Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The purpose of torture

The water torture ("waterboarding") 1483

It's an important question and one that is more complicated than it may look at first glance: what function does torture actually serve?

Torturers since ancient times have argued that it produces accurate information, usually information about the torture victim's involvement in some illegal or antisocial act. But I think Jimmy Carter was on the mark in Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (2005):

Aside from the humanitarian aspects, it is well known that, under excruciating torture, a prisoner will admit almost any suggested crime. Such confessions are, of course, not admissible in trials in civilized nations. The primary goal of torture or the threat of torture is not to obtain convictions for crimes, but to engender and maintain fear. Some of our leaders have found that it is easy to forgo human rights for those who are considered to be subhuman, or "enemy combatants."
Stephen Holmes in "Magisches Denken im Krieg gegen den Terror" Kursbuch 163/Mar 2006 takes s look at some of the factors that may be at work in what public support there is for torture. This is a translation of the English article that appeared in Karen Greenberg's The Torture Debate in America (2006) as "Is Defiance of Law Proof of Success: Magical Thinking in the War on Terror".

Holmes points out that institutionalized torture has always been directed at outsider groups of some kind. In ancient Athens, slaves could be tortured, free Athenian citizens not, except in cases of high treason. He quotes a passage from Aristotle illustrating that even in those days, people recognized the obvious: that relying on evidence by torture could let a guilty man with greater resistance to pain go free, while innocent people not so able to endure it could be forced to confess to crimes they did not commit. This should be obvious even to Republicans. I'm quite sure that Dick Cheney is fully aware of it.


Another of the Abu Ghuraib photos that were scheduled for release May 28 that Obama and the Pentagon decided we shouldn't see
This photo was taken from a set of 15 that the Sydney Morning Herald had described as previously unpublished; of the 15 photos in that set, this appears to be the only was that was not in fact previously published by Salon on 03/22/06

He also cites the 18th-century Italian criminologist Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794) and his book Crimes and Punishment (1880), which is considered to mark the start of modern penology as we know it. Francis Allen in his Encyclopædia Britannica (2009) article on Beccaria calls the book "the most important volume ever written on criminal justice". Beccaria argued against the use of torture, not just on the basis that it's cruel and produces false confessions, but also focused on the fact that torture lets law-enforcement officials cut corners. If torture is available as a tool to force confessions, the police can be lazy about acquired actual evidence. It also lacks the advantages of non-coercive interrogation, where the interrogator can learn a lot from body language or other small cues. When a victim is screaming or moaning in pain from torture, subtleties like that are lost.

Holmes makes some useful observations about why the phony "ticking-time-bomb" scenario became a popular ideological prop for torture among torture supporters in the US. It's a silly scenario for the obvious reason that anyone that could read the mind of a suspect to know for sure he had knowledge of a planned attack would presumably be able to use that telepathic mind-meld to find out the details also. Holmes doesn't put it that way; he just says the scenario is unrealistic, which it is.

But it's nevertheless a popular ideological prop for those who support torture. He has some interesting thoughts on why that might be. For one thing, it takes it out of the long historical debate condemning torture for investigation of crime but putting its justification into an unknowable historical future. The torturer isn't asking the victim to confess a crime committed in the past, but to force him to help prevent a crime not yet committed. Since fears of the future can be open-ended, some hideous hypothesized threat in the future is an open-ended justification for torture.

Holmes also suggests that there is a mirror-reflection aspect to torture in fighting terrorists. The terrorists who deliberately kill civilians, striking without warning, making no pretence of trying to observe differences between combatants and noncombatants, achieves its goal of producing terror by telling the target audience that the terrorists are willing to ignore all barriers and throw all values aside in killing people in their target group. Since international law bans torture in all circumstances, making it even more of a taboo than capital punishment, torture represents a kind of ultimate barrier. By stepping over that barrier, violating that taboo, the defenders of Our Side show that they too are as willing to ignore all restraints and standards of decent conduct and legality in order to defeat the Other Side. Or, at least it can look that way to a lot of people. Our Side is paying off the Other Side in the same coin, as he puts it.

Now, Holmes is explaining that viewpoint as a possible motive for torture supporters, not excusing or defending it. Whatever satisfaction some people may get from that symmetry of viciousness, it doesn't remove any of the legal, moral or practical problems of torture. Holmes argues that it represents a kind of magical thinking, a ritual to ward away fear. It aims to strengthen Our Side and weaken the Other Side, but in a magical and unrealistic way that seeks emotional satisfaction in revenge. And in the case of the Cheney-Bush torture program it doesn't even have to be against those thought to be actual perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. Pretty much any Arab of Afghan would do to torture in ritual revenge for the 9/11 attacks and the feelings of fear and helplessness and rage it produced.

Though in reality, a torture program like Dick Cheney's and George Bush's can only be what Jimmy Carter describes as the function of torture, to be a tool of state terror: "The primary goal of torture or the threat of torture is not to obtain convictions for crimes, but to engender and maintain fear."

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