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The History of Torture
August 11, 2011 5:16 PM   Subscribe

The History of Torture—Why We Can't Give It Up. "Some 150 years ago, the West all but abandoned torture. It has returned with a vengeance." [Via]
posted by homunculus (48 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."--Mahatma Gandhi
posted by Renoroc at 5:18 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not torture, if no one prosecutes it as such.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:22 PM on August 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


Offhand, I'd say one of the comments on TFA nails it:

"The use of "torture" exemplifies the inability of the torturer to control a given situation, hence the need for escalation. It's use is evidence of impotence."

We gave up on torture when we always won, without question.

We have returned to using torture now that we've gotten ourselves into situations that we can't win.
posted by pla at 5:27 PM on August 11, 2011 [43 favorites]


er.. well there was plenty of anecdotal accounts of torture during the Civil War (150 years ago): Andersonville Prison in the South and Elmira in the North.
posted by edgeways at 5:35 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Interrogation also played a pivotal role in the ongoing expansion of
an empire. During the Second Punic War, Roman troops gained critical
intelligence on planned Carthaginian military formations through the
interrogation of captured military couriers. This intelligence empowered
the Roman commander, Claudius Nero, to launch a preemptive strike
that sealed a decisive victory over the Carthaginian forces, thereby
enabling Rome to continue in its quest for dominance over the western
world."

-The Promise of Interrogation v. the Problem of Torture. (PDF)

posted by clavdivs at 5:46 PM on August 11, 2011


"The use of "torture" exemplifies the inability of the torturer to control a given situation, hence the need for escalation. It's use is evidence of impotence."

THIS
posted by JHarris at 5:50 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why did torture, after nearly vanishing as acceptable military practice in the 19th century (in a tiny slice of the world known as Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of the US), return with such a vengeance?
non-italics mine


Torture never went away, a group of nations finally decided, after centuries of constant warfare, to establish some rules. Other people disagreed.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:05 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the comments to the article:

An interesting (but rarely mentioned) aspect of the Chinese "brain washing" tequnijes applied in the Korean War is the use of American History. Many Americans were appalled when they learnt for the first time just how, e.g., U.S. philanthropists accumulated their wealth.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:08 PM on August 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


If we can stop violence and pain we will be doing ourselves and our planet a huge favour.
posted by Meatafoecure at 6:09 PM on August 11, 2011


Panjandrum: I'm not sure you read the article. You're partially right. I think it's more like "a group of nations finally decided, after centuries of constant warfare, to establish some rules. For each other. Everyone else was still stone-cold fucked."
posted by absalom at 6:29 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Many people confess under duress to things which are not true just so the hurting stops and Western militaries know this which makes it baffling as to why many leaders think it is a good technique.
posted by Renoroc at 6:31 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


My favorite argument against torture came from a CIA guy in a New Yorker article. He said something like, "It doesn't work. People lie indiscriminately when tortured. Also, it bleeds the torturer of their humanity."
posted by ldthomps at 6:34 PM on August 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


Many people confess under duress to things which are not true just so the hurting stops

Which is extremely helpful when you're embroiled in a conflict with an enemy that is largely fictional.
posted by mek at 6:35 PM on August 11, 2011 [29 favorites]


...and Western militaries know this which makes it baffling as to why many leaders think it is a good technique.

Shhh don't let the non Western military leaders know!
posted by Max Power at 6:37 PM on August 11, 2011


He said something like, "It doesn't work.

If there's one thing US Republicans are not, it's empiricists.

The Democrats just can't be bothered to push back on the issue.
posted by GuyZero at 6:38 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


fThe Zimbardo Stanford Prison Experiment proves that ordinary students will go the whole mile and cause psychological stress in ONE WEEK. And proves that it starts at the top by the prison governor condoning and not rebuking transgressions by the guards, as required by the rules of the game and the prisoners demanding playing by the rules and not receiving it!

Exactly. We are all (most of us) capable of these things, given the right circumstances. As long as ignorance prevails - either by a conscious lack of willingness to understand the "other", or via the collective willingness of entire cultures to permit themselves to be jacked up with fear by their "leaders", torture will continue. The worrying thing is that both of the aforementioned tendencies appear to be somewhat hard-wired into our species.
posted by Vibrissae at 6:47 PM on August 11, 2011


It's interesting to me that newer methods of torture involve music. It's come a long way since the Nazis forced the prisoners at dachau to listen to patriotic songs.

