30 September 2006

Our Torturers

So, Americans are going to start torturing prisoners to gather "intelligence." Actually, you'll have to excuse me, for that is not quite right. We are going to start admittedly, brazenly torturing prisoners as a matter of public policy, rather than doing so surreptitiously. There are so many things wrong with that policy it is difficult to know where to begin. I thought that it would be appropriate to start with a passage from Jacobo Timmerman, Prisoner without a Name, Cell Without a Number, which is apprently out of print. Timmerman (1923-1999) was a prominent Argentine journalist and editor who was imprisoned by the Argentinian junta during their "dirty war" against subversion. He was imprisoned for thirty months without charges, while his family did not know where or why he was being held. And he was repeatedly tortured. Here is how he reflects on his experience:

"One might logically assume that I knew it all, knew what a political prisoner was, how he suffered in jail, the things a tortured man felt. But I knew nothing. And its impossible to convey what I now know.

In the long months of confinement, I often thought of how to transmit the pain that a tortured person undergoes. And always I concluded that it was impossible.

It is pain without point of reference, revelatory symbols or clues to serve as indicators.

A man is shunted so quickly from one world to another that he’s unable to tap a reserve of energy so as to confront this unbridled violence. That is the first phase of torture: to take a man by surprise, without allowing him any reflex defense, even psychological. A man’s hands are shackled behind him, his eyes blindfolded. No one says a word. Blows are showered upon him. He’s placed on the ground and someone counts to en, but he’s not killed. A man is then led to what may be a canvas bed, or a table, striped, doused with water, tied to the ends of the bed or table, arms outstretched. And the application of electric shock begins. The amount of electricity transmitted by the electrodes - or whatever they’re called - is regulated so that it merely hurts, or burns, or destroys. It’s impossible to shout - you howl. At the onset of this long human howl, someone with soft hands supervises your heart, someone sticks his hand into your mouth and pulls your tongue out of it in order to prevent this man from choking. Someone places a piece of rubber in the man’s mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue or destroying his lips. A brief pause. And then it starts all over again. With insults this time. A brief pause. And then questions. A brief pause. And then words of hope. A brief pause. And then questions.

What does this man feel? The only thing that comes to mind is" They’re ripping apart my flesh. But they didn’t rip apart my flesh. Yes, I know that now. They didn’t even leave marks. But I felt as though they were tearing my flesh. And what else? Nothing that I can think of. No other sensation? Not at that moment. But did they beat you? Yes, but it didn’t hurt.

When electric shocks are applied, all that a man feels is that they’re ripping apart his flesh. And he howls. Afterwards, he doesn’t feel the blows."

The first thing to notice is that throughout this passage the point of view - first person, second, third - shifts continuously. This reflects, I suspect, Timmerman's view that a political culture that sanctions torture will find it difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate those who 'justifiably' can be tortured from those who cannot.

The second thing is that torture renders one - you, he, I - speechless; a howl, a scream induced by extreme pain subverts communication and destroys language (as Elaine Scarry argues so persuasively in The Body in Pain). What we will get via torture is not "information," much less "intelligence" - even when we use it on "high-value" detainees. (And Timmerman might well be describing precisely what happens when American take terror suspects prisoner. Compare his description with the one Mark Bowden offers in his ethically and politically equivocal essay "The Dark Art of Interrogation," The Atlantic Monthly, October 2003.) What we will get is howls and screams from prisoners who will say anything, implicate anyone, to try to satisfy our agents in hopes, thereby, of getting those agents to stop torturing them. And, as I have noted before, what we will get - and here I mean "we," you and I, American citizens - is well-deserved complicity and responsibility. These are our torturers - yours and mine.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go ahead, Mr. Weather underground, start your blog revolution for a moral and equal society: Hurrah for the North Korean paradise! However, The rest of us have work in the morning.

What's especially pathetic about your blog is that you don't contribute a single original thought to your posts. Instead, you rely on long quotes from other people's work to speak for you. As the saying goes, "those who can't do, teach."

You washed up hippies are such a joke.

See you later, old fart.

01 October, 2006 19:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also like how you tout yourself as a "political theorist." Funny, you sound more like a tree-hugging activist, to me.

01 October, 2006 20:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Good anger there, dude. Just let it all out... When you have done that you may be able to explain how North Korea and tree-hugging came into the picture, and further what your point of view on torture is. Among other things you might want to answer whether torture of innocents is merely 'the price that must be paid for liberty and security'.

And come on, no gung-ho statements, please...

02 October, 2006 07:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jane Mayer wrote a piece for the new yorker about an Al Qaeda informant named Fadl, or Junior as he is nicknamed. According to the article, Junior received (is receiving) long term humane treatment, and has repayed it by becoming one of our most valuable sources regarding Al Qaeda's inner workings. The people who have handled him seem to believe strongly (surprise surprise) that beating him would have never yielded such results.

02 October, 2006 08:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I appreciate your insightful comments. As for your assessment of the originality of my blog, you are surely fee to spend your time elsewhere. Since you have to work in themorning, I understand thta your time is precious. In this instance, however, having never been tortured myself, I thought it would be appropriate to let folks like you hear from someone who had been. I apologize for my efforts to pry open yor mind.

