December 10, 2005

ON TORTURE, I: State Violence and Brutality, and Totalitarianism

[The current phase of the debate about torture as a legitimate means of the exercise of state power has brought forth a few new articles that merit some attention. I will deal with those articles in the final parts of this series. These recent articles are illuminating for several crucial reasons -- in large part because of the manner in which they frame the issues, and because of the central questions they studiously avoid. The framing is designed, intentionally or not, precisely to make the ultimate confrontation with truths we prefer not to face recede from our consideration, even as these writers maintain they are trying to grapple with the terrible moral dilemmas "honestly." With very few exceptions, almost all contemporary commentators and analysts completely miss what I consider to be the most crucial points, so I hope to shed at least some light on these neglected aspects of this profoundly disturbing debate. These issues will become clearer as I proceed through my analysis.

Before considering the current articles on offer, I will be reposting several earlier essays of mine that set forth some critical background material. I wrote this first piece on March 15, 2003 -- more than two and a half years ago. I am proud to say that I think it has stood up very well indeed. It was, in fact, the second major essay I wrote on the subject of torture -- but the important points from the initial piece are indicated sufficiently in what follows. It may strike some as melodramatic to phrase the following observation in this manner, but I honestly know of no other way to convey my reaction accurately: when I wrote this essay and the preceding one, I was almost struck dumb with horror that we were having this national conversation at all. In the time that has passed, my horror has only grown. But I also think my own understanding of the mechanisms involved has increased considerably during the same time, so there are several new aspects and issues related to this subject that I will discuss in the final parts of this series.

You will note that one issue I discuss below is the infamous "ticking bomb" scenario. That fictional invention continues to be criminally abused by the torture advocates. As I explained in the spring of 2003, the problem with this fantasy is an epistemological one: the example fails because of the specific means by which we acquire knowledge, and the patterns in how we do so. The "ticking bomb" scene is common in a certain kind of Hollywood thriller, and it has been made cheap and utterly unoriginal by endless repetition and imitation. However, it is virtually, if not entirely, impossible that such a situation would ever develop in this manner in real life.

The fact that those who advocate the "legitimated" use of torture find it necessary to avail themselves of such an obviously false hypothetical reveals that other concerns drive their campaign to make the most monstrous kind of inhuman brutality "acceptable" to any degree at all. They pretend to bring intellectual rigor to their unforgivable task -- but their allegedly "serious" arguments are full of the most obvious defects. The pretense at intellectual engagement serves a crucial function: it is the cover for much darker motives, which they do not care to face -- or to name. I will deal with those motives, and with the forces that drive advocacy of this kind of extreme cruelty, in the final parts of this series.

From March 15, 2003, the following essay was originally titled: "Some Additional Thoughts on Torture -- and Some Observations from Hannah Arendt."]

Continuing the discussion about whether our government should officially sanction torture as a means of eliciting information, even in very delimited circumstances, there are several additional points that I think need to be addressed. Before getting to Hannah Arendt's remarks, let me cover a few preliminary matters.

First, I just came across this item at TalkLeft, which quotes part of a new report:
One of the issues addressed in the report is the recent allegations in the news media that U.S. military officials are employing illegal interrogation techniques to elicit information from detainees in the U.S. and abroad. Some of these techniques include hooding and sleep deprivation and physical beatings. The Lawyers Committee has urged Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to address these allegations by making clear the unambiguous U.S. prohibition against all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
I want to leave aside what the merits of this report may or may not be -- and focus instead on the last sentence above. Think about how the reversal of current U.S. policy might appear. I guess it might sound something like this:
The government of the United States hereby announces that, after long and serious deliberation, it has decided the current world crisis necessitates a revision of the previous official policy of the government with regard to the use of torture. Whereas previously the government of the United States had eschewed and condemned in the strongest possible terms any and all uses of torture, the United States has now concluded that, in certain strictly regulated and proscribed situations, the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment is necessary and required, and will henceforth be considered a part of the legitimate methods to be utilized by the U.S. government in its unceasing efforts to protect the lives and safety of U.S. citizens. We are also putting into place, and will implement immediately, strict safeguards to ensure that the use of torture and other degrading treatment of certain suspect and/or criminal human beings will be utilized only when absolutely necessary, and only to the extent required in the judgment of those government officials empowered to supervise the use of such procedures. For obvious security reasons, we decline at this time to specify those particular methods of torture to be used in the future by the U.S., but we can assure the community of nations that we will not employ excessively inhumane methods of torture, but only the less severe, and less permanently damaging, forms of torture. Further details concerning these matters and policies will not be provided at this time.
Is this what people mean when they advocate bringing the use of torture out "into the light," and "regulating" it so that it will be used "properly"? But perhaps you might prefer a "softer" version of this official announcement. Is that the case?