Music is a powerful weapon:
When the Marines were unable to advance farther into Fallujah, an Army psychological operations team attached to the Marine battalion played messages from a loudspeaker mounted on a Humvee along with selections from Jimi Hendrix. When the firing stopped, they played sound effects of babies crying, men screaming, a symphony of cats and barking dogs and piercing screeches.
and it is especially effective as a torture device.

According to this article, David Gray's song Babylon is allegedly one of the most popular torture songs at Guantánamo.
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:50 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the analysis of torture is misleading, in that it takes judicial torture, as established by Roman law, as almost the paradigm case. Torture as a method to uncover the "truth" - in the form of a confession. The contemporary debate over America choosing a policy of torturing prisoners has been framed in these terms, as well - think of the "ticking time bomb" scenario, so beloved of the rightist Sunday Op-Ed columnist.

Torture, the public and systematic degradation of the individual victim, has historically been used more for violent intimidation and suppression of dissidence or social deviance, not for finding out secrets.
posted by thelonius at 6:50 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


it bleeds the torturer of their humanity
Uhhh, so... Like, if that is-- for whatever reason-- what we desired to do, this would be a way to do it? Right?
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 6:53 PM on August 11, 2011


Torture, the public and systematic degradation of the individual victim, has historically been used more for violent intimidation and suppression of dissidence or social deviance, not for finding out secrets.

That's what I always thought, as it's been demonstrated to be a repeatedly poor way of gaining valuable information. And it makes more sense of this:
Air Force sociologist Albert D. Biderman interviewed 235 airmen who had been held by the Chinese, and he concluded the techniques mainly served to "extort false confessions." Why the military employed them at Guantánamo decades later—complete with classroom charts copied from Biderman's studies—remains something of a mystery.
Not so mysterious if you're using it to break someone down, as opposed to gathering intelligence.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:58 PM on August 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


In the case of US POWs in Vietnam, the goal of torture seems to have been mostly to get propaganda wins: make an American officer denounce himself as an stooge of imperialist war criminals, stuff like that.
posted by thelonius at 7:05 PM on August 11, 2011


torture - let's be up front about it ... as the technocrats say, it's functional.
posted by philip-random at 7:25 PM on August 11, 2011 [2 favorites]




We never "gave up" torture.

Read Daniel Mannix's work, "The History of Torture", published originally in 1963. It's rather unsettling.
posted by FormlessOne at 7:42 PM on August 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


What do you mean we? I was standing right here, not torturing anybody.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 8:30 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always link to this: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People
posted by lalochezia at 8:34 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Obama is weak and lazy. I hate to say it, as a rock-ribbed Eisenhower New England republican who pinched his nose tight to vote for the candidate who was less crazy.

I'll do it again, as all of the GOP candidates are likewise weak and lazy or dangerously insane.

So this is what it was like in the UK under Blair. Sucks. I'd riot, too.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:58 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


Some 150 years ago, the West all but abandoned torture....

This makes it sound like there was a special and conscious consensus to abandon torture. What the author is glossing over is that after the Napoleonic wars, there were no major large-scale conflicts in the West until the American Civil War. There was a long period in the 19th century where there were only small regional skirmishes.

Torture comes hand in hand with warfare. Without one, there wasn't the other. The lack of torture in the 19th century was just plain good geopolitical luck rather than a sign of enlightened virtue.
posted by storybored at 9:01 PM on August 11, 2011


It's difficult to encapsulate torture as a single kind of action, as it is performed for a single, or combination of, different reasons:

1. To extract information the subject may or may not know
2. To coerce a predetermined statement (I renounce my old faith/country/beliefs)
3. To instill terror into the enemy to prevent them from attacking or at the least, diminishing their will.
4. To instill terror into one's own people to prevent them from resisting the current rulers
5. To use as a threat against a subjects friends, so that the subject cooperates willingly to prevent the torture of others
6. To simply express power or vengeance by some masochistic fuck who just does it because they simply have the power to do so without serious consequences to themselves.

