Split Screens

Lynndie England is dressed in an orange jump suit -- Prisoner Number 9J7327 -- with her stringy hair pulled back. She stares at the audience in the Culture Project's theater on New York's Bleecker Street. Several feet away, a British journalist attaches Post-its to a board. They are separated from each other by the length of the stage -- as well as by nationality, education, and class. Yet, as the audience learns during Peter Morris's award-winning play, Guardians, which opens at the Culture Project on April 11, their lives are intertwined because of Abu Ghraib.

Guardians, which presents an insightful study of the intersection between the political and human dimensions of the torture scandal, allows us to see the issue from the perspective not of legal experts or of administration critics and apologists but of two individuals who have been swept up in its wake. The play presents two competing monologues: one in the voice of American Girl, or Lynndie England, played by Katherine Moenning; the other that of English Boy, played by Lee Pace, an Oxford-educated, tabloid journalist who has longed for a career in pornography but “settled” for the more respectable journalism, and who, living his life in service to the gods of ambition, has fabricated pictures of torture to advance his career.

These two people, personally implicated in U.S. torture policy, for better or worse, don't quite get it -- not completely, at least -- and aren't able to see much beyond their own lives. They are bit players in a larger drama that has revealed the cruel perversions and intentional deceit of a world that exists as much inside the corridors of power as within S&M parlors and the abusive lives of some American families in the rural south.

Interspersed in English Boy's disdain for the war and his eye for the opportunism of the conflict are his confessions about his life as a gay man who enjoys belting his boyfriend and watching him physically abused by other gay men. The boyfriend, who's known as Timmy, first appeals to English Boy because he has been through army training and has reveled in its practices: “You don't think. Don't think about work, paying the rent, anything. You just do what you're told.” It dawns on English Boy: “He's a submissive. It's a match.”

And he follows him home. The spanking session that follows leads to an epiphany. “Frankly fucking is fucking and…and this was transcendent. I wanted to live in that moment. Wanted the experience to linger…I wanted something to hold onto. A souvenir.” In this moment, English Boy grasps the powerful potential of fabricating pictures. “Journalism,” he reasons, “is pornography.” Journalists “love to flatter themselves that they do have cold blood and forked tongues.” Peering into the pain of others, crafting stories designed to titillate, they provide the “lens of power” which equates the “ordinary person's experience of power” with geopolitics. The English boy may be willing to lie in his work to get ahead, but in admitting to its essence, he refuses to succumb to the lie.

“While you are free to resent it, I'm not free to misrepresent it,” he says.
He equates his deceit with what the United States and Britain did to get into the war: “Let's call what I did ‘framing the guilty.' I looked at the war, I called it criminal, and I fabricated evidence to stop it. It's the same way the war got started, after all. Framing the guilty's what Britain and America did to Saddam Hussein.”

Essentially, both characters are reckoning with the United States in Iraq, not as a policy matter, but as an expression of human indecency, and as such, as something continuous with life as they already knew it to be before references to torture began to appear in the press. In the words of American Girl, “If it suck more to be a girl in the army, well fuck it, you try bein' a girl in West Virginia. That really sucks….Like the drill useta say in basic training, he'd say: YOU. WEST VIRGINIA. YOU A VIRGIN? And I'd say: SIR YES SIR. And He'd say, GUESS THAT MEANS YOU CAN RUN FASTER THAN YOUR BROTHER THEN.”

What we discover is a kind of blankness or bewilderment at being rebuked for being involved in something as natural and everyday as physical abuse. There is little moral outrage about torture here, little sense of shame, just plain personal resentment coupled with a sense of institutional abuse that mirrors the abuse she has known since childhood.

The dark import of the play is that there is something logical about what has happened, something consistent, something almost predictable, and yet also something unbearably, excruciatingly, humanly sad. In addition to the searing understanding of the personal details of the Abu Ghraib incident, Morris has hit upon a deeper problem -- the disconnectedness of the American public from itself. English Boy and American Girl never speak to one another, each is living his/her own story; one is rewarded for participating in the illegal excesses of this war and one is punished for it representation. On each side of the stage, an interpretation of war takes place; both versions contend that everything is the same and yet that everything is exceptional. And within each narrative, there are the further contradiction embodied in each of the characters, both victims of their contexts, both victimizers of others. By displaying the two contrasting stories side by side in a theatrical version of split-screen cinema, playwright Morris has hinted at something genuinely profound -- a split-screen syndrome from which the American public has displayed in responding to the Abu Ghraib scandal since it came to light in the spring of 2004. For the American public, there is a lack of exchange, a disconnectedness, between the portfolio of opportunist and that of realist. The American public is on both sides simultaneously, rewarded and punished, victim and oppressor.

