with a belief that brutal punishment can yield useful information from detainees.

Appropriate Treatment of Interrogators. Finally, articulation eight addresses the appropriate treatment of military and intelligence personnel who have been conducting these interrogations. Bush identifies their involvement in torture practices as tough and important work:

Our military and intelligence personnel go face to face with the world's most dangerous men every day. They have risked their lives to capture some of the most brutal terrorists on Earth. And they have worked day and night to find out what the terrorists know so we can stop new attacks. America owes our brave men and women some things in return. We owe them their thanks for saving lives and keeping America safe. And we owe them clear rules, so they can continue to do their jobs and protect our people. (President Discusses)

Bush articulates the performance of detention and interrogation practices to the effect of an existing debt. The American people owe this debt because of the interrogators’ risk taking, effectiveness, and good intentions. The moral argument of this articulation is that interrogators face evil and conduct torture on our behalf, and if we have benefited from their actions we must shield them from legal consequences. Successful torture is just if it prevents evil people from doing evil things.

Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, writing for the National Review a few weeks after Bush’s speech, accepts and extends the rhetoric of Bush’s articulations of the detention program as just torture.5 Goldberg writes, "… [M]any decent Americans understand that abuse intended to foil a murder plot is not the same as torturing political dissidents, religious minorities, and other prisoners of conscience. Here Goldberg is seeking to refute assertions that an America that tortures is no better than Stalinist Russia. He is arguing that when America tortures, it is like pushing an old lady out of the way of a speeding bus and not pushing her in front of one; there are different kinds of pushing. He continues by arguing that torture is not as egregious as deliberately taking human life:

If I waterboard you, or lock you in my basement with Duran Duran blasting at you 24/7, even if I beat you for hours with a rubber hose, my punishment will be less severe than if I murder you, simply because it is worse to take a life deliberately than to cause pain, even sadistically. We all understand this. Would you rather take some lumps in a dungeon for a month, or take a dirt nap forever? (Goldberg)

Goldberg is subtly advancing the idea that an American who tortures is morally superior to a terrorist who murders (or plots to murder), but in both of these quotes he also appeals to articulations Americans may already (culturally) accept regarding just(ified) and unjust(ified) torture. He has not invented the idea of good guys torturing bad guys for good reasons.

To justify torture as just, necessary, and effective, the articulations in Bush’s speech come together in a complex way. Articulation theory helps us discern how Bush argues for the ideological position of morally justified torture by linking practices and effects in the post 9/11 context. These articulations imply a false essentialism that the chosen practices obviously lead to these strategically chosen effects or that the effects necessitate the chosen practices. Thus, articulation is a powerful rhetorical move if you are able to create linkages that resonate with your desired audience.

In the case of torture discourse, though, Bush is not arguing in a vacuum. American news and entertainment media were awash with depictions of torture in the years following the 9/11 attacks as we all confronted the challenge of moral puzzles like the parable of the ticking time bomb on the bus full of children. Torture itself, of course, has a long cultural history, and American culture has longstanding ideological articulations concerning the right of the state to coerce information from citizens or enemies. To better understand the context in which Bush made his speech, in the next section I examine three topics: the cultural practice of torture, consumption of media accounts and depictions of torture, and moral judgments about torture.

Torture, Ideology, and Salvation

In the first decade of the 21st century, during the Bush Administration’s war on terror, torture for American citizens became something more familiar than a charge against a distant third world regime, more familiar than a scene in a gritty R-Rated movie. In that decade, media representations of torture (and also distant third world regimes that torture) came into dialogue with our own country, our own freedoms, and our own fears. Regimes that tortured citizens became close allies. Torture became more real for Americans. The concept of justifiable torture was also elaborated, constructed, and made familiar to us by television shows like 24, Alias, Lost, The Unit, and others.

Several cultural theorists have described the power of torture as both a real and media experience. Elaine Scarry, for example, argues that the act of torture takes what is normally an internal and private experience (pain) and makes it external and visible. Thus, torture is an acting out of power that operates both physically and politically. This externalization makes the pain seem “incontestably real” and thus symbolically conveys a power to the act of torture, the torturer, and the regime in whose name the act is being performed (Scarry 27). However, she points out that this illusion of incontestably real power is in tension with the illegitimacy of any regime that would need to use torture.