Moving on. There is a serious, and fundamental, problem in the nature of the hypotheticals that are typically employed in discussing this issue. Those hypotheticals usually run along these lines: We know (for example) that a nuclear device has been planted in New York City. We know that it is set to go off within the next 24 hours. And we know that this individual we have just apprehended knows where the nuclear device is.

If the matter were not so serious, I would be tempted to say only that people who offer such hypotheticals have been watching too many movies. But since the matter is so serious, I will point out the following error: this is not how the situation is at all likely to develop -- in real life. Think about it for a moment. If you in fact knew all of those elements, don't you think it likely that you would also already know where the bomb is? How would a situation develop where you knew all the other variables, but it just happened that you didn't know where the bomb was? I submit that it is not at all likely, except in the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

The underlying problem is this: in real life, all of these facts -- what it is that is planned, where, when and by whom -- are precisely those facts which you will be in the process of discovering. It is fantasy to think that you would have all the answers, save one. And this doesn't even address the serious problem as to the accuracy of any information you are likely to get by employing torture on the individual in custody. To put it another way: in real life, it is much more likely that you will know that something terrible is going to happen, but you're not certain exactly what the nature of it is. And you might know the city, and you might know that it's probably going to happen in the next 24 or 48 hours (or "very, very soon," or "within the next week"). Finally, you might be 80% or 90% certain that this particular individual knows what it is that is planned, and where and when it's going to happen -- but I doubt very much that it would transpire that you would know with absolute certainty that a given individual has the single piece of information that you happen to be missing. Forget about fiction scenarios, and ask yourself how this type of situation would be likely to actually develop in the real world -- and you will see that the usual hypotheticals are hopelessly inaccurate and misleading.

I also want to add another aspect to one of the major points of my earlier post: that the grant of any government power will always grow, including the grant of the power to use torture to elicit information. At this point, virtually everyone, at any point on the political spectrum, acknowledges the potential for widespread government corruption (and some of us consider it much more than merely a "potential"). In the general area of business regulation, for example, everyone knows how common it is to encounter graft, payoffs, kickbacks, and the like. Why do people who advocate the official endorsement of torture suddenly forget this fact, and seem unable to utilize the knowledge they already possess when the subject is torture? And I ask that question especially of [so-called, self-described] libertarians, who are known for their skepticism of the "wise" use of any form of government power. How hard is it to believe, once torture has been endorsed as a legitimate tool of the government, that some government official will "arrange" to have a longstanding personal enemy taken into custody, to be given some form of "special treatment"? After hearing of so many instances in the last decade or so of IRS audits being used against "enemies," forfeiture being used a weapon by the government, and far too many similar kinds of "punishment" to name, why would you think that torture would be exempt from this particular form of abuse? Face it, and face it now: it wouldn't be. Is that what you want to open the door to, by having our government officially sanction the use of torture?

And another point: some people have made the argument that the nature of the war on terror, and the particularly grave dangers posed by the enemies we now face, make "extraordinary" measures necessary -- to avoid, for example, another 9/11. Please remember the lessons of history, and read or reread the story of the rise of Nazism, or of the "excuses" utilized immediately prior to one of the Soviet (or Communist Chinese) purges. Governments have always used the excuse of an "emergency" to significantly broaden their powers, and to claim the right to use "extraordinary" means. And those means are always justified by an appeal to "public safety," or an appeal to "saving the lives of our citizens," or something similar. It was precisely this kind of mentality that led to adoption of the first Patriot Act, which many of the lawmakers voting for it did not even bother to read, either in whole or in part. And we are still discovering the new government powers granted in that act -- and the same pattern will make another appearance in the wake of another domestic attack, you may be certain, and that may bring us Patriot Act II, containing a whole new host of government powers of which very few people will even be aware.

This is precisely how the road to a totalitarian government is followed; it has always been thus, and it always will be. This brings me to some remarks of Hannah Arendt's, from her monumental work The Origins of Totalitarianism. In these excerpts, note the special importance of torture in the nature and operation of the totalitarian state. Clearly, and mercifully, we are still quite far away from the additional Nazi horrors that Arendt describes -- but I would urge you to think about the principles involved here. Also, in one sense, we might not be that far away: after all, how long did it take to descend from Weimar Germany into the hell of the full-blown Nazi nightmare? Ten years? Fifteen years? Not that long; the blink of an eye in historical terms. With that in mind, consider the following (this is from Chapter 12, "Totalitarianism in Power," Part III -- "Total Domination"; I've added the highlights):
Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity. In a sterile form such individuality can be preserved through a persistent stoicism, and it is certain that many men under totalitarian rule have taken and are each day still taking refuge in this absolute isolation of a personality without rights or conscience. There is no doubt that this part of the human person, precisely because it depends so essentially on nature and on forces that cannot be controlled by the will, is the hardest to destroy (and when destroyed is most easily repaired) [Footnote: Bettelheim...describes how "the main concern of the new prisoners seemed to be to remain intact as a personality" while the problem of the old prisoners was "how to live as well as possible within the camp."]

