News & Politics

What Does a Torturer Tell His Kids?

One sign that a society is losing its moorings is when social scientists and medical practitioners discuss torture as a practical matter rather than as a moral issue.
A newsletter for former intelligence officers contained two requests this week from researchers. One is a Washington Post intelligence reporter who wants information about "that particular moment in a clandestine agent's life when he/she tells the children what they really do for a living."

The other request came from a social psychologist "preparing a utilitarian assessment of torture interrogation of terrorists to submit to a military ethics conference." His study is focused on institutional consequences of state-sponsored torture interrogations such as the involvement of the biomedical community. He is especially interested in "testaments to the efficacy of torture interrogation in eliciting accurate and crucial information."

I hope those researchers get together. It would be interesting to know about the moment in a torturer's life when he or she tells the kids what they do for a living.

State-sponsored torture is being debated as a viable option, and lawyers such as Alan Dershowitz suggest that torture warrants should be issued by judges if evidence suggests that a situation is time-critical. The process of securing warrants would provide a sufficient check, he believes, on state and federal interrogators.

I imagine this debate sounds different to Arab-Americans or African Americans than it does to an affluent lawyer who seldom hears suspects with sterilized needles under their fingernails screaming through the arbor vitae. On the other hand, it says something positive about the assimilation of Jews in America that Dershowitz, who is Jewish, does not even worry about how such warrants might be used if the American experiment in assimilation fails.

I recall having dinner in Madrid with a Spaniard 35 years ago. "America is a great country," he said, "but it is a very young country."

I felt the weight of his words, that two or three or four hundred years down the line, when historical conditions will have turned American history into the roller coaster that Spain's has been, we might see ourselves differently. We might be a little less innocent, a little less naïve.

The German Jewish population was the most assimilated Jewish community in history before the Holocaust. Then Germany lost its moorings. Any society can lose its moorings. It can happen here, and one sign that it might be happening is when social scientists and medical practitioners believe they are justified in discussing torture as a practical matter rather than a moral issue.

I grew up in Chicago where police did not need a torture warrant to interrogate suspects by whacking them with telephone books. That may have distorted my perspective, but I think it's pretty much the same everywhere. Chicago just does more openly what everybody does more hiddenly. I live now in Milwaukee, arguably the most segregated city in America, and it wasn't long ago that a policeman went on trial for beating a white man almost to death and blurted out that he had recently been transferred to a new district from an all-black neighborhood and had not realized that the rules were different.

The policeman who told me that story mentioned a time he had to leave an alley where colleagues were interrogating a suspect in a way that made him sick to his stomach.

It is not news to say that beatings and torture have long been part of the interrogation process, depending on who is the suspect and who is doing the questioning. Nor is it news that at Fort Benning, Georgia, American military officers taught agents of Central and South American police states how to use torture effectively. We all know it happens. That isn't the question. The question is, are we ashamed that it happens? You can tell a lot by knowing what someone is ashamed of.

Feeling appropriate guilt and rationalizing behaviors by instituting policies that justify and support them publicly are two different things. That difference makes all the difference between a society that can't always live up to its ideals and one that has forgotten where it put them.

It is not that we can't imagine circumstances in which we too would use any means necessary to protect those we love. We can. But extending that imaginary scenario to the nation and its interests during a time of anxiety and fear is too easy.

The American assertion of a right to pre-emptively strike an enemy is a logical extension of the belief that torture is justified by evidence that suggests an imminent attack. But why would a nation need to announce such a policy? After all, preemptive strikes have always been sanctioned by international law. So maybe the declaration is not really about that.

It sounds as if the Monroe Doctrine is being extended to the entire world. Exporting tools and techniques of torture to governments in our hemisphere was a logical consequence of the Monroe Doctrine, which insists that we can do anything in our own neighborhood in defense of our interests. If that neighborhood is now the world, if the front lines are everywhere, then the expediency of forgetfulness under fire applies to the basement of the local, state or national police as well.

A person who can calmly suggest using torture, who believes that a warrant will adequately handle the inevitable mistakes or malevolent intentions of people with power, is someone who can not imagine themselves being tortured. They can only imagine the torture of the Other.

Jacobo Timmerman, a large publisher in Argentina, could not imagine himself being taken until he found himself in a prison cell. He speaks of watching a woman led from her cell to receive electric shocks and a hood being placed over her head. They did that, he said, so the torturer would not have to look into her eyes. If you look into the eyes, he said, you see a human being and then you can't do the job.

Once social scientists, doctors and lawyers provide a veneer of respectability to sanctioned torture, it is removed from the moral domain. Once torture is debatable, it is only a matter of time until it is tacitly or officially sanctioned.

Then the task will be keeping that hood down over the face of the Other. So long as the screams come from someone who is a little less than human, we can live with it. The goal, after all, as Dershowitz explains, is short-term excruciating pain, not long-term damage. It's just a job. Somebody has to do it, and we can imagine the practitioners of that craft having a picnic with their kids, flying kites or running in slow motion through a wildflower meadow, then tumbling laughing into the tall grass and telling the kiddies what they do for a living.

The sadness of the human condition is that if we are honest with ourselves, we can each see how under the right conditions we too will enter into collusion with the state, if not actively participate in the practice. History has illustrated time and time again that under the right conditions, individuals will do anything.

Which is why preventing those conditions from happening in the first place is the only defense against the abyss.

Richard Thieme is a contributing editor for Information Security Magazine.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World