[T]he destruction of bodies in modern warfare moves toward a generalized practice of torture. We have not so much abandoned the practice of torture as shifted the locus of an act of violent sacrifice—the genus within which torture is a specific cultural form. The battlefield is strewn with the disemboweled and beheaded, with severed limbs and broken bodies. All have died a terrible death in a display of sovereign power. To view the battlefield is to witness the awesome power of the sovereign to occupy and destroy the finite body.1
The classic scene of torture is a confrontation between solitary wills, directly involving small groups at most, lead interrogator vs. captive, plus henchmen and observers, but in relation to opposed vastly larger identities. Our imaginary dramatization of torture offers a cathartic personalization of great events, history at an accessibly human scale. Two collective bids for the status of universal truth confront each other through individual representatives, amidst a search for determinative facts – facts that the captive is believed to be hiding, but also, recalling a very old tradition, the facts confirmed in the “trial by ordeal.” The characters of those two bids for truth are held to conflict along the same axis that defines the drama itself and its embedded ironies, of a Western or liberal democratic individualism tormented by an overriding collective necessity, and of an ideology of martyrdom twisted into an individual’s to be demonstrated self-preference. The two positions seem to turn and distort each other into their own opposites, even if neither worldview is ever simply present in its counterposed human reductions.
As individuals and individualists, we react viscerally, if vicariously, to the very essence of torture and to the principle of its effectiveness: which last need not be considered strictly in regard to its supposed sole justifying purpose, the acquisition of so-called actionable intelligence, but may, in the very uncertainty of its utility, even at the outset of the “enhanced interrogation” program, rely primarily on demonstration of the torturer’s own unequivocal faith, love of country, love of fellow citizens or members of a community, willingness to fight for and defend them by any means necessary and available, up to and including one’s own destruction. This intelligence about ourselves, on the dependency and relative insignificance of the individual, converted by war into one sheddable cell among others in an arisen national body, the Casablanca determination2, stands as the first and most important, most fervently sought secret proven by torture. The contrasting alternative faith that our most ardent torture critics, not coincidentally our most ardent critics of the targeted killing and “drone warfare” campaign, represent so well is a fundamentally libertarian, originally modern and liberal faith based among other things on metaphysical individualism, in the political dimension the “inalienable rights” of any person specifically against the collective authority of the state.3 Subjectively, it is the difference between the national cemetery and the grave of the soldier you knew. The torture victim occupies the latter position in the drama.
As for the counter-position, that of an American intelligence operative facing a defiant captive during the early part of the last decade, a period in which the United States was not merely closer in time to the 9/11 events, but escalating to globalized inter-state war, the decision on whether to set “normal limits” aside on interrogation practices might have in the abstract seemed easy, and quite to the opposite effect than for today’s observers looking back in judgment. The thought may help us to envision, as overall we have in fact excused, such operatives and those who directed them as also captives – captives of events, of the oaths they took, and also of personal limitations in knowledge, experience, or virtue. They were each other’s captives, and they were most of all our captives. They were not, of course, in predicaments identical or substantially comparable to those of their victims, but they and the nation they represented were in a symmetrical predicament – one that also happens to fall under a certain “objective and morally clear” definition of torture. They were more like the captive who is not physically harmed, but is threatened with harm to loved ones: “If you tell us what we need to know, you can save your family”; “If you put this man in a box, you may save lives,” or “If you do this awful thing, you may save your fellow citizens.” They were subjected to pain and threats of further pain, if specifically as mental anguish, while being asked or ordered to do things that they might otherwise never have done.4
Torture turns out to be a microcosm or specific individualization of war, as war itself also turns out to meet the supposedly objective and supposedly morally clear definition of torture under an only slight modification: War is the socialized “infliction of physical or mental pain for the purpose of breaking the will.” As or more objectively and clearly, terror is socialized torture, an infliction of physical and mental pain on the social-political body, just as torture in its employment and in its broader effect is a form of terrorism. One leads to and in a sense demands the other: “Torture and terror are reciprocal phenomena: terror is met with torture, and torture with terror”5 – until and unless the will on one side, or the ability to realize that will, is broken. Before such time, terrorism receives a socialized, terroristic reciprocation in the form of so-called counter-terrorism, which will re-combine and employ terror and torture by other means that are in another sense always the same means. The real cognitive difficulty with the label “War on Terror” was therefore not simply, as has often been said, that “terror” is a tactic, not an enemy, but that the phrase was and is a tortuous self-contradiction: “War on Terror” says “war on war,” “terror against terror,” and “torture against torture,” though, if it also suggested a masochistic commitment to escalating self-disfigurement, so can any religious devotion, or any affair of the heart, viewed from outside the circle of faith or love.