Citing the testimony of torture victims from around the world, Scarry identifies performative and verbal aspects. The theatrics of real acts of torture often mirror those we see presented in movies and television: dramatic lighting and movements, display of instruments, and menacing narration and exposition. The pursuit of information also plays an important role in the moral and ideological justification of outcomes. Along with pain that breaks down the sense of the victim’s selfhood, Scarry describes the interrogation as composed of two falsehoods (35). The first falsehood is the torturer’s question, which purports to justify the torture. If the question was not so important, if the prisoner did not possess such guilt and information, the torturer would not be forced to morally transgress by performing the act of torture. The second falsehood is the prisoner’s answer, which once given is taken as evidence of guilt and exonerates the transgressions of the torturer. Scarry says that at this moment, the moral valence shifts—the torturer is justified, and the prisoner is deserving of his treatment and the wretchedness of his suffering, whether the confession is true or false.

We can see the after-effect of the moral valence shift as part of Bush’s justification of the detention and interrogation program. Articulation five connects the interrogation techniques with averted attacks and captured terrorists. We wouldn’t normally think that simply because a practice is effective that it is necessary or just. Scarry, however, helps us see that when torture is articulated to successful effects, the essentialism we assume points backwards to the justness and necessity of the practice.

In the real world (and in the entertainment media), the act of torture is about ideology, a struggle for the dominance of ideas. Scarry likens torture to the “unfurling of maps”—a comparison of worldviews (36). As the prisoner’s world collapses under the duress of unbearable pain, the torturer’s worldview gains false legitimacy via the illusion of incontestably real power. At the moment of confession, the prisoner signals that his worldview is inferior or insignificant compared to that of the torturer. In movies and television, there is no greater signal of heroism and virtue than the martyr made to suffer as the avatar of a worldview too righteous to be collapsed through torture.6 Likewise in real life, we consider heroic the captive that resists and holds out against torture.

In articulations one and six, Bush signals that the American worldview have not collapsed, even though the twin towers have. He insists that even in detaining and interrogating known terrorists, the Justice Department and CIA lawyers are providing systematic oversight. That is, American ideals of the rule of law have been preserved, even while America conducts torture. The worldview of the terrorists, however, is portrayed as collapsing along with their networks and plots.

Scarry helps us understand the cultural work that the performance of torture does in real interrogation rooms; it is a strategy for false self-legitimization in real regimes. By extension, we can see how torture can be read as a moral display and plot device in fictional representations. Marita Gronnvoll points out that “Mass Media make possible what Foucault argued disappeared with prison reform, namely, torture as public spectacle” (13). She goes on to argue that moral repulsion to the display of torture behavior increases or decreases depending on who is doing the torture and who is victimized. In movies and TV shows, for example, women who torture are portrayed and read as deviant and/or lacking important feminine characteristics, but the masculinity of male torturers is never questioned either in the telling of the story or in our reception of the story as an audience (83). As torture victims, men are more often portrayed as bearing up under torture with “fearlessness and stoicism,” transcending their bodies in ways that women can’t (according to cultural expectations) (Gronnvoll 84).

Jack Bauer, the highly driven government agent in the TV show 24 (2001-2010) who foils terrorist attacks,7 is exemplary of the stoic male “warrior heroes” Gronnvoll describes. He is a “complex” and “anguished” character who loses family, friends, and colleagues across several seasons, making his unflinching use of torture seem justified to the audience (Gronnvoll 85). Gronnvoll argues that his suffering and constant escape/revenge/victory (i.e., resurrection) reshapes the mythos of the “heroic savior” in which torture is not made over as “forgivable sin” but becomes “a necessary component” of a messianic character (110). Bauer is unlike the villains who torture him for greed or power; he is reluctantly compelled to torture because of the actions of the enemy (Gronnvoll 118).

