Torture: its complexity, moral dilemmas and its introduction into our lives

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Roberta Bacic

I have been invited to write about torture for this issue on prisons and really, much or nothing could be said, the topic simply does not allow for neutrality or impartiality.

It has not been easy to find a way of approaching the subject in such a way that allows us to enter - even superficially - into the paradoxes, the emotions, dilemmas and the rationality provoked by this human manifestation: something which is painful, hard, and even tortuous to communicate. So why examine this topic in this issue of Peace News? The answer is simple: prisons and secret police cells are the physical spaces where torture has been - and continues to be - practised most frequently. While the physical self is deprived of freedom, it also seems possible to imprison the minds of those incarcerated.

Identity of victim and perpetrator

Often the issue is avoided or it is assumed that torture is a problem between perpetrators - who carry it out, and victims - who suffer it. But clearly it is not as simple and clear-cut as that. Both are neither one nor the other alone; they are human beings who share a society where torture happens and as such it is a problem that concerns all of us and society as a whole.

In recent years there has been a greater awareness that torture exists, and an understated understanding that it is something we find unacceptable - that imposing suffering deliberately on human beings is morally wrong. Nonetheless, in reality, torture is often used as a political tool and, as a result, dilemmas and tensions between ethical principles and political goals emerge. Unfortunately there is not really space to discuss this particular area: it would take a whole issue of Peace News! But let me try to introduce you to the topic from some different perspectives.

Practising with impunity

As Amnesty International has had a whole year of campaigning around the issue, I have asked them to write a short presentation of what they have been doing. You can see their text in the box opposite. It seems hard to understand why, after over 50 years since the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the statistics continue to reveal that an alarming number of countries use torture as a common practice in detention. Amnesty's annual report says that in the year 2000 it was proven to be used in 125 countries. How can we deal with this? What does it say to us? These are questions that need to be approached and worked at from different angles.

But that torture happens so overtly is not a surprise. If the perpetrators of atrocities remain unpunished and are allowed to live with impunity, if in countries where it is practised both the perpetrators and their masters can keep their positions and avoid justice without consequence, then this reality permeates other layers of society and becomes something normal or ignored and isn’t faced. When we hear from the President of the United States that after the horrible attacks in New York a military campaign will be called "Infinite Justice", then the meaning of justice is both devalued and its connection with the legal process is severed. If the economic consequences of what happened becomes "economic trauma", how do we name the effects of torture on people?

Common realities

There is not really enough space to get into great detail about the subject, but let me just mention a few things about torture that are rarely discussed and less well-known by the general public:
* Sharing common space

Torture happens between human beings confronted and exposed to a shared common space. In this context it is also to do with closeness and distance between concrete and individual people, even if this is denied or difficult to accept. Clearly it has not been chosen by the imprisoned person, but it becomes his/her living space, the space that must be shared with the person who has already taken control of his/her body and is now supposed to gain control of his/her mind, not for him/herself, but for the institution or person who has "commissioned" the job.

In the prison they share a common space and, because of that, victim and perpetrator are bound to make connections. A clear example of this can be seen through the following quote, taken from a novel about the experiences of people connected with of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission trials in South Africa.

"The truth was that Alex (victim) knew Dirk Hendriks (perpetrator) from the inside. Not only the physicality of the man, the smell of his aftershave... It was the way Dirk Hendricks' mind worked. That's what Alex knew. That's what had made the whole experience doubly unbearable, that he had sat opposite his torturer and he had known what he was thinking and known also what he was planning to say next."(Red Dust, Gilian Slovo, p236, 2000.)

* Torture becomes "just a job"

Both parties involved are social people who belong to social spaces, which in many cases they share. They have families, social and religious life and move around the streets in everyday situations. When a torturer leaves his/her working place he/she goes home and shares with the family, attends meetings and their kids go to school and play with others.

For the torturer it is a job. The same character in Slovo's Red Dust says: “I was a loyal policeman. We were taught that the enemy was all around, that we must fight communism and its terrorists with all our might. This is what I did. I did not benefit financially from my actions - apart of drawing my police salary, that is. I did it for the good of South Africa” (op cit p131).

Another interesting testimony that reveals part of this aspect is taken from a book related to the Second World War, when the executioner speaks to a person who comes to visit a concentration camp: - But executioners [this can also be applied to torturers] don't hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same... He's doing his work, he doesn't hate the people he executes, he is not taking revenge on them, and he is not killing them because they are in his way or threatening him or attacking him. They are a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.” (The Reader, Bernhard Schlink, p150.)
* Empowerment and disempowerment

The person performing the "job" - that means torturing - can use his/her power to control the person imprisoned and in such circumstances the prisoner is bound to be disempowered. It becomes almost impossible to make decisions freely, or to remain connected with what is going on outside this artificially created space. The notion of time is altered and there are almost no choices available in this situation. Disempowering the other - by exercising power - is one of the crucial elements in the practice of torture.

Confronting this reality

I can only think of creating awareness, of getting engaged in processes that might have an impact on society so that torture in detention does not happen. And also to be aware that we are responsible not only for what happens to ourselves and our close circle of friends, but also for what happens beyond that and also for the things that do not happen.

The struggle against the practice of torture is a struggle that concerns different groups, ideologies and beliefs and crosses borders and ethnical origins. It requires active participation of everyone within society.

Topics: Human rights, Prison