Friday, December 7, 2012
The Instruments of Torture exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man wants us to consider if there is a time for torture. [WARNING: Some material is disturbing.]
Today is the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a time when the United States was under attack. The U.S. also fell under attack on 9/11. During such times the tolerance for considering torture as a tool goes up, something raised in the upcoming film "Zero Dark Thirty." The Instruments of Torture exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man wants us to consider if there is a time for torture. [WARNING: SOme material is disturbing.]
The San Diego Museum of Man's Instruments of Torture features such iconic implements from the last four centuries as the Iron Maiden, the Rack, and the Guillotine. All of the artifacts come from the Museum of Torture in Italy. The two museums previously collaborated on a similar exhibit more than a decade ago says Rex Garniewicz.
"I think that our perspective on torture has changed significantly since the exhibit was brought here in 2000 and part of that has been the effect of the terrorist attack on America on 9/11 and we wanted to talk in this particular version of the exhibit about our capacity to torture other people."
Garniewicz is the chief operating officer for programs and collections. He points out that the exhibit's title does not merely refer to the artifacts on display.
"We're the instruments of torture, we were in the middle ages and we are today," he says.
The museum has a mission to inspire human connections by exploring the human experience, and torture is a dark part of the human experience but an important aspect to explore. Garniewicz says the medieval instruments of torture are not merely relics from the past.
"I originally started talking about these Medieval instruments as a slice in time but I realized they are not a slice in time that some of these techniques of torture have continued to today and so torture globally is not that much different from the middle ages."
Kathi Anderson is executive director of Survivors of Torture International.
"The latest report by Amnesty International notes that a hundred and one countries currently use torture on a systematic basis, and that there are survivors from having been tortured. Some do remain in their countries but many have to flee for their own safety and they go to countries of safe haven such as the United States and specifically to San Diego."
Garniewicz says, "I had no idea there were so many survivors of torture in San Diego, over 11,000 survivors of torture in San Diego County is actually about the same number of torture survivors as homeless people so you see the homeless all the time and they are visible but survivors of torture are invisible."
So the museum wanted to place the exhibit in a contemporary context for visitors.
"When they walk into the exhibit," states Garniewicz, "the first panel shows the bombing of the twin towers and it elicits an emotional response from people we've been attacked and the reason for doing that is we want to explore our capacity as individuals to torture other people. We say that we won't torture but if we are put in the right situation we do torture and being attacked as a country I think made us feel like we would do anything to prevent this from happening again."
And so you get The Ticking Time Bomb scenario that's played out in the media and in shows such as "24."
"The Ticking Time Bomb," Garniewicz explains, "is where you have this limited amount of time, you have a terrorist suspect in custody, would you torture that person to save the lives of 10,000 other people? And that sort of moral dilemma that you are faced with makes you sort of emotional decision, like yes I would torture that person to save all these other people."
Anderson adds, "Prior to 9/11 we as Americans always said torture is horrible and that is not a value of our country, it is not part of who we are, it's not our character. We're always proud of that. But then 9/11 happened and there were conversations, hmm, I wonder if torture is okay or not?... We as an organization, our clients, we always say torture is never, ever okay."
The exhibit highlights instruments of torture like the Spanish Inquisition's Interrogation Chair that was designed to elicit information from victims. But Garniewicz says the exhibit dispels the myth that torture is mainly used to gain information.
"In ninety percent of the cases of torture," Garniewicz says, "they don't want any information from the people at all, they just want to instill fear."
And to use fear to control people. Devices like Scold's bridle were used specifically on women says Garniewicz, "They were used to keep women in domestic servitude in the middle ages. So if you spoke up against authority or took a stand against an issue you could actually be subjected to some of these really horrible tortures that you see in the middle ages. But again all of these are used to control populations and to keep people from speaking up. And I think it's important for us to reflect upon that and see that that happened in the past in order to prevent it from happening in the present, and sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we are better now. And I think we have to always been on guard against that."
By allowing people to see some of these real devices makes an impact that photos and videos simply can't convey. Garniewicz felt that emotional impact firsthand: "This is actually the object that I find the most disturbing out of this entire exhibit, they are saws that were used to saw people in half and that seems like it's bad enough in and of itself but when you read the stories people were hung upside down so that blood would remain in their heads and they'd remain conscious for a longer period of time. So the amount of thought that went into some of these forms of torture and cruelty was really unbelievable to me."
Anderson says, "People are genuinely interested in this topic. And they want to know more so I'm really glad the museum has chosen to have the exhibit here in San Diego to continue the dialogue."
But Garniewicz states, "What we wanted to do is at the end of the exhibit allow people to see some light at the end of the tunnel so these are some things people can do to stand up against torture we look at the bystander effect and how we tend to be bystanders and how we can be upstanders. And some of the upstanders that are highlighted on that panel are ordinary people."
And that's the message the museum wants people to leave with, that we all have the ability to stand up against torture.
Here is a list of films that deal with torture in various ways:
"The Stoning of Saroya S."
"Death and the Maiden"
And the "torture porn" franchises "Saw" and "Hostel."
And torture is used in the early scenes of "Zero Dark Thirty." Here's the trailer for the film that opens December 19th.