Bayoumi Elaborates on “Disco Inferno”

‘America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq. But the age of colonialism is over. Waging a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating.’

No, these are not the words of Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy or Howard Zinn. They were written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, ex-Cold Warrior and National Security Adviser; and I was referred to them by Dr. Moustafa Bayoumi when I was dumb enough to ask him whether a colonial mindset has permeated the Iraq War from its very inception.

‘No question,’ Dr. Bayoumi answered as though I had pointed out a truism hardly worthy of his time, ‘in fact it’s getting worse.’

Dr. Bayoumi, associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, came to UT on Thursday, Feb 8th, to discuss his upcoming book on Arab-Americans. He is also the author of ‘Disco Inferno,’ the widely acclaimed article accessible on The Nation‘s website that documents American soldiers incessantly playing pop and rock music at deafening volumes to torture prisoners from Abu Ghraib to Guant’aacute;namo Bay.

Having the chance to sit down with him, I was interested in exploring the roots of torture music as a means in conquest; the reaction of indifference, if not outright countenance, from Americans to its employment; and, most interestingly, the generating conditions for such brutality among American soldiers.

To be sure, brusquely painting all soldiers with a monolithic brush betrays the complex and nuanced realities of the situation, as has been correctly pointed out to me by several students on campus since I did just that two weeks ago.

To do justice to the complex reality requires a lengthier explanation, which begins with the premise, open to debate as are all other premises, that the United States Army must be considered murderous. It does not logically follow that individual members of the institution are necessarily murderers.

However, since the work of institutions is always carried out by individuals, many members of the United States Army are and have to become murderers merely to do their job.

The simple observation that people with a multiplicity of motives’mdash;ranging from those bloodthirsty recruits who expressly joined to kill Arabs to those who joined for discipline or college funds and find the thought of having to kill abhorrent’mdash;can end up collectively as murderers points to the obvious fact that ultimate responsibility lies not with individual motives but with the situation itself, and with civilian policymakers in Washington for creating that situation.

But while the situation ineluctably brings forth individuals as murderers, is the emergence of individuals as torturers equally unavoidable? The torture music incidents documented by Dr. Bayoumi reveal a specific type of torture, cultural torture, and I asked him if he considered it an inevitable correlate of the colonial enterprise.

‘All colonial endeavors come with a cultural baggage,’ he responded, noting that it is ‘part of the colonial impulse.’ Culture as torture is indeed Pentagon policy, as ‘Disco Inferno’ points out. But this impulse can assume different manifestations, and it is the particularly repugnant form that it has assumed as torture music, or ‘torture lite’ as strata of the sycophantic media would have it, which is both novel and ominous: novel because culture becomes a weapon to be used as a means of conquest; ominous because its passing as acceptable portends the imminent realization of Aim’eacute; C’eacute;saire’s observation that colonization ‘decivilizes’ the colonizer in addition to dehumanizing the colonized.

Recent breakthroughs in technology, Dr. Bayoumi pointed out, have provided antiquated colonial impulses with the unprecedented possibility of using culture as a colonial weapon.

As his article explains, cultural differences can be exploited as a strategy for domination; by relentlessly blaring a cacophony of Metallica, Eminem, Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen, America identifies its decadent way of life with its military might and thus conveys the ubiquity of American domination and the futility of resistance.

Perhaps that Napoleonic message is comforting to the inhabitants of Super-America, which may explain our reaction to torture music’s employment as, in the words of Dr. Bayoumi, ‘a frat-house prank taken one baby-step further.’ But he agreed with me that there is more at work here than just the ‘decivilizing’ influence of colonialism.

When I suggested that the detachment between Americans and our country’s actions abroad erects an artificial ‘wonderland’ of sorts where everything outside is less real, Dr. Bayoumi spoke in consonance of a ‘fictitious Hollywood view of the world.’ What he referred to as the ‘normalization of torture’ can be readily observed anywhere in mainstream culture. He offered ’24’ as an example: ‘A show like ’24’ normalizes torture. It’s like waking up, having breakfast and cutting somebody’s ear off; it’s just the way things are done.’

Thus, and naturally, we arrived at the indispensable role of the so-called ‘independent’ media. His conception of a ‘nexus between the powerful and the media’ harmonized well with my proposition that the media has, by and large, become a mouthpiece for rather than a watchdog on power. Our celebrated ‘independent’ and ‘critical’ media ably beat the war drums that first made possible the use of torture music and then remarkably devoted its reservoir of sophistry to help justify it once employed.

But, alas, the warped subjectivity of ‘media world’ is not reality. Ultimately, Zbig had it right: ‘a colonial war in the post-colonial age is self-defeating.’ This simple axiom that Dr. Bayoumi referred me to explains not only why we will sustain, in the words of an old war hawk, ‘a total and unmitigated defeat’ in Iraq; it also accounts for our collective ‘decivilization’ and our acceptance of new forms of innovative brutality.

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