On Torture

Gentle Readers, yesterday I had a particularly horrific nightmare. I can still see parts of it. It woke me up and I needed to lay in bed reading for a few hours before I could get back to sleep. The dream involved torture, but I will spare you the details. Only my night’s sleep suffered for them.

I woke up to the nightmare come true, at least in the broad strokes. My sleeping mind did not conjure up anal rape as a means of extracting information. Now I know that people employed by my government had more fertile imaginations than my own. I expected bad, and when you spend enough time around the kind of primary sources I do, your ability to imagine horrors increases. The CIA, and it’s civilian contractors who earned $80 million for their trouble, proved still more capable. We know this after the CIA got through redacting the report and destroying at least some of the evidence. Unlike the events of my dream, these things happened. Real people, at least thirty-nine of them, suffered through it. At least one person died under the agency’s tender ministrations.

I have given some thought, both in reference to the nation’s latest adventures in torture and the prosecution of slavery, to just what torture really does. It can force compliance, just as a gun to the head does. While advocates point to this as the reason to do it, they miss the point. If you want information that you suspect someone has, then it must matter to you that you get accurate information from the person. Lies are worse than no information at all because they will lead at best to no progress and more likely to wasted effort chasing down phantoms.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Slaveholders had the same problem. They, unlike the CIA, could count the bales of cotton to see how effectively they tortured. While they clearly got results, if at horrific cost, the planters had an additional problem. Would their human property really make a good faith effort at doing their best? They knew very well that no such thing would happen. They thus convinced themselves of the natural laziness and duplicitous nature that came with dark skin. All of that tool breaking, slow work, and the like just could not be helped. Samuel Cartwright even invented a pair of mental illnesses to explain slave resistance. You needed torture to get anything out of them.

It also proved handy in discovering slave revolt conspiracies that may or may not have existed, which in turn produced more torture when slaves confessed, which then also fed on itself much as the panic over Nat Turner’s real revolt led to the deaths of far more people than his brief uprising did.

The real difficulty for slaveholders came in the fact, known intimately but rarely acknowledged, that slaves do not care for slavery. Likewise the tortured do not care for torture, let alone for their torturers. Why would they tell the truth and nothing but the truth to such people? The victim and torturer don’t become friends. They don’t go out for drinks afterwards. What torture produces then will, in the main, constitute falsehoods. This has often been the chief purpose. A confession both justifies what the torturer did and provides new victims.

I thus conclude that torture, as a practical matter, has little to do with anything extracted from the victims save for their agonies. The torturer may begin with the idea that his methods work toward a goal, but the brute facts will soon prove otherwise. The Inquisitor, witch hunter, planter, overseer, and all the rest reap their real harvest in screams. People do it because they want to. Through the control of another person they feel empowered. They free themselves from the ordinary constraints of life. They take revenge on whomever they declare a miscreant. They set an example to keep others in line.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

All of us have wanted those things at one time or another, even if we would not torture to get them. If only this person did not stand in the way of our ambitions, if only we could set aside our normal standards of behavior just this once, then wouldn’t it all work out better? You break a few eggs, but that’s just how it goes. If you don’t get what you want, it becomes easier to continue all the same. You still get the pleasure of power, just not quite as imagined. And why not continue? You’ve already done it, so you’re comfortable enough. I have no doubt that most, probably all, of the torturers, then and now, slept well every night.

Why not? We ultimately torture for fun and because we can. If we break a few bodies and destroy a few lives, or a few million, along the way, when has that ever stopped us?

We should prosecute the guilty, or hand them over to a competent international tribunal to do the same, but I expect they’ll die at home in their own beds. Few countries do a good job of policing the misconduct of those on the national payroll, least of all those involved in the broad umbrella of “national defense”. We have, at almost every turn, done as little as we possibly could in the service of human rights. If we get very lucky, we might punish a few people very low down on the totem pole.

We could do better; we might even do right. No laws of physics prevent it. Many people who had to know what went on, as well as those who themselves participated, likely still draw paychecks from the Treasury Department. They have not vanished into the ether. But far more likely we will let them all go and find some feeble pretense to declare ourselves absolved of all they did in our name, if we do not simply decide that they did right to start with.

I know from overhearing the television news that some of us have already decided in favor of the last course. Doing that, and repeating all of this again, remains an option for a future administration:

President Obama signed Executive Order 13491 in January 2009 to prohibit the CIA from holding detainees other than on a “short-term, transitory basis” and to limit interrogation techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual. However, these limitations are not part of U.S. law and could be overturned by a future president with the stroke of a pen.

The committee recommends giving that executive order the force of law through proper legislation. I anticipate the introduction of a well-intentioned bill that goes nowhere.