Sunday Sermon: Torture – Why?

Content Warning: Torture

After this, I am going to stop posting about torture, and resume being my usual fake happy soap-making, nihilist, anarchist, technology strategy-loving self. I promise.

Why torture?

The defenders of torture came up with a lot of plausible-sounding reasons, none of which stand up in the light of anymore more than casual examination. “Actionable intelligence” (Mitchell used that one a lot) and “ticking time bomb” scenarios (Hi, Sam!) aside, the timing of torture is one of the big give-aways: they broke Abu Zubaydah’s will so badly that he apparently loses control of his bladder whenever he even thinks about what they did. It wasn’t necessary: they got everything they were going to get out of him, more or less immediately. Yet they took a break, then came back and used even harder methods, because if a stone isn’t giving you blood, you have to squeeze harder until eventually blood does come oozing between your fingers.

Only, it’s yours.

‘Primitive’ (which I read as: “more honest”) societies often engage in torture. Some of the indigenous tribes engaged in torture, as did my own ancestors, the vikings. The samurai one-upped them and tortured themselves by occasionally self-inflicted ridiculously painful and messy death, as a way of shaming their leaders or a sign of despair. In all of those societies, the subject of torture demonstrated their courage and committment by taking it as well as they possibly could. In the Saga of the Jomsvikings, one scene I remember vividly reading as a kid, there’s a moment when one of the Vikings is about to have his head chopped off, and he plays a joke on the headsman by jerking the headsman’s assistant’s hands into the path of the blade – then he laughs and puts is head back on the block.  (That scene was lifted into one of the episodes of the Vikings series) All the Jomsvikings died well, that was part of why they wrote sagas about them:

The samurai who committed hara-kiri, or the jomsviking who laughed at death, or the algonquin who glared at his enemy silently while they clubbed him to death: these men, in extremis, were making a last gesture of defiance. When your enemy has nothing left to do to you but kill you, going to death with a joke on your lips shows your mettle and detracts from their pleasure. It is, literally, a move to see who laughs last.

Which is why we say torturers are cowards. Mitchell and (at one point he says there were 6 people helping hold the gurney Abu Zubaydah was strapped to) his co-conspirators were not facing a worthy foe in battle, they were tormenting a wounded, overpowered, sleep-deprived and battered person strapped to a steel rack with nylon webbing. That is the antithesis of military glory. There is a story of a samurai who nursed a wounded enemy back to health, gave him time to get back into fighting form, and then challenged him to a duel – and lost. Mitchell and his co-conspirators are not made of that stuff.

Why do they do it? It’s not to learn. It’s to show power and dominance.

George Orwell explained it best through the mouth of O’Brien the torturer from the Trumpesque Ministry Of Truth (Kellyanne Conway, acting director):

Winston shrank back upon the bed. Whatever he said, the swift answer crushed him like a bludgeon. And yet he knew, he knew, that he was in the right. The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind-surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false. Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy? There was even a name for it, which he had forgotten. A faint smile twitched the corners of O’Brien’s mouth as he looked down at him.

“I told you, Winston,” he said, “that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing; in fact, the opposite thing. All this is a digression,”‘ he added in a different tone. “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always-do not forget this, Winston-always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-forever.”

We cannot call the torturers “power mad” because they’re not deranged. They are in pursuit of a very rational goal – they’re just pursing it with very very unsound methods.

It is important to stop bullshitting around about this issue: the US’ methods and ideals have become unsound.

The US has crossed a Rubicon and that crossing was hidden from the people by the politicians and the complicit media – if there ever was a shining city on a hill, it has revealed itself to be the Death Star: a monument to power for its own sake: the object of power is power. Military courage was a lie all along, they’re just well-meaning, deeply deluded cogs in the great machinery that projects power, that projects our civilization, our barbarous pseudo-democracy.

O’Brien says:
The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.

That is what the noise about whether “we tortured some folks, aw, shucks” is all about. It’s not about actionable intelligence or fighting the war on terror, any more than building a Death Star is about conquering a solar system – it’s “shock and awe” at the level of civilization, it’s the rare moment when the authoritarian face of the state shows, like the naked grinning bones of a skull, though the Kardashians and Dancing With the Stars and the fast food and airport security.

And it whispers, “Welcome to the machine.”


  1. cartomancer says

    In Classical Athens there was a legal rule that the testimony of slaves was only permissible in court if they had been subjected to torture to confirm it (the practice was known as “basanos”, after a kind of stone used in testing the purity of metals). The thinking seems to have been that a slave, because he has no stake in Athenian society, has no incentive to tell the truth in court. Torture supposedly provided that incentive, indeed, Demosthenes argues that it had become the custom by the early 4th century BC to prefer the testimony of tortured slaves over that of free men given freely, because loyalty to the state and its gods was less of an incentive to tell the truth than torture. Some scholars suggest that this may have been substantially a legal fiction though – a going through the motions threat of torture rather than actual torture.

    In any case, the major divide in the Classical world between slave and free was that slaves could be tortured – their bodily autonomy wasn’t their own – but free men could not (or, at least, could not unless properly convicted in a court of law as a punishment). One sure sign of descent into tyranny in Athenian literature is a willingness to torture free people as if they were slaves – in effect treating the whole populace as your slaves. Sophocles’ Oedipus gets like this later on in his play, when his desperate desire to discover the truth about his own origins leads him to threaten the shepherd charged with disposing of him with torture.

    So from the beginnings of our culture torture has always been associated with power differentials and the enactment thereof.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Seems to me like a lot of rationalization and elaboration of the crude pleasures taken by bullies.

  3. says

    The thinking seems to have been that a slave, because he has no stake in Athenian society, has no incentive to tell the truth in court.

    That’s interesting! I’d just as easily argue that the slave, since he has no stake in society, has nothing to lose by being honest. After all, their life is already forfeit. (But, I know, I am not arguing with ancient Athenians)

    I’m not sure if I’m up for researching it, but I believe that at various times, China has had similar approaches – you can’t really tell if a person’s testimony is sincere until you break them. Although, I’m afraid a lot of my history gets blended with the tales of Harry Padgett Flashman, so I’m sometimes not sure what is real and what isn’t unless I research it.
    AAAAAND ARRRGH! No. I accidentally found photos of “the death of a thousand cuts”
    Done researching for tonight.

    So from the beginnings of our culture torture has always been associated with power differentials and the enactment thereof.

    Yes. As O’Brien didn’t quite say, “sometimes you’re the boot, sometimes you’re the face” — but you can bet that those wearing the boots are pretty careful to maintain their privilege.

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    Seems to me like a lot of rationalization and elaboration of the crude pleasures taken by bullies.

    Yes, bullying is all about power and dominance. The cruelties change but that agenda doesn’t.