Samstag, April 25, 2009

On Understanding Nuances...and On Thinking About the Unthinkable...

Lot of posts out there in the blogosphere on torture.

Largely because President Obama has deemed it fit to be publicly discussed, via his disclosures about US policy and changes to such, there's a lot of discussion out there, usually about how the US shouldn't be torturing people and what defines torture, as well as the rather generic statement that it doesn't work.

As usual, the real question is being ignored. And I dare say that most readers will find this cold-blooded and more than a little disturbing: for a normal civilized person, it should be. More on that later.

You see, there's "torture" and then there's torture. One is something the US is accused of, which sullies us, the other is what the other guy actually does.

Further, there is little or no understanding of who we are really dealing with: instead, there is a lot of anguished ignorance out there.

First of all, let's talk about what real torture is about: it's not about information. It's everything about breaking the person who is being tortured, of breaking their will. Will to resist, will to believe, will to be who they are, will to anything. That all depends on the circumstances: the aviator tortured by the North Vietnamese was being broken for propaganda purposes and to punish them for their audacity and, to no small extent, to punish them for being so damned effective. Torture here is systematic, with physical abuse coupled with psychological pressure: physical abuse weakens resolve, weakens the ability to argue, makes clear to the one being tortured that there is no doubt, none whatsoever, of the relationship between the torturer and the tortured. This relationship is one of power, that the torturer can inflict debilitating physical pain at will, coupled with detention that is arbitrary and irrational.

On this basis, the psychological deconstruction of the torture victim can start. Get them to the point where they automatically flinch when a torturer enters a room, where they can do nothing else besides acknowledge the superiority of the torturer by abasing themselves to avoid torture. This happens to anyone being tortured at some point: everyone breaks, Hollywood films to the contrary.

Torture maims, permanently damaging someone. It might be a gouged-out eye. It might be broken bones that don't properly reset. It might be permanent neurological damage to parts of the body, such as Senator McCain got when he was tortured. What is harder to see is the psychological damage when someone breaks, when they are broken and are willing to do anything to stop the pain. And the psychological damage when it becomes clear to them that even after they have broken, the torturers are just getting started.

Torture has everything to do with destruction: of psychologically destroying the person deemed worthy of torture. Be they a dissident, be they a political opponent, be they part of an unfriendly tribe or family, be they the wrong color, gender or sexual orientation. Makes no difference: they share a common characteristic: they cannot be allowed to further exist as they do, but must be humiliated, forced to undergo extreme pain at someone else's pleasure, and most of all: they must be made to suffer.

Now, I'm not extolling the virtues of torture. Quite the contrary. Torture is the sign of extreme weakness, a sign of incompetence, a sign of desperation. It is a sign of fundamental inability to come to an understanding that political/ethnic/moral opponents even have a right to existence, let alone a right to not be tortured.

Real torture also doesn't limit itself to torn fingernails or gouged eyes. It's one thing to sacrifice your own physical well-being, it's another thing entirely to have that inflicted upon your loved ones because you refuse to break. That never works, and if the torturers are out for revenge, are out for psychological destruction, are out to destroy personalities, then there is no better way to do that than to make the target victim sit and watch his mother, his wife, his daughters being raped and violated, and then for them to watch him being tortured at length.

Now, the standard answer to torture is that it doesn't work, which makes it useless and hence something that shouldn't be considered, even in hypothetical situations.

This is where everyone I've read so far goes wrong.

First and foremost, torture isn't about getting information, it's about destroying the opponent, the one that you have captured. This is what the airmen shot down and captured went through: everyone broke in one way or another. Some faster than others, but everyone broke or died during torture. In any case, the goal wasn't information - at least this wasn't the primary goal - but rather the torturers aim at destroying an enemy.

Second: don't pretend that torture doesn't work. It does. The torturer isn't necessarily interested in one particular bit of information, but rather in tearing that person apart in order to ruin them. Information is a useful adjunct and flows when torture breaks a man. Sure, people tell lies to stop the pain: that works briefly until the torturer starts up again.

Third: those who torture don't give a shit about conventions or any other such bourgeois notions.

So, what does this have to do with the US?

Nothing. And that is my point.

What the liberals are calling "torture" - and the use of quotes is quite deliberate - isn't torture. I think I've covered what torture really is in quite some detail, and by no means exhaustive.

There's a world of difference, not merely semantic but fundamental, between getting information from reluctant prisoners and torturing them. Not even waterboarding, the newest of the supposed vices of the US, is torture, since the goal is not destruction of personality, but of extreme discomfort.

But not torture.

Now, what is the point of the public discussion about torture?

It is aimed squarely at destroying US institutions in order to weaken them. If CIA operatives no longer believe that they can aggressively question prisoners without ending up in jail themselves, then those questions won't be asked. The chilling effect here is already visible.

It is aimed at creating the illusion that the US is evil: that is, after all, what our opponents believe anyway, and the greater publicity about this, the better it is for those aimed at making this the accepted position.

It is aimed at destroying the credibility of the US and western Allies.

It is not aimed at actually stopping torture.

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