Torturing folk

We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks. – US President Barack Obama


When some folks torture other folks, they sure have their reasons.

Now that the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program (DIP) has been released – not the full 6700-page document, mind you, but its 528-page executive summary – there is what the committee’s chairman Dianne Feinstein calls ‘comprehensive and excruciating detail’ available for public scrutiny. We have details, among others, as to why the committee found that US torture practices were at once more ineffective and more brutal than the CIA described, that the claims made for the alleged benefits of these techniques were inaccurate and misleading, and that the CIA consistently attempted to evade what is now called ‘oversight’ from every relevant authority.

Despite its manifold and manifest failures, the program was sustained by an incredible amount of money and, for nearly a decade, functioned essentially as a semi-secret international torture ring.

On 2 August 2014, anticipating the report’s release by a number of months, President Obama reasserted that security agencies were under enormous pressure in the wake of September 11. Thus, he continued, ‘It’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard and under enormous pressure, and are real patriots.’ It’s impossible not to agree with the sentiments voiced in this communiqué: the September 11 attacks – both in themselves and in their consequences – are perhaps the most craven and revolting anti-political acts of our times, ‘a matter of an unbelievable mass crime,’ as Alain Badiou says.

Extreme situations can entail a loss of thoughtfulness and appropriateness in their responses, but when panic licenses further self-destructive acts things inevitably become even more disastrous. If we accept what is essentially the panic excuse – something Feinstein herself expressly repudiates in the report’s foreword – then the return of state-licensed torture by the US would have to count as such a disaster, particularly given that the American constitution was drafted by persons peculiarly attentive to the insidious ruses of political domination.

Andrew Sullivan was as clear as possible on this point in a 2005 New Republic article, in which he responded to the unprecedented media punditry concerning torture after the Abu Ghraib revelations. ‘The entire structure of Western freedom’, he writes, ‘grew in part out of the searing experience of state-sanctioned torture … Any polity that endorses torture has incorporated into its own DNA a totalitarian mutation.’

This current mutation has been accompanied by a kind of kettle-logic of public justification, in which incommensurable and contradictory statements are somehow proposed as if incontrovertible: We never torture; they torture. We admit we tortured, but don’t torture anymore. We admit we torture, but don’t admit we admit it. So torture emerges as an agenda for even the oldest democracies, if no longer in the mode of denial but in the mode of disavowal.

If Sullivan’s diagnosis is correct, then Dick Cheney – one of the presiding guardians and most strenuous defenders of the DIP – is the very model of a modern totalitarian mutant. Anti-constitutional to his core, Cheney was even nicknamed ‘Vice President of Torture’ by Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director. In an NBC interview on 14 December 2014, Cheney was sure to remind viewers of September 11 before claiming that the CIA never tortured, that the program saved American lives and that he would do it all again in an instant. ‘Torture, to me, Chuck,’ he said to the presenter, ‘is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on September 11.’

Cheney remains the poster child for those who create atrocious open secrets for all to view, at the same moment that they bury and deny their actuality. As Cheney sees it, there need be no pardon for the operatives involved in torture because no crime was ever committed.

Soon after proclaiming to Fox News that the Senate Committee report ‘is full of crap’, Cheney happily admitted that he hadn’t read it (he’d read ‘extracts’ and ‘reports’). Why not? Presumably because it’s full of crap. The snake eats its tail in an infinite circle of self-confirmation. Still, as it happens, the report is literally full of crap. Not in the way that Cheney means, however, but in its provision of evidence regarding the abjection to which the victims were subjected. The report states, having to correct the CIA spin doctors at every turn: ‘Waste buckets were not always available.’ In this sense, Cheney tells the truth despite himself.

Comparable apologetics were attempted by other associates of the torture apparatus, including Karl Rove, Jose Rodriguez and Michael Hayden, although crucial figures such as George Tenet, another ex-director of the CIA, were notable in their absence. In any case, casuistry gushed from their collective lips. In addition to condemning the report for not relying on live witnesses – is it better when operatives further lie and contradict themselves in person, especially given the ample existing documentation? – the defenders of the DIP variously claimed that it wasn’t torture because it didn’t meet the definition of torture; that there is no real definition of torture upon which everybody agrees; that the program stopped short of torture anyway; that their accusers are shyster politicians, scared of the real work of governance; and that the program saved lives and protected Americans.

