Thoughts On Torture Guest Editorial By

Thoughts on Torture

Guest Editorial

By William R. Polk

Displays of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated in American military prisons have shocked not only Arabs and Europeans but also most Americans. They need not have been surprised – torture is not new.

Widely practiced by the Germans during World War II, it was standard French procedure during the Algerian war. One of the most influential books on that war, written by Colonel Roger Trinquier, a French paratrooper, argued that torture is to “modern war” what the machinegun was to World War I. Horrified by what they learned was happening, French critics called torture the “cancer of democracy.” Using it, the French not only destroyed their claim to legitimacy in Algeria but also nearly destroyed French civil life.

If there was a lesson to be learned by the Algerian experience, it certainly was not heeded.

Influenced by the French – Trinquier’s book was translated and made available by the CIA — American soldiers and “special forces” used torture in Vietnam. Israeli troops and security forces have employed it for years against the Palestinians. Routinely, almost casually, it is employed in prison systems throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is more common in Europe than most would admit. From Greece, under the regime of the colonels, came a macabre episode: the men employed to torture prisoners, complaining of long hours at low pay, went on strike.

Studies of torture raise two questions that lie behind the horrifying images in the press in recent days: “does torture work?” and “why do governments do it?”

If the objective of torture is to get information, as is usually said, the answer to the first question is “sometimes.” The French in Algeria found that they could “break” a prisoner and find out where his colleagues were hiding or what kind of an operation was being planned. Often, of course, the person being tortured would just say what he thought his tormentors wanted to hear – anything to get them to stop. He knew that he was likely to be killed after he had been “debriefed.” But they had ways to check what he said and, keeping him alive, increased his pain if he lied.

Even if torture often failed to get the sought-after information, it was still an attractive option. Why? I think there are two answers: first, security officers think it might work and they have few other options. Much more important, I believe, is the second reason. Some circumstances almost demand brutality.

A century of careful medical and psychiatric studies tell us that the juxtaposition of absolute weakness and absolute power provokes violence. The bound and hooded Iraqi prisoners lying naked on the floor of Abu Ghraib prison invited attack.

So shocking is such a statement that few of us have wanted even to consider it. To deal with its implications requires us to reexamine our very concept of our humanity. So to get around that inhibition, some scientists, like the Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, posed “our” problem to animals. What he found was that those animals that have “weapons systems,” like the lion with its claws and fangs, have evolved to practice restraints. Had they not done so, their species might not have survived. So the winner in a fight among lions will make ferocious noises but will usually stop short of killing the lion he has just knocked down. In contrast, those creatures, like that symbol of peace, the dove, that do not have lethal weapons have not evolved to practice restraint. They did not need to. Lorenz observed a dove actually torturing another to death.

Our evolution, students of violence assert, has made us more like doves than lions. True we have massive weapons systems but they are external; our ancestors were not forced to incorporate them into our behavior. So, when we see in the pictures of the Iraqi prisoners cowering on the floor, bound, hooded and defenseless we notice that the upright, armed and dominant guards do not show compassion. Rather, they feel stimulated to attack.

Surely, we say, these are aberrations. Normal people do not do such things. Alas, there is much evidence to the contrary.

Cultural, religious, ethnic and age ethnic differences do not seem to influence the willingness of human beings to torture others. Torture has been reported almost everywhere among peoples of all religions and historical experiences. It does have a racial or cultural dimension, however: men are more likely to torture people of a different color or culture than their own kind. Setting them apart is often easy. In Vietnam, American soldiers derided “gooks” and in Iraq “ragheads;” Germans despised untermenschen; Israelis treat Palestinians as subhuman and so on. Regarding the victim as unimportant makes it easier to attack him. Remember the phrase, “Asians feel no pain.”

Can ways be found to prevent these horrors?

One that we have found is generally ineffective is education. The Germans of the 1930s were certainly among the most educated people in the world; yet they set up the concentration camps. The French of the 1950s were a model for the rest of the world in their dedication to reason and intellect; yet some of their most cultured people were implicated in their sordid policies. Even more surprising, some Frenchmen who had fought in the underground against the Nazis to preserve French freedom went on to do to the Algerians what the Nazis had been doing to them. They too built concentration camps. Clean-cut, decent American college graduates who felt strongly about civil liberties were prepared to do to Vietnamese what they abhorred in America. We have only to look at photographs of the crowd of White American participants at a lynching to see how thin is the veneer of civilization. So I think that the best we can say is that education is necessary but not sufficient.

Two actions offer some hope to those who wish to stop torture.

The first is to demand “transparency” in whatever prison systems are believed to be necessary everywhere. This means that we cannot close our eyes and ears to abuses as we naturally would prefer to do. Nor can we accept any justification for torture. Those who do it and those who authorize it must both know for certain that they will be held responsible for a crime against humanity. That is, to be clear, a crime against both the humanity of the victims and against us as those whose humanity they thus debase.

The second is much more important because more likely to work. It is that we must make as a major goal of national policy solution of situations that promote the use of torture. An obvious first step is to work toward a world which recognizes that the basic political right is that of self-determination. Unless or until this is at least approached, we can expect others to fight for it with every means at their disposal and that those who oppose them will similarly use the means at their disposal: guerrilla warfare/terrorism will be met with various forms of suppression including torture. Only when it is no longer “needed” will torture be put aside.

We can draw many historical proofs that it then will be put aside. Take just one example. After centuries of severe repression including torture of prisoners, England finally granted Irish independence. Torture then stopped because it was not longer useful.

A policy embodying the quest for self determination will not be easy to implement. Nor will the benefits appear quickly. There will be shortfalls and setbacks. But in evaluating such difficult actions as will be required, we must bear in mind that, however much some people will wish to try the shortcuts that torture will seem to offer to avoid attacks or break terrorist cells, doing so not only will impact upon the victims but also brutalize those who employ or sanction it. That was the real lesson of Algeria. It should also be a lesson of Iraq. That is what the pictures from Iraq show us – not just the anguished faces of the prisoners but the gloating smirks of the torturers. Lest those looks appear in our own mirrors, we simply and finally cannot “afford” torture.

© William R. Polk, May 6, 2004


William R. Polk is senior director of the W.P. Carey Foundation. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, he taught Middle Eastern politics and history and the Arabic language at Harvard University until President Kennedy appointed him a Member of the Policy Planning Council of the U.S. Department of State. He was in charge of planning American policy for most of the Islamic world until 1965 when he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Later he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his many books are The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs; and Polk’s Folly, An American Family History. His books The Birth of America and Iraq: Out of the past toward an Uncertain Future will be published in New York in the spring of 2005.