I know some folks don’t care much for Tom’s cartoons, but this one, once more, hits some nails right on the head. I’ve written a couple posts now on the horrifying torture debate that’s migrated north from Santiago, Chile to Washington D.C. in the last twenty years, and as I’ve noted, it’s not just Christian academics like me but even Cold-War-era, professional interrogators who see the current culture of torture as reprehensible. (We have different reasons for detesting it, but we detest it nonetheless.)
Torture in the modern era is always about intimidation, always relies both on the openness of the practice (you’d better believe they knew about Abu Gharib in Baghdad before they did in Indianapolis) and its invulnerability to legal appeal (sometimes by means of a dictator’s decree, sometimes by means of burying the story by punishing the lackeys and cutting off inquiries into those who facilitated it). Cold warriors knew this: in Cold War Latin America, spies and government agents from communist governments were subject to sophisticated, humane forms of interrogation because they had information to give and because if the interrogators remained on friendly terms with their marks, life would be better for all involved. Their place in social and legal networks made their information too valuable to risk burying by means of torture. Resistance among the workers met different fates: union leaders, activists against Pinochet, and other peasant agitators often landed in Pinochet’s torture chambers. The aim of such activity was never information; terrorists then and terrorists now know that they have to change things up when one of their own gets captured. By the time Pinochet’s goons got done with one of Chile’s citizens, whatever resistance he was part of had more than likely moved on to different locations and tactics. But the story got out.
Insurgents often have only their bodies and souls in this world. And unlike those high in government structures, they are quite willing to sacrifice their bodies in fights against tyrants and foreign occupations. But modern era torture understands psychology well enough that it doesn’t destroy the body but imprisons the personality in a world of pain that extends only as far as the prisoner’s skin. Confined thus, prisoners may or may not give up (usually out-of-date) information, but when they tell their stories later (stories that governments officially deny but benefit from nonetheless), anyone who would resist them learns the lesson, written in the prisoner’s pain, that resistance to that power will result in one’s humanity being stripped away. They might be electrocuted until they urinate on themselves; they might be put on leashes and sodomized. They might be held underwater almost until they drown.
In any case, every act of torture is a small act of terrorism: there is no immediate military benefit, but psychologically, every act adds to the impression that the government or the occupation is to be feared, by body and soul, and never resisted. Neither killing a few thousand civilians in a nation of three hundred million nor torturing a suspected terrorist is going to win a war on the ground, but it does plant fear in the mind. And fear, not love, is what keeps peasants from becoming insurgents. Just ask Machiavelli.
All this is not to say that the U.S.’s allies never tortured before George W. Bush’s presidency. (I’m attempting to head off the predictable accusation that I’m simply a Bush-basher.) The School of the Americas trained goons in terroristic suppression techniques for decades before anyone declared a War on Terrorism. The issue here is not elephants and donkeys but torture. The difference between the SOA era and the Gonzalez era is not the presence or absence of torture but a new acceptance of it among the general populace and a phony justification for it. Torture is torture, but there is a difference between a government that hides it from its own citizens and a government that trumpets it to its own citizens. Neither is good, but one extends the terrorism inward as well as out.
As I reflect on things, I realize that the torture debate and the abortion debate are not dissimilar: governments cannot stop either; the best a modern government can do in either case is to drive the phenomenon underground. And I realize that my own take on both phenomena can be read as ruthless on one hand and naive on another, but such is the modern legal predicament: the best one can hope for, at least on a government level, is that those who would make unhuman those who otherwise would be human could not do so without fear of reprisal, that as far as the people’s authority can see, such things would not happen. Ultimately, civil authorities can only do that much; infinite justice can only come from the consummation of divine redemption, not from any nation’s invading another nation. But between now and then, we human beings would do well, at minimum, to eliminate those legal arguments that would take away the humanity of those who otherwise would be one of us, whether they be unborn or subversive or even enemy combatant.