Each is a reprehensible act, but each one has a different way to address and prevent those actions. Just taking them on all at once, with the goal of eliminating the practice, is folly. With that argument, it's too easy for those who support isolated incidents of torture to say, 'Oh no, we're not like them, we do it only when we have too.'

Another big difference that complicates matters is whether or not it is state-mandated, by either public policy or isolated incidents that the state takes a blind eye to. It's complicated to equate a state that uses it as a common practice to keep the population in line vs. a state that grudgingly allows it to occur in only the most dire occasions. Both are wrong, but painting both with the same brush is not a productive way to prove a point. But allowance for torture, even for the most rare occasions, is a slippery slope, because if it only works 5% of the time, every time it does work, it becomes more of a first option rather than the last available one, and eventually will corrupt the entire system. To put it in melodramatic terms: 'Justify it all you want: one cannot sell a fraction of your soul to the devil.'

Also, the inclusion in the main article of outright killing of prisoners in an article about torture is an unnecessary distraction and a different topic entirely, and only seems to be there because it is a barbaric act to elicit an emotional response from the reader, but not torture per se. There are differences between those acts too that are glossed over. The reasons for Henry V killing prisoners at Agincourt to keep them from fighting in the next battle is different than Crassus crucifying 6000 ex-slave prisoners along the Appian Way after the defeat of Spartacus. Both are horrible acts, but done for different reasons, and should be judged in different ways.
posted by chambers at 9:02 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


What do you mean we? I was standing right here, not torturing anybody.

When your government acts, it acts in your name. Don't like its actions? Work to change it.
posted by jet_manifesto at 9:04 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The nature of war has come full circle since the early 17th century, from total war to gentlemanly clashes and, beginning around 1900, back again.

there seems to be a myth that war of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were gentlemanly. Bollocks.
posted by the noob at 9:07 PM on August 11, 2011


it bleeds the torturer of their humanity.

The dehumanisation involved in the use of torture is more insidious than simply a tortured person being categorised as or reduced to something less than human, or the torturer losing a part of their individual humanity.

On the side of the person who is tortured, the Stanford experiment (and a heap of more anecdotal data from military training programs, oppressive regimes, and wars around the world) shows that those who are tortured are more likely to become torturers. Not every torture victim becomes a torturer, but torturers have usually been tortured - either as part of their training or "incidentally" as part of previous conflict. The effect of that is to create a situation where the widespread use of torture can easily become self propagating and perpetuating. Torture victims eventually go home, join later conflicts, and do as was done to them.

On the side of the torturer, the dehumanisation extends beyond the individual in a range of ways. Firstly, if you're part of a society that condones the use of torture, and employs torturers, you've already lost something of yourself. As a matter of self perception, the fact that the torturer is one of you removes an essential little piece of your humanity. Secondly, unless you wish to kill your torturers, they will be returning to your society once their job is done. Once there, they won't all be able to leave it behind them. Some of them will bring it home to their wives, their children and their colleagues. From there it spreads as cancer. Finally, there's the question of your country's morality as perceived by others. The inhabitants of countries that employ torture and torturers suffer a certain stigma. The rest of the world comes to view them as people who threw their humanity away.

In short, torture ends up bleeding all of us of our humanity.
posted by Ahab at 9:12 PM on August 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


First off, torture has not "come back with a vengance." It has not been in widespread state-sanctioned use and from increased prosecutions in non-state-sanctioned circumstances (think Burge in Chicago), we are better off.

What has happened is that the US government sanctioned it and used it in high-visibility cases and did so for political motivations--in short all Bush wanted was to be able to say he spared no pity if an attack ouccured.

This is why it was so riduculous--it did nothing.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:19 PM on August 11, 2011


It has not been in widespread state-sanctioned use

Really?
posted by Ahab at 9:27 PM on August 11, 2011


Renoroc: "Many people confess under duress to things which are not true just so the hurting stops and Western militaries know this which makes it baffling as to why many leaders think it is a good technique."

Upon reading what you wrote there, Renoroc, I was moved to reply, instead read a bit further down in the thread and found that thelonius expressed perfectly the half-formed thoughts I'd thus far come up with in my head. As follows:

thelonius: " ... Torture, the public and systematic degradation of the individual victim, has historically been used more for violent intimidation and suppression of dissidence or social deviance, not for finding out secrets."

