Wrong Things, Rightly Named

An Eastern European thinker knows what to call the practices covered in the CIA report. Scott McLemee follows his lead....

September 2, 2009

Suppose that, 30 or 40 years ago, the news media of the West had gotten hold of a KGB document reviewing its experiences in interrogating those who posed a menace to the peace, progress, and stability of the People’s Democracies. For younger readers, perhaps I should explain that the Soviet Union and its client states liked to call their system by that cheerful term. And yes, they were serious. Self-deception is a powerful force, sometimes.

Suppose the report listed such methods of information-gathering as beatings, suffocation, and mock executions. And suppose, too -- on a lurid note -- that it mentioned using threats to murder or sexually violate members of a prisoner’s family. Now imagine numerous pages of the report were redacted, so that you could only guess what horrors they might chronicle.

With all of that as a given, then... How much debate would there have been over the moral status of these acts? Would someone who insisted that they did not constitute torture get a hearing? Could a serious case be made that it was in the best interests of justice to move forward without dwelling on the past?

If so, would such arguments have been presented in major newspapers, magazines, and broadcasts? Or would they have been heard in out-of-the-way meeting halls, where the only cheer was borrowed from posters of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship?

This thought experiment comes to mind, of course, in the wake of reading about the report of the CIA’s Office of the Inspector General. The analogy is not perfect by any means. No comparable degree of “openness” (however grossly inappropriate that word seems in this case) existed on the other side of the old Iron Curtain. But let’s not cheer ourselves hoarse over that fact just yet.

Actions that would have been judged without hesitation to be torture if conducted by a member of the East German secret police (or, in the case of waterboarding, by the Khmer Rouge) did not meet the wonderfully scrupulous standards laid out seven years ago by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. If more testimony to the power of self-deception needed, this would do.

When the CIA made its evaluation of various bloody-minded interrogation practices in 2004, the Bush administration’s response was reportedly frustration that the techniques hadn’t been more effective. The assessment of the Obama administration seems to be that torture has been both unproductive and damaging for “soft power” – a public-relations nightmare. This is progress, of a kind. If somebody decides to give up sociopathic behavior on the grounds it is proving bad for business, that is only just so much reason for relief. But it is preferable to the alternative.

It might be possible to hold ourselves to higher standards than that. But first it would be necessary to face reality. One place to start is Tzvetan Todorov’s little book Torture and the War on Terror, first published in France last year and now available in translation from Seagull Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press).

Todorov once lived in what was called, at the time, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. As an émigré in Paris in the 1960s, he wrote The Poetics of Prose and other standard works in structuralist literary criticism – as well as a study of the idiosyncratic Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin that, in my opinion, made Bakhtin’s thought seem a lot more systematic than it really was.

Over the past quarter century, Todorov’s concerns have shifted from the structuralist analysis of literary language to a moral inquiry into the historical reality of violence and domination, including books on the Nazi and Stalinist concentration camps.

Torture and the War on Terror is more pamphlet than treatise. Some pages revisit points that ought to be familiar to anyone who has given any thought to the experience of the past eight years. To grasp the essential meaninglessness of a phrase like “war on terror” (you can’t bomb a state of mind) does not require a degree in linguistics or rhetoric. But then, the ability to state the obvious can have its uses.

The document prepared by the Justice Department in August 2002 carefully parsed its definition of torture so that it covered only acts leading to the "severe pain" characteristic of permanent “impairment of bodily function.” Todorov does not hesitate to specify what is going on within that semantic maneuver: “The reasoning of this memorandum – paradoxically so, for a legal document prepared by competent jurists – proceeds from a form of magical thinking insofar as it pretends that we can act on things by changing their names.” That about covers it. The expression “magical thinking” covers a great deal of our public life in those years – a time exemplified by the consistently miraculous heroics of Jack Bauer on “24.”

As both a student of the phenomenon of state violence and a former resident of People’s Bulgaria, Todorov is willing to recognize and name what has been going on this past decade. We need to read the following and remember that it is what goes in the history books:

“In prisons scattered throughout countries outside the United States, the detainees have been regularly raped, hung from hooks, immersed in water, burned, attached to electrodes, deprived of food, water or medicine, attacked by dogs, and beaten until their bones are broken. On military bases or on American territory, they have been subjected to sensory deprivation and to other violent sensory treatments, forced to wear headphones so they cannot hear, hoods so they cannot see, surgical masks to keep them from smelling, and thick gloves that interfere with the sense of touch. They have been subjected to nonstop ‘white noise’ or to the regular alternation of deafening noise and total silence; prevented from sleeping, either by use of bright lights or by being subjected to interrogations that can last twenty hours on end, forty-eight days in a row; and taken from extreme cold to extreme heat and vice versa. None of these methods cause ‘the impairment of bodily function,’ but they are known to cause the rapid destruction of personal identity.”

Given the inefficacy of torture as a way to extract intelligence, its real “value” comes in the form of retribution -- and the feeling of restored mastery this permits.

“Reducing the other to a state of utter powerlessness,” writes Todorov, “gives you a sense of limitless power. This feeling is obtained more from torture than from murder, because, once dead, the other is an inert object that can no longer yield the jubilation that comes from wholly defeating the will of the other. On the other hand, raping a woman in front of her husband, parents, and children or torturing a child in front of his father yields an illusion of omnipotence and a sense of absolute sovereignty. Transgressing human laws in this way makes you feel close to the gods.... Torture leaves an indelible mark not only on the victim but also on the torturer.”

Todorov might have pushed this line of thinking (with its nod to Hegel’s dialectic of the struggle for recognition) a lot further than he does. The “indelible mark” can take various forms, and it is not restricted to those who directly wield the instruments of torture.

The craving for “an illusion of omnipotence and a sense of absolute sovereignty” is something best channeled into wish fulfillment-oriented forms of entertainment. There it can be aggrandized yet contained. Money and commodities change hands; the consumer gets a catharsis of sorts; civil society muddles along, and everybody wins.

When sectors of the populace come to regard its pursuit in reality as a necessary part of the business of the state, things are on a different and more worrying terrain. A host of strange side effects then follow – including nostalgia for 9/11 itself in some quarters, since the country was so deeply “unified” on 9/12. A scarcely concealed yearning for another terrorist assault makes perfect sense, given that it would presumably justify another sustained effort to assert American omnipotence and sovereignty. (In saying it “makes perfect sense,” I mean, of course, in a perfectly insane way.)

“As a rule,” writes Todorov, “citizens in liberal democracies will condemn without hesitation the violent practices of a state that will tolerate torture, and especially of a state that systematizes its use, as in the case of totalitarian regimes. Now we have discovered that these same democracies can adopt totalitarian attitudes without changing their overall structure. This cancer does not eat away at a single individual; its metastases are found in people who thought they had eradicated it in others and considered themselves immune. That is why we cannot be reassured.”

True enough. But we have a long way to go before reassurance will be desirable, let alone possible.


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