It would be inaccurate to suggest that the legions of fans that obsessively follow the show have sanctified a psychopath as a hero. Jack is depicted as torturing because his enemies have left him with no other choice, and his personal remorse for his actions is a major redemptive force for this character. As a man of action, Jack spends little time justifying his behavior. The incessant ticking clock suggests that he cannot stop for existential crises. Still, the narrative is structured in such a way as to allow for expressions of his reluctance to take extreme action even when the plot points to his having no other choice. (Gronnvoll 119)

Gronnvoll suggests that the scriptwriters of 24 place us in a position of sympathy for Jack Bauer’s brutality. As a man of action, a man propelled through a cataclysmic 24-hour day, he seems to have no choice. Some would be disappointed in him if he did not inflict torture in the situations he finds himself. Gronnvoll describes his emerging character as a “warrior Christ” figure—he becomes a savior willing to offer his life for the many, and capable of torturing on behalf of the many (121). However, his brutality is always balanced by symbolic remorse and redemption (Gronnvoll 121). This remorse, Gronnvoll argues, is a necessary dramatic element that leads to redemption: "… [R]emorse enables the hero to stand on the edge of the abyss without actually falling in, and the audience can then safely continue to identify with this conflicted, but ultimately righteous, man (122). As a character standing on the edge of the abyss in an ongoing drama, there is more than the moral reversal that Scarry describes—the sudden moral valence shift when the victim of torture confesses. The context that motivates the torture, the anguish of the choice to torture, the people who choose to torture, and the villainy that precipitates the torture become a mythic-heroic drama—a drama in which torture makes us righteous.

There is a similar tone in Bush’s military commissions speech. In Gronnvoll’s words, Bush presents torture not as a “forgivable sin” but as “a necessary component” of a dangerous new world. He does not present himself as a “heroic savior,” but he does describe the government interrogators in those terms. They use tough tactics to interrogate dangerous men who threaten to kill our families, and ultimately innocent lives are saved. We do not hear about the torturers' anguish, but Bush argues that they need salvation from war crimes prosecution and terrorist law suits.

The 24-hour context that motivates (requires) Jack Bauer to torture is more dramatically urgent than the context Bush speaks into/from, but Bush does allude to a sense of urgency following the 9/11 attacks when the U.S. government didn’t know if a second wave of attacks was imminent. This sense of surprise and urgency is at the heart of articulation two; the unconventional behavior of the terrorists necessitates that we capture and interrogate them directly, implying that indirect intelligence gathering is insufficient.

The National Popular of Torture

The context of Bush’s articulations, which includes the cultural work of shows like 24, can be understood via Gramsci’s concept of the “national popular.” Grossberg describes the national popular in constructivist terms:

[A] primary field in which hegemonic power is constructed, … the collection of material cultural practices which [are] taken to constitute the common culture of the people, and a national identity. That is, what novels, films, etc. do a particular people consume and how is this assemblage itself articulatable to a national identity? (We Gotta Get Out 255-56)

Unlike the modern concept of popular culture, Gramsci’s national popular more broadly defines a relationship between media consumption, national identity, and work sites for hegemonic construction. Obviously today the media included in Gramsci’s “etc.” would extend to television, and the terrain of the national popular is more fragmented than in Gramsci’s day (more sources, more diverse audiences). Visual and discursive representations of torture were ubiquitous between 2000 and 2010. Thus arguments made by the Bush administration to justify its torture program must address the national popular to be coherent. The President must address himself to existing articulations of torture practices within American culture.

At the time of Bush’s speech, 24 was between its 5th and 6th seasons and was part of the national popular, cultural context, and contemporary conversation about whether torturing suspected terrorists was justifiable or even heroic. In June of 2007, the conservative Heritage Foundation held a forum on terrorism that included a panel featuring the Secretary of Homeland Security, think tank experts, and production staff and actors from the show 24. Moderated by radio personality Rush Limbaugh, the panel examined how 24 “shaped America’s image in fighting terrorism” (Poniewozik). Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was in the audience. It was also rumored or alleged, but never publicly confirmed, that President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were viewers of 24 (Poniewozik; Sengupta). It is necessarily in the context of the cultural dialogue between shows like 248 and the U.S. Government that the Government talks to citizens about its decision to torture.

