IntroductionTorture is the use of extreme physical or psychological violence on captives by political actors (governments, militarise, or paramilitary groups) in pursuit of political and military ends. I take it as axiomatic that this practice should be curtailed. To fight this practice, we must understand its psychological motivations, legal justification, and its systems of institutional support.
I think it's worthwhile trying to honestly understand the arguments and rationales used by people who advocate or even practice torture, difficult or impossible though this may be. Torture may be the ultimate form of dehumanization, but it is our duty to acknowledge that the practitioners of dehumanization are themselves human beings. We know that quite normal human beings are capable of evil and despicable acts when placed in an environment that encourages and supports them. Our enemy should be the institutional structures that support torture, not the torturers themselves.
Some of the questions that the issue of torture raises:
- What is the history of torture in the Western world?
- What is torture's relationship to government and the law?
- Who advocates for and against torture?
- What are the stated and real purposes of torture? Does it ever work?
- What are the arguments for and against it?
- What is the psychology that leads people to practice torture?
- What is the effect of torture on the institutions that practice it?
Obviously, this document can only begin to scratch the surface of these issues.
Torture has its origins in the ancient world, and was in common use in imperial Rome and before (but even there its limitations and hazards were known). Christian Europe initially banned torture as antithetical to Christ's teachings, then reintroduced it as Christian theology changed its focus from the life of Jesus to his death by judicial torture. Around the 12 century the Inquisition and European state courts revived torture as a tool to force confession and as a punishment.
Torture practices may also be found in the Bible, ie in 2 Samuel 12:31
And David gathered all the people together, and went to Rabbah, and fought against it, and took it...And he brought forth the people that were therein, and put them under saws, and under harrows of iron, and under axes of iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln: and thus did he unto all the cities of the children of Ammon. So David and all the people returned unto Jerusalem.
And Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky remarked that:
Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.Torture was used on and off during the rise of the modern period, gradually coming into disfavor in the modern state as a relic of monarchy. There's an interesting passage from William Blackstone, one of the most influential of English jurists:
The rack is an engine of the state, not of law.What Blackstone meant in the context of his times was that torture had no place in the system of common law that he was in the process ofcodifying, but was still available to the state (the monarch) as a tool for wielding power. This distinction remains with us today, as torture exists as a generally extra-legal practice of governments, wielded by the executive and military arms of government regardless of what the law says.
-- William Blackstone, 1769
During the 18th and 19th century the state apparatus of torture was gradually replaced with a more rationalized system of criminology that included police, courts, and prisons. The rise of totalitarian states in the 20th century reversed this trend rather dramatically, as torture practices were employed by Nazi Germany and the USSR. These practices were also adopted by the opponents of these regimes, including the US (see below).
The era of colonialism allowed all sorts of practices that were unacceptable domestically to be employed on colonial subjects, who rarely had the legal or psychological status of full human beings. The United States ushered in the 20th century by deploying torture in its occupation of the Philippines, where it waged a savage war against indigenous political forces. ....Philippine water torture, 1901, practices that were later adopted by the Japanese and used on their POWs and occupied territories during WWII.
In the post-WW II era US, torture was driven underground as the revelations of Nazi and Japanese war crimes had soured peoples tastes for brutality. Eleanor Roosevelt led the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and the Geneva Conventions were also enacted and signed around this time. However, by the mid 1950s Cold War paranoia had reduced the US's commitment to internationalism and to human rights. It was around this time that the CIA was quietly researching psychological manipulation techniques that included torturous practices such as sensory deprivation. As in physics, Nazi torture psychologists were quietly imported and encouraged to continue their research, an effort known as Operation Paperclip. Nazi interrogation techniques including "drugs, electro-shock, hypnosis, and psycho-surgery" were reviewed and tested. The newly discovered LSD was tested as an interrogation technique. These projects eventually were combined under the name MK-Ultra, under Dr. Sidney Gottlieb. This effort continued for the next 20 years.
The next phase of CIA sponsored torture was the Phoenix program, which created a large network of interrogation centers in South Vietnam, which practiced assassination and brutal interrogation of suspected Viet Cong. The number of people tortured reached into the hundreds of thousands, according to Douglas Valentine [ref] -- providing an endless supply of subjects to experiment on. The Phoenix program was investigated by Congress in 1970 and found to have been in violation of the Geneva Conventions, and shut down. However, the techniques and ideology that underlied it lived on and were used in later government operations in South and Central America.
US military trainers at Guantanmo Bay were equipped with a training chart copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist interrogation techniques. This was the SERE Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, used by both the CIA nad the military.
The chart also listed other techniques used by the Chinese, including Semi-Starvation, Exploitation of Wounds, and Filthy, Infested Surroundings, and with their effects: Makes Victim Dependent on Interrogator, Weakens Mental and Physical Ability to Resist, and Reduces Prisoner to Animal Level Concerns.
