I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to see Standard Operating Procedure, the new Errol Morris documentary about the goings-on at Abu Ghraib. I had already seen Taxi to the Dark Side, the Oscar-winning account of the detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay and the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, as well as Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, so of course I needed to see S.O.P. in order to be a torture “completist.” I had read my good friend Bob Cashill’s review of S.O.P. here on Popdose a couple weeks back, and I can’t stand it when he knows something I don’t. Plus I had Jeff Giles (that sadistic bastard) hounding me to see it, claiming he wanted to hear my “take” on it. Frankly, I felt like multiple forces of man and nature were holding a filthy rag over my face and pouring Standard Operating Procedure down my throat.

Harold and Kumar at GitmoSo I went – dutifully, and with a sense of dread. And when it was over I felt suitably disturbed, disgusted with my government…unclean, even…and mostly I just wanted to see a normal movie. Perhaps one in which I could scarf my popcorn without worrying about getting a screenful of electrode-laden testicles. So I went to the multiplex, looking for a bit of frivolity, and the marquee read “Harold and Kumar.” Great! A light stoner comedy with the R-rated promise of a little T&A. So I go in, and it starts out nice and funny and a little dirty, and then these two ethnic guys head into an airplane toilet with a battery-powered bong, and…goddammit! There’s Gitmo again! WTF!?!

You know perfectly well I made that last part up. I apologize – but how else was I supposed to rationalize the fact that I’m probably the only person in America (apart from Ebert & Roeper, maybe) who saw both Standard Operating Procedure AND Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay this week?

Oh, the sacrifices I make for you, dear reader. Of course, there was a method to my madness, which was to figure out exactly where torture fits into the American zeitgeist as of mid-May 2008. It’s a fair question. We’ve had visions of “harsh interrogations” dancing in our heads at least since the Abu Ghraib photos emerged in spring 2004, if not since Kiefer Sutherland first went medieval on somebody’s ass on 24 shortly after 9/11. Just this week, a committee of the House of Representatives announced a subpoena for Dick Cheney’s Rasputin-like chief of staff, David Addington, to testify (alongside John Ashcroft and John Yoo) about the initial decision-making that led the “War on Terror” to so closely resemble the Spanish Inquisition. Heck, the presidential nominee of George Bush’s own party was a victim of torture himself, while the Democratic Party seems unable to escape the dungeon of that D.C. dominatrix, Mistress Hillary.

Lynndie England's thumbs-upIf, at this point, you’re thinking, “Hey, Jon, this is all slightly amusing, but shouldn’t you be taking a subject like torture a bit more seriously?”…well, no shit, Sherlock. I’ve been taking torture seriously for years – shocked and appalled that my country would even consider employing the types of brutal (and ineffective) methods for which we tried, convicted and executed German and Japanese interrogators after World War II. Not to mention the casual, prankish way in which the goon squad at Abu Ghraib abused their detainees (and photographed themselves doing it with thumbs aloft, seeming to revel in their descent into sub-human behavior) – and the similarly casual way that Bush-administration thugs and their apologists dismissed such behavior as akin to “fraternity hazing” or “locker-room towel-snapping.”

For four years now I’ve been waiting for the American people – or at least their representatives in Congress, each and every one of whom has sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States – to get their thumbs out of their asses and call the Bushies to account for their crimes against American and international law. Why didn’t John Kerry devote part of every speech and every debate to the issue in 2004? Was it because taking such a stance didn’t poll well? And why is it only this week that Congress is whipping up subpoenas to find out just how far up the chain of command the torture policies initiated? What can they possibly hope to accomplish at this late date, with Bush and Cheney cruising toward their January 20 getaway and the current Republican nominee not only on record against torture but unable to lift his arms above his head because of it?

To be honest, I’m kinda sick of taking torture seriously – particularly if the rest of the country refuses to do so. On this issue, as on so many others, We the People – and our elected representatives – have chosen to thrust our collective head firmly into the sand, hoping against hope that we can somehow get to next January without George & Dick destroying the whole planet. We all seem to have decided that, yes, our government has been torturing/wiretapping/ destroying Iraq/denying habeus corpus/ignoring global warming/ botching Katrina/manipulating elections/soiling our good name/ spending us into oblivion/selling us out to the oil companies for eight long years — but we also seem convinced that as soon as those guys are gone we’ll turn this boat around and steer clear of the iceberg that’s already…ripping…through the hull.

