Thursday, November 10, 2005
The Problem with Torture I never thought that I would write about this subject. But we really should be much more profoundly disturbed by the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to countries that practice torture and the operation of CIA "black sites" where international law is ignored. I'd like to explore this issue a little further - hopefully, with your help. Our opposition to torture should rest on our belief in what Gaudium et Spes, on its way to condemning "torments inflicted on body or mind and attempts to coerce the will itself," called the "integrity of the human person." But torture can also be opposed because of its damage to our national reputation, the morale of the military and CIA, and what Noah Feldman has described as the "principle of reciprocity." And torture is largely ineffective. In the most recent Harper's, William Pfaff has written, "The nearly universal judgement in police, intelligence, and special-warfare circles is that torture is all but useless in obtaining true and timely information. Even if one tortures a key figure in possession of potentially valuable intelligence, and eventually forces him (or her) to say what the interrogator wants to hear, what actual value does the information have? Is it really true, or merely the answer the torturer had implicitly conveyed to the victim that he wishes to hear?" Furthermore, every resistance or insurgent group has a "system of cutouts" that limits what any particular individual knows and immediately cancels any plans or arrangements that might be disclosed by a prisoner. Even if Pfaff's "nearly universal judgement" is too sweeping and torture can yield very small bits of information, a veteran of the Dutch resistance in World War II has written, "In each case you get what you want in a few days and do not need to torture people for weeks on end. Anyway, the persons you want you won't catch by picking up suspicious-looking men in the street" or even defeated Taliban soliders. G. Jan Lighart says about American torture, "They torture the wrong people, secondly they torture too many, and thirdly for too long." What is going on here? What is it that overrides our ethical and practical opposition to torture? Why might we torture the "wrong people" for "too long"? The danger is that torture almost always - perhaps inevitably - has another purpose than the gathering of information. Pfaff writes, "Torture is intended to produce what, in the military assault on Iraq was called 'shock and awe.' It is meant as intimidation. We will do these terrible things to demonstrate that nothing will stop us from conquering our enemies." Torture is also the expression that "enemies are not simply to be defeated; they are to be annihilated morally as well as physically." This "annihilation," needless to say, contradicts St Augustine's dictum (quoted by Aquinas here) : "Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace" (my emphasis). The psychologist Francoise Sironi, who has worked with torture victims, and the historian Raphaëlle Branche, who has written about torture in Algeria, likewise claim that torture is generally not meant to get information ("largely unreliable"), but to silence victims and the group to which the victims belongs (Pfaff's "It is meant as intimidation"). The Ursuline nun Dianna Ortiz, tortured in Guatemala, chillingly describes the long "silencing" effects of torture - the "psychological torture of making you feel that it's all somehow your fault, that you are to blame for it all, also that they can still find you and hurt you later on." This "silencing" also affects a larger group. Sironi and Branche quote a Chilean human rights lawyer who explained the desired result of torture and other forms of repression: "Now people have become their own enforcers: every journalist carries out self-censorship; there is very little informing, because nowadays the fear has been internalized." Torture is a violent strategy to convince a certain population through fear to avoid "subversion" or "revolution." As Pfaff writes, it is a blunt and frightening demonstration that "nothing will stops us from conquering our enemies." How does torture work? Sironi and Branche are not directly describing American torture, but many of their descriptions will sound eerily familiar. (And Sister Ortiz, we should note, has said that she can hardly bear to look at the Abu Ghraib photos "because so many of the things in the photographs had also been done to me.") Deprivation of medical care and sleep, isolation, terror deliberately induced by mock executions, systematic pain, breaches of taboo and humiliation by sexual abuse, contrived stage-settings in which victims are hung in certain positions. The point of this is to manipulate the mind by acting on the body. One general mechanism is inversion - "making every boundary one that can be transgressed," so that objects usually outside the body are inserted into it. The application of shocks and cigarette burns also harrow the zones of interchange between outside and inside. A second mechanism is the imposition of a binary order - the imposition of an illogical, total regime that produces confusion and perplexity. For instance, after brutal sessions of electroshock, a victim will then be treated in a strangely friendly manner by the torturers. A third mechanism is the breaking of cultural taboos. Chinese authorities, for instance, forced vegetarian Tibetan monks to cook and eat meat. This causes the breakdown of cultural identity (but can ironically reinforce it, so that many Islamist fanatics adopted extremist attitudes during torture in Egypt). A last mechanism is redundancy, in which bodily impressions are reinforced by an exact one-to-one correspondence with the verbalisation of the intentions behind the act. Over and over, a victim is told, "You'll never be a man again" as electrodes are connected to his genitals - and the words will haunt him long after the physical torture. The point of all this is psychological destruction. Torture is not meant to inflict a certain amount of pain. It is meant to "silence" an individual, and also the group that he or she represents. But torture also destroys those who practice it. Remember that torture expresses the horrific intention, "enemies are not simply to be defeated; they are to be annihilated morally as well as physically." Becoming a torturer must also be a violent process - "normal" people, we might cautiously say, do not rape or appply cigarette burns - that requires the elimination of any empathy with potential victims. Sironi and Branche write, "The victims of torture have had access to things that are usually hidden, to the darker side of humanity - yet so have the torturers!" They say that a person becomes a torturer in three ways. The first is through initiation - the Greek secret police would go through four months of training during which their identity would be initially boosted before it was taken apart by abusive instructors and then replaced with a new identity that would be confirmed by torturing their very first prisoner. The second way is through a violent erasure of the past and the complete reduction to a state where the only sense of belonging is to the army or gang. This is why the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forced children to kill their mothers and fathers. The third way comes as a product of wartime, when a soldier is in constant combat and completely internalizes the logic of war: "I kill you, or you kill me." This is how a torturer is made. What is the problem with torture? Sironi and Branche tell us that "the words of torture victims are astonishingly standard: 'I can't talk about it. I'm afraid ... It is too hard ... I'm ashamed ... You can't understand.'" But then they write, "Whatever the circumstances, whatever the culture, the words of former soldiers, and those who have taken part in acts of political violence are also identical: 'I can't talk about it ... I'm ashamed ... You'd have to be there to understand." Torture shuts up both torturers and victims in a uniform silence." Discussions about levels of pain or an unlikely "ticking bomb scenario" can tend to distract us from the real if unacknowledged purpose and result of torture: the moral and physical annihilation of human beings that always leaves the victim and the torturer together in the darkness of a "uniform silence." And this is the problem with torture. Comments are welcome.