The only change made in the chart presented at Guantanamo was to drop its original title: Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.
PsychologyAlthough we tend to think of torture as a form of dehumanization, accounts of coercive interrogation often take on a shockingly intimate tone. Torturers understand all too well the workings of the mind of their victims, as they force them to act in a "perverse theater in which he is compelled to play the lead in a drama of his own humiliation" (QoT, p80).
Torture plumbs the recesses of human consciousness, unleashing an unfathomable capacity for cruelty as well as seductive illusions of omnipotence...Once torture begins, its perpetrators...are often swept away by dark reveries, by frenzies of potency, mastery, and control. Just as interrogators are often drawn in by an empowering sense of dominance, so their superiors, even at the highest level, can succumb to fantasies of torture as an all-powerful weapon.Outside of the torture chamber itself, political support for torture is generally an expression of the authoritarian mindset, which constructs an enemy that is alien, subhuman and yet posing an existential threat. As Bob Altemeyer described it in his book The Authoritarians:
-- Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture p13
Authoritarianism is something authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders cook up between themselves. It happens when the followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want--which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal. In my day, authoritarian fascist and authoritarian communist dictatorships posed the biggest threats to democracies, and eventually lost to them in wars both hot and cold. But authoritarianism itself has not disappeared, and I'm going to present the case in this book that the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism that has become a cancer upon the nation.One point to take away from Altemeyer is that authoritarians are largely driven by fear. They are by nature fearful, and project their fears and worries on external enemies, real and imagined. The fear justifies the dehumanization:
Chronically frightened authoritarian followers, looking for someone to attack because fighting is one of the things people do when they are afraid, are particularly likely to do so when they can find a moral justification for their hostility. Despite all the things in scriptures about loving others, forgiving others, leaving punishment to God, and so on, authoritarian followers feel empowered to isolate and segregate, to humiliate, to persecute, to beat, and to kill in the middle of the night, ...if you know how highly people scored on the Dangerous World scale, and if you know how self-righteous they are, you can explain rather well the homophobia of authoritarian followers, their heavy- handedness in sentencing criminals, their prejudices against racial and ethnic minorities, why they are so mean-spirited toward those who have erred and suffered, and their readiness to join posses to ride down Communists, radicals, or whomever.When the authoritarian mindset is allowed to fester it can lead to genocide of alien groups (Jews, Bosnian Serbs, Tutsis). In the US in the present day, the rhetoric of right-wing hate radio approaches this level of exterminationism, and sets the tone in which torture practices can be justified.
The justification of torture
It is extremely common to hear utilitarian or cost-benefit justifications for torture -- surely it's worth doing something horrible to a probably guilty person if by doing so it would save the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens. The reductio of this is the ticking-bomb scenario, in which a suspected terrorist is captured at the exact right time in which a bomb has been plnted but before it goes off, and only by torturing the terrorist can the explosion and loss of life be stopped. The extreme unliklihood of this scenario has not stopped it from becoming the basis of both popular entertainment and proposed law.
We can't just close our eyes and pretend we live in a pure world.
-- Alan Dershowitz
The Geneva Conventions are so outdated and are written so broadly that they have become a sword used by terrorists to kill civilians, rather than a shield to protect civilians from terrorists. These international laws have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.More fundamentally, the infliction of violence is at the heart of what the state is. The perverse drama of torture is enacting the fundamental role of the state vs the individual. This bleak view was articulated by the ultraconservative poltical theorist Joseph de Maistre in his defense of the Spanish Inquisition, citing:
-- Alan Dershowitz
...one of the most incontestable of political axioms," i.e., "Never could great political evils, never especially could violent attacks against the body of the state, be prevented or repelled, except by means equally violent.
This is the exact argument used by conservatives today to justify torture by authoritarian regimes:
Both did tolerate limited apposition, including opposition newspapers and political parties, but both were also confronted by radical, violent opponents bent on social and political revolution. Both rulers, therefore, sometimes invoked martial law to arrest, imprison, exile, and occasionally, it was alleged, torture their opponents.Some critics of torture emphasize the point that the information and confessions it produces is extremely unreliable. People in unbearable pain will say anything to make it stop; their false confessions become part of the police information store and thus lead to further false arrests and confessions. But it's likely that this is no barrier to the use of torture; the point of torture and the security structure around it is often not to obtain true information and disrupt terrorists, but to enhance the power of the security appartus.
-- Jeanne Kirkpatrick, defending the Shah of Iran and Somoza:
Why would the government want to do this, consciously or unconsciously? War is the health of the state and the war on terror is the health, such as it is, of the Bush/Cheney administration. Wars and states want to perpetuate themselves; inflating the strength of your enemies is an important technique for accomplishing this.