When notorious political partisans, interested representatives and continuing employees of a secret state organisation appear on mass media defending torture with a nominalist version of cultural relativism, you have to admit that the situation is close to as bad as it can possibly be. Such positions are – to pick up again on the folksy idioms of refuse and refusal in which these people have been carefully coached to speak – total bullshit. There is, of course, no reason why the reasons torturers give for torturing are likely to be true or correct. On the contrary, in the ambit of torture – one of the most abhorrent phenomena imaginable – torturers are liable to lie not only to others but also to themselves about what it is they do and why.

But to return to the DIP defenders’ claims. First of all, just because a definition of torture is supposedly loose or lacking doesn’t mean that rigorous distinctions or judgements can’t still be made. If you’ll pardon an example drawn from foundational mathematics, the axioms of set theory don’t define what a set is, but there is no form of demonstration more rigorous. Or, if you prefer an example from the legal sphere, there is always the famous remark of Justice Potter Stewart regarding pornography: ‘I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.’

As for the attempt to justify discussions of torture as somehow democratic, Slavoj Žižek points out that publicly mooting torture at all – as if it were a topic for discussion like any other – is already a catastrophe. After all, torture is not simply concerned with the violent imposition of strange and unusual torments upon a victim, but also with the reflexive extraction of discourse from a reticent body. Torture operates at the pragmatic boundaries that establish who can say what and when and in what way to whom. It is the prohibition of torture that is essential for politically free speech – including what is popularly expressed as the ‘right to remain silent’ – and so the return of torture means that free speech is already over. As Jeff Sparrow put it in the Baffler, torture is ‘not a topic for chatter but an obscenity to be destroyed’.

That disastrous events regularly function as a political alibi for the exacerbation of catastrophe is commonly recognised, but there is surely more to the return of torture than reactionary opportunism. Indeed, excessive illegal retribution often answers a profound psychological need. In Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud tells ‘a comic story’ of a Hungarian village in which the blacksmith had committed a capital offence. He was the only blacksmith and the villagers couldn’t do without his skills. Since somebody must pay for a crime, the villagers, upon realising they had two tailors, hung one of them instead. If you can’t get the actual perpetrator, substitutes must be found – as long as those innocent bystanders are themselves replaceable. The work of the law is seen to be done, even if the condemned is innocent of the crime for which he or she is punished. Perhaps such a demand for justice in the guise of appalling spectacular retribution was one of the (unconscious?) motivations for the flesh pyramids of Abu Ghraib. The known irrelevance of the victims paradoxically rendered them all the better as victims.

Yet the enthusiasm with which the perpetrators galloped towards illegal and appalling acts is too calculated to be reduced to atavistic demands for vengeance. There is surely more to this psychological and political reprise of torture than the unconscious need for somebody – anybody – to be the scapegoat.

As Freud himself analysed, there is no limit to the abyss of human cruelty. In Civilisation and Its Discontents, he writes:

[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.

This is part of what psychoanalysis terms the ‘death drive’, an obscure cavalcade to catastrophe. ‘Man’ isn’t ‘the rational animal’, as traditional philosophy always tried to claim, but a torturing animal that can only lie to itself about its ghastly propensities. Once the torture genie is out of the bottle, it’s almost impossible to put it back.

The great feminist writer Kate Millet remarks in The Politics of Cruelty that ‘once established, the practice of torture seems to become applicable to any group or situation. A convenience, a way of dealing with certain elements, certain social problems, a brutality that establishes itself as expedient.’ Millet grimly documents how this ‘convenience’ rarely prohibits itself from transgressing every political, legal or moral principle in the service of its own murderous metastatic growth, even licensing the abduction and torture of children. Nobody is safe when torture is installed – which is undoubtedly part of its appeal for the monsters who promulgate it.

