The Object of Torture

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by Tim Widowfield

I have two reasons for spending so much of my free time on ancient history and Biblical studies. First, I have a genuine, lifelong curiosity about these subjects, but perhaps just as important (especially since 2001), I welcome the pleasant distraction from the awful present. With that background in mind, I reluctantly face the subject at hand: Torture. What is it? Why is it used? Who are its defenders?

Category:George Orwell Category:Nineteen Eight...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘. . . The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’ (1984, George Orwell)

Notwithstanding O’Brien’s explanation of persecution and torture to Winston Smith, people don’t normally engage in torture for its own sake. So, why do they do it? Rule number one of power is that it must protect itself. Any threat to power must be met by every tool available. Whatever public excuse the people in power give us for what they do, we must not forget rule one.

The Tool

Torture is and has always been a tool of the powerful, who need not justify its use. Of course, in Western nations the public voices who represent state power will often provide halfhearted justifications for certain acts of torture re-framed under other names. Hence we have Orwellian euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation,” which vaguely reminds me of the unexpected joy of being upgraded to a seat in first class. Who would complain about being upgraded to enhanced interrogation?

The Law

This fuzzy language could make us forget the legal meaning of torture. The federal code could scarcely be clearer:

(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(C) the threat of imminent death; or

(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and

(3) “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States. (see also the full statute in PDF)

Waterboard displayed at Tuol Sleng Genocide Mu...
Waterboard displayed at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Prisoners’ legs were shackled to the bar on the right, their wrists were restrained to the brackets on the left, and water was poured over their face, using blue watering can, to drown them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Apologists

Among the more repulsive pearls of reactionary wisdom Milton Almeida recently excreted in his paean to torture, his oblique description of waterboarding stands out. He defiantly writes that he is “not going to be all shaken up because someone who contributed to the death of about 3,000 people ‘has water bubbles coming off his throat.’” Milton’s obfuscation could almost cause us to lose sight of the true purpose of waterboarding, which is not to produce bubbles, but to persuade the mind and the body of the tortured victim that death is imminent.

Those who continue to use the term “simulated drowning” ought to know by now that it’s a lie. There is no simulation. Waterboarding is drowning. If you’re lucky, you don’t die and the “only” scars you bear are psychological. The terror is real, and so are the long-term traumatic effects.

You can easily see why the technique has had its share of fans over the centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition to the U.S. military in the Philippines to Pol Pot in Cambodia. It doesn’t require any special paraphernalia. It leaves no physical marks. All you need is some water and the will to inflict the ultimate terror on another human being. What is torture, after all, except terror on a human scale?

Wait!” say the supporters of personal terrorism, “What about a ticking time bomb? Even if there was a slim chance, wouldn’t you use it then?” Not only Almeida but the honorable Justice Antonin Scalia himself has asked that same criminally stupid question. However, the practitioners of torture know the reasons for using it, and finding out things they don’t know is not one of them.

The Object

No, its primary reason is to make you do something you don’t want to do, often, for example, to confess to a crime they already “know” you committed or, as in the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, to confirm information they already “know” must be true, such as operational links between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein — links that, as it turns out, never existed. Torture quickly convinces the victim that talking will stop the terror. It needn’t be true; in fact, you’re safer if you tell them what you think they want to hear.

If you are a naive liberal or one of those rare, lonely conservatives with a conscience, you might think that presenting contradictory evidence to the torture apologists would have some effect. It won’t, and you shouldn’t even try. The conclusive proof that torture does not reveal the truth has no effect on them. You might think the fact that our government in our name tortured innocent people who had no information to give would persuade even the hardest proponents of personal terrorism to rethink their position. Or you might think that finding out that the CIA “accidentally” tortured some people to death would make a difference.

It won’t. And you should stop trying change their minds.

The Authoritarians

Don’t accuse them of not listening or not understanding what you’re saying. They can hear you. Their minds just don’t work the way yours does. They understand the world as a set of interlocking authoritarian structures, where people are either purely good or purely evil, where people in authority on our side always act with the purest of intentions, where violence is always the best option, and where torture always makes people tell the truth. When you tell them that Sen. John McCain called waterboarding “a horrible torture technique,” it doesn’t matter. Anyone who disagrees with their authorities (i.e., any number of conservative mouthpieces, starting with former Vice President Dick Cheney) instantly becomes an untrustworthy counter-authority.