And for the cogs, big or little, who are the participants in a government torture machine, surely you must feel a need to excuse your appalling acts. Every confession elicited by torture lets you pretend that the torture was justified all along, and on into the future. And once this dynamic is in motion, the truth or falsity of confessions hardly matters at all.
Does torture work?Does torture work? That is, does it accomplish its stated goals of protecting society against national security threats? A great many people from the military and intelligence communities say no:
The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the US Government. Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.
-- Army Field Manual
Torture is clearly illegal under the US Constitution and international law, but that has not interfered with its practice on massive scale by the US government since at least the Philippine colonization. However, it has never before been attempted to be legitimized until the Bush administration. In our urge to excoriate them, let's stop and give thanks to them for stripping away the rhetoric of human rights talk and exposing practices that have been ongoing for more than a century. What has gone on in the shadows now goes on under color of law and with the blessings of the people's representatives. We are now officially a torture state.
No democracy, other than Israel, has ever employed torture within the law.
-- Alan Dershowitz
Is torture legitimized and practiced openly worse than torture practiced in a strictly underground, black-ops fashion, or better? I think I tend to prefer the earlier hypocrisy -- a sense of guilt is better than outright, flagrant immorality. Torture as a dirty secret is one thing, torture as something openly practiced and defended at the highest levels of government is something else. It moves the Overton window by making the unthinkable thinkable -- if torture is a recognized and acknowledged instrument of government, what even worse things will sprout up in the shadows?
Alan Dershowitz has proposed the idea of practicing torture under the color of law by means of torture warrants, while at the same time acknowledging that torture has been practiced extra-judicially.
Under my proposal, no torture would be permitted without a "torture warrant" being issued by a judge. An application for a torture warrant would have to be based on the absolute need to obtain immediate information in order to save lives coupled with probable cause that the suspect had such information and is unwilling to reveal it. The suspect would be given immunity from prosecution based on information elicited by the torture. The warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life.Torture warrants purport to make torture a tightly controlled activity under the authority of law, but past historical experience (ie, see the Bukovsky quote above) indicates that this is an illusory goal. Torture is a fatal temptation, promising security while in fact serving to undermine the discipline, authority, and legitimacy of the police and military organizations that practice it, and eventually, the entire structure of government.
Corruption of institution
McCoy describes how the torture program in the Phillipines undermined military discipline and laid the foundations for a miltiary revolt;
Through their years of torturing priests and senior officers for Marcos, the officers slowly gained the daring to arttack marcos himself...In retrospect, psychological torture played a catlyting role in the rupture of military socialization, investing the RAM leaders with a self-image as protean cresator/destroyers.A similar process happend in France after its massive program of torture in Algeria. Military officials disappointedwith the restraints put on them by the French government attempted a military overthrow of the Algerian and French governments in 1961.
What to do?It's a hard truth to face, but there is a substantial proportion of the electorate that is pro-torture, pro-war, pro-dehumanization. These people make up the base of the authoritarian right. The battle is over the people in the middle, the vague and formless undecideds, who need to be informed of torture practices and convinced that they are both morally wrong and ineffective. At present, up to 2/3 of the electorate say that torture is justified.
Aside from the obvious strategies of pressuring officals to conform to the established rules of law, it is possible to make a number of cases against torture to convince people who are not instinctively opposed to torture:
- The utilitarian arguments that torture actually damages national security; and that information obtained by torture is unreliable.
- The libertarian argument that governments are not to be trusted with such powers.
- The moral argument that torture violates human dignity.
The Christian in me knows this is wrong, but the corrections officer in me can't help but love to make a grown man piss himself.As liberal, middle-class or above Jews in America we are generally very far removed from the apparatus of state security. The situation in Israel is obviously different, and there Jews have proved themselves as capable of becoming torturers as anyone else. The Israeli security apparatus has had a practice of routine, legal, institutionalized torture, but has gradually changed its methods:
-- Cpl. Charles Graner (guard at Abu Ghraib, convicted of abuse)
This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand.
-- Aaron Barak, Israeli Supreme Court President, in a unanimous 1999 decision banning abuse of Palestinian prisoners
If Israel, under much more serious threats of terrorism than the US, can reform its practices, than so can the US.
- A Question of Torture, Alfred W. McCoy
- Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age, Alan Dershowitz
- Torture, Edward Peters
- Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris
- The Phoenix Program, Doug Valentine (also this article)
- The Black Sites: A rare look at the CIA's interrogation program, Jane Meyer
- Torture: When the Unthinkable is Morally Permissible, Mirko Bagaric, Julie Clarke
- What is torture? An interactive primer, Emily Bazelon, Phillip Carter, and Dahlia Lithwick