This split-screen syndrome from which the American public suffers grows out of a basic contradiction that has existed since September 11, the contradiction between the assertion that we are living in a new paradigm, a vastly different world than before 9-11, and the assertion that we can go on existing in the world as we did before. The country, the president and his advisers insist, has been forced to take action against terrorists and in so doing, the leaders must “take off their gloves” and break the old rules. The country is also told, however, that the government is behaving absolutely normally, absolutely legally, absolutely according to the Constitution. In the name of safety, the Bush administration has created a national security strategy for which torture is a logical outcome. Torture, like the war on terror itself, has been done in secrecy, and the policy perpetrators have carried out both with an eye towards escaping accountability to the point where, when confronted with accusations, they rely as English Boy does on “speaking power to truth” in the name of the deeper principle of personal survival.

This split-screen syndrome -- in which normality and abnormality, vulnerability and power, democracy and domination jostle side by side -- has laid the unstable ground for a crisis of identity, a confusion of thought and behavior, that is apparent not only in the government but also in ordinary citizens. The result is a notable paralysis that is manifest in the passivity of the populace, wrapping itself in denial of the dangers that surround and in a deflection of responsibility for government behavior.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this play is the message it sends about the future. In Morris' play, the quest for justice is futile. “And those guys are like God,” The American Girl tells us, referring to the President and his advisors who sent the country to war, “'cause you can blame ‘em for all the shit that happens – you should blame ‘em, ‘cause it's their fault – but you can't catch ‘em and haul their ass into a court-martial like you're doin with me. Know why? ‘Cause you don't got pictures a them.”

This, then, seems to be an essential part of the political and psychological context that precedes the answer to the question, where do we go from Abu Ghraib? Where is the reckoning?

As the play suggests, this is a complicated question that calls into question basic notions of the American identity. The follow-up to Abu Ghraib, therefore, is not just about punishing individuals, not just about redressing wrongs, it is about restoring a sense of security in the American citizenry, a sense of security based on open-eyed realism, not on head-in-the-sand denial, and a self-understanding of citizens not just as victims of terror but also as victims of a policy that was never clearly explained but that has now patently gone awry.


In Guardians, we see a Lynndie England who is the submissive to a guard's increasingly perverse sexual demands, which included punching her and forcing her into a ménage a trios. By the time it comes to the prisoners, she sees it as just one more form of being raped by him. The sadomasochistic elements in both monologues of Guardians share certain characteristics. For one thing, it is overwhelming and as such transformative.

As English Boy tells us, “As I pulled my leg back to kick him, and realized that -- that I was actually drooling. So wholly possessed I couldn't even keep my mouth shut. The last thing I remember, really. Is me, slackjawed, slavering, slipping away into -- some other world. Like a spastic, a pedophile, some subhuman creature charging forward, fully in the grip of its own mindless concupiscence. An American.”

American Girl describes her fooling around with the guard, identified as Charlie, as “one of those things that just sweeps over you like, like a combine harvester munchin over the amber waves of grain. You get plucked, and shucked, and spun every which way till you don't even know what you're doin anymore, or if it's you that's doin it. I sure didn't.”

In confusion lies lack of responsibility. And, as James Gilligan, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania writes in his illuminating study Violence, “The whole story includes, inescapably, the lives of the victimizers.”

This, then, seems to be the ultimate question raised by Morris. Who, really, are the victimizers? To Morris, they are regular Americans, from the President on down to England. The question, following Gilligan then, is who, essentially, are the Americans, both those in the military detention centers and those in Washington, D.C.? The answer is complex, but would come to light with some clarity in an independent investigation or Congressional inquiry. Testimony, after all, by definition brings an end to silence, and the inchoate impulses displayed at Abu Ghraib, into the realm of speech. More importantly, the basis for such an inquiry would be clarification of the American character in this new age and the integration of the split screen into a cohesive picture. Until this occurs, however, the American public will have to glean what it can from the words of a playwright.

“‘Cause look. Everybody in the world seen me doing what I did wrong. Which -- here's the funny part -- it only proves that really, I'm nobody. ‘Cause the powerful people? The folks I was takin' orders from? They're invisible.”

Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law and the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. She is also the editor of The Torture Debate in America, just released, and of Al Qaeda Now.