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For the past seven years — and especially since those ghastly pictures from your friendly security providers at Baghram, Abu Ghuraib and Guantanamo concentration camps, showing prisoners’ dignity, rights and minds shredded to smithereens — continents of ink and keystrokes have had a go at this ‘controversial’ topic. Yet, few commentaries have shed any real enlightenment upon the subject.
For the people who have grown up and lived in the relative comfort of the metropoles of our world capitalist system, the establishment media and academics alike pose the question in terms of the ‘ticking time bomb’, and focus merely on a singular moment that could make or break the difference between tens, hundreds or thousands or more of lives of innocents saved or not. And for that heroic moment to arrive, a mere piece of information stands in the way of the hero and the happy ending.
The discourse is thus focused on that singularly exceptional moment, filled maximally with good intentions, of course. And while your attention is kept glued on that moment, other amenities of modernity are brought in for the benefit of the glued. Things like ‘experts’ will appear to walk you through the process that ends in that particularly singular moment; the process passing entirely through that wonderful concept of ‘security’. What’s holier than security? Experts will explain how it is not at all unusual, after all, to torture in times of extremeness, such as in a terrorist-afflicted era. Easy enough to understand!
Others walk you through the legalities, and ‘explain’ that laws are not to be taken as written in stone (‘a bit of common sense truth’ tactic). Most laws, they argue, deal with normally functioning societies and therefore have no place in a war-conditioned situation.
[In their haste to construct legal ‘reasoning’, they commit the fallacy of ‘I cannot read good’, since the laws they are breaking (or advising to be broken) are war crimes, by TITLE; not to forget by their very legally-and-explicitly stated definition. These laws are written for exactly such conditions as created by the warmongers who started this war of terror a very long time ago.]
Yet other special groups of experts will be presented to recommend other experts to oversee those very important and professionally administered information-gathering (wink) sessions.
This is of course the establishment defense of torture, and is usually packaged and delivered with the question: What if the terrorist knows where a bomb is hidden, about to go off any minute, seconds away? Any minute now! Aren’t those sweet innocent lives, those children, those buds about to flower into full lives, are they not a billion times more important than the temporary pain and possible inconvenience inflicted on a worthless, miserable, envy-ridden, scum-sucking fanatical piece of shit bastard son of a bitch?
The Dershowitz Defense (let’s call it) presents itself as clinical, self-uninterested, and purely for the benefit of the greater good of the society. And since this is the case (simply because it is stated to be the case), the argument can now proceed in ebullient manner and get right into all the natty details too mundane and way too clinical for the average Joe, Jose or Mohammad to understand: hence, the need for the presence of professionals (doctors, psychologists, nurses, researchers, etc.) at such truth-extraction sights, and the regulatory measures needed to rationalize the practice of information-retrieval (to borrow from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), maximizing its efficacy at the same time as ensuring the humaneness that we, the First World gentle hearts, demand of all practices done on our behalf.
The brilliance (as well as the snakiness) of the reasoning! It speeds right past huge moral and ethical requirements without fulfilling any, preempting any debate at the ethico-judicial, or legislative, level, forcing the debate way past the point of acceptance, zipping right to a fallaciously thrown together conclusion. And the conclusion: “Who? We? Torture?”
Exactly. No reasoning at all. Thus, the brilliance!
Yes, in the dominant ideological world of the establishment media-academia, we are now way past the point of acceptance and well into the territory of modality (of how to do the torturing). All of which is very convenient for the likes of Dershowitz, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, Condi Rice, the departed yet not sufficiently parted Rumsfeld, Secretary Gates, Dick “Chain-me” Cheney, Bush the Torturer-in-Chief, all the heads of the CIA, NSA, Pentagon and on and on; all of whom must be happy as pigs-on-crack since the open and repeated distortion-discussion is the best way of normalization of really existing torture.
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For those who grow up and live in the Third World, however, the situation with torture is slightly different on two levels. First level is what our own governments take for granted as being able to do to us. The second level is what is now openly announced as what we can expect to also get from the U.S., whenever and wherever any security agency (or surrogate thereof) of the U.S. government finds torturous acts necessary in pursuit of their interests.
Most Third World societies have had to live with, or under, the weight of dictatorships, of one form or another (either directly colonial in the past, or indirectly colonial later, or our own bullies), supported by those in power in the global north. As a result, we are well familiar with torture as a social tool of control. We understand what torture is there for. We know that the existence of torture is a constant reminder of how much the state can take liberties with us and terrorize the citizenry, with complete immunity. The overt message being: You best keep our mouths shut, and don’t think of doing anything to oppose. Some expect even more; like, don’t complain, don’t oppose, shut up and look-act happy!