Not only that: nobody is safe from being coerced into becoming a torturer. As Millet also notes, one of the horrors of the institutionalisation of torture is that it concertedly infiltrates all other institutions of a polity as an integral part of its operations. The US torture report speaks of ‘Company Y,’ the obscene concoction of two psychologists – their real names are James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen – who were paid more than US$81 million (not including additional payments, indemnification insurance and legal expenses) to run the ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, with its stress positions, waterboarding and rectal-feeding. Doctors, priests, psychologists and teachers are often expressly targeted by the agencies of torture, and prove particularly susceptible to its corruptions. Children, too, not only make excellent soldiers, but also excellent torturers.

Part of the point, then, is that it’s never just ‘some folks’ or ‘a few bad apples’, as Donald Rumsfeld tried to claim in 2004 in response to the Abu Ghraib ‘prisoner-abuse allegations’. Torture is not only an institutional force, but a trans-institutional power, one that creeps through and across institutions. Moreover, analysts have always known this. It is deeply significant that the alleged ‘arguments’ for and against torture have remained relatively invariant for literally thousands of years. If the techniques of torture vary with the technologies of their time – although what is now called ‘waterboarding’ has its own antique precedents – the discussions surrounding torture tend to remain the same. Aristotle’s position in Rhetoric is remarkably contemporary:

Torture is a kind of evidence, which appears trustworthy, because a sort of compulsion is attached to it. Nor is it difficult to see what may be said concerning it, and by what arguments, if it is in our favour, we can exaggerate its importance by asserting that it is the only true kind of evidence; but if it is against us and in favour of our opponent, we can destroy its value by telling the truth about all kinds of torture generally; for those under compulsion are as likely to give false evidence as true, some being ready to endure everything rather than tell the truth, while others are equally ready to make false charges against others, in the hope of being sooner released from torture. It is also necessary to be able to quote actual examples of the kind with which the judges are acquainted. It may also be said that evidence given under torture is not true; for many thick-witted and thick-skinned persons, and those who are stout-hearted heroically hold out under sufferings, while the cowardly and cautious, before they see the sufferings before them, are bold enough; wherefore evidence from torture may be considered utterly untrustworthy.

To summarise: torture perverts any presumption of innocence, creates constitutively unreliable evidence, ignores the variability of bodies and circumstances, collapses the difference between legal process and punishment, and so on.

The excuses so often bandied about today for torture’s viability – such as the vital acquisition of information under time pressures, à la the ‘ticking bomb’ instance – are not only patently false, but part of the horror of torture itself. Torture is not so much about information-gathering or even confession-extorting as it is about the dissemination of terror. David Bromwich, writing in the London Review of Books, comments that ‘Some of the methods employed were atrocious in ways that are scarcely imaginable.’ I myself feel sick and terrified just reading the most attenuated descriptions of the DIP – and I presume that generating such reactions is precisely one of its aims.

One might wonder then whether there is anything really new in the contemporary practices and justifications of torture. I believe that there is, and I believe that this is the consequence of several interlocking factors. First of all, contemporary communication technology constitutes an externalisation and expropriation of the of humanity’s symbolising powers – that is, the more we transmit, the closer we are surveilled. If Hannah Arendt could write in On Violence that ‘even the totalitarian ruler, whose chief instrument of rule is torture, needs a power base – the secret police and its net of informers’, then one would have to say that we now all happily and openly carry a net of informers in our own pockets in the form of mobile phones and other communication devices. One can immediately see how the contemporary struggles over electronic surveillance and privacy regulation are caught up in the state’s drive towards extraordinary forms of information-collection. A particular image of torture de facto becomes the paradigm of techniques dedicated to efficiently extracting information from resistant matter under the time-pressures created by the threat of catastrophe.

