Fighting the Others: Torture and Fear in Lost by Laura Bet
The September 11th attacks in New York not only took thousands of lives, but also sent the United States hurtling towards war and sent shockwaves through American culture and society. As a climate of fear and paranoia took hold over the country, our military began to resort to extreme measures in the interest of protecting national security. During the Bush Administration, the tense post-9/11 climate was reflected in much of pop culture, the television show Lost being a primary example. This sci-fi series’ warfare narrative draws many parallels with the U.S. War on Terror, and in a 2006 episode entitled “One of Them,” the series tackles the issue of torture as part of its broader context of conflict between two groups of characters. Although the episode perpetuates a stereotype that is harmful to our real-life application of its message, Lost still ultimately argues that society risks losing its humanity when it demonizes and fears another group of people. This is shown through the characters’ attitude toward their enemy group, the use of torture on a prisoner, and the ramifications of the torture. The situations presented have direct applications to controversial American military interrogation techniques and encourage the audience to think critically about our society’s justifications for violence.
In Lost, a plane crashes on a mysterious island and the survivors must fight to make their way back to civilization. The tropical island on which they are stranded turns out to be no ordinary place—it contains a mysterious monster, polar bears, and an enigmatic group of native inhabitants. In its second season, Lost begins to pit the original inhabitants of the island against the plane crash survivors. In the episode “One of Them,” a strange man is discovered in the woods and is captured by Danielle Rousseau, one of the survivors. She insists that the man is a member of the enemy group, though the man denies it, and she hands him into the custody of one of the main protagonists, Sayid Jarrah. Sayid is left to decide how to deal with the new prisoner, not knowing whether the man is an innocent castaway or a spy from the enemy camp. Sayid’s decisions in this episode and the survivors’ larger overarching battle with the island’s original inhabitants can be analyzed in light of contemporary real-world conflict.
The enemy group in Lost is referred to by the survivors as “the Others,” which connects seamlessly with the use of the term Other in sociological studies today. Put simply, labeling a group of people as “Other” means separating that group from one’s definition of “we.” Brian L. Ott explores the different manifestations and ramifications of labeling people as Other in his essay, “(Re)Framing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World.” He explains that the way we describe groups of people shapes the way we think about those groups—if we use demonizing, homogenizing language, for example, then the group will be perceived as evil and subhuman. The language used regarding the Others on Lost certainly fits this model of ostracizing a group. The very title they are given makes them inherently separate from the main characters, and they are regarded as uniformly evil and threatening. This is not entirely without reason, since the Others have abducted, attacked, and spied on the survivors from the day they arrived on the island. The survivors live in fear and hatred of the mysterious Others, and the language used to discuss the Others reflects the hostile climate between the two groups.
The fearful, demonizing language used by the survivors naturally separates the main group from the Others, and this creates the warlike atmosphere of the show. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke posits that “identification is compensatory to division”—our allegiance to one group sets us inherently apart from all other groups. Therefore, division is what makes war possible. It is “the ultimate disease of cooperation” because it gives people an enemy to fight against (23). The concept of torturing one’s own next door neighbor is nauseating; the thought of bombing one’s hometown is unthinkable. However, these acts become significantly less troublesome if the one being tortured or the people being bombed are separate and Other. The survivors on the island identify themselves as a united front, and see the Others as inherently different and evil. One of the survivors, John Locke, suggests to a group of his companions, “Maybe it’s time we stopped blaming us and started worrying about them!” (“On of Them”) As Locke’s call to action indicates, Otherizing the enemy group gives the survivors something to rally against. This creates the Us-vs-Them mentality that is crucial to warfare and violence.
The survivors feel as though they are at war with the Others, and this justifies certain actions in the eyes of some of the characters, most notably Locke and Sayid. Sayid was a torturer for the Iraqi Republican Guard before the plane crash, and he intends to put his interrogation experience to use when Danielle gives him custody of the suspected Other, Henry Gale. Sayid enlists Locke’s help in changing the locks on a door so that Jack Shepard, the camp’s unofficial leader, cannot enter the room and stop Sayid’s questioning. Acting as the moral compass of the survivors, Jack is predictably furious about Sayid’s intended torture. Locke defends his actions by telling Jack, “We’re at war. And like it or not, whatever Sayid has to do behind that door, that’s part of it too” (“One of Them”). In his essay “Liberal Democratic Torture,” social theorist Steven Lukes explains how “torture arises where it appears to be the only available means of averting some terrible outcome;” it is seen as an unfortunate case of “dirty hands” in pursuit of a necessary goal (2). This is Locke’s view of torturing Henry—Henry might be an innocent castaway, as he claims to be, but the mere possibility that he is a spy from the murderous group of Others provides a rationale for torture in Locke’s eyes. When Jack demands, “What if [Henry]’s telling the truth?” Locke simply replies, “What if he’s not?” (“One of Them”). To Locke, the risk that Henry is there to gather information for the Others justifies any inhumane actions Sayid may take. Locke’s overwhelming fear and mistrust of the Others overrides the moral objections he would normally have to torture—since Henry might be a member of this Otherized group, Locke sees no reason to treat him humanely.
