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Sunday, April 26, 2009


The arguments around torture have been stupefying.  It like listening to an argument that orange juice gives you the runs…because someone once drank orange juice and later had the runs. 

Let’s evaluate torture in a simple declarative dialogue: 

Torturer: “Tell me about the bomb.”

Torturee : “I don’t know about the bomb.”

T—rer: “If you don’t tell me about the bomb, I am going to hurt you really really bad.”

T—ree: “I don’t know about any bomb.” 

T—rer now hurts T—ree really bad (saving really really bad for later)

T—rer: “You can see now that I am serious.  Tell me about the bomb.”

T—ree: “I don’t know about the bomb.  I never heard of any bomb.  If you know about a bomb, you know more than me.”

T—rer: “I can see that you are not going to cooperate, so I am going to hurt you again.” 

There are three possible prior states in this situation. 1) T—ree knows all about the bomb and doesn’t want to say anything.  2) T—ree knows a little about the bomb but is not on your side and often also afraid of the people who know all about the bomb. 3) T—ree knows nothing about the bomb.  The other possible prior states would most likely lead to some other outcome than torture, but not always. 

In our present understanding, if T—rer hurts T—ree without being certain that T—ree knows about the bomb, then T—rer is ruined as a human being and the culture that supports the action is ruined as a culture.  The first condition of “successful” torturing is that the questioner knows many of the answers already.  The only, even remotely, acceptable reason for torture is when the T—rer is completely and verifiably certain that the T—ree has the information desired and refuses to give it. 

A rational question is then; if potential T—ree certainly knows about the bomb, what are the most efficient and quickest methods to get the most accurate information?  If, “tell me and I will not hurt you; don’t tell me and I will,” were a reliable formula, then I say use it when you know for certain that the potential T—ree knows the answer and will be a ready correspondent under such a persuasion.  But, and this is of the utmost importance, if such a device will not produce information of known quality, then it should not be used. 

Every interrogator should have raised children into adulthood; there is not one parent in 100 (1000?) that has not been lied to by a child in situations where only the child has the answer and when it is very important to know the answer.  There is a powerful truth in these situations: the more painful the punishment, the more desperate the lie. There is only one guarantor of truth and that is the relationship between the two parties. 

If truth is the goal, then torture is not the method.  If torture is used, then truth cannot be the goal and therefore something else is.  That is our real question: what is the goal of using torture?  

There are only three goals for torture: 1) to get someone to say or do a thing that you wish; that is, the Torturee is told the goal and is tortured until they comply. 2) The torture is publicized so that others will be frightened – terrorized – into complying with some general directives.  3) Torture meets some need or desire on the part of the Torturer.

And just as the truth cannot, rationally, be the goal of torture, then the consequences of torture are often not those that appear to motivate the torture in the first place.  Here, we need some historical perspective from occasions when torture was used as part of culture. 

From David Scheimann’s account of torture among the Iroquois (captives were often taken when a misfortune fell on a village): “There are definitely reasons behind this torture that do not extend into metaphysical domains. The initial beating obviously broke the spirits of the captive and ensured submission. The act of battering prisoners to break their will is no isolated policy of the Iroquois alone, but of nearly every race throughout history. At this time the Iroquois also mangled a prisoner’s hands, a brutality performed so that the captive could no longer wield a weapon. After returning to their village, the Iroquois used the gantlet to further break the spirits of the captives and to serve as a test of endurance and physical tolerance. The Iroquois would execute without ceremony those captives who fell and did not get up, which indicates disdain for mental and physical weakness. Indeed, the Iroquois expected even those captives who underwent subsequent lethal torture to stand strong and not cry out—the warriors would disgustedly dispatch a captive who lost his composure. As the night went by and the prisoner remained silent, the entire tribe would become more and more frenzied until the sun came up and the prisoner was killed.” 

From U.S. History Encyclopedia describing Plains Indian ritual:  “Male dancers were pierced on both sides of their chest and tethered to the center pole by means of skewers attached to leather thongs; during some point in the ritual they also might drag buffalo skulls tethered to skewers imbedded in the flesh of their backs. Participants actively sought and often experienced powerful visions that were life transforming. Animal-calling rituals and pervasive buffalo symbolism focused on ensuring that the buffalo would continue to give themselves to the people as food. Sexual intercourse sometimes took place between women who had ritually become buffalo and men who had also assumed this role, establishing a tie of kinship between the humans and the buffalo people.” 

These two examples illustrate the two principle uses of torture, and neither one has anything to do with interrogating for the truth: domination of others and personal experience.  The Torturer becomes a part of the personal experience – is as much a party to the power of the experience as the Torturee – and performs the torture for that purpose.  Self-torture and sexual experience have long been commingled in the human experience. 

We have certainly been told great lies about both the reasons for and the consequences of the torturing of men and women during the most recent unpleasantness.  The personal needs of people like Dick Cheney, George Bush, David Addington, John Yoo and others to dominate others emotionally, physically (and I would suggest, sexually) have been conflated with the national interest.  We have all been invited into the perversions of these men and we have accepted the acts ordered by them in our name.  

It is difficult to absorb the depths of the madness here, but we can begin by demanding that those who diminished us all answer for both the crimes of record and the societal crimes against the decency that we have left as a people. 

(You should read Frank Rich’s NYtimes essay on torture)

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