I learned two powerful lessons this month: first, never attempt to answer the telephone while applying drywall compound to a ceiling. Second, never allow yourself to be photographed while violating the Geneva Convention, even if you’re just romping around. Torture–call it abuse, humiliation, or hazing, it’s still torture–is one of those things (eating the flesh of recently dead Girl Scouts is another) that Biff and Jane Q. Public have hang-ups about. An interesting polarity has emerged on this subject: almost 97% of the Americans who don’t see a problem with the practice of torture (practice makes perfect, or in Paul Bremer’s case, prefect) are working in the Bush Administration. Coincidence, or something more?
Now when I was a kid (and Homer was a pup, and Petra was a rose-red city half as old as time) we used to go in for a little torture now and then. But it was all in good fun. I grew up in rural New Hampshire. There is no other part of New Hampshire. Your choices were: swim in pond, walk through wilderness, climb mountain. Given that it snows 9 months a year in the Granite State, these options have limited appeal. Every now and then, just for yocks, we’d break up the monotony by rendering one of our tender playmates helpless. Then it was Lord of the Flies time.
The overall pattern remained the same, but the glorious details would vary depending on the materials to hand, and also whether or not the kid could be intimidated into not telling his parents. Our methods were strictly extemporaneous. We made do with what we had, such as matches liberated from the barbecue pit (this was the 1970’s: barbecues were below ground and swimming pools were above ground), red ants, poison ivy, pointed sticks, or a suite of endodontic surgical instruments. Most of the actual torture was inflicted simply by relishing the possibilities out loud while the blubbering victim strained against his bonds, tied to a tree. Trees, we had lots of. If somebody was willing to risk parental censure or someone’s vengeful older brother playing ‘Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida’ on his gums with a tire iron, we’d push the festivities into the realm of actual injury.
On various occasions I was set on fire, shot with an arrow, firecrackers were stuffed down my pants, and I was forced to endure a two-hour Donnie & Marie special. I got off easy. Our weaker chums had it bad. I remember there was a boy named Melvin who was held down and subjected to point-blank flatulence for the better part of a summer afternoon. Over the following ten years he suffered a fear of hard-boiled eggs that required medication. Nothing was too cruel. Were we especially unpleasant children? Yes, but not for this reason. The real problem was the rancid corn chip smell. Were we the products of violent parents lurching around in a vengeful, beer-induced rage, transmitting the abuse down the chain of victimhood? Some of us, yes. But for many of us, what happened at home had no bearing on what we went out and did to each other. I was in the thick of things, and my father did delicate pen-and-ink drawings of bunnies and mice for a living. His idea of violence was to make a sketch of an apex predator tearing up his newspaper. The collective sadism of myself and my peers had nothing to do with our adult influences. Rather, it was a lack of supervision.
We ran wild. New Hampshire has a million and a quarter citizens in 5,739,520 acres. That’s 4.5 acres of rocks and trees per person, including chuckberry bushes and the occasional porcupine. In fact we had even more room than that, because we laughed at ‘no trespassing’ signs. We laughed just like this: Hahahahaha. Then we’d walk right past the signs, sometimes ten or fifteen feet. We had plenty of room, lots of cover, didn’t see an adult for eight hours at a stretch–and this was during the school week. During the summers we could leave the house at dawn and not come back until puberty. There was no command structure, no accountability, no rule of law. There was only what you could get away with. We were juvenile Libertarians.
I’m not shocked by what’s been going on in Iraqi prisons, or the camps in Afghanistan, or Guantanamo Bay. I’m not shocked to discover the people who are supposed to be in charge, aren’t. This is what happens when you set a bunch of kids loose in the middle of nowhere without any oversight. They run wild. Hand them the keys to a prison, things will get ugly. Hand them the keys to the Pentagon, things will get uglier still. We’ve handed them both. Red ants, anyone?
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. A collection of Tripp’s essays, Square in the Nuts, will be published this summer. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: email@example.com