Torture is not fun and games

You occasionally find people trying to downplay torture by arguing that what goes on in such situation is little different from the kind of hi-jinks that fraternities sometimes indulge in as part of their initiation ceremonies. For all I know, this could well be a slander on most fraternities. But even if it were not, and fraternities did act this way, this would be an argument against such fraternity initiation ceremonies and not an argument for torture. I do not believe that an argument can ever be made for the deliberate humiliation of one human being by another.

In Sri Lankan universities, hazing of incoming first year students has long been a serious problem, sometimes going so far as to cause deaths, either by “accidents” such as alcohol poisoning due to new students being forced to drink excessively, or suicides when they could not take the degradation anymore.

As a student and later as a faculty member, I personally hated the practice of hazing and would speak out against it, with the result that a pro-hazing leader once threatened to assault me. Those in favor of it said that it formed bonds of camaraderie. I found this to be a specious argument since it is unlikely that a good friendship can be built on an initial humiliating experience for one person at the hands of another. I have always suspected that hazing was a means for emotionally insecure people to find an outlet for their sadistic impulses, and that the people who enjoyed being hazed and subsequently became friends with those who hazed them had to have at least a streak of power-worshiping masochism.

But what people who argue that “torture is just fraternity-style hi-jinks” miss is that it is not the act itself that is often the problem. It is the context in which it carried out. There is a big difference between the experience of a fraternity pledge who has chosen to join a group with which he or she has some affinity and knows that they want him or her and that hazing is part of the initiation rites, and that of a prisoner in a strange country among people who he fears hate him and would like to see him dead.

In a previous post, I described the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. There are some (and these will likely be men) who will think that what happened was not so bad and that it may even be fun. But they will be thinking this from the safety of knowing that nothing more will happen beyond what was described. The point of torture is that you don’t know what will happen next or for how long it will continue or whether you will end up dead. This uncertainty is what makes torture so psychologically damaging.

Soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved of the harsh interrogation methods used at Guantanamo and even thought that some of the limits were too lenient. For example, he said that he did not see why there had to be a four-hour limit on forcing a prisoner to stand when he said that he himself would stand for eight hours a day, But there is a big difference. He chooses when to stand and for how long. He can sit any time he wants to. For someone forced to stand at the whim of others, even an hour can be an excruciating experience because you do not know when it will end or what else will happen.

As a result of the torture practices, it is possible that Rumsfeld will face charges of committing war crimes in a suit to be filed in Germany, along with other luminaries such as current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and former CIA director George Tenet.

[T]he other defendants in the case are Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone; former assistant attorney general Jay Bybee; former deputy assisant attorney general John Yoo; General Counsel for the Department of Defense William James Haynes II; and David S. Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff. Senior military officers named in the filing are General Ricardo Sanchez, the former top Army official in Iraq; Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of Guantanamo; senior Iraq commander, Major General Walter Wojdakowski; and Col. Thomas Pappas, the one-time head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) says:

“The former secretary actually authorized a series of interrogation techniques,” said Michael Ratner, President of CCR, “They included the use of dogs, stripping, hooding, stressed positions, chaining to the floor, sexual humiliation and those types of activities.”

Those techniques, he says, amount to torture and violate the Geneva Conventions. Ratner will be traveling to Berlin next week and plans to file the suit on Tuesday.

A November 15, 2006 New York Times report by David Johnston reveals that the controversial secret overseas prisons and the “interrogation” methods used were directly approved of by Bush himself, so the culpability goes right to the top.

When I was a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka, I once came across a group of senior students hazing a first year student at the beginning of the academic year. They had forced him to put on a pair of shoes on his hands and run around on all fours like a dog. Since I was opposed to hazing on principle (and it was against university policy anyway), I stopped it and took the student to my office to get him away from the others. Although what he had experienced would be considered very mild by anyone reading the above description, the student was shaking with fear and crying. I think the fact that he was at the mercy of other people who seemingly had the power to humiliate him and make do anything they wished to him was what was terrifying, more than any single thing that they made him do.

Torture is barbaric. There is no other word for it. It should not be tolerated under any guise.

POST SCRIPT: It’s here

Jon Stewart notes the kickoff to the “War on Christmas” and bemoans the direction that this war has taken.


  1. Gregory Szorc says

    Out of curiosity, where have you heard people draw a link between torture and university and/or fraternity hazing?

  2. says

    I think the distinction you make between choosing to participate in hazing or to be subjected to torture and an unknown outcome is critically important, but I also wonder why Rush and others like him feel that hazing is harmless fun.

    Once upon a morning in New England I recall seeing a row of subdued Lambda Chi’s timidly nibbling on breakfast. Normally these fellows, members of the football team, were anything but timid. Yet on this one lone morning they sat, faces covered with scratches after having apparently been made to lie down and have chickens walk across them all night. A few days earlier a fellow from another fraternity had been treated for frostbite after having to participate in a scavenger hunt—barefoot in Maine in winter.

    I also recall the day when I was sitting at dinner with my parents and noticed a scar on my dad’s arm. “What’s that from?” I asked. “Oh, that’s just my brand,” he said.
    “You’re WHAT?”
    “My brand, like cattle.”
    “I know what a brand is, but why do you have one?”
    “It’s from when I joined Zeta Psi, everyone got one.”
    “You let them do that???” etc.

    Aside from the scar, dad didn’t suffer any lasting damage (he was amused by my outrage), and these incidents are minor compared to the many that have caused more serious injuries or death, but I think the reason our university and most others have condemned hazing is not merely for issues of liability, but also for the mental stress of such events.

    Whether we’re talking about college students or prisoners I just can’t see any beneficial reason to purposefully subject people to such emotional or physical abuse. (I also find it rather disturbing that I just had reason to use “college students or prisoners” in a sentence like that!)

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