Henry’s violent interrogation yields nothing but corruption within the group that they are fighting to protect, demonstrating the corruption and futility of the act itself. Sayid and Locke mislead Jack in order to get Henry alone in a locked room, making Jack furious and breaking the trust between these characters. As leaders of the crash survivors, Sayid, Locke and Jack often rely on one another and work together; this rift between them is therefore a serious liability to the group as a whole. At the end of the episode, Sayid begins to sway other survivors to side with him against Jack, further dividing and weakening the group. Henry’s interrogation, done in the name of protecting their camp, resulted in breaches of trust and general discord between some of the group’s primary members. Stranded on an island where working together is their only hope for survival, the disunity does nothing but create harmful complications. Beyond the chaos and betrayal, the torture does not even prove to be an effective way to glean information—Henry continues to insist that he is not an Other, so his identify remains as much a mystery as it was at the start of the episode. The climate of fear against the Others provides the rationale for a violent act of torture against a man who at least outwardly appears to be completely innocent. Their hatred fuels their violence, and this ultimately serves only as a destructive and dividing force within the group they were trying to protect.
The narrative of torture in “One of Them” parallels the use of torture during American military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading viewers to question the validity of the practice itself. In the years after 9/11, U.S. citizens lived in a climate of hysteria, as the country seemed to be under constant threat of further terrorism. The island survivors live in a similar state of fear that fosters a simmering hatred of the Others. In the case of the US military, “the Others” were suspected terrorists, and in many cases the use of torture was authorized against them. President Obama recently asked the public not to be “too ‘sanctimonious’ about passing judgment” on the former officials responsible for the torture, since they were under enormous pressure to prevent another attack (The Associated Press). As Locke and Sayid believed they were justified in torturing Henry Gale, U.S. officials found justification for their violence in the name of protecting national security. In another parallel, the US’s brutal interrogation techniques were arguably just as pointless and damaging as was the use of torture on Lost. Abusing our prisoners “damaged the standing of our nation,” and there is no firm evidence that torture “produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means” (Shane). This story seems familiar as we consider that Henry Gale’s torture resulted in nothing but destruction and no gain of information. By mirroring the survivors’ battle against the Others with the American War on Terror, Lost demonstrates to its viewers that fear and demonization of an enemy leads to inhumane actions that are ultimately unjustifiable.
While Lost communicates the destructive nature of drastic Otherizing in this episode, it does not do so flawlessly. The episode warns against extreme measures towards feared, demonized enemies, yet it does so in a way that seems to provide legitimacy for the very demonization it is warning against. This dichotomy exists primarily in the presentation of Sayid’s commanding officer during the flashbacks to Sayid’s military days. The officer is firmly and repeatedly established as being completely Other from the American Army, with whom the audience will naturally identify. He speaks only in Arabic, and his language is unwaveringly extremist and violent. He barely even seems human as he bitterly orders Sayid to put a bag over his head and suffocate so that Sayid can die with his “remaining dignity.” The officer is presented as nothing more than an insane, ruthless, America-hating religious radical. This image risks exacerbating fearful stereotypes that American viewers may have about the Iraqi military. Sayid, of course, is an Iraqi soldier who is presented much more sympathetically, but he is also presented as much less of an Other. In her article “Slaying in Black and White,” Lynne Edwards claims that those “who are most readily accepted into white culture are those who are most assimilated into white culture” (89). Sayid’s character is very easy for the audience to connect to, despite his nationality: he speaks perfect (albeit lightly accented) English, and he places high value on love, justice, and family, unlike his Otherized commanding officer. One could argue that Sayid’s character counteracts the problematic portrayal of his commanding officer, but Sayid is presented so clearly as One of Us that he hardly seems like an Iraqi soldier at all. The harmful takeaway impression of the Iraqi army therefore remains the same. Lost’s portrayal of a member of the Republican Guard reinforces a dehumanizing stereotype, the exact sort of activity that the rest of the episode warns against. This problematic portrayal is an unfortunate failing, though it does not change Lost’s ultimate argument. The episode as a whole demonstrates the madness that results from fear and hatred of an Otherized enemy, even if there is irony in its simultaneously presented Otherized character.
In “One of Them,” Lost presents a moral dilemma that applies directly to our society. It shows a group that has been demonized and the extreme lengths that some characters deem necessary in the face of defending themselves against the Others. Their overwhelming fear and hatred of the Others leads to Henry Gale’s torture and causes discord within the group of survivors. Lost makes the mistake of reinforcing a stereotype that undermines the audience’s real-life application of its message through its presentation of the Iraqi officer. Ultimately, however, Lost communicates the inherently destructive nature of taking violent action against any group of “Others.” It therefore denounces acts of torture committed by the U.S. government during the War on Terror and encourages us not to allow fear to rule our sense of morality.
The Associated Press. “Obama: ‘We tortured some folks’ after 9/11.” AlJazeera.com. Al Jazeera America, 1 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969. Web. 11 June, 2013.
Edwards, Lynne. “Slaying in Black and White: Kendra as Tragic Mulatta in Buffy.” Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ed. Rhonda V. Wilcox and David Lavery. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. 85-97. Web. 15 May 2013.
Lukes, Steven. “Liberal Democratic Torture.” British Journal of Political Science 36.1 (2006): 1-6. Web. 16 May 2013.
“One of Us.” Lost – The Complete Second Season. Dir. Jack Bender. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2006. DVD.
Ott, Brian L. “(Re)Framing Fear: Equipment for Living in a Post-9/11 World.” Cylons inAmerica: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica. Ed. Tiffany Porter and C.W. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2008. 13-26. Web. 15 May 2013.
Shane, Scott. “U.S. Engaged in Torture After 9/11, Review Concludes.” NYTimes.com. The New York Times, 16 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.
Laura Bet is a now junior at the University of Washington pursuing a double major in Political Science and Communications. She wrote this piece during her freshman English course under the advisement of Professor Alexandra Burgin. Laura is particularly interested in the relationship between popular culture and politics and hopes to explore this theme in her future research.