Sunday, March 16, 2003


I have never, not even indirectly, met with torture. Not only I was born in a time and place, and to a class, where the danger to meet it was minimal. I have also, despite several years as an active member of Amnesty International, never met anybody who has faced it, something for which I am somewhat grateful, because I am not sure I would have been able to look at them and see them, as they deserve to be seen, as human beings, and not as survivors, burdened with the terrible knowledge of the extreme, saddled with the necessity of their witnessing, bounded in by their past, forever victims or martyrs.

I have then only and always met torture through the silent communication of the written word, which is no substitute for human experience, however piercing its papery scream.

This means that before embarking in any discussion of it, the standard disclaimers apply. I have, thanks to my good fortune, no direct knowledge of the matter. People who do often repeat it is not communicable. John Conroy, in his superb book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, (and here's the USA edition if you wish to buy it) says:

"I think it may be possible to set down on paper a description of al the horrors of torture in such a way that a multitude of survivors might nod and say, 'Yes, that adequately portrays the pain that I felt.' And yet the end product of such an exercise could be a book too painful for most people to read. Those who managed to reach the final page might find their eyes glazed over and their heart hardened.".

Jean Amery, who was tortured by the Gestapo and lived to tell the tale (before taking his own life), reiterates often in his essay "On Torture" that the thing itself defies the limits of language. "The pain was what it was," he writes simply. "There is nothing else to add. The quality of sensation is neither comparable nor describable. It establishes the limits of the possibility of verbal communication. Whoever might make others appraised of their physical pain would be forced to provoke it, and so begin torturers themselves." (My translation from the Italian edition: it is probably this book).

People who have been tortured do bear witness but certainly not easily. They have to overcome shame, and reawakened pain and fear, and often the very real possibility of retaliation, and even the understandable and probably very healthy desire not to be forever defined by the experience. But more than anything, they have to overcome the unspeakableness of the experience. Description only goes so far. It?s easy to gross out people but harder to convey the horror of apparently smaller things. And knowing all this, for me to talk about these things often smacks me of an outrageous usurpation of somebody else?s witness, a violation of somebody else?s silence, even.

But the fact is, I have been obsessed by torture for a long time and I have come to accumulate a lot of knowledge, however partial, mediated, indirect and undeserved, about it. And when everybody and their dog is speaking about it, sometimes with cheerful callousness and fake courage (it?s very easy to generously steel oneself into giving consent for the torture of somebody else), I think I have probably, if not the right, then the duty to add my voice. That was what I joined Amnesty International for, after all. To wrestle with this particular demon.

It?s easy as I said to gross out people with torture. To mention the insertion of mice into vaginas; to speak of the young women whose hood was removed in front of a mirror with the warning "Take a look at your pretty face because this is the last time you?ll see it"; to talk of La Venda Sexy and La Escuela Mechanica and so on. Easy but pointless. Once you?ve waded through blood and excrement and death, all you?ve achieved is that people will squirm a bit and then talk about some bloodless, ?painless? forms of torture.

So I?ll tell you first off what was my hands-down worst moment in all my readings about torture. It doesn?t really concern torture at all. It concerns murder. But it makes the point.

Not many years ago I read the book-long confession to journalist Horacio Verbitsky of Roberto Scilingo (, and USA edition, also a book to buy and by damn read before granting cavalierly permission torture one's favorite enemies), one of those rarest of things, a repented torturer. Scilingo was in the Argentinian army, and he ended up involved in the dirty war Argentina waged on pretty much a whole generation of bright, intelligent, idealistic and in the vast majority of cases totally innocent kids. This is a touchy subject for me for several reasons, one of which is that I am only a little younger than those dead kids, and living in a different if similar country, but in all other things very much like them. A lot of them were even - as many Argentinian are - Italian (Italian nationals, I mean, with Italian passport, not descendants of Italians).

Now the book?s title is ?The Flight?. Because what bugged Scilingo, who never took a hands-on part in the actual torture (he managed the pool of cars used for the kidnappings) was that on a couple of occasions he had been embarked on one of the planes employed by the Argentinian military to dispose of prisoners who had outlived their usefulness. The prisoners, all of them ?desaparecidos?, disappeared, were told that they would be transferred to a proper prison, which meant that they would reappear to the world and their families. They were told they would be given some vaccination shots, actually a narcotics injection. Then, once unconscious, they were stripped and put on a cargo plane. Once the plane was over the ocean, they would be thrown out a hatch, alive.

Now this may gross you, it did gross me, but I have long known all of this and I could read it with nothing but a grim feeling of deja vu. What Scilingo adds then really makes me mad. Along the people charged with the stripping and throwing, he says, there were on the planes also the pilots, obviously, and a doctor. The doctor had the task of injecting the prisoners with another dose of narcotics (which did not prevent some of them from waking up, apparently) to keep them safely under. Then, Scilingo says, the doctor would go into the cockpit and close and latch the cockpit door.

