torture and terror

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.”  ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sleep deprivation, as Andrew notes, “can sound deceptively banal” compared to other torture techniques.  Of course, keeping someone awake for a night or two certainly can’t be considered torture (if they are able-bodied men or women that is).  In fact, I think this sounds a great deal like the first days of a new parent’s new life with a wakeful baby.  It’s not fun, but it’s not torture.

Then again, when you have your “feet shackled to the floor” and your “hands cuffed close” to your chin and are made to huddle this way for upwards of eleven days – so that when sleep does come you tilt to the side and are forced awake again by the chains – and when you are made to defecate in a diaper, unable to feed yourself, and so forth, you can see how the process might just possibly be considered torture rather than “harsh interrogation tactics.”

A salient point to remember in this circumstance is the length of time needed to make sleep deprivation effective in breaking a detainee.  The “ticking-bomb” scenario most often conjured to excuse torture is simply not going to cut it in this instance, as Matt Yglesias reminds us:

[Y]ou’re obviously not going to use extended sleep deprivation in a “ticking bomb” scenario to prevent an imminent attack. Doing enough sleep deprivation to break down someone’s personality is a days-long process.

Hilzoy writes:

The various kinds of psychological torture, of which sleep deprivation is one, are just as disturbing as physical torture; possibly more so, since their aim is to induce regression and learned helplessness, which is a way of inflicting serious psychological damage. Keeping someone awake for long periods of time, or using sensory deprivation, isn’t awful in the obvious ways that, say, beating someone to a pulp is. But even though it does not leave visible scars, it’s profoundly wrong.

Of course, all torture is psychological.  Torture is a perfect replica of terror in that its violence is simply a means to an end.  Torture often uses physical violence, but the ends – whether inflicted physically or through sleep deprivation – are always psychological in nature.  One might say that purely a-physical torture is simply a more sophisticated version of the same old routine, in an age when the human psyche has been better dissected than in the days of Iron Maidens and racks.

Torture is intended to utterly break down a human being, to strip away their humanity and self-determination, to make them utterly and completely powerless.  That is a psychological state, and thus the violence of the act is in a sense peripheral.  That is why physical and psychological torture need to be viewed as the same thing – neither better or worse than the other.

Terror operates similarly.  Terrorists attempt to kill as many people as possible but only because higher death tolls create more fear, more panic, and ultimately more reaction than smaller death tolls.  Again, the violence of the act is secondary to its psychological end.  Ironically, terror seems to have been far more effective than torture in achieving its goals.  Perhaps this is because in the end torture is ultimately only good for the same thing terror is – to inspire fear and loathing, not “useful intelligence.”  Maybe this is why a “reign of terror” so often describes totalitarian leaders who brutally torture their own populaces rather than the actions of terrorist organizations.

Torture is terror.

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