A Torture Debate

Abu Ghraib places an ancient practice into a modern, global context


August 15, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Can a democracy ever condone torture? In the months since Abu Ghraib, the controversy over what constitutes torture and when, if ever, it can be used has been rife. The pictures from the prison expose a sinister reality: Torture remains a dark weapon human beings continue to wield against each other.

The first military hearings of those accused in the torture have begun. Early this month, Pfc. Lynndie England, the 21-year-old whose impish grin smiled out from many of those brutal pictures, proffered a defense reminiscent of other torturers: England says she was just following orders.

Throughout history, torture has been employed in times of war and, as with the Spanish Inquisition, in times of social upheaval. In modern times, prohibitions against torture have made it anathema. Since the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis and the subsequent trials, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 were initiated, to which all of Europe, Great Britain and the United States are signatories.

Article 3 of that treaty is unequivocal: All forms of torture of detainees is illegal (including injury and threats of injury, rape and sodomy, hooding and stripping prisoners and other acts recorded in photographs from Abu Ghraib). The United States is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treat-ment or Punishment, initiated in 1984. Article 2 states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." (Article 16 adds: Signatories should also prevent torture in other jurisdictions.)

If these treaties weren't enough bar to torture, U.S. federal law prohibits it.

Despite the prohibitions against torture, the debate continues, suggesting desperate times make for desperate measures. Civil libertarian and Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz asserts that view in Why Terrorism Works (Yale University Press, $16, 271 pages), echoing White House counsel Anthony Gonzalez's advice to President Bush. Dershowitz argues for controlled use of torture by the United States and other governments. Issuing "torture warrants" and practicing non-lethal torture such as sterilized needles under the fingernails, which inflicts extreme pain but does not kill its victim, could be implemented, says Dershowitz, and might provide essential information from al-Qaida operatives about impending attacks.

The photographs from Abu Ghraib shocked Americans and forced congressional hearings. In her May 22 New York Times Magazine cover story, "Regarding the Torture of Others," however, National Book Award winner Susan Sontag declared that depictions of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib or those illustrated in Regarding the Pain of Others (Picador, $11, 131 pages) actually defuse moral outrage. Repeatedly viewing horror from a distance inures us to the violence depicted, she asserted. The initial shock recedes, replaced with dispassionate discourse and inevitably an "us versus them" perspective, reducing the atrocious nature of the acts (one senator scoffed, "Nothing more than a fraternity hazing") to "humiliation" and "abuse," but not "torture." The victims are thus reinvented as persons somehow culpable in their own torture.

The war on terror makes the debate over torture seem new; it isn't. In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov, Ivan Karamazov asks his devout brother Alyosha, if all humanity could be granted peace through torturing to death one child, would he? The novel is rife with tales of social ills, including abuse of children. Ultimately, even to make society better, Alyosha cannot accept the premise nor the responsibility that accompanies the idea of torture.

Most would agree that only inhuman monsters torture children. The current debate is framed around torturing those who "deserve" it -- mass murderers like Osama bin Laden or would-be suicide bombers like Zacarias Moussaoui, whom Dershowitz claims could have been tortured, possibly preventing 9 / 11. But insights into the minds of torturers only extend the argument against torture. Hannah Arendt's widely quoted (and misquoted) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin, $13.95, 320 pages), Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman's superb Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet (Seven Stories Press, $11.95, 224 pages) and in Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio's compelling Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators (Walker & Co., $14, 224 pages) provide chilling personal glimpses into the lives of mass torturers who are, to a one, unapologetic.

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