Even if the Bush Administration was oblivious to shows like 24, the American people were aware of torture discourse from both political and entertainment sources. Jennifer Ballengee provides insight into this highly charged Post-9/11-War-On-Terror rhetorical situation and what happens when we (citizens and audience members) are presented with torture discourse. Though we may be primed to view mythic-heroic torture as virtuous, media images of torture are none-the-less troubling and confusing for audiences. Ballangee argues that torture images are polysemic and “may produce a range of possible meanings” (9). The audience’s response to torture imagery is thus ripe for rhetorical manipulation because their response is “illogical, empathetic, immediate [and yet] feels certain” (Ballengee 9). Our visceral and morally ambiguous experience as a viewer makes it difficult for us to sort out the meaning and implications of the act for ourselves—a difficulty which makes us vulnerable to the ideological framing of others.


Articulation theory provides a valuable framework for understanding how one could exploit the incontestable realness and moral uncertainty people experience when consuming torture discourse by invoking appropriate articulations. Some of the cultural perceptions Scarry and Gronnvoll describe function as articulations that connect torture practices with societal effects in ways that argue for moral certainty. Effective torture that produces confessions is understood as necessary and just. Torture that is performed within a legal and careful framework signals the superiority of the uncollapsible American worldview and ideology. A context of uncertain threats following the 9/11 attacks is articulated to the need to quickly capture and interrogate members of the terrorist networks themselves.

Bush creates in his speech a network of articulations that present the detention and interrogation program as necessary, just, and effective. Some of these articulations cross-pollinate with existing cultural articulations that participate in the national popular, the space where people parse the ideology and morality of torture. For those in the public who are morally flummoxed by media depictions of torture, rhetoric like that in the military commissions speech seeks to provide moral certainty for the righteousness of American torture.

Evidence suggests that attitudes toward torture practices have changed since the military commissions speech, perhaps indicating that Bush’s arguments for the morality of torture were successful. In particular, more people approve and fewer people disapprove of torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. According to a 2012 article by Amy Zegart, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, poll respondents in 2012 favored specific types of torture more than respondents did in 2005:

Respondents in 2012 are more pro-waterboarding, pro-threatening prisoners with dogs, pro-religious humiliation, and pro-forcing-prisoners-to-remain-naked-and-chained-in-uncomfortable-positions-in-cold-rooms. (Zegart)

Most notable is the increased support for waterboarding and chaining naked prisoners in stress positions (See Table 2). Citing the same 2012 poll, Zegart offers the influence of spy-themed movies and television shows as one explanation:

Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening terrorist detainees with dogs.

In the same article she reports that enough people tweeted thanks to Jack Bauer after the killing of Osama Bin Laden that Bauer’s name became a trending topic (a year after 24 went off the air). Bauer’s fictional torture practices, enacted to gain crucial information and defeat fictional terrorist networks, was inextricably linked within the national popular to real-world torture and defeat of real terrorist networks.

This polling and anecdotal data supports the idea that media depictions of torture have interacted with political arguments and ideological articulations of torture to persuade more people of the value of torture. We could say that this constitutes success for the arguments and articulations in Bush’s speech.

Support for Stress Positions: Forcing prisoners to remain naked and chained in uncomfortable positions in cold rooms for several hours.
Right Wrong
2005 Jan 7-9 18 79
2012 Aug 24-30 30 51
Support for Waterboarding: Strapping prisoners on boards and forcing their heads underwater until they think they are drowning
Right Wrong
2005 Jan 7-9 16 82
2012 Aug 24-30 25 55

Table 2. Comparison of Public Opinion Polls on Support for Torture Techniques in 2005 (USA TODAY) and 2012 (Zegart). In both polls, respondents were asked: “Here is a list of possible interrogation techniques that can be used on prisoners. Do you think it is right or wrong for the U.S. government to use them on prisoners suspected of having information about possible terrorist attacks against the United States?”

