American Culture

The indefensibility of torture

The past is present...The image is striking.  A fat, sweaty and uncomfortable-looking white man is squatting on the back of a large black man.  The white man is holding a dry canvas bag over the head of the black man and looking sadly and nervously at the camera.

The Truth Commission was unlike any trial the world had ever seen.  In exchange for complete disclosure about all past crimes, both known and unknown, claimants would be given complete absolution.  In the case of this one sweaty white man, his victim had asked that he demonstrate how he had tortured him.

Waterboarding has become famous.  Place a thick, heavy and wet fabric over your victim’s head, and then hold them stationary.  It causes no lasting physical damage, but gives a very real sense of drowning.  Anyone who has ever had a similar experience knows it is terrifying.

That was the least of what the Apartheid government authorised in the name of keeping their power.  “Red Dust”, the film of Gillian Slovo’s seminal book, details one such hearing into the brutal torture and murder of a small-town activist.  If you can find a copy of the film, please watch it, for the ordinariness of the people involved.  The opening music alone will make you weep.

And so we come to the nub.  We expect authoritarian regimes to torture and abuse people.  The violence is there, not to gain knowledge from conspirators, but to terrify the millions, as Mao would have it.

But what to make of it when liberal democracies declare that torture is essential if they are to protect that society?  George W Bush would have you believe that torture has saved thousands of Americans by allowing torturers to extract information in order to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Maybe this is true.  Maybe the only way to find out the exact details of when a train will be bombed, or an airline hijacked and flown into a building, is by beating the shit out of someone who knows.

But have you thought about the consequences of such an allowance?

Who would be your torturer?  Who would break fingers, electrify genitals, smash bones and teeth; not out of rage or passion, but as job?  What sort of person is this?

And do you really want to create a society where such a job is ordinary?

For then you will discover what South Africa discovered, that once the law is extended to allow such people a place, then such people congregate.  If torture is legal, then torturers proliferate.  The law is distorted to honour torturers, to encourage their indoctrination and training.  And your society becomes a dark and evil place.

There is no middle ground.  Either you decide that torture is inexcusable under any circumstances, and accept the consequences of that choice.

Or you choose torture.  For everyone.

5 replies »

  1. Maybe this is true. Maybe the only way to find out the exact details of when a train will be bombed, or an airline hijacked and flown into a building, is by beating the shit out of someone who knows.

    Turns out it doesn’t work that well at all. A book not for the faint of heart:

    Torture and Democracy by Darius Rejali

    Really an amazing achievement. Looks at the efficacy of torture, the circumstances in which it becomes acceptable, the reasons it persists.

  2. I have no doubt that we’ve pretty much always tortured in some circumstances. Far too much happens in the “black” world that we never know about, but those would be isolated circumstances.

    What’s disturbing about our current situation is that we’ve institutionalized it and accepted it. It is not that the Bush administration tortures…WE torture. Maybe we don’t think about it, distracted as we are by daily life, but we do it. It is collective now. And i’m far more saddened by the American people’s acceptance of torture than i am by the actual torture. Nothing suggests societal decadence to me more than this.

  3. “but those would be isolated circumstances” – thing is, isolated incidences become more common, become careers, become “institutionalized”. And when then happens, then society isn’t long in accepting it as normal.

  4. Damn it, people, you have to read Rejali. Okay, you don’t have to, but he systematically addresses all the issues you’re raising.

    I first found the book when Abu Ghraib was in the news, and I heard something about the unreliability of information obtained through torture. Which made me wonder: if it doesn’t work to gather intelligence, and we’ve been doing it forever, haven’t we figured out by now that we’re getting bad information with this method? If so, why do we keep using it? Or is it actually more effective than some commentators would have us believe, and therefore justifiable on some level?

    It’s a marvelous, sickening read.

  5. I take issue with this line, ‘it causes no lasting physical damage, but gives a very real sense of drowning.’ Waterboarding does not convey a ‘sense’ of drowning. It is drowning. Continue the practice long enough and victims literally drown.