Collie's Bestiary

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Why not torture?

by Collie Collier
May 2006 Firestarter column

Short answer: acts which deliberately inflict pain and damage, in an effort to denigrate human dignity, are wrong.

Long answer: Like most of the difficult ethical questions in life, my path to this decision came slowly, with quite a bit of soul-searching and long discussions with patient friends. A review of that path follows.

Introducing torture

Some time ago I wrote a review of one of the "Introducing..." series of books. This one was Introducing Ethics by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt. Because the book was such a light overview of the subject, I found myself rather unmoved by it, and consequently with not much to say. So, in an effort to both attempt to give more to my readers, and get something worthwhile from the book, I answered the list of ten questions which were mentioned in the book as being constants through the ages. One of them was "Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) which are always wrong? If so, what are they?"

In a nutshell, I decided I believed incidents which might be classified as torture should be viewed in context before a decision was made as to whether or not they did indeed qualify. For myself, I considered standard circumcision to be unnecessary and torturous, but painful physical therapy imposed on a child so they could maintain later physical capabilities was not truly classifiable as torture, using the definition I finally came up with. That ended up being as follows: acts which deliberately inflict painful damage in order to denigrate human dignity. I consider torture as so defined to be morally wrong.

And that was that, and I was somewhat smugly proud of myself for my surely-so-well-considered response. And of course, as always happens when I get smug about how smart I am, something came along and shattered that cocky self-assuredness.

Hypothetical torture

He was a long-time friend, and he had some ethical questions he was struggling with himself as well, at that time. Most of the questions were pretty easy for me to answer, but there was one that hit me hard. It was phrased as a hypothetical:

"Let's say you've captured a mad bomber. He's planted a bomb somewhere in the country which will kill thousands, and it's set to go off in a few hours. You're sure giving this guy a few minutes "working over" in the back room with 'Guido' will cause him to sing like a bird -- and the unwitting hostages will all be saved.

Do you torture him?"

Ouch. There went my certainty.

I didn't have an answer. Well, I didn't have a good answer. What I had was a gut reaction -- yes, I torture him to save the thousands! -- but I also had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about it. Usually when I have that uneasy feeling I know it's my non-conscious mind whispering to me that I'm wrong -- I don't know precisely why yet, or what the right answer is -- but the answer I'm using is not the right one. So I gave my hesitant reply, added that I was still highly unsure about this, and posed the question on my LJ.

I have great readers on my LJ. Lots of folks considered. Some said yes, they would torture for such an ethical cause, and gave good reasons why. One courageous lady firmly said under no circumstances would she torture! Others debated whether religion could justify torture, or what effect it would have on the society, or how the question should be phrased, or other related subjects... and in the discussion I realized my initial uneasiness was directly related to the emphasis on a simplified initial premise.

Life just isn't that dull and flat. The most fascinating and compelling questions in life are more textured and nuanced than something which can be solved with basic 'yes/no' answers. When they appear that way initially, I've invariably found I didn't yet have all the data. That's why I was so pleased by the LJ -- I suddenly realized, from the thoughtful commentary folks made, that the question was constructed specifically in order to create a particular desired answer!

In retrospect, it was obvious, of course. The assumptions are clear when you read it again: the bomber is mad, therefore assumed as not really human. The listener is subtly predisposed to believe torture will break the madman quickly, and unquestionable truth will be revealed. Further, the listener is encouraged to identify with the thousands who will be potentially saved by his or her 'courageous' decision.

However, there's no mention of two critically important pieces of data which have been revealed repeatedly in every thorough study of torture ever done. One: torture takes time. People don't break in an hour or two. Sometimes it takes days or weeks for them to break -- longer if they're truly convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Two: the victims of torture (once they break) are interested in only one goal -- stopping the pain. This means almost invariably they do not tell the truth, but rather what they believe their torturers want to hear.