Second, and enhanced by precisely the same technologies, our lives are now dominated by the multinational corporate form in historically unprecedented ways. The corporatisation of everyday life has seriously affected, even irreparably compromised, the inherited structures of all existing institutions, from the intimately personal to the geopolitical. The logic of such corporations is to maximise profitability at any price, by squeezing labour and externalising costs, by hyper-differentiating and quantifying every aspect of the labour process. These techniques – which, as substantial research shows, were themselves given their decisive developmental impulse under conditions of US rentier plantation slavery – are geared to concentrating power in an absent executive, to streamlining and unilateralising hierarchies of command, to neutralising negotiation and to negating responsibility at every point. Yes, there have been multinational corporations of such a kind since the very inception of capitalism, but never before have they been so numerous, so disproportionately large and so influential in the absence of any serious countervailing forces.

A corporate form is not a political one. Corporations must be rapid, flexible and monomaniacal, must expand and accelerate competition all the way down the line. Corporate organising is not only fundamentally anti-democratic, but anti-political as well. And as we know, corporations can very quickly turn into vast pyramidal death cults in which banal evil becomes an entirely unremarkable modus operandi. Here, again, Arendt’s analysis – this time in Eichmann in Jerusalem – unfortunately proves its salience: the faceless nobodies of the contemporary corporation, competing with each other to get the job done in the ruthless struggle for self-advancement, start to lose all bearings in the hallucinatory bureaucratic game. As Diana Taylor has written, the entire Bush administration dedicated itself to giving renditions (in the sense of performance) for rendition (in the sense of outsourced extra-national torture).

Writing for CounterPunch, Jeff Sparrow notes the seemingly banal nature of the program’s day-to-day operations:

[I]n reality, torture seems to have been as bureaucratic as any other government program, with the interrogators more obsessed about memos and ass covering and obscure turf wars than stopping the progress of ticking time bombs. Like all the other Beltway drones, the CIA’s team kissed up and kicked down, sucking up to their superiors while they tortured men to death.

But let’s add that these administrative documents were also already spin documents, in which the concern for truth had become almost entirely a PR matter, from the renomination of torture itself, to the claims being made for its viability, all the way up to the insane proliferation of internal documentation. The Senate Committee apparently ploughed through about six million pages in the course of its work.

It is this exceptional dominance of the PR-admin fusion that helps to give the current situation part of its novelty. When PR is primary, then reality is merely a matter of managing presentations, as Karl Rove himself allegedly announced in 2004 while dismissing ‘reality-based communities’. But such a position inexorably leads to a kind of abyss in which gibberish is the characteristic form of address, and obscene violence done to bodies becomes the fundamental practice of ‘reality-creating actors’. If reality is merely plastic, a malleable epiphenomenon of force and perception-management, then anyone concerned with reality-testing is simply an impotent dupe. What seems determining in contemporary torture is that it’s not about the violent extraction of relevant information from bodies, but about effecting the absolute separation of bodies from any possible information that might matter.

The real novelty of such practices nevertheless remains bound to the giddy horrors of the most archaic punishments. As Simone Weil proposed in a famous 1940 essay about Homer’s Iliad, pure force has ‘the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive’. Or, as the seventeenth-century English radical and poet John Milton had his devils confess in Paradise Lost:

[….] What can be worse
Than to dwell here, driven out from bliss, condemn’d
In this abhorred deep to utter woe;
Where pain of unextinguishable fire
Must exercise us without hope of end,
The vassals of his anger, when the scourge
Inexorably, and the torturing hour,
Calls us to penance?

If only, at this late date, we might still hope that the torturing hour will call us to penance.

That the Senate Committee’s investigation was undertaken at all, with the extraordinary care and political commitment that it evinces (including the 6,700 pages and 38,000 footnotes we are informed it comprises), and that this executive summary has been declassified despite concerted attempts to bury and dismiss it, is a sign of hope. The pragmatic utopians who framed the US constitution thought of torture as a despotic abomination; the members of the Senate Committee that produced this report are surely among their true descendants. The absolute prohibition of torture is not just an ethical or humanitarian necessity, but also a profoundly political one.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens teaches at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Limericks, Philosophical and Literary (Surpllus 2019).

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