Rob Corddry interrogates Harold and KumarI mean, come on! We’ve already zipped right through shock and anger and disgust, zoomed right past accountability – and turned torture into a plot point in a stoner comedy! Harold and Kumar don’t get to experience the joys of waterboarding, but they are very nearly forced by a Gitmo guard to become the bread in a “cockmeat sandwich.” Once they escape the prison, they take a Borat-style road trip through the worst Southern stereotypes (hulking black men, inbred rednecks, a Klan rally, the best little whorehouse in Texas) – all the while avoiding the Javert-like pursuit of a moronic, bumbling Homeland Security apparatchik who epitomizes the sheer idiocy of American policy circa 2008.

That all of this is played for laughs – and that most of it works, and seems just slightly exaggerated and irreverent rather than treasonous – speaks volumes about how far this country has fallen in its own estimation, not to mention the rest of the world’s. In fact, Harold and Kumar, for all its jocularity, serves as a more profound indictment of our nation’s time-out from morality than does Standard Operating Procedure.

The latter film is, in fact, a complex and deeply layered study in moral ambiguity, and offers few of the “tsk, tsk” moments engendered by such recent docs as Taxi to the Dark Side and No End in Sight. Errol Morris, breaking out his usual arsenal of extreme close-ups and metaphorical visual abstractions, allows Abu Ghraib darlings Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl and Sabrina Harman (as well as several of their male counterparts and former superiors) to point fingers in all sorts of directions, including at themselves. Morris relies exclusively on the stories of these American perpetrators and their investigators, taking a much narrower focus than did Taxi director Alex Gibney. That focus, and the guards’ stories, are compelling – yet somehow they’re still not as compelling as the photographs, which have always been the real story of Abu Ghraib.

Lynndie England interviewed in S.O.P.Morris takes his time drawing out the ethical complexity of those photos, but eventually it becomes clear that when it comes to assigning blame for the atrocities committed at the Baghdad prison, the photos are part of the problem rather than the solution. Investigator Brent Pack notes that the presence of a soldier in a photograph that showed detainee abuse usually served as definitive evidence that the soldier was responsible for that abuse. However, Harman claims she was a participant in the photo-orgy in order to become a whistle-blower; England complains that she was made to appear such a central figure in the abuse because other soldiers were cropped out of the photos; and Private Jeremy Sivits insists (with corroboration from other soldiers) that he was not a participant in any crimes, but that he served a year in jail because he was caught on camera while escorting a prisoner to the “hard site” at ringleader Chip Frederick’s behest. (Morris confuses the issue even further with his re-creations of scenes such as the iconic hood-and-wires stress position.)

Who was cropped out of this photo?Morris makes little effort to place responsibility for Abu Ghraib higher up the chain of command. In fact, by the end of S.O.P. he makes it clear how easy it was, because of the hard photographic evidence, for higher-ups (all the way up to Don Rumsfeld) to deflect responsibility from themselves and blame the abuse exclusively on the “bad apples” within the prison. Such an outcome certainly suited the Bush administration, as it did the partisan True Believers who have been willing for eight years to excuse, deny, or simply ignore everything from incompetence to evil in order to keep the Republican Party in power.

That’s the real lesson of the (largely non-existent) torture “debate”: that all notions of right and wrong – on the part of those on the right who made immoral policy decisions, as well as those on the left who chose not to hold them accountable – have been tossed out the window in both parties’ single-minded pursuit of political dominance. Republicans will blame this trend on Bill Clinton’s indiscretions and the Democrats’ refusal to vote for his impeachment; Democrats will go back even further, to the right wing’s obsessive pursuit of the unbearable lightness that was Whitewater.

Regardless of the origins of this moral cowardice, it must in the end be seen for what it is. In retrospect, how brave and honorable must have been those House and Senate Republicans of 1973-74, who saw Richard Nixon’s crimes for what they were, and forced him to account for them! Such honor is sorely lacking in our politicians today, from either party. Thank goodness, then, that our nation’s moral failings are so damned amusing.