Because of the Hippocratic Oath, you know, Scilingo says.

There. In all my years of reading about torture nothing, no unspeakable act, no gross physical violation has ever upset and revolted me just as much as this rationale. Because of the Hippocratic Oath.

I?m not here to say that hypocrisy is worse than actual responsibility. I?m here to say that hypocrisy does not get you out of responsibility. I?m telling you that hypocrisy is what allows torture to happen, and to happen again, and to happen now, in this very moment.

It?s too easy to get out of confronting torture, you know. It?s too easy to redefine parts of it as not-torture. It?s too easy to find special cases, special circumstances, special classes of people who are not exempted, who are not deserving of the same standards we would apply to our precious physical and psychological integrity. It?s too easy to redraw ourselves in the shape of the good guys, not matter what we do. John Conroy says ?Torture has long been employed by well-meaning, even reasonable people, armed with the sincere belief that they are preserving civilization as they know it.?

It?s easy to find a way to excuse or even praise torture. People at this point usually ask pointedly if the noble soul ready to sanction the use of torture is ready to do it personally. I won?t. I?ll ask if anybody can imagine a scenario in which it would be right and just to be tortured.

And now the time has come to tell why torture is bad, wrong, and evil.


Allow me to get personal for a moment. I have already said that I am obsessed by torture. I?ll leave off the coyness for a moment and talk about personal matters - I write. I write pulpy space operas which I believe have some merit despite having remained unpublished for now, and mostly I write about torture. And I don?t really feel that I am entitled, but somehow I can?t avoid it. Because I am obsessed, as I say. I often wonder why, since I never have been tortured, never met anybody who was, never encountered the thing in real life in all my born days. And I do feel, kind words notwithstanding, that I am trespassing on very touchy ground, on an experience of a seriousness that should not be mixed with space opera.

I am not alone in feeling this, well, this fascination. With some friends and colleagues and the sponsorship of the Italian section of AI I have helped organize a contest for an SF short story that centers around a human rights theme. The first time around, we mostly got stories that had a lot more to do with urban legends and media scares than with any real-world concern, let alone one that had anything to do with human rights. So we decided to give a nudge to the aspiring writers and encouraged them to write about torture.

This turned out to be a very bad idea. What we hadn?t realized, being people who had all read plenty of accounts of real torture, who had a clear idea that it was a real-life fact that involved real-life people, was that people had fantasies about it. And they were, how shall I put it?, unsavoury fantasies.
It?s unpleasant to say, but torture fascinates people who, like me, have never met it, as it were, in the flesh. This obviously revolts and angers those who have - one of my colleagues on the contest jury panel, who has several friends among the survivors of torture, was quite upset at some of the things we received. But it?s true none the less.

I have several possible explanations for this fascination. One is that it?s a defence mechanism. Fantasising about the ultimate evil is a way to control it. One is that all things extreme fascinate us, in their excessiveness itself. One is, of course, that torture represents the ultimate control, the nearest one can come to omnipotence. And this fascinates us.

People in blogdom have been discussing the practicalities of torture, whether it works or not. I think the best answer I found in Salon, long ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: "Lessons on how to fight terror", by Andrew Brown

Torture is the crack cocaine of anti-terrorism because, for a while, it works. The terrorists will certainly use it. But everyone tries it. The Brits did it in Northern Ireland, the Israelis use it on the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority uses it on Palestinians too. The French, in their Algerian war against terrorism in the 1950s, turned it into an instrument of policy. But the price is higher than a democracy can pay. Either the people who have to do the torture are sickened, and spread their disillusion throughout society (this is what happened in France); or they are not sickened. They come to enjoy it; and then you have lost the values that you are fighting for. Either way, after a time, it stops working. The Russians in Chechnya can torture all they like. They still can't win the war there.

That?s all true and more than worthy of mention, but I think beside the point. People who have read a bit about how torture is used in the world (and let?s bear in mind that torture is used in this world, right now as we speak, for real, on real flesh-and-blood people like me and you, reader; that Mohammed al Kahlid is being tortured right now, as we write, or at any rate will have been, whatever we say about it, whether we are for or against it, no matter what we think or feel or argue or any permission we give or withhold. The matter is simply not in our hands, not for us to decide) will know that gathering information is really not the point. Torture works, yes, and the information it provides is often useless, yes; and often it is not, but lead to an escalation in brutality that landed us where we are right now. But that?s not the point.

People are not tortured to gather information. They are tortured as a means of controlling other people. Of putting the pressure on future prisoners, and their friends, and their supporters. They are a means of terrorizing a whole population, in the (often, at that, mistaken) belief that a terror-stricken people will not give flak. Torture is not about information, and it?s not about pain, which is why arguing that there are ?painless? forms of torture is placing one?s head under a thick covering of sand (?painless? torture, like sleep deprivation, exposure to white noise, disorientation, and so on, has wrecked people for life. There are survivors of the ?five techniques? used in Northern Ireland, and of course decreed ?not torture? by a tribunal, that are still suffering from the experience now, thirty years after the fact.). Torture is about control. Torture is the ultimate, most extreme form of control.