Which is to say, in my words, nowhere near as eloquent as thelonius: We don't give a rats ass about any of the information which might be gathered. That's not what this is about. Okay, so anything gets found out, hey, that's great. Cute. Fun. Swell. But that's not what this is about -- this is about scaring the living shit out of people, this is saying to anyone and everyone "Fuck you, we're gonna do what the fuck we want, get in our way and we'll fuck you over, too. Now shut the fuck up. Beat it."
***
This is like your good friend, who you haven't seen in a while, and she's gotten married, and in your visit to your hometown you go out on the country road to see her and meet Lester, her new husband, and Lester is a total piece of shit, it's appalling, it's everything you can't stand, it's a horror show, and you watch your friend look down, now, cowed, your friend who always stood so tall and proud with those big shining eyes, you see the bruise on her arm, not quite covered by her drab blue dress, and the sickening stench of putrefying guts and pus is in the soul of this home, and you've got to leave, you've just got to leave, it's sick, and Lester, Lester looks you dead in the eye as you're leaving and he's smirking, the son-of-a-bitch is smirking, and though you are not violent and are in fact against violence and against it totally the desire, the thought of putting bullets through his chest is pulsing strong in your heart ...\
**
I just can't stand what our country stands for now. It's sickening. I want to fly a flag upside down, I've wanted to since the axis of evil day, or whatever that roach Bush called it in his speech, that is the day the stench of rot began to rise in this country and it's not stopped rising since. You can vote however you want, you can protest, you can write, you can paint it out of your heart, you can give money to this cause or that and that stench has not stopped rising, I don't know if it will, aside from this thing falling, this whole government falling, failing, which would be totally just.

How dare we say anything about Germany in the 1940s, how dare we play that tiresome card again and again. Yeah, I know, I know, they killed millions more than we have but we haven't needed to kill more to get at their resources or we damn sure would have. And the lies are the same, if we didn't do them -- "Weapons of Mass Destruction!!" -- then they were going to do us -- "Terrorists at the gates!" -- plus let's not forget my personal favorite -- "Insurgents!!" (It's hard for me to imagine that people bought that crap but they did -- wtf? My mother still thinks Saddam flew a jet into a building in New York and was somehow spirited back to Iraq with Osama where they had a big gay sex party with no Christians while planning to bomb every US citizen with nucular weapons.) A case could easily be made that we're giving the countries we are currently fucking over less of a chance than the Germans gave Poland, maybe more like when they paraded into Denmark; this current war truly is like shooting fish in a barrel; here's some guy with an AK and forty-seven bullets walking down the street scratching himself and a drone looking at him from four hundred seventeen miles away, piloted by some fat fuck in Idaho or wherever shoving twinkies into his head, hooting as he presses his button, praying Dear Jeebus that he doesn't miss.

philip-random: "torture - let's be up front about it ... as the technocrats say, it's functional."

And this video -- really great, I'd never seen it, truly appreciate you turning me (us) on to it, philip-random.

***

chambers: "It's difficult to encapsulate torture as a single kind of action, as it is performed for a single, or combination of, different reasons:

1. To extract information the subject may or may not know
2. To coerce a predetermined statement (I renounce my old faith/country/beliefs)
3. To instill terror into the enemy to prevent them from attacking or at the least, diminishing their will.
4. To instill terror into one's own people to prevent them from resisting the current rulers
5. To use as a threat against a subjects friends, so that the subject cooperates willingly to prevent the torture of others
6. To simply express power or vengeance by some masochistic fuck who just does it because they simply have the power to do so without serious consequences to themselves.

Each is a reprehensible act, but each one has a different way to address and prevent those actions. Just taking them on all at once, with the goal of eliminating the practice, is folly. With that argument, it's too easy for those who support isolated incidents of torture to say, 'Oh no, we're not like them, we do it only when we have too.'
"

That's just great writing, real clear thinking. I read people here on mefi and want to hurl myself off the roof; in a fourth of the words I'd use you all bring out fifteen times the scope and upwards of forty-seven times the clarity of whatever the topic of the thread is.

