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In Torture We Trust? | The Nation

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In Torture We Trust?

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The parallel between terrorism and torture is instructive. Proponents of each practice maintain that the ends justify the means. They explain away violence by framing it as a necessary "last resort." And they obscure the human impact of that violence by refusing to register the humanity of their victims.

This article was originally published in the March 31, 2003 issue of The Nation. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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For torture is--and has always been--a function not of brute sadism but of the willingness to view one's enemies as something less than human. As Edward Peters, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has shown in his authoritative history of the subject, in ancient Greece only slaves and foreigners were subjected to basanos (torture). During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the Enlightenment swept across Europe, one nation after another abolished the practice, to the point where, by 1874, Victor Hugo could proclaim that "torture has ceased to exist." Yet torture was reinstated during the decades that followed--just as the European powers established colonial empires. It became acceptable to treat "natives" in ways that were unacceptable for "the civilized." In more recent decades, when torture has been employed--South Africa, Cambodia, Tibet--it has often been meted out to members of groups so demonized that their individual identities were erased. In this context, it is chilling that the names and identities of the captives in the war on terrorism are as unknown to us as the methods being used against them.

"For the torturers, the sheer and simple fact of human agony is made invisible, and the moral fact of inflicting that agony is made neutral," writes Elaine Scarry in her powerful book The Body in Pain. But those facts are neither invisible nor neutral to the victims. "Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world," the Holocaust survivor (and torture victim) Jean Améry observed in his searing memoir At the Mind's Limits. "It is fear that henceforth reigns.... Fear--and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge." In a recent article in the London Guardian, Hafiz Abu Sa'eda, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, described how the experience of being tortured by Egyptian authorities has played a role in radicalizing members of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Torture demonstrates that the regime deserves destroying because it does not respect the dignity of the people," Sa'eda explains. "[The Muslim Brotherhood] began to argue that society should be destroyed and rebuilt again on the basis of an Islamic state." Among those who have been transformed from relative moderates into hard-line fanatics through such a process, the Guardian noted, is Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon who, after being tortured in Egypt, fled to Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen and eventually became Osama bin Laden's deputy. It's possible that Zawahiri would have followed this path independently, of course. But no regime has ever quelled the hatred of its enemies by engaging in torture. The abuses instead fuel this hatred and indelibly transform not only the victims but the torturers themselves. "The screaming I heard on Saturday morning...those were screams which until today, when I sleep at night, I hear them inside my ears all the time," an Israeli soldier who stood guard over tortured prisoners said in an oral history published in 1990. "It doesn't leave me, I can't get rid of it."

To insist that the ban on torture should be absolute ought not to lead one to deny that this position comes with certain costs. It is probable that Israeli security forces have prevented some suicide bombings over the years by subjecting Palestinians to beatings and shakings, just as the French crushed the National Liberation Front during the Battle of Algiers partly by torturing (and killing) many of its members. In democratic societies, however, it is understood that, as the Israeli Supreme Court noted in its 1999 decision banning torture, "not all means are acceptable." Torture, in this sense, is hardly unique: Most rights--free speech, privacy, freedom of assembly--entail potential costs by limiting what governments can do to insure order. Holding the line on torture should thus be viewed in the context of a broad debate about where to draw the line between liberty and security, and whether, in the aftermath of September 11, America is willing to stand by its professed values.

Those who advocate crossing the line frequently invoke the famous warning from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson that, however much we value our liberties, the Bill of Rights should not become "a suicide pact." But as real as the danger of Al Qaeda may be, few would argue that it constitutes an existential threat to the nation. As the world's wealthiest and most powerful country, the United States has enormous resources at its disposal and countless tools with which to wage its war on terror. In this respect, it's worth asking why brutal CIA interrogation methods could be considered necessary for our security--while adequately funding homeland security is not.

As a tool for collecting information, moreover, torture is notoriously ineffective (since people in pain have the unfortunate habit of lying to make it stop) and has done little to solve long-term security threats. Witness modern Israel--or for that matter France in Algeria.

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