It is perhaps not surprising that the plot of the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty tracks closely to the content of the military commissions speech, since they are telling the same story at different points in time. The articulations in the speech that argue for necessary, just, and effective torture are largely the same articulations the film uses to tell the mythic-heroic story of the CIA agents who located Osama Bin Laden. In the movie, detainee interrogation and torture are depicted as the only way to achieve certainty. Once the detainee interrogation program is shut down, agents are shown struggling to gain and confirm intelligence through “tradecraft.” The movie features this discussion between a CIA supervisor (George) and the Whitehouse National Security Advisor:

National Security Advisor: You get the point. If you can't prove it's bin Laden, at least prove it's not someone else, like a drug dealer.
[the NSA and his assistant adjourn the meeting and get up to leave]
George: You know we lost the ability to prove them when we lost the detainee program. Who the hell am I supposed to ask? Huh? Some guy in Gitmo who's all lawyered up? He'll just tell his lawyer to warn bin Laden.
National Security Advisor: You'll think of something.
(Zero Dark Thirty Quotes)

This conversation suggests that America is safer and more efficient in its ability to pursue the war on terror when it has the ability to torture. In 2006 Bush was making his articulations in dialogue with media depictions of torture, and in 2012 his articulations are the basis for an academy award nominated movie. The military commission speech articulations of torture are indefatigable; they have become part of the national popular in such a way that the detention and interrogation program has been articulated to the effect of killing Bin Laden.

Other rhetorical approaches could be used to examine the moves and successes of the military commissions speech, but articulation theory provides coherent and convenient ways to bring cultural theory into the discussion of arguments on topics like torture. Grossberg discusses Stuart Hall’s distinction between domination through consensus and hegemonic struggle. In a consensus model, society is hierarchically composed of two groups, one dominant and one subordinate, where “the dominant group organizes the subordinate population and culture ‘from above’” (Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out, 244). Hegemonic struggles, in contrast, involve societal groups (“fractions”) that are multiple and diverse. Fractions must form blocs to articulate their beliefs and compete within Gramsci’s “war of positions” (Grossberg, We Gotta Get Out, 244-45). Bush makes his arguments about torture within a national popular that contains both positive and negative articulations regarding torture. Audiences can see torture as both moral and immoral, and successfully articulating the CIA detention and interrogation program as morally valuable is not a given.

An examination of Bush’s speech can help us understand how articulations can function as moral arguments. If a rhetor is being strategic in the interplay of her articulations and her larger argument, she can reference articulations that are accepted by her audience. She can mention certain practices and their accepted effects, reinforcing their moral significance for the audience. She can also attempt to connect or reconnect (articulate or rearticulate) a given practice to specific effects. If that practice is potentially unpopular with the audience (e.g., torture, vaccinating pre-teen girls for HPV, raising property taxes), one could link the practice to effects that are going to have a positive moral or ideological valence. As rhetorical critics, this implementation of articulation theory gives us additional tools to intervene in the moral debates that are important to our lives.


1 As with any Presidential address or policy, the contributors, architects, and authors are multifarious. For the purposes of simplicity, I will discuss the speech Bush delivered and his policies as emanating from Bush as Synecdoche for the myriad of contributors to the whole. All of these things funnel through the Presidential speaking position.

2 The internal quote references the essay “The Palaestral Aspect of Rhetoric” by F.G. Bailey included in the Carrithers' book.

3 Latour introduces the term “predication” on page 143 of Pandora’s Hope, but defines it in detail in the glossary on page 309.

4 Finding number three on page 10 of The Report of the Constitution Project's Task Force on Detainee Treatment reads “There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. Forces produced significant information of value. There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable.”

5 Perhaps we could count Goldberg’s extension of arguments made in the military commissions speech as a sign of the “success” of Bush’s articulations. Note further that he uses the term “torture” to defend what the Bush administration is doing.

6 Think of Jack Bauer from 24 as the symbolic placeholder for the indefatigable idea of America or the Dread Pirate Wesley from The Princess Bride as the symbolic placeholder for true love.

7 The premise behind the show 24 is that each episode in a 24-installment story arc represents one hour in a day where Bauer must quickly detect a terrorist plot, discover who is involved, convince superiors of the appropriate course of action, go outside the law when superiors won’t listen, and fight, kill, and capture those responsible.

8 We can include shows like Alias and The Unit that ran contemporaneously with 24. Each of these post-9/11 shows depicted elite government operatives conducting or enduring torture.

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