Hopelessness and Torture

“It’s a mistake to say this was about inflicting pain. These measures were about instilling a sense of hopelessness, and that led them to compliance.”Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (2002-5)

His statement, for the way he said it, is all the more striking.  It was not about inflicting pain in his account—but before it was about gaining information, the waterboard was about “instilling a sense of hopelessness.”  Not compliance, even, but the hopelessness that leads to it.  We should not be so relieved that hopelessness, and not pain itself, was the goal.

Torture is not, at its essence, about the infliction of physical suffering, except as a means.  The French writer Jean Amery was captured and (as he would have put it) “mildly”* tortured while fighting alongside French partisans.  The purpose of the torture to which he was subjected—he had no answers and within minutes was making them up—was only ostensibly to obtain information.  Its immediate result and truest purpose was the same thing Rodriguez has now offered as a defense: instilling hopelessness.

Amery reluctantly calls this hopelessness a destruction of “trust in the world” (a term with which he is not satisfied and reluctantly uses); that is, a destruction of any and all certainties, be they historical, scientific, or, primarily, ethical/humanistic.  “It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules”: utter hopelessness, for the tortured man has had been subject to another’s attempt “[to] extinguish what was [the victim’s] spirit” and “to negate his fellow man.”

We might also term this negation (at which, for what it is worth, Emil Fackenheim, among others has nodded in agreement), an assertion of the non-value of what might be called, to draw from Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, the value of the tortured’s subjective experience of the world.  That is, the man subject to torture loses his value as an individual, that nebulous quality imparted by the very sentience that raises us a little higher than animals.  But because the subject himself drops away, his experience is meaningless.  He has no value; he is outside the realm of humanity.  And from this stems the hopelessness of torture.**

To defend torture through claims that we were merely “instilling a sense of hopelessness” is to defend torture on the basis of its essence, to brag about the fact that the victims were broken in a way that only torture can break a human being.  Like all defenses of the indefensible, it is not enough.

*Amery writes:

“What was inflicted on me […] was by far not the worst form of torture.  No red-hot needles were shoved under my fingernails, nor were any lit cigars extinguished on my bare chest […] it was relatively harmless and it left no conspicuous scars on my body.  And yet, twenty-two years after it occurred, on the basis of an experience that in no way probed the entire range of possibilities, I dare to assert that torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

After a moderate beating, he was hung a meter off the floor by his arms, until his shoulders popped out of his sockets and was then interrogated until he passed out.  His account implies this was a singular event in his captivity, but one that encapsulates the entire experience.  All quotations in this essay are from Amery’s essay “Torture,” in At the Mind’s Limits.  The original French subtitle, not irrelevant here, is Attempts at Overcoming by One who is Overcome.

**Some readers, at this point, have the custom to enter into a discussion of Primo Levi’s musselmanner and the utter singularity of their hopelessness.  That is not the custom of this post; if this is your custom, take a minute to do so.  The post will wait.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

11 thoughts on “Hopelessness and Torture

  1. I did enjoy this thoughtful piece, Mr. Wall. It will come as no surprise that I demur:

    To defend torture through claims that we were merely “instilling a sense of hopelessness” is to defend torture on the basis of its essence…

    The essential basis of “torture”—and I do not stipulate “torture” as neccesarily or essentially synonymous with “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is a separate issue—in this context is “by any means necessary to save lives.”

    A means—in this context—does not have an “essence,” because it’s not an end in itself [as it was in Room 101, for instance]. I do not “break you” for its own sake. I do not “break you” for my own sake.

    Without getting into a checklist of what actions are and aren’t morally justified [and there certainly is a point where ends do not justify the means], I will break your arm to save a life. No moral dilemma atall. Anything else to me is an inverted morality.

    If you would not do the same for me, I would not want you as a friend or a father, a countryman or president. I respect your right to live on your own moral planet, but even if you asked me to not break someone’s arm to save your life, I would do it anyway.

    So there. ;-P

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Would you break his will, rather than his arm? Would you break his sanity? What harm wouldn’t you do to J. L. Wall to save the life of an innocent person? What harm wouldn’t you do to me?

      If you would break my arm, against my will, to save a life, I don’t know your limits. The only thing I can know about a person who can take ownership of another’s body for any means is that I would not want him anywhere near me or my family.

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • Without getting into a checklist of what actions are and aren’t morally justified [and there certainly is a point where ends do not justify the means], I will break your arm to save a life. No moral dilemma atall. Anything else to me is an inverted morality.

      Who are you? And what did you do with tom van dyke?

      When it comes time to start torturing others, you get all consequentialist on us and start tossing people in front of trolleys. Yet, when considering the possibility that some of your money might help alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate, you’re quite the deontologist shouting “Gimme liberty or gimme death!”

      I’m afraid a closer look at that checklist of yours is in order…

        Quote  Link

      Report

    • ‘You are prepared to give your lives?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘You are prepared to commit murder?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘To betray your country to foreign powers?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases — to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face — are you prepared to do that?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘You are prepared to lose your identity and live out the rest of your life as a waiter or a dock-worker?’

      ‘Yes.’

      ‘You are prepared to commit suicide, if and when we order you to do so?’

      ‘Yes.’

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. Some scattered claims I’d be willing to defend, to varying degrees.

    • If I were tortured, I suspect I would break very easily for some subjects, and not very easily for others.
    • Admittedly I am not sure what “breaking” entails, but I would almost certainly try to concoct a plausible lie that would (a) get the pain to stop and (b) lead my interrogators on a very, very long dead end. Ten years would do nicely.
    • The questions of inflicting pain and of breaking the will are separable. Although no really effective truth serum exists, I am unsure whether, if it did exist, it would be ethical to administer it. I suspect I would ultimately decide in favor of it, because such a drug would obviate nearly all of my objections to torture.
    • A really pure Kantian probably wouldn’t agree with me on this.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  3. Mr. Van Dyke;

    The essential basis of “torture”…in this context is “by any means necessary to save lives.”

    And how do you know that’s actually its essence, rather than its justification? Because if the essence of torture is to create hopeless, to terrorize, to dehumanize, would the torturer say that openly, or would he concoct a noble lie?

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *