07 August 2006

"An Orgy of Power"

I am an Easterner, having really never done more than visit further west than Chicago. My wife, however, is from the west coast. Kimberley grew up in Eugene, Oregon which is home to the University of Oregon. She has spent most of the summer there with our son August visiting her parents. Some time ago she recommended that I check out the most recent issue of the Northwest Review which is produced by the English Depatment at UofO. There are, she told me, several provocative pieces in the Spring 2006 issue (Volume 44, #2) but, most importantly, an essay on torture ("An Orgy of Power") by an artist and friend of her family, George Gessert. A couple of weeks ago I ran into "Max," as George is known, while visiting Kimberley and August in Eugene. Max and his wife Kate were at a protest outsisde the Eugene Hilton where the state Republican Party was having a conclave of some sort. Kate was trying somewhat comically to get the simulated blood - applied for dramatic effect - off her hands.

In any case, the Gessert essay is a thoughtful one. Max depicts the systematic use of torture as "an orgy of unchecked self-expansion" which raises at least two more or less converse concerns. The first is the complicity of those -ourselves - who are the perhaps unwilling but nonetheless actual "beneficiaries" of any such policy. He brings this point home with a quite discomfitting contrast. On the one hand, Max points to the reaction of the French populace as they learned that their troops had engaged in torture in Algeria. He claims that that public realization rapidly spelled the end of popular support for the Algerian war. On the other hand, he points to the complacency of large numbers of Americans in the face of incontrovertable evidence that the Bush administration is pursuing a policy of using torture and of (tacitly or explicitly) condoning allies who practice it. Has that knowledge in any significant way eroded popular support for the way BushCo are prosecuting their war on terror?

The second point addresses the effects of torture. In a way Max is stressing that torture has a very extended half-life. It clearly effects those on whom it is directly applied. But it also effects the offspring of those who are tortured and, again, their offspring as well, and so on. How do survivors of torture raise theier children and grandchildren? How does that work its way out though generations? What is it like to know not just that torture exists in the world (as the installations in a recent Amnesty International campaign - «Cela existe. Pas ici, mais maintenant.» - forcefully remind us), but that people we know - one's siblings or parents, one's grandparents, one's cousins, aunts or uncles, one's neighbors, friends and lovers - have themselves been tortured? I put this in terms of half-life but, given his interest in the relationship of aesthetics and biological evolution, Max might instead frame the questions as "What is the cultural inheritance of torture?". What impact has the current cavalier attitude toward torture had on the evolution of more just or civilized societies?
_______________

It is a sign of my own insularity that I'd had never heard of the Northwest Review. To the best of my knowledge it is unavailable on line (I tracked it down at the University library). But it is just one of very many quality literary magazines (no news there!). You can find helpful, if still partial, indexes of such publications here and here.

Labels: ,

17 Comments:

Blogger JoeCollins said...

Regarding the Bush administration and torture, I think the level of complacency or outrage depends upon the circumstances. First let me say that moral correctness and political correctness do not correlate very well. Having stipulated that, there seems to be the least outrage at third-party torture, that is, transferring prisoners to Saudi Arabia with the expectation of much less pleasant treatment. There is some dehumanizing sense that "this is all these people understand" or "this is how the Arabs do things." I think third party torture has virtually no effect on support for Bush.

Abu Ghraib probably caused a spike in outrage, but was deflated by attempting to distance administration officials from direct involvement. Most hawks were able to convince themselves of what the Bushies were saying, but I think some got off the bus here. I personally think Rumsfeld had much more knowledge and involvement than has been admitted. I'm not sure whether Bush did or not.

Gitmo is an exercise in defining torture. Waterboarding is torture. Is Britney Spears torture? Britney for 14 hours? 72 hours? Should hunger-striking prisoners be given IV nutrients? It is an absurd and counterproductive exercise, but provides a degree of rationalization for some. There is a sense that what we're doing to the prisoners isn't all that bad - and better than Saudi Arabia! (wow, what a standard!) Lack of transparancy provides cover for supporters and ammunition critics since very few people know exactly what has been going on. Besides, what else would one do with these folks? The lack of an easy answer leaves us with the status quo.