So right there we see the entire hypothetical 'to torture or not to torture' rendered completely moot. The question becomes not one of saving the lives of thousands... but rather whether you're willing to deliberately damage and humiliate another simply because you're frustrated. How... noble...

Incidentally, the above two results of torture have been well-documented since the 1930's or so. The Spanish Civil War clearly demonstrated the inefficacy of torture for timely and pertinent intelligence gathering, and the studies done later by the Israelis only backed up those results. Over and over, time after time, we keep getting the same results: for gaining good information in a timely fashion, torture doesn't work.

So if that's the case, why does torture keep happening? What does it actually accomplish, that people keep using it? According to Michel Foucault's writings on power, there must be some benefit to someone involved, or it wouldn't keep cropping up. If we can figure out what torture really accomplishes, I think we'll be well on our way to solving these questions.

Theories & torture

Michel Foucault is a somewhat controversial anthropologist who's much in and out of vogue, depending on who you ask. One of his favored fields of study was social power and how it is expressed. He first twigged to his beliefs concerning power when he studied prisons -- specifically the relationship between the guards and the prisoners. He also wrote a fascinating book called History of Sexuality, vol. I.

In this book he asserts power is socially accepted not merely because it is repressive. It does not only deny certain social behaviors, but it also "traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse (pg 119)." In effect, "social power" allows select socially approved individuals to exercise power over others.

For individuals to continue to perform this power, they must both have handy victims, and society must believe they need this sort of power to be so expressed. Torture is a perfect example of this sort of vicious, creeping meme: the powerful who espouse torture need only convince the masses through "produced discourse" that torture is critical in maintaining the safety of the society and its members.

Armed with societal approval for results at any cost, the torturers are now free to step up their attacks on those guilty of nothing worse than looking or behaving differently than the masses. Unsurprisingly, the members of the attacked social group will begin to protest such vile and unjustified treatment -- which the torturers gleefully point to as evidence of the need for torture, rather than the logical result of their attacks on the innocent.

By "forming knowledge" so, the torturers have produced a new way of seeing things: they have re-cast what are in actuality innocent victims as being actually wicked attackers of all that is just and right in the society. In such a situation, it is easy to convince the fearful, the gullible, and the uninterested that more torture is required in order to end this (created) threat.

According to Foucault, power becomes pervasive and expanding (i.e. gets out of control) when five necessary conditions are met:

  1. First there is the "negative relation," i.e. power must always refuse, limit, and lack.

    In the case of torture, power must refuse humanity to its victims, limit their rights, and (apparently) lack the power to once and for all settle the issue.

  2. Secondly there is the "insistence of rule" -- power must create binary categories, prescribe 'order,' and lay down the rule of law.

    In the case of torture the binary categorization is pretty clear-cut: we have those who are just and righteous members and defenders of society -- and the evil people who must be stopped at any cost, as they obviously seek to undermine our righteous and good society.

    The prescription of order is demanded as obedience and allegiance to those in power, who are by definition "good," and who therefore have the self-arrogated right to lay down the rule of law. Unsurprisingly, these laws increase the abilities of the powerful, and decrease the rights of those who are cast as the villains of the piece.

  3. Thirdly we have the "cycle of prohibition," where power creates two alternative nonexistences, then constrains and condemns to nullity through taboo.

    In the case of torture the two alternative nonexistences for the victims are to either surrender to authority in order to confess the (nonexistent) evils the society is convinced they plan -- or to flee their lives and homes. As the members of the victimized social class become more and more dehumanized by the society, more and more of what marks them as unique will become taboo. Examples are employers not wishing to hire those who have skin of a different color than theirs, or firing individuals who wear turbans.

  4. Fourthly there is the "logic of censorship," i.e. through the paradoxical logic of law, power creates the inexistent, the illicit, and the inexpressible.

    Thus in order to justify torture, a fictional danger somehow manifests itself (people who wish to destroy us), and a convenient class of "villains" is created (those who wish to destroy us). What was formerly routine and unsuspicious becomes a marker of villainy (i.e. different colored skin, different religious or social behaviors, etc.) and is often made illegal. Lack of understanding (or deliberate misunderstanding) creates both unnecessary and unjust laws designed to further isolate and dehumanize the "assigned" villains of the piece -- whether they wish this or no.

