In Our Custody: Torture and Our Culture

There is a reason why, throughout western literature and popular culture, those who would torture individuals within their custody have been portrayed as weak, as cowards, as fools -- in short, as significantly less than just.

Think only for a moment, and vile characters come rushing in. Recall Olivier's  SS dentist Szell, the White Angel of Auschwitz, in Marathon Man; the grinning North Vietnamese prison guards in The Deer Hunter; Dostoevesky's rich exploration into the degradation derived of mundane (but necessarily cruel) torture in the name of absolute state power; Robert Jordan's descent into the tortuous hands of Hemingway's doctrinaire captors amidst the horrors of war in For Whom the Bells Tolls; Edgar Allan Poe's vivid and perverse villains engaging in slow, painful murder, inspired by Poe's own research into the methods of the Spanish Inquisition; the tribal torture of English prisoners in James Fenimore Cooper's French and Indian Wars (so deftly captured in Michael Mann's terrifying 1992 adventure Last of the Mohicans -- indeed, who can forget Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye ending the agonies of the British Major Duncan with a well-placed bullet from his long rifle); the revulsion against torture embodied in John Wayne, strikingly filmed by John Ford in The Searchers. Torture is the realm of Sauron and Mordor in Lord of the Rings and Darth Vader in the original Star Wars, the two pop film trilogy classics of the genre.

torture.gifAs artists, as writers, as poets, as film-makers, we despise torture and those who practice it. In drama, torturers embody evil, easily falling into the role of villain and we make them Nazis, or Communists, or Germans, or Native Americans, or Vietnamese, or white supremicists to serve our stories or to condemn entire movements or nations. In comedy, they are ineffective buffoons. Think of the Nazi torture mavens of Mel Brooks, of Spielberg's Raiders series, of Chaplin's Hitler, of Woody Allen's Alvie wondering how Annie Hall would stand up to Nazi torture techniques.

Shakespeare himself -- living and writing in a time when accepted public torture and execution were used by government as amusements for the masses -- put these words into the mouth of his comic rogue Autolycus in The Winter's Tale (my Washington contacts report that Cheney keeps a copy in his top center middle desk drawer for easy reference, as some public servants keep the Constitution):

He has a son, who shall be flayed alive; then 'nointed over with honey, set on the head of a wasp's nest; then stand till he be three quarters and a dram dead; then recovered again with aqua-vitae or some other hot infusion; then, raw as he is, and in the hottest day prognostication proclaims, shall he be set against a brick-wall, the sun looking with a southward eye upon him, where he is to behold him with flies blown to death. But what talk we of these traitorly rascals, whose miseries are to be smiled at, their offences being so capital?

Compare that semi-comical section of Shakespeare to this all-too-real account from the Schmidt Report, commissioned by the Pentagon, on American torture at Gitmo:

He was kept awake for 18 - 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days, he was forced to wear bras and thongs on his head, he was prevented from praying, he was forced to crawl around on a dog leash to perform dog tricks, he was told his mother and sister were whores, he was subjected to extensive "cavity searches" (after 160 days in solitary confinement) and then "on seventeen ocasions, between 13 Dec 02 and 14 Jan 03, interrogators, during interrogations, poured water over the subject."

In other words, so-called "water-boarding," a technique supported by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the Bush Administration. Via Andrew Sullivan, here's the WSJ's conservatives, following by Sullivan's own incredulity as a horrified conservative:

WSJ: As for "torture," it is simply perverse to conflate the amputations and electrocutions Saddam once inflicted at Abu Ghraib with the lesser abuses committed by rogue American soldiers there, much less with any authorized U.S. interrogation techniques. No one has yet come up with any evidence that anyone in the U.S. military or government has officially sanctioned anything close to "torture." The "stress positions" that have been allowed (such as wearing a hood, exposure to heat and cold, and the rarely authorized "waterboarding," which induces a feeling of suffocation) are all psychological techniques designed to break a detainee.

Notice that the gold-standard for American conduct is now set by Saddam Hussein! And "water-boarding" is merely a "psychological technique" that "induces a feeling of suffocation." No physical coercion at all - unless you mean being tied to a plank and near-drowned.

When we are reduced to defending torture by the standards of our enemies, we fail the grandest of our national ambitions and our arrogance looks weak and pitiful. In an essay in this week's Newsweek magazine, Senator John McCain, perhaps the most famous living American torture victim, pulls no punches in his description of water-boarding and its effects:

...There has been considerable press attention to a tactic called "waterboarding," where a prisoner is restrained and blindfolded while an interrogator pours water on his face and into his mouth—causing the prisoner to believe he is being drowned. He isn't, of course; there is no intention to injure him physically. But if you gave people who have suffered abuse as prisoners a choice between a beating and a mock execution, many, including me, would choose a beating. The effects of most beatings heal. The memory of an execution will haunt someone for a very long time and damage his or her psyche in ways that may never heal. In my view, to make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture.

The terrible irony in this defense of torture by the Bush Administration is that these men came to power through the efforts of a coalition of Christians. And yet our western revulsion of torture -- the very reason all of our culture proscribes its use -- is a product of the central Christian story: the torture and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of a powerful, martial nation threatened by regional movements that nip at its heels and threaten its power. The ritual scourging, the crown of thorns, the penetration of metal spikes at the initiation of the Crucifixion, and the slow suffering in the elements -- these are aspects that come down to us from Rome in western literature, and in the Bibilical story. Again, McCain on how what Vice President Cheney is fighting for actually twists religion and Christianity:

I don't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life. Nor do I care if in the course of serving their ignoble cause they suffer great harm. They have pledged their lives to the intentional destruction of innocent lives, and they have earned their terrible punishment in this life and the next. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength—that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion, but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.