Can we all just agree on a couple of things…Part 3

Can we all just agree on a couple of things – Part 3 – Torture

It is mindblowing to me that I would even need to bring this topic up, but after the last decade of horrific abuses under W, and especially, recently, after watching answers to a question on this topic from the latest InsanianRepublican debate, apparently there are people who are still unclear on the concept.

I will admit that this topic isn’t moving me nearly as much as other, more prominent events happening over the last few weeks (#occupy), but I wanted to get it down in writing.  Because:  the same people who got us into our current financial and political crisis, who are right now using all of their (ample) financial and financially-acquired political power to fight back against the protests, are the same people who–after decades of horror at even the thought of it–decided that torture was actually pretty much okay.

And remember this too:  the way the laws exist right now, under the Patriot Act and all the other secretive actions taken by the government (that they’ve barred the judicial branch from even reviewing, because it might threaten “national security”), the federal government could declare anyone at #occupy, including and especially American citizens, to be a threat to national security, and arrest them, and hold them indefinitely, without charges, torturing them, and there is no legal remedy, including Habeas Corpus, to challenge their actions.

We were quiet, and allowed them to claim these powers, because they promised us these tactics would only be used against the “bad guys”.  We forgot that we also allowed them to claim the ability to define who the “bad guys” are.

Torture does not—it cannot—produce voluntary cooperation.  It has two purposes:  punishment, and “breaking” a person.  It’s the second that’s important, because that’s often what people think of when they use the whole “yeah, but what if a bomb’s about to go off and the only way to get the info is to make the guy talk quick” argument.  But that’s not what “breaking” someone is.

It might help to take this out of the “good white Christian soldier ‘enhancing’ his ‘interrogation’ of a dirty brown terrorist” context for a minute.

The Inquisition (which no one ever expects) tortured people.  It took dissidents, jews, muslims, pagans, and people who were either too vocal about the abuses of the Church and related government entities or who had power to actually disrupt the activities of the Church and government (i.e. a “threat”), and accused them of witchcraft, devil-worship, or something along those lines.  They then tortured those people until they would agree to whatever their torturers said…this wasn’t a result of any sort of coherent “Gosh, if I just say what they want me to say, maybe they’ll stop hurting me,” decision; when a person is “broken” due to torture, the endless physical anguish crushes whatever will and ability to rationally think that a person has.  Think of how you felt at your absolute worst—a 48-hour sleepless cram session for a class, a 2-day bender, an all-night bedside watch over a critically ill loved one, a crippling toothache you lived with overnight until you could see the dentist in the morning—and multiple that by a hundred:  that’s the mental state of someone who is “broken” due to torture.

The result is that the torturers—in this example, the Catholic Church—can get these people to sign “confessions”, written by the torturers, confirming that everything the torturers accused them of is true, and thus their already-received and pending punishments are deserved.  This gives an outward legitimacy to the actions of the torturer—”See, he really was a devil worshiper, and we have saved you and your immortal soul from his corrupting innocence”—further increasing their power over those they wish to dominate.

The lucky ones, after signing their confessions, were put to death; the unlucky ones were tortured even more, until their “crimes” had been fully purged from them, and then they were put to death.

Centuries later, the Nazis and the Soviet Union studied these torture techniques and applied them to purely secular ends.  They would parade your neighbor, your pastor, your loved ones in front of you, absolutely no life left in their eyes, waving a signed “confession” around, proving that they were a collaborator, someone who had betrayed the Fatherland/Mother Russia, and had since repented of their wrongful acts and thoughts.  Best case, the people who saw the results were scared into keeping their potentially disloyal thoughts and actions to themselves, for fear they would receive the same treatment; worst case, some of the people who saw the results—people like small children, like the children of the very people who were tortured and then “confessed”—would actually believe the confession, and come to think that whatever thoughts and deeds those people had before they were tortured were wrong, or else why would this person they look up to have repented of them?

And because fear is a commodity in a state where things like this happen, the U.S.S.R. in particular did try to extract one bit of information while torturing their victims:  the names of other people who might also have disloyal thoughts, and be committing disloyal actions.  There were quotas to reach, see:  the Soviet state was a purely secular society, ruled by “science”, and part of that “science” was “knowing” that a certain percentage of any population is going to be disloyal in thought and deed, and must be cut away like rotting flesh.  If you were a government official, and weren’t turning over a certain number of people to the gulags on a proscribed regular schedule…well, the enemies were there, but maybe you weren’t good enough at your job (and thus were disloyal yourself in your lack of ability to find them), or maybe you were a co-conspirator, even, and intentionally hiding them.

There’s a story from Solzhenitsyn that tells of a magistrate who was approached by a woman from his area who wanted to accuse her neighbors of anti-Soviet thoughts and actions; there wasn’t any actual evidence against them, nor was she particularly patriotic:  she was afraid of being suspected of disloyalty herself, and thought she might curry favor and keep her name off the list (or at least away from the top of the list) by turning in other people herself, acting the good Soviet citizen.  And the magistrate looked at the clock, and saw that the train outside—the one that carried away the monthly quota of disloyal citizens to the prisons—was about to leave the station, and there were still a few open seats on it, and so arrested the woman instead of her neighbors, charging her with the very crimes she’d made up about them, and put her on the train to make his quota.

Think about all that for a minute.  This is what torture used to mean, from the fucking dark ages until about ten years ago.

Then realize that our good, white, Christian soldiers, with their “enhanced interrogation techniques”, did not derive those techniques from a detailed study of the culture and psychology of the people we are currently calling our enemies, they did not derive those techniques from an earnest exploration of the best ways to get people to divulge critical information that they do not want to share.  They derived those techniques by talking to scholars of Soviet-era interrogation techniques—the ones based on the Inquisition, designed to break people—and finding ways to take advantage of new technology to update those techniques.  And have gladly admitted to doing so, all while suggesting that their acts of modern torture are only reluctantly done to protect you from the disloyal, dangerous thoughts and actions of those they’re torturing.  And witchcraft.


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  1. #1 by Atticus Finch on November 17, 2011 - 2:35 PM

    Thank goodness there are some GOP candidates that understand torture is wrong. Just that we are even debating this scares me! You should check out Ron Paul – republican or democrat Ron Paul is awesome.

  2. #2 by Matthew Hunt on November 17, 2011 - 3:35 PM

    There are a lot of things I like about Paul, from this to his stance on the War on Drugs (end it)…but he’s still got his Greenspan blinders on for too many other issues. He still thinks in terms of theory, rather than practice. What’s the old joke about a theoretical physicist who was asked to design the perfect fence for a farmer’s cows, and he began with “Assume a cow of uniform density in a vacuum…”? The problem I have with him is that the system is too broken right now for his very sincere and well-intentioned desires for, say, even further reduced corporate regulations, or severe reductions in social services, to do anything but further empower those who have already abused the system to gather as much power and ill-gotten wealth as possible. What was it Greenspan said at the hearings after the financial collapse? Paraphrasing here, something like, “It just did not occur to me that people would commit long-term financial suicide for short-term profit.” In a college classroom or dorm-room bullshit session, I’m probably Paul’s first disciple, I just can’t trust him to have active power over policies and actions that directly affect my life and those of my children.
    Not that there are many better choices out there right now.

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