The Deterrent

The authoritarians love torture not just because they believe in their heart of hearts that it produces good, “actionable” intelligence. As with their other cherished tradition, the death penalty, they know that it’s a deterrent. In this case, torture and the threat of torture go beyond personal terrorism and serve as an example of “what will happen to you” if you threaten the centers of power. Deterrence is why corpses with holes in their heads end up on the streets of Baghdad and not buried in some unmarked grave. It’s also why our rendition program (i.e., sending prisoners to other countries where torture is legal and common) is an open secret.

You may have noticed that using violence and the threat of violence to coerce people to do things is the very definition of terrorism. And so it is. You could argue that it’s a secondary effect of torture, but it clearly plays a role. Consider, for example, that the 525-page summary of the Senate’s classified 6,000-page CIA torture report contains no recommendations for further action. In other words, we just told the world what we did and trumpeted the fact that nobody will suffer any consequences for those war crimes. Not only that, but our government knows that the Department of Defense engaged in the same behavior on a greater scale than the CIA, but chooses to do nothing about it.

The rest of the world should draw the following conclusions: Your lives don’t matter, and we’re probably going to do this again some day.

How the Authoritarians See You

I said earlier that you should not argue with authoritarians, and it bears repeating. What you see as clear evidence that torture doesn’t work will have no effect on them. In fact they will write you off as a do-gooder or a terrorist sympathizer. Understand that sympathy, empathy, love, etc. are signs of weakness to an authoritarian. And if a person is not a member of your nation, clan, religion, or race and you show compassion toward him or her, the authoritarians will write you off as a weakling who wants to sell out his side to the bad guys.

They don’t care if we tortured innocent people. Stop bringing it up. For them, the ends always justify the means. They’re not ashamed of it, either, so stop trying to show them evidence that would induce shame in a decent human being. You may as well try to train a cat to fetch a stick.

Don’t take my word for it. Take it from Robert M. Price:

We know that Muslim fanatics (more and more a redundancy, I’m afraid) have the courage to embrace martyrdom if they can kill a few more infidels. Heaven awaits them. We, too, believe in martyrdom, did you know? We know damn well that prosecuting our interrogators, emasculating the CIA, will have the same result it did when last we did it (in self-reproach for doing what had to be done): it will endanger our people. But if and when it does cost some lives, the Liberals who will be to blame as accomplices of the terrorists will be tearfully proud of those innocents—who will be henceforth esteemed as what? Why, martyrs to the American Liberal faith, that “we are a nation of laws, not men.” Well, that will be so! The men and women will be dead, the laws will survive—like the cockroaches do–only by then it will be Shari’ah law. In this decadent society the true Patriot will be the martyr, not the one who draws a line and stands against further encroachment, but the one who erases the line and welcomes in the barbarians. We will have turned the other cheek: “What a good boy am I!” That’s what your tombstone will read. (emphasis mine)

To protect us fully, Price would no doubt restore “masculinity” to the CIA, where being male apparently includes the freedom to commit war crimes.

Take note: If you insist on the rule of law, authoritarians will not be swayed. And if you continue down that path, vigorously arguing that torture doesn’t work and is immoral, they will peg you as a life-hating, self-loathing, capital-L Liberal who wants to “endanger our people” and “welcome the barbarians.”

Congratulations. You’re an “accomplice of the terrorists.”

The Goal

That old line from the Vietnam War rings true again: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The only way to survive, the authoritarians would tell us, is to set aside centuries of Western law, to bury the Enlightenment in the landfill of history, to burn the Magna Carta, to shred the Bill of Rights, to de-fund and disband the U.N., to hand over the reins of power to the military and the intelligence agencies. In short, we must become just like our enemies in order to meet them on an even playing field.

And if you disagree, you’re a milquetoast, leftist, doe-eyed traitor. The best way to confront those barbarians who “laugh at our values” (Price’s words) is to repudiate those values and become our enemy. To protect the Republic, in their eyes, we must be willing to kill it ourselves in an orgy of self-inflicted violence and mayhem.

Shortly after 9/11, we came to a fork in the road. We could either accept our Western values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as defining characteristics, part of our essential nature, or we could choose to view them as peacetime luxuries that we should ignore for the remainder of the Forever War. The authoritarians, without batting an eye, chose the second option. If you missed that, you may have been confused and outraged for the past 12 years or so.

The Future

I don’t hold out much hope for the years ahead. Our political system presents us with a choice between candidates committed to the cause of the authoritarians and candidates who will compromise with them. Our failed media mirrors our failed state. It tells us we must find some middle ground between doing the right thing and following Dick Cheney to “the dark side, if you will.” The Democrats, our other conservative party, won’t change the status quo, because they’re afraid of their own shadows.