PS: I actually have never hgged a tree.

02 October, 2006 09:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

trane & Ben,

Thanks for your remarks. Both of you get to a central, well-recognized point. Torture does not secure reliable "intelligence." So rather than sacrifcing our vaulues of liberty and equality for some exigency, we are, by writing torture into law, sacrificing the values for which we purportedly are fight for literally nothing.

02 October, 2006 09:38  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I have read trough all of your comments on the last several posts - it is not too hard to discern you distinctive tone. two things strike me as interesting.

The first is that you really need to stop relying so much on cliches and ad hominem attacks since they tend to be a substitute for actual thought.

The second is that you seem pre-occupied with the N Koreans. I think that is an improvement on the Bush crowd since at least we know that NK has or is rying to obtain WMDs, a "fact" that was fabricated to rationalize our current disaster in Iraq. If the administraiton had kept its eye on the ball and tried to deal with NK in an effecctive way we might not be in the predicament in Iraq that the National Intelligence Estimate (written, of course, by tree hugging pinkos) identifies. Thanks again for your input.

02 October, 2006 12:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me do my best to address all of your concerns - first, Trane, I brought up North Korea and tree-hugging as a piece of irony. This blog is chock-full of "Bushco" bashing and criticism of American national security policy, however, I can't seem to find criticisms of states like North Korea, Iran, and Syria whose egregious violations of human right norms make our legalized "torture" policy look like child's play. Moreover, the same people who villify our state's leaders, tend to champion crackpots like Kim Jung Il, Hugo Chavez, and Ahmadinejad (see Noam Chomsky's lavish praise of Hezbollah). Therefore, I find it hard to take academic critics very seriously.

Furthermore, I think it's wrong to deny law enforcement agencies, as well as the military, all practical means to do their job, effectively. I am NOT advocating for indiscriminate torture! But, when time is of the essence, what are we to do? Overindulge the terrorist with kindness? Excuse me for not being sympathetic to a terrorist, when thousands of lives are at stake.

To the argument that torture is not an effective means of extracting information, i say, bogus. This argument has only surfaced, recently, from the left, who are disguisng themselves as pragmatists. In fact, they oppose torture on moral principles NOT practical ones. Torture has been used since the begining of time, by all peoples across the globe. To deny that it can be a crucial tool at the opportune moment is bull. What studies has Jim cited? Elianne Scarry is hardly an authority on the use of torture, unless you feel at ease taking national security advice from a lady who studied victorian literature!

Ben, I repeat my statement above: I am NOT for the indiscriminate use of torture. However, I will not deny it as a means for law enforcement. Law enforcement means what it says: enforcing the law. If law enforcement and national security agencies have no teeth, then the law becomes irrelevant. I can just see it now, a few terrorists are having a conversation, over dinner, with one telling the other, "What's the worst that can happen? If you get caught, they put you up in a nice fedeal prison with 3 meals a day and cable TV." No thanks!

Jim, trying to make people emphatize with torture victims in Latin America is quite a different story than what we have here. In Latin America they torture political dissidents, and members of party opposition. No one is advocating that! Policymakers have decided that in urgent matters of national security, torture is a viable option. Frankly, these sensationalist notions that our country will slip into a fascist dictatorship is just that, vaccuous sensationalism.

02 October, 2006 15:34  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


In no particular order, here are some replies.

One, if you actually read the blog you'll find a series of posts on the political dififuclties of a particular photographer in Syria. They were among the first things I posted about and I have updaated them regularly, and most recetly, last month.

Second, IRONY is not the same thing as using adhominem attacks and cliches. So while your e effort may have been to be ironic, it actually was comic. There is a big difference between attempt and achievement.

Third, there are plenty of blogs that pander to the right. Go read them if you don't like what you find here. I am not bashful about saying what I think, so there is no false advertising.

Fourth, I don't think I've ever mentioned Chomsky here. Nor have I defended any of hte "crack pot" leaders you mention. SOo what is the point of raising such folks except to muddy the waters? Guilt by association is no better than cliches and adhominem attacks.

Fifth, criticizeing an administraiton that led us into war on the basis of lies (a well documented fact) hardly seems out of line in a democcracy. BushCo have created a mess and are unwilling to own up to it. The consequences in terms of civil liberties aside, they have NOT made us more secure, they have NOT addressed terroist threats terribly effectively, and so forth BECAUSE they are preoccupied with Iraq - which had no plconnecction to 9/11, no contacts with Osama and his cronies, no WMDs and so forth. Yes Saddam was a bad man, but that hardly makes him unique. Why the preoccupation with him?