Prosecuting torture-terror against terror-torture demanded as a further act of imagination or faith, though not for most the first such act, a refusal to consider it as anything other than a justifiably defensive reaction, as to a bolt from the blue, a novum from nowhere. For political purposes, the terror against terror could be justified only as a closing of the fundamental breach that it also manifests, not as in any sense a further continuation or re-escalation within a pre-existing torture-terror cycle. Within the terms of current attempts to define torture ideally and as an inexplicable discontinuity, another such novum from nowhere or from the quarantinable personal evil of a President, Vice-President, and staff, the only detectable difference between war in general and torture in particular would appear to be a mere difference of magnitude. To oppose one is simply to oppose the other, utterly, and to condemn every single one of those bastards, not you and me. Yet the function relies on that same peculiar mechanism, as illogical as it is familiar – a not merely psychological but psychologically as well as politically “constitutional” mechanism – that also enables the lesser magnitude to exceed the greater in our sympathies, the waterboarded man over the battle-shambles of corpses, the single tragedy over the statistic, the soldier we knew and not a landscape of sacrifice. This disproportionate focus exactly proportionate to a single life provides each of us with a seemingly solid support, until the time that we are overwhelmed or overwhelmed again, as in the moment that we may, for example, watch a skyscraper full of our fellow citizens collapse into fire, smoke, dust, and debris, and, in terror, consider who and what anyone is, and is for. “Only in common is death tolerable.”6Notes:
- Kahn, Paul W. (2009-09-23). Sacred Violence, Kindle Locations 768-772). University of Michigan Press. Kindle Edition. As will be evident, Kahn’s work, in this book and others, provides the background for this post. [↩]
…as to the feelings of two people.
- Kahn’s observations on torture often apply equally well to the relentlessly unilluminating political discussion of the targeted killing program. We can substitute appropriate drone-related terms for torture in the following passage also from Sacred Violence, Locations 105-109:
To most liberals, torture appears as a display of pure power: the torturer says to the victim, “I can do this to you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” This asymmetry of power is anathema to liberal morality, which insists on the equal dignity of and respect for every individual. From the liberal perspective, law has no place for torture and politics must be circumscribed by law. Most academic work today is little more than repeated demonstrations that torture violates the fundamental principles of liberalism. In truth, liberalism has nothing interesting to say about torture.
- The story of a mob boss or a revolutionary or a superhero or a witty dwarf prince or, of course, a soldier at war might capture our sympathies for the sometime torturer, especially the retaliatory, avenging, or protective torturer, a common enough character in American popular literature and film to suggest that explaining and (re-)affirming him or her is among the latter’s main purposes. [↩]
Wherever terrorism has reappeared, torture has never been far behind. Recall Latin America and Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and before that the wars of decolonization. More recently, think of the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and the Middle East. Torture and terror are reciprocal phenomena: terror is met with torture, and torture with terror.
- “Nur gemeinsames Sterben ist erträglich,” PLN: Die Passionen der Halykonischen Seele, Werner Krauss, 2d Ed. (1983), p. 27. [↩]