"With the first hit" Jean Amery says, "the prisoner realizes to be lost to itself: it contains therefore in itself all that is to come. After the first hit, torture and death in a cell - events of which the prisoner might have known, but without this knowledge possessing a real actuality - are anticipated as real possibilites, if not certainities. They are allowed to punch me in the face, realizes the victim with confused surprise, and with equally confused certainity he deduces: they will do to me what they will. Outside nobody knows and can do anything for me. Whoever may want to rescue me, a wife, a mother, a brother or a friend, could never reach me here."

And again:

"The most important element of the trust in the world yet, and the only one relevant to my argument, is the certainty that the other, on the strength of written and unwritten social contract, will respect me, or more precisely, he will respect my physical and therefore metaphysical substance. The boundaries of my body are the boundaries of my Self. My skin surface protects me from the outside world: if I am to trust, I must feel on my skin only what I want to feel.

"With the first hit, then, such trust in the world collapses. The other, against whom I put myself in the world and with whom I can only be as long as he respects the boundary of my skin, hitting me imposes his physicality on me. He comes upon me and thus annihilates me. [...] When there is no hope of succor against physical abuse, it becomes forever a form of annihilation of one's existence."

Amery argues that torture is so characteristic of Nazism that it becomes its one defining fact. I am afraid, and saddened, that if he is right we must broaden the definition of Nazism too much. I do believe that it is a constant characteristic of fascism, inasmuch as fascism is an apsiration to total control of all individuals. Torture certainly does that: it imposes its reality on anybody who encouters it, it crushes and violates them. It is the ultimate imposition, the final form of control. You may not break all the victims of torture - though they tell me it happens with such high degree of success that one may discount the possibility of resisting it - but when you're impotent against their values, actions, networks, culture, you can at least without doubt or impediment hurt them.

And this is, I think, why people have been clamouring for it. Not because it works, because other things work much better in the short (good traditional police work) and the long (establishing a better way of co-inhabiting the planet) run. It?s because of the hunger, the need, the pathological desire for control.

I said pathological but I know that?s not the right word. Maybe ?futile? would be a better word. Or ?desperate?. I don?t think that pining for total control, for perfect safety, is wrong. I just think that it is a desire that everybody has to admit, at one point in life, is destined to remain frustrated. Total surety, total control of our environment would be a neat thing: it is just not possible. This, alas, goes for terrorism as well.

I don?t want to sound callous, because I?m not. I have lived through terrorism. I think the risks have to be minimized as much as possible. I think all the strategies for minimizing such risks (for example, try to talk ?friendly? regimes out of radicalizing their opposition by means of torturing its members) are to be pursued. But when all?s said and done, there?ll always be the idiots, the death-wish fanatics, the crazy, the evil. And we live in a society where a few people can do a lot of damage with mundane means. It doesn?t take advanced technology, or a great organization. A single madman with enough dynamite, or a long range rifle, can pull it off.

Jim Henley among other worthy things (that should be read) has quoted Kevin Maroney saying:

"Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture."

--General Carlo Alberto Della Chiesa, head of the investigation into the kidnapping (later murder) of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, 1978

This has moved me and shaken me. Dalla Chiesa was no bleeding heart liberal. During a prison riot he sent the troops in and quenched it at the cost of several lives, including those of five hostages. But he was also, above all else, a faithful servant of the State. He knew what the country he served and revered was all about. And he did defeat terrorism, or at least the part of it that wasn't fueled, organized and defended by shady parts of the State itself.

But we still get terror. We still lose people to abysmally idiotic fighters.

Americans have obviously had a different experience of terrorims than we - Italians, Spanish, British - have had. The body count was higher (though not by orders of magnitude) but more importantly it happened suddenly, with no warning and with a terrifying magnitude. The rest of us, we all had the slow escalation of terror to get used to it. (And, Dalla Chiese notwithstanding, we all had our moments of weakness, when torture looked a good idea). But the sad fact, common to all situations were terrorism takes roots, is that there is no guarantee of safety. Torture offers no guarantee (and several tactical disadvantages). Praying offers no guarantee. The common will of the people offers no guarantee. The sad fact is, you can reduce the body count, you can minimize the risk, but "defeating terrorism" does not mean that it will be totally obliterated and that complete and serene safety will ensue for ever and ever. It will only mean that it will happen seldom, and few people will be killed. That's the best that can be done until the nature of this world changes.

We do not have control of this world, however mighty or righteous we are. Total safety, complete surety, is not of this world. Invoking torture is a panic response, if not the totalitarian desire to substitute Orwell's repressive boot for the lost feeling of safety. The search for closure and vengeance, that goes with terror and weakness. It may make people feel better - because, face it, torture is a great source of satisfaction when it happens out of sight, to your chosen enemies - but will not guarantee total safety.

What it will guarantee, is fascism.