  5. Finally we find the "uniformity of the apparatus." In this case we have on the one side the legislative power, and on the other an obedient subject.

    Thus, if torture is legalized then those in power have both assumed control of the legislative process to create laws allowing them to torture at will, and also created an unquestioningly obedient society which allows them to express their power as they wish upon that society's individuals.

As a society, this begs the question: why on earth would we put up with this sort of deception? I believe it is mostly because the average vocal middle-class person (who is also frequently white and male) can feel more secure in the belief that folks who look like them are protectively in control.

Unfortunately that theoretical protection has a price: obedient compliance with those who are in power. This need for compliance can go damagingly far beyond simply unquestioningly accepting the views of those in power, ranging from participation in the attack on "deviants" through subtle forms of disapproval or punishment, all the way through rejection of any individual who is so "radical" as to express criticism of this type of group-think.

How far along this path have we come, as a society? I don't know, but frankly I'm deeply disturbed by much of what I read in the news regarding the CIA's supposed detainment camps in other countries.

Actual torture

So what is torture? In its purest form, torture is a physical expression of the uncontrolled anxieties of those in power, graphically inscribed on the minds and bodies of those they fear. It is part of the process by which a powerless social group is dehumanized, so they can be destroyed without moral qualm.

It is convenient to blame those in power for this sort of thing. However, once evidence of torture comes to light, if it is not rooted out then the entire society becomes complicit. This is true regardless of whether the dehumanized group differs from the attacking group only in skin color, religion, sexual preference, gender, or whatever other justificatory excuse is being used.

Perhaps it seems overly generalized to blame an entire society for the actions of a violent few. After all, who does the actual torture? It would surely take a deeply disturbed mind to do such terrible things to other innocent human beings, after all, right? It's comforting to reassure ourselves we'd never torture, and neither would our friends or relatives.

That's what we'd like to believe, at least. Unfortunately, both in experiments and real life situations, it appears torture occurs not when deeply disturbed individuals are present... but when ordinary, everyday folks like ourselves are eased into an environment which supports and encourages atrocities.

The most famous theoretical case I know of is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. You may have heard of it: a group of male college volunteers randomly selected based on their mental equilibrium, health, and "normality," were divided up into two groups. One group became the "prisoners," while the other group were the "guards." In the words of Dr. Phil Zimbardo, the professor who conducted the experiment,

Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress....

I ended the study prematurely for two reasons. First, we had learned through videotapes that the guards were escalating their abuse of prisoners in the middle of the night when they thought no researchers were watching and the experiment was "off." Their boredom had driven them to ever more pornographic and degrading abuse of the prisoners.

Second, Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other's shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality. Once she countered the power of the situation, however, it became clear that the study should be ended.

This experiment ran for six days; imagine what torture which lasts for years must do to the participants. I strongly recommend reading the web site; it's quite horrifyingly fascinating. Admittedly, this was not torture in the classic sense, but it clearly demonstrated people put into an unsupervised position of power over others will behave in ways we consider inhumane. Further, I found it creepily telling it was only the "guards" who objected to ending the experiment early -- obviously power was clearly inducing pleasure for them.

In the end, the experiment teaches us several useful things. First, ordinary people with no training or experience (who are put into complete control of other individuals) are quite capable of atrocities when they have been taught this is "normal." The power of the situation to overwhelm both personality, and one's best intentions, is surprisingly pervasive. Ordinary social institutions prevent such behavior, of course, but thrusting someone into a new role which is unconstrained by society's usual laws, norms, or ethics means new roles and ways of coping must be developed.