Fifth, On torture. Many among the adinistrations harshest critics here are in the military. Why? Because they understand (1) how pathetic any "intelligence" is that we might elict via toture and (2) how partaing in torture places US nationals (military and not) at greater risk. Torture is not just morally wrong it is simply bad policy on prudential grounds. Your claim that this is simply a left wing moralistic rationalization is simply not born out in the consensus of discussion on the topic. Can you site a non-administraiton source that claims that a tortured prisoner is a reliable source of information? You may not like Scarry (perhaps beause she is a "lady", perhaps simply because she disagrees with you) but other than yelling BOGUS and BULL (hardly ironic, by the way) you offer nothing but you own opinion on the matter. Back it up.

Sixth, how do you know what it takes to defend the country effecctively? Listening to BushCo hardly seems a great place to start given their record.

Seventh, my point in quoting Timmerman is not that the context of his detention is precisely the same (althought the Argentine junta thought they were combatating "evil" subversion too). Instead, the point is to allow you to hear from someone who actually has been tortured. I said as much, but you appraently missed that. So perhaps you should read what he says and explain how that howl will produce anything productive by way of information. Moreover, many of the Latin American and Central American regimes you refer to had their torturers trained by our very own CIA and at the "School of the Americas." That is inconvenient but true. And in most instances repressive regimes int he region were supported financially and otherwise by the US.

Finally, I have said that BushCo are dangerous. I have not said that they are fascists of nazis (those are words you use). I do think they are dangerous. And I think that their willingness to legalize torture is an indication of that. And, by the way, there is nothing in the recently passed "let's torture detainees act" that exempts American citizens form the newly legal practices.

Best, Jim

02 October, 2006 16:50  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous: You are being more precise now, which is good. You are still not very convincing, though.

You say that you are NOT for ‘indiscriminate use of torture’ But how do you discriminate, and how do you expect officials in government agencies and military staff to discriminate?

To take one your examples; Hizbollah. I am no great fan of that organization, but even the sternest opponent of it would have to admit that it is a very large and complex organization with some branches engaged in terrorist (as you see it) or (as they see it) military activities, while other branches provide health care and so on. So, say one health service staff is captured who is related to one of the terrorists (we assume we know this for certain and agree 100 per cent about the definition of a terrorist). Would some ‘mild form of torture’, whatever that means, be allowed in order to extract information from this person? Under what circumstances would it be allowed?

You seem to assume that of course people will know the difference, and the legislation will express a balanced, wise and precise view of the circumstances where this should be allowed. This in turn assumes that the president will never be wrong in his/her judgment. But even if this were so, it is unreasonable to assume that NO staffers would EVER misinterpret this piece of legislation so that innocents (whether sympathizers of terrorists or not) - who are assumed to be terrorists but later turn out not to be so - would be exposed to torture. This should count on the downside, right? To jeopardize the lives of innocents, especially since you and I (probably!) will not pay the price with our own bodies and lives, but will let someone else pay it for us. Part of what we despise about terrorism is that it is aimed at innocents, and hurts them completely randomly.

You may say that it is unlikely, or that it will occur only rarely. Let us hope so. But how likely is the opposite scenario upon which you seem to base your case: The film scenario in which our hero - an agent with the highest of morals and the best of intentions and abilities - has captured a terrorist. He knows for certain that the terrorist has the information he needs to save a thousand lives. His experience tells him that his best chance of getting this information is by ‘going rough’ on the terrorist (I am very sceptical about this part). He has only one hour to act before the thousand lives are lost. The terrorist laughs at him.

Is this the common scenario in comparison to the ones where innocent lives are hurt? We may differ here, but I would be glad to hear your opinion. What if you were the agent in that extreme condition (the film scenario), would you look to the law for immediate justification, or would you act upon what you – in this extreme situation without the compass of the law – think is right? If our agent saves the day, is it likely that he will be charged afterward by some soft left-winger judge? Or will he, due to the extreme nature of the situation, not be charged? Which is more likely? Is it the scenario of the good agent who saves the day but ends up being charged or the one where the good agent’s good colleagues by mistake expose innocents to torture?

Even if I grant you (for the sake of the argument) that there could be circumstances where torture could be justified, I find those circumstances so extremely unlikely and rare that no, I would not like them to allow for general practices of torture to become accepted.
Here I have only argued on the basis of honest mistakes that public officials might make, and not posed scenaria of how people might abuse legislation such as this, whether they be of the left or right. Is it impossible for you to imagine such abuses? Think ten years hence. Are you confident still? I am not. Whatever you might call the state that you (well we, I am the citizen of an allied country) are in, it does not look pretty to me. I do not think your Founding Fathers would like it either.

Further Jim argues that this legislation puts the lives of American troops in danger. Do you agree to this? It appears to me to be a traditional view (not just among tree-huggers such as me) that if you treat the enemies you capture well, they will treat your comrades better. Anyway, for my part, losing completely the moral high ground (if we ever had some) is a great loss, especially since I fear that no security whatsoever is gained from it.

03 October, 2006 09:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your scenario in which a terrorist announces at dinner, " "What's the worst that can happen? If you get caught, they put you up in a nice fedeal prison with 3 meals a day and cable TV."-seems to suggest that a terrorist might weigh the personal/legal consequences of his or her (failed) action. I sincerely doubt that either torture is a significant deterent or that its absence serves as encouragement.

03 October, 2006 22:25  

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