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Profile, Quizzical

Against Torture

Have I missed the day? It seems I have. We've been dealing with a domestic drama involving my lover's daughter, and I have had other things on my mind. And at first I thought I didn't have anything to say on the subject. I mean, what is there to say other than, "torture bad?" Which has been said over and over again over the centuries, believed for a while by some, and forgotten. But filkertom and catsittingstill have both written essays, and they sparked a few reflections.

One of my first thoughts this is, perhaps, an appropriate essay to write a week after Easter, for Easter is the memorial of an act of torture and killing--and a claim to transcendence of pain and death, but that is harder to judge. It is one of the great ironies of history that the great religious figures consistently oppose torture in word and action, and yet major factions of their followers consistently fail to act on the words and examples. Why is that? Against the teachings, repeated over and over, against common sense, against practical experience, why does anyone defend or practice torture? It is a a special case of the question: "Why coerce?" but coercion can serve a purpose, however unhealthy; coercion is less immediately repugnant and useless.

That, though, contains one of the seeds of an answer; torture is a prime technique of oppression, and oppressors use it, because for that, it works. In an empire, where the government depends on the consent and support of the citizens, the rationalization of torture as necessary is itself necessary to maintain the power of the empire, and this is why it is rationalized in Iraq. In Iraq, though, it fails. Torture can cow a citizenry, but it cannot stop an insurgency; the only ways to do that are either to settle with the insurgents, or to deprive the insurgency of necessary resources, and the US military (like all competent militaries) is very well aware of this. So, why...?

In cowing a citizenry, there is more of an answer; torture is one of the techniques used to maintain a coercive social order. In a certain sense, it is one of only three techniques; ultimately all forms of oppression grind down to hurting people, depriving people, or killing people, and hurting people is by far the most effective. But why participate in oppression of your own people, then? Why defend torture? I think there are multiple ways to look at the problem, but in the end they all tell the same story.

One way to look t the problem, as I said, is that it maintains an unjust social order: torture is the tool of the tyrant. Another way to look at the problem, though, is to recognize that many people believe it maintains their place in the social hierarchy: they are superior to the people being tortured, who they regard as a threat. And, finally, it is the expression, ultimately, of ape tribal behavior: hurting each other is part of how apes maintain power relations within their tribes. One of the things that goes wrong in warfare is the failure to grasp that it is conflict between, rather than within, tribes. Most people will accept a lot of abuse from members of their own "tribe" but they will fight against outsiders. Thus, tyrants believe that the people they attack can be cowed as easily as their own people, whereas people outside their society will instead fight; this belief was clearly in evidence in the W. Bush administration's attack on Iraq, where the leaders seriously believed that a show of force would be sufficient to bring Iraq into line and found, as more knowledgeable strategists already knew, that it would be necessary to deprive and to kill.

So, finally, I believe torture is a policy is built on the combination of ape instinct and the logic of power. What, then, may we do to devalue it? Well, to begin with, we keep telling people what's wrong with it as policy. Over time, people can be persuaded. Understanding sometimes help; the knowledge that this impulse is not from "god" (or whatever) at all, but rather a blind instinct devalues the impulse. In this regard, it also helps to point to the many religious teachings that are very much critical of torture; these are usually part of the the "primary" sources of the religion, inasmuch as any statement that is written down long after the fact can be said to be primary. Encouraging empathy with the victims is also valuable. For times, at least, these things can be made part of the past. And, who knows? Maybe over time humanity can learn.

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A fine essay. Most of the essays I've read focus on the "torture gives false information" aspect, but this one goes beyond in talking of why governments persist in doing it, and how they might be persuaded to change their mind.
I never doubted for a moment that Americans would be torturing people as soon as they invaded Iraq. I can kind of understand why American civilians might not have thought so, because there's no publicized documentation of American soldiers torturing Germans during WWII and of course the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Vietnamese are not human as far as middle America are concerned.

Thank you. We didn't expect it, you know--the Bush II administration exceeded the worst fears of all but the most radical of its domestic critics. Torture had not been US military policy since the 19th century--it is after all illegal. What we have now is is a horrifying relapse, made the more horrifying by the relentless propaganda defense of the practice. Brrr.

But hadn't people heard of the School of the Americas? It might have been illegal, but that doesn't mean American soldiers and spies weren't torturing.

People thought that wasn't "normal", and as far as I can tell they were correct; the torture trainers were a very small faction of army intelligence and the CIA, which strictly speaking isn't the military at all. When Rumsfeld, probably acting on Cheney's orders, wanted to torture at Abu Ghraib, he actually had to install his own hand-picked people, trained at Guantanamo Bay, and at that some of them were CIA or mercenaries. (Look up Janis Karpinski's book for details.) As far as I can tell, Terry Karney, over at Making Light, is much more representative of the former Army position than Rummy's bastards. Now, of course, the rot has spread. Any army stretched thin will become brutal, and the army in Iraq is stretched very thin.

What I think most of us underestimated, even people like me who could see these people were imperial wannabes, was just how corrupt and corrupting the Bush administration would turn out to be. It is enough to make one believe in demons.

You come at this from a really different perspective than I do. I don't mean that as any kind of disagreement--I had just never thought to approach the matter from this direction.

Thank you.

Wow, very nicely thought out essay. Lots of food for thought, there.

Thanks! (I'm just glad that people actually read it.)

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