My assessment is that torture has very little impact on overall support for Bush or the war. The (lack of) progress in executing the war has had a much bigger impact on Bush support. Bush was re-elected AFTER Abu Ghraib was made public. Since then the situation on the ground has gotten worse, and now people disapprove. If the war was going well very few people would care.

08 August, 2006 16:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Joe, Thanks for the smart comments. I think you are generally right about the lack of outrage re: torture. I also think that the problem with support for the war is that it appears as though it may be costly to AMERICANS - meaning we have scant tolerance for our kids getting killed and it seems to be that they are coming home dead or maimed in greater numbers than we thought, what with "surgical strikes" and sanitized mdeia coverage and so forth.

08 August, 2006 17:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your post and found your point about the half-life of torture and its lasting effect thought provoking. However your question is posed with more emphasis on the impact of knowing that people in the world have been tortured partially perhaps for our benefit. Personally I do not believe toture works and thus do not believe it benefits us. However putting that aside, it seems to me that the greatest reaction to the US use of toture has fallen on the lowest ranks of the military. I am not suggesting we should condone their actions - but one concern I have about the half life of toture is the impact on young and ill trained poorly directed troops that have perhaps become perpetrators . What will they think/feel etc when they retun home and are away from the environment that seems to encourage such deeds - how will they treat their wifes and friends, children and lovers? How indeed will they feel about themsleves?

08 August, 2006 18:28  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon: Thanks for the comment. My own view is that torture (1) does not generate reliaable information/intelligence, (2) is dehumanizing to both those on whom it is applied and (as you suggest) those who practice it, and (3) puts our own troops, aid workers, diplomatic workers and so forth at risk since it invites (in the sense of providing an excuse for) others to act badly. It is generally a disaster. It actually is (as Elaine Scarrey makes clear in her The Body in Pain, an extreme exercise of power in the sense that it aims to diminish the world of those on whom it is imposed by depriving them of voice.)

That said, I agree that the administration officials responsible for the policy have gone scot free, at least for now. And I am certain that those lower down the chain of command who actually impliment the policy pay the price psychologically.

08 August, 2006 18:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon: PS - that is why I placed "beneficiaries" in sacre quotes ...

08 August, 2006 18:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response - I believe we are in agreement. My comments were not meant as a critique just another way of thinking about the issue you raised - that no doubt you had thought of yourself.

08 August, 2006 19:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Thanks for the comment. My own view is that torture (1) does not generate reliaable information/intelligence"

What empirical evidence do you have to support that claim? Torture, as far as I know, has been used the world over as a very reliable means of extracting information. Interestingly, torture knows no political ideology; it has been used by both right wing and left wing regimes. Therefore, it makes one wonder just how ineffective it really is.

I wonder why people think we use torture. If one believes the war on terror is illegitimate, and the US is engaged in wanton torture against innocent, harmless people then obviously you would be opposed to its use. But, if you think those Gitmo detainees are terrorists who hold information that may save American lives, I doubt you would lose any sleep at night.

Regarding the psychological effects of torture, I think you guys are, again, making a claim which is unsubstantiated. In the Middle East, Africa and Asia, torture is still quite common. Even Germany has recently brought its use back in vogue against a child molestor who was witholding information on the where abouts of a child. And, how about the unbelievably wide spread use of torture in cultural revolution era China, and contemporary North Korea? The holocaust!? If the thesis of the after-life is correct, these must some some pretty screwed up societies! I personally have faith in the human spirit; it can endure serious hardships and bounce back strong.

08 August, 2006 21:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon.

Actually there is very little evidence that torture extracts usable information. Sorry. But I would refer you to the recent volume edited by Sanford Levinson, for instance. Even Alan Dershowitz, he of the "let's legalize it" approach, admits that the evidentiary value of information generated through torture is extremely meagre; hence his reliance on the "ticking bomb" example as a way of highjacking discussion.

As for the psychological effects of torture and its physical effeccts you can start with the (now dated) references in Scarrey's The Body in Pain. But there is a large literature on this in the medical journals.