I’m afraid the next terror event that happens on U.S. soil will push us over the brink. The authoritarians will demand “Jack Bauer Justice” and “Second-Amendment Solutions.” We will slide into totalitarianism. I wish I had some advice to prevent it from happening, but I don’t. The only thing I can offer is an explanation for the way things are, because living in a fantasy world in which your opponents and you are having a rational conversation with the same presuppositions and the same core values is a complete waste of time.

All I can suggest is to focus your attention on organizations and people who want to stem the tide of authoritarianism. Give to Amnesty International. Support the few candidates out there who stand for peace and justice. Resist the urge to argue with authoritarians. Don’t bother giving them the time of day. They deserve nothing but your contempt and ridicule.

Postscript:  This is a Tim post. I’m not speaking for Neil here, so don’t blame him.


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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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21 thoughts on “The Object of Torture”

      1. Did you notice how quickly the media jumped down the throat of the Senate report, marginalizing it as the minority (Liberal) report of a minority (Democrat) party? This shows you who is running the country, and who has been running it for the past 65 years.

  1. I appreciate Price’s political views in inverse proportions to his bible criticism. I’m still listening to his podcast because I learn so much from it but I often think of giving up on him in the same way I’ve given up on Dawkins and Harris (another torture apologist). In fact, compared to those two, Price is much more extreme, sometimes verging into total wingnut territory. His possible saving grace is that he’s pro-gay. If this wasn’t the case I’d have stopped paying attention ages ago. Another good reason to never have idols.

    1. The last straw for me was his podcast before the 2012 election, in which he repeated every fake Obama scandal he heard on Fox News. It’s really hard to take anyone seriously who doesn’t recognize propaganda and political theater for what it is.

      I thought I could keep his childlike understanding of politics and economics separate from his really interesting views about the Bible, but I couldn’t. I tried for quite a long time, but in the end, I had to quit cold turkey.

      1. I remember that podcast, but it just made him more likable in a crazy grandpa sort of way for me. Obviously, people can completely compartmentalize their logical thinking into only some of their endeavors. I can compartmentalize my regard for him, and I’m glad I can. He is not only a great source for biblical criticism and exegesis, but his knowledge of theology is amazing. I think most people involved in the former two also have at least some interest in the latter, and to have a secular outlook like Price’s to expound on theology, ancient and modern, is just amazing. On Protestantism he is encyclopedic, but he knows Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Islam too! I think it is very safe to say you really are poorer for not listening to him.

    2. ” Harris (another torture apologist)”

      If this (calling Harris a torture apologist) is going to pass muster here without criticism, you all have lost the argument. But, fear not, you DO win the Pharyngula Commentariat Look-Alike Contest.

      1. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/why-id-rather-not-speak-about-torture1

        Harris doesn’t want to talk about torture, but talks about torture. He’s against it . . . most of the time. But he’s willing to entertain the possibility of using it in the case of the ticking time bomb.

        He says that claiming torture doesn’t work is a bad argument, because sometimes it does. He writes:

        The possibility that such a person might really be “innocent” or that he could “just say anything” to mislead his interrogators begins to seem less of a concern. Such captures bring us closer to a “ticking bomb” scenario than many people are willing to admit.

        That’s sloppy thinking and sloppy writing. The problem isn’t the person is innocent or will say anything at all. Rather it’s that he or she may not know what you’re trying to torture out of him, or is strong-willed, fanatical, or sufficiently well-trained (take your pick) to give you incorrect information that will make things significantly worse. Recall that we have real-life situations in which actual torture victims knowingly gave bad information that Colin Powell used in his case before the U.N. concerning Iraq’s WMD programs and operational ties to al Qaeda.

        Harris writes:

        While I think that torture should remain illegal, it is not clear that having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine.

        It is actually quite clear. The Bush DoJ cracked opened the door, and the CIA came barging through.


        Finally, while Harris can find pragmatic reasons not to torture, he apparently can’t come up with any ethical reasons not to. He concludes:

        I consider it to be one of the more dangerous ironies of liberal discourse that merely discussing the possibility of torturing a man like Osama bin Laden provokes more outrage than the maiming and murder of children ever does.

        What a remarkably stupid thing to say. The murder of innocent people is shocking and outrageous. It demands justice. But the suggestion that we should consider policies that make exceptions for torture should evoke a visceral response, because it makes us all complicit. The outrage comes not for our compassion for bin Laden but at the repugnant thought that our government would commit war crimes in our name.

        The “dangerous irony” that Harris, vaunted advocate of rational thought, misses is his use of an irrational argument to shame us for feeling outrage that our government tortured bad men. “Won’t someone think of the children?!” “I guess you love terrorists more than dead and maimed children.”

        How is Harris any better than Scalia?