So, things look a bit less civilized in the Third World, where political setups are backward (in terms of sophistication and ability in concealment of the fact of dictatorship), somewhat more barbaric looking; yet more honest about practices required to keep a people under the thumb. In our countries, torture is practiced, though not always silently, yet definitely without any open, mostly ambiguous at best (as in the West), discussions in the media or the legislature and without all the professional classes openly discussing the topic as it relates to our own governments’ practices. We do read in our officially acceptable media about all others doing it, but not our own.
When growing up in Iran, like everybody else and without reading about it anywhere, I knew exactly what SAVAK would do when interrogating the ‘enemies of the state’; it was intended to be known and was kept alive barely under the surface of the social fabric of interaction; with the amendment that it should not be talked about openly, lest some criticism may be intoned, heard, insinuated, implied. Sublimation is the mode: that which has solid physical existence must be evaporated into a fleeting thought. This thought, though fleeting, recurs on a high frequency. Yet still, beware: the walls have not only ears, but all five senses; some even read thoughts.
After the fall of the Shah, and with the institutionalization of the counter-revolution, the Islamic Republic regime perfected the practice and has raised it to an art. They can not only make you give out information on a whole host of things they didn’t even ask for, they can make you then sing the praises of your torturers on national TV. Really.
The boys back home have honed their torture techniques to such levels that they can do complete and exhaustive brain remodeling. Early on in the life of the regime, a lot of leftists witnessed some of their long time Old Left leaders, paraded on the national TV after being arrested and ‘interrogated’ by the security forces, looking seemingly in one piece, no visible marks of bruising or broken anything, but gone completely insane: admitting wrong doings of all sorts, confessing to crimes of anti-revolutionary behavior, apologizing for picking a fight with the Almighty (there is a crime in the legal code in Iran, titled literally, Battle against God; one would think that God can take good care of himself in such a battle).
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Most things about torture have very little to do with gathering information. Torture has the equivalent of zilch to do with providing anybody any security, and no legalese can cover any of its ugliness or stench.
Torture, especially when openly discussed in national legislative and judicial bodies as well as the executive branches of first world nations, has everything to do with global bullies announcing clearly and unambiguously that they will do anything they like to anybody, anywhere, in any way they see fit, and with whatever frequency and ferocity as needed.
It is meant to instill fear in those who would oppose. It is part of the psychological side of the warfare against those accursedly lesser peoples; be those lesser peoples defined so by the local governments or those from across the planet.
It is also, and more fundamentally, an ideological redefinition of ‘citizenship’; it is meant to transform that concept to that of ‘membership’; in the status quo. The threat of extreme debasement hangs over every person, forcing them to decide how actively they support the state. For God help you if you’re not cooperative enough!
[African Americans are familiar with this concept, and continue to enjoy opportunities to sociologically observe it closely, in longitudinal auto-ethnographic studies with rich data provided by simply living. Millions of dissertations lie seething just beneath the surface, waiting in an ocean of fury, in our urban and rural mind fields.]
As explained by Marnia Lazreg, in her recently published Torture and the Twilight of Empire, commenting on Fanon and Sartre’s take on the topic, “Like Sartre, Fanon understood torture to be a feature of the colonial situation.”
Lazreg goes on to explain, “[In] this perspective, the use of physical force was only one aspect of the colonial venture. Expropriations, unemployment, educational policies that denigrated and dismissed local cultures and history, police brutality, and rampant poverty were all manifestations of colonial force,” (p. 218).
This fact is as true for the Palestinians today as it is for the Iraqis and the Afghans, as it was for the Algerians and the Vietnamese at one point, and as it is and has been for the original peoples of (particularly) North America and the African Americans.
In the practice of colonialism, physical torture of ‘detainees’ is of the species of factual certainty. Yet, focusing on the particularities of physical torture is the best way of making the public lose sight of the fact that dispossession too is torturous; as is arbitrary brutalization when one is not in ‘detention centers’ and is just trying to do things necessary to live; as is the arbitrary and never-explained devaluing of the lives of subjugated society’s people. But, the explanation withheld is old and easy to guess: racism. (In this, all three presidential candidates are united in their guilt-to-the-extreme.)
The questions asked through the prism of racism, which is a corollary to colonialism and imperialism, are always of the technical nature, focusing on minute details, thereby hiding the big picture: the picture of shameless barbarity crushing humanity.
REZA FIYOUZAT can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org