As for who should be tortured - "terrorists", etc. - I would not want YOU to decide that. And, as it turns out many of the "detainees" at, say, Abu Ghraib were not in prison because there was any evidence that they were terrorists. That too you might learn from doing a little reading. Odd that you think our claims are unsubstantiated!

I agree that torture is non-ideological; at the moment, however, it is the neo-cons and their intellectual minions who are justifying it. When the leftists do the same I will condemn them as well.

08 August, 2006 22:29  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will do more research into the use of torture as an effective means of extracting information, and get back to you. But again, if it is a cross cultural, cross ideological phenomenon, and it has a long history of being in use, there has to be something to it.

Regarding the scary book, I have actually read it, and have seen her speak a few times. I don't see her relevance to this discourse though. Her frameworks are highly theoretical and academic. Can you explain how she fits into your argument?

One final point,just as you don't want me to choose who is tortured (and I never suggested I should choose) I don't want YOU to be the moral, and ethical police of the world. If my safety, my family's safety, and the safety of my nation, rests on extracting information from a terrorist, by the use of torture, I choose safety over lofty principles. I just don't believe all the guys at Gitmo are innocent . Nor do I believe the US is sadistically torturing them for wanton fun. I think terror is a serious matter, and a serious threat to national security, and it should be handled as such.

09 August, 2006 13:23  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

The cross-cultural existence of torture is not a sign of its utility. Many human shortcomings have cross-cultural presence - murder, crime (generally), greed, etc.

Alan Dershowitz's argument includes an acknowledgement that torture will almost certainly occur, so all the better that torture be regulated and given judicial oversight. I'm not totally sold on that, but Dershowitz certainly doesn't suggest carte blanche for the Executive.

10 August, 2006 14:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sockless Joe, would you please link me to the Dershowitz article. I'd like to read his argument.

I'm sorry but I don't trust your opinion regarding the use of torture. It seems to me that you are the type of person that would oppose torture against terrorists and child molestors even if it was proven effective. Therefore, I'll rely on military experts and history rather than a book by some academic, ivory tower elitists.

Thanks

10 August, 2006 20:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And just to make it clear, I never suggested carte blanche for the executive. I believe in the law, and in using the appropriate legal channels to handle these matters.

Funny, but I was talking to my Chinese friend today and she told me that if terrorism was a problem for China, it would have been eliminated a long time ago. Essentially she was suggesting that the west, with its lofty ideals and principles, is its own worst enemy. I think I agree.

10 August, 2006 20:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tolerance becomes crime when applied to evil. - Thomas Mann

10 August, 2006 20:46  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Anon:

There is simply little evidence that the systematic use of torture extracts useful informaiton that might make you and your loved ones more secure.

As far your fear that I am posing as the "the moral and ethical police of the world" - I've never aspired to that position. I am simply writing a blog where I feel free to call my cgovernment to task when they do things that I think make us all LESS safe and secure. Thanks.

10 August, 2006 21:46  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

Dershowitz wrote a book, "Why Terrorism Works", in which he discussed the idea of a torture warrant. I think there may have been some op-eds along the way too. Google is your friend.

The effectiveness of torture becomes less of a question when you consider the possibility of torturing somebody who has no knowledge of what the torturer might be trying to extract. Dershowitz described it like this on a CNN program: "Of course, the difficult question is the chicken-egg question: We won't know if he is a ticking-bomb terrorist unless he provides us information, and he's not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures.

"My basic point, though, is we should never under any circumstances allow low-level people to administer torture. If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice."

10 August, 2006 23:48  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My basic point, though, is we should never under any circumstances allow low-level people to administer torture. If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice."

Perfectly put, Joe. Thanks to both of you guys. We may not always agree Jim, but yours is a thought provoking blog nevertheless .

11 August, 2006 08:49  
Blogger JoeCollins said...

Those words are Dershowitz', not mine. It seemed to be a fairly succinct summary of his position though, so I felt it was helpful to quote it.

Exploring the above google search shows that the Israelis tried torture and found that it didn't work too well. So there's your empirical evidence. That's not to say that it never ever works, just that it's usually not worth the trouble it causes, both morally and practically.

11 August, 2006 16:02  

Post a Comment

<< Home