        Gingerbaker, perhaps you can explain how somebody can apologize for torture and not be a torture apologist.

        1. “Gingerbaker, perhaps you can explain how somebody can apologize for torture and not be a torture apologist.”

          Because recognizing that the use of torture in the Ticking Bomb scenario is validly ethical; and recognizing that the meme that torture doesn’t work is false, does not mean that one should conclude that the wholesale use of torture is an ethical or pragmatic policy. And Harris does NOT advocate the wholesale use of torture, which means he is NOT a torture apologist.

          I find your thinking on this issue illogical. For instance – you use the Bush DOJ as a refutation of Harris’ position. But I do not see Harris as in any way supporting the Bush doctrine. You use Colin Powell’s use of government-generated disinformation as an argument against the reliability of intelligence generated from torture. But this is disengenuous – everyone knew that the testimony of Eight Ball (?) was full of shit. Powell, Cheney, Bush, and several from the CIA should be prosecuted for treason for this manipulation.

          In all the cases, above, in which you state that Harris has said something incredibly stupid, I do not share your opinion. You see this as a high-contrast B&W issue – I see many shades of gray.

          1. GB: “And Harris does NOT advocate the wholesale use of torture, which means he is NOT a torture apologist.”

            Your definition of apologist is wanting. It simply means he’s an advocate for a controversial idea. One can, for example, be an apologist for the death penalty and not be for its wholesale use — e.g., for traffic violations or the misuse of an apostrophe.

            Harris starts one of his paragraphs in the referenced post like this:

            My argument for the limited use of coercive interrogation (“torture” by another name) is essentially this . . .

            By definition, he’s a apologist for torture. And that’s fine, if he believes that it is justified in extremely limited circumstances. He makes his case. I disagree.

            Stop trying to have it both ways. Either he’s a brave, edgy, deep thinker who is willing to go out on a limb and defend human-scale, personal terrorism (“torture” by another name) or he isn’t.

            GB: “I find your thinking on this issue illogical. For instance – you use the Bush DOJ as a refutation of Harris’ position. But I do not see Harris as in any way supporting the Bush doctrine.”

            Pay closer attention. He said that he doubted whether “having a torture provision in our laws would create as slippery a slope as many people imagine.”

            I cited the Bush DoJ rulings as evidence against his assertion, because they actually were intended to be limited in scope. And yet when they were applied in the real world, the torturers went way past those guidelines.

            You object to my use of bad intelligence gained from al-Libi — http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/11/AR2009051103412.html

            Fine. Let’s quote the CIA’s 1963 interrogation manual instead:

            Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.

            GB: “I see many shades of gray.”

            Well, good for you. Explain to me again how the Ticking Bomb scenario is “validly ethical” when the experts tell us torture will probably “produce false confessions.”

  2. torture is never to be permitted in a democracy
    so there should be no provision for it
    what if someone knows where his ticking bomb is?
    the enemy is us indeed.

    1. I would add my last remark implies that Kant’s rule that never should an immoral act be committed [ here, the injury …or threat of… to another]
      is wrong…..the old deontological / utilitarian problem. But you did n’t hear it from me.

      1. In the unlikely event that you will read it if I post it one more time, here’s what the CIA’s own interrogation manual said about torture:

        Intense pain is quite likely to produce false confessions, concocted as a means of escaping from distress. A time-consuming delay results, while investigation is conducted and the admissions are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee can pull himself together. He may even use the time to think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still longer to disprove.

        If that’s not enough, here’s first-hand evidence from Donald P. Gregg, who interrogated P.O.W.s in Vietnam, (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08gregg.html):

        During wartime service in Vietnam with the C.I.A. from 1970 to 1972, I was in charge of intelligence operations in the 10 provinces surrounding Saigon. One of my tasks was to prevent rocket attacks on Saigon’s port.

        Keeping Saigon safe required human intelligence, most often from captured prisoners. I had a running debate about how North Vietnamese prisoners should be treated with the South Vietnamese colonel who conducted interrogations. This colonel routinely tortured prisoners, producing a flood of information, much of it totally false. I argued for better treatment, and pressed for key prisoners to be turned over to the C.I.A., where humane interrogation methods were the rule, and more accurate intelligence the result.

        The continual threat of attacks against Saigon is about as close to the ticking time bomb scenario as you’re apt to find in real life. Yet we see that tortured prisoners volunteered a flood of unreliable information. Weeding through the horseshit wasted valuable time which put people’s lives in danger.

        By the way, that opinion piece in the Times, “Speaking with the Enemy,” is well worth reading.

        One last point: It should be remembered that 24 was not a documentary.

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