The methods of dealing with this uniqueness of the human person are numerous and we shall not attempt to list them. They begin with the monstrous conditions in the transports to the camps, when hundreds of human beings are packed into a cattle-car stark naked, glued to each other, and shunted back and forth over the countryside for days on end; they continue upon arrival at the camp, the well-organized shock of the first hours, the shaving of the head, the grotesque camp clothing; and they end in the utterly unimaginable tortures so gauged as not to kill the body, at any event not quickly. The aim of all these methods, in any case, is to manipulate the human body--with its infinite possibilities of suffering--in such a way as to make it destroy the human person as inexorably as do certain mental diseases of organic origin.

It is here that the utter lunacy of the entire process becomes most apparent. Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed. To this rationally conducted torture another, irrational, sadistic type was added in the first Nazi concentration camps and in the cellars of the Gestapo. Carried on for the most part by the SA, it pursued no aims and was not systematic, but depended on the initiative of largely abnormal elements.
The mortality rate was so high that only a few concentration-camp inmates of 1933 survived these first years. This type of torture seemed to be not so much a calculated political institution as a concession of the regime to its criminal and abnormal elements, who were thus rewarded for services rendered. Behind the blind bestiality of the SA, there often lay a deep hatred and resentment against all those who were socially, intellectually, or physically better off than themselves, and who now, as if in fulfillment of their wildest dreams, were in their power. This resentment, which never died out entirely in the camps, strikes us as a last remnant of humanly understandable feeling.

The real horror began, however, when the SS took over the administration of the camps. The old spontaneous bestiality gave way to an absolutely cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity; death was avoided or postponed indefinitely. The camps were no longer amusement parks for beasts in human form, that is, for men who really belonged in mental institutions and prisons; the reverse became true: they were turned into "drill grounds," on which perfectly normal men were trained to be full-fledged members of the SS.

The killing of man's individuality, of the uniqueness shaped in equal parts by nature, will, and destiny, which has become so self-evident a premise for all human relations that even identical twins inspire a certain uneasiness, creates a horror that vastly overshadows the outrage of the juridical-political person and the despair of the moral person. It is this horror that gives rise to the nihilistic generalizations which maintain plausibly enough that essentially all men alike are beasts. Actually the experience of the concentration camps does show that human beings can be transformed into specimens of the human animal, and that man's "nature" is only "human" insofar as it opens up to man the possibility of becoming something highly unnatural, that is, a man.
And with regard to turning "normal men" into "full-fledged members of the SS," consider these chilling details, in terms of the effects of torture on those who administer it:
This new mechanized system eased the feeling of responsibility as much as was humanly possible. When, for instance, the order came to kill every day several hundred Russian prisoners, the slaughter was performed by shooting through a hole without seeing the victim. ... On the other hand, perversion was artificially produced in otherwise normal men. Rousset reports the following from a SS guard: "Usually I keep on hitting until I ejaculate. I have a wife and three children in Breslau. I used to be perfectly normal. That's what they've made of me. Now when they give me a pass out of here, I don't go home. I don't dare look my wife in the face." ... The documents from the Hitler era contain numerous testimonials for the average normality of those entrusted with carrying out Hitler's program of extermination. ... Most of the men in the units used for these purposes were not volunteers but had been drafted from the ordinary police for these special assignments. But even trained SS-men found this kind of duty worse than front-line fighting. In his report of a mass execution by the SS, an eyewitness gives high praise to this troop which had been so "idealistic" that it was able to bear "the entire extermination without the help of liquor."

That one wanted to eliminate all personal motives and passions during the "exterminations" and hence keep the cruelties to a minimum is revealed by the fact that a group of doctors and engineers entrusted with handling the gas installations were making constant improvements that were not only designed to raise the productive capacity of the corpse factories but also to accelerate and ease the agony of death.
Please remember these sentences: "Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed." An essential feature. Do you truly want to endorse torture as a legitimate government policy -- and endorse "an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus" -- and possibly open the door, even by just the smallest amount, to the further horrors described by Arendt?

I would urge all those who advocate the legitimated use of torture as official government policy to consider these points -- and, much more importantly, to read all of Arendt's profoundly important book, and then to rethink their views on this subject. I would deeply, deeply hope that they would alter their views. You may view this step that you advocate as only a very small one -- but it is by means of such small steps that one descends into the deepest pit of hell.

One final personal comment. The fact that we have been having this discussion at all is the most disturbing aspect of this entire matter to me, particularly in light of the lessons of the twentieth century and its almost nonstop train of horrors -- lessons which we appear to be in peril of forgetting, if indeed we ever learned them at all. And it suggests to me that we may be in even greater danger than I had thought.

But I still hope to be proven wrong, with every atom of my being.