Great post, and great thread.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:57 PM on August 11, 2011 [8 favorites]


"It has returned with a vengeance."

Bullshit. "It" did not return by itself, as if torture was a person with its own will. Let's name some people, such as Jay Bybee, who wrote the "Torture memos", Defense secretary Rumsfeld who approved torture, and George Bush, who declared that the Geneva convention did not apply to terrorists.

Rumsfeld added in the margin of a memo on forced standing and other prisoner abuse: "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?" Ha ha, Mr Rumsfeld.
posted by Termite at 11:07 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


that was ....obscene. Mr Rumsfeld comparing his long workday, at a stand-up desk, and striding down the corridors of the Pentagon to meetings or lunch, to the situation of a hooded, beaten, sleep-deprived, starved, and terrorized prisoner, forced to remain in a stress position for hours
posted by thelonius at 11:47 PM on August 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


This was a really good article, thanks homunculos.
posted by Hoopo at 1:14 AM on August 12, 2011


What has happened is that the US government sanctioned it and used it in high-visibility cases and did so for political motivations--in short all Bush wanted was to be able to say he spared no pity if an attack ouccured.

This is complete and utter bullshit. The CIA have been running secret prisons for years with no motivation of any political stripe whatsoever. If there's a case where we don't want to get our hands dirty and disappear human beings ourselves, we have then extradited people to countries where people are subsequently disappeared by local totalitarian regimes. Torture has been the modus operandi of the Bush and Obama regimes since practically day one.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:23 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The use of "torture" exemplifies the inability of the torturer to control a given situation, hence the need for escalation. It's use is evidence of impotence.

The first thing that comes to mind for me when I hear the word torture is the Inquisition. In that case, the church was hardly impotent. It had total power, and it still used torture.
posted by parrot_person at 4:22 AM on August 12, 2011


Torture is not limited to the military, or to the CIA; it's not just Bagram and Guantanamo.

Tasers. You will see them on your streets or in your daily newspaper: they are not just forcing compliance in extreme situations where a peace officer's life might be threatened, but also dispensing some thug's idea of justice to the trash class.
posted by fredludd at 5:04 AM on August 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


From fredludd's last link:

...an El Reno police officer told another cop to "Taser her!" and wrote in his police report that he did so because the old woman "took a more aggressive posture in her bed"

The woman in question was 86 years old. The Taser must be a wonderful technological breakthrough - it can be used even without a brain.
posted by Termite at 6:25 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


This still works for me as a means to get what I want out of someone.
posted by stormpooper at 7:27 AM on August 12, 2011


I understand the reasoning and that it would be deeply, deeply unpopular, but one of my biggest disappointments from the Obama administration has been the amnesty they granted to people who tortured in the name of the United States. At the very least, I would like to see strong legislation passed that makes sure that there's a broad, enforceable definition of torture that eliminates the type of bullshit willful misinterpretations of terms that happened under the Bush administration, and provides strong penalties for even getting close to e.g. waterboarding for anyone under US care, official combatant or not.
posted by klangklangston at 8:41 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with torture is that it's ineluctably a sex act.

Once people start doing it, it becomes an end in itself and is very hard to quit, and it tends to spread through the population like wildfire.

Torture also tends to absorb other sex acts into itself.
posted by jamjam at 9:21 AM on August 12, 2011


One of the things that is often forgotten about the geneva conventions, and by corollary the act of torture, is that human treatment of captured enemy soldiers saves the lives of our soldiers.

If the enemy suspect they may be tortured if captured, they will fight to the last man. Surrender is not really a pleasant option if you have any suspicion you will be tortured. On the other hand, if you know that the alternative to being shot is hanging out with your friends, three square meals and a pack of smokes a day, well, it's much more appealing to surrender.

Any nation that espouses torture is unnecessarily endangering it's military.

Those that support torture are literally giving the enemy a reason to fight to the death instead of surrender peacefully thus ensuring more needless death and violence.
posted by Freen at 10:06 AM on August 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


parrot_person: the inquisition happened as a response to the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation which were erosions of the Church's ironclad hold on ideology and thought.

The Inquisition was very much about fear, impotence and social control.
posted by Freen at 10:10 AM on August 12, 2011




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