Further, once those new behaviors become the expected "norm," everyone tends to obediently follow along, preferring not to buck the system. Thus the Stanford Prison Experiment had some 50 to 100 outside observers come in and interact with the "prisoners" and "guards" (including the researchers, family, friends, a Catholic priest, and a lawyer), but in the end only one person was actually courageous enough to protest -- the afore-mentioned Christina Maslach.

We'd like to believe we're more than the sum of our experiences, but sometimes we really aren't, and it's possible we never are. Good people can be coaxed or seduced or initiated into evil, antisocial behavior -- and by evil I mean behavior which is stupid or irrational or even self destructive. All it seems to require for this horrible transformation of ordinary human nature is complete immersion in a social situation which challenges expectations of the consistency and stability of both social institutions and individual personalities. In such situations, both morality and character suffer, as people struggle to compensate for what would be otherwise an outrageous predicament to them.

Such situations eventually require validation of the new, "normal" roles and behaviors. Unfortunately most often such validation comes from ill-considered ideology or outright bigotry. The most recent "real life" example I know of is, of course, Abu Ghraib. The Iranian prisoners were effectively dehumanized, and the US soldiers had no training in being prison guards. Unsurprisingly, a new means of coping, a new role, was created by those involved -- and once again we see nice, "normal, average, and healthy" young people being put into positions of power over others, with torture resulting.

Torture is an easy way out, a means of projecting potential violence onto the dehumanized group, while justifying it as self-protection. The very question which first stumped me is an excellent example of this mind-set. After all, if we didn't torture them to learn their evil plans and teach them a lesson, they'd surely kill us all, right?

We're just doing what they're making us do, in order to defend ourselves, in order to keep control of the situation. Given a choice, we wouldn't have to lynch them or burn them at the stake or beat them up with baseball bats or send them to the ovens or rape and murder them -- it's really their fault for forcing us into this sad position in the first place, right? Right?

And there, in the above examples, we see what sort of mind-set torture ends up creating. It allows us to make a brutalizing mental short-cut, to believe in simplistic answers like "we are good and human, therefore they are bad and inhuman." It teaches us it is better to strike first and ask questions later, that everyone is after us so we better attack them now so they can't ever hurt us, that might makes right. It allows a religion or government or other social institution to manipulate individuals in order to make itself more powerful -- to the detriment of the deceived individuals.

Goodbye to torture

There are plenty of books and photographs and web sites about the horrors of torture and the suffering of the victims. The people which can be reached by those will have seen them. This "Firestarter" is for those who don't realize there's another aspect of it, that we harm ourselves when we (as individuals and as a society) permit and validate torture. In the end, torture is as damaging long-term to a society as it is short-term to its victims.

There are (unfortunately) plenty of examples of what happens when some of a culture's members are dehumanized, while others are taught to think in brutally hierarchical terms. From the horrors of slavery to the abuses of Abu Ghraib, real life experience teaches us torture is not just ineffective at gathering intelligence, or damaging to social morality, or shattering to the humanity of those who permit and endorse it. Quite simply, it is wrong.

The United States of America is my home, and ordinarily I'm proud to be an American. I believe in aspiring to what our country is supposed to stand for: a land of the free and a home of the brave; a beacon of respect for human dignity. I know we have a long way to go on that goal, of course. But I also know there are people the world over who struggle to come here, to a land where they don't have to live in constant fear of the midnight hammering at the door, or their government deciding to exterminate them. I know I am unreasonably lucky to have been born here, and I do what I can to continue to love my country, and to try to put her right when she's wrong.

So... what happened?! Holy crap, people -- have we forgotten so much, do we live in such fear of the "outside world," that we'll turn a blind eye to what our government is doing in our name? Where is our morality, our self-respect, our courage?

If you think killing that which scares you is a reasonable solution to your fears, then by all means vote for a government which believes in torture and lies to its citizenry about it. But for those of you who still believe in concepts like the inherent dignity and rights of humankind, please help me remember and make it truth this time, with your words, your actions, and your votes:

Real Americans don't torture.

Codex Firestarter

For the complete Firestarter archives in chronological order.

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