by Claire Chambers
Towards the end of J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, his protagonist the Magistrate speculates about how much pain he, an ageing, out-of-shape man, will be able to withstand. In this elliptical novel, which owes a debt to Kafka's 'The Penal Colony', the Magistrate is about to be tortured at the hands of the Empire. Despite years of loyal service, his antagonist Colonel Joll believes that the Magistrate has betrayed the Empire because of his romantic entanglement with a girl from the enemy 'barbarian' community.
The passage encapsulates many of torture's most important features. While the Magistrate's anxieties revolve around what degree of pain he can tolerate, that is not the purpose of torture. Instead, the Magistrate's tormentors reduce him to a body or a thing that is incapable of thought or political ideals. Coetzee conveys this in part through the use of the third person singular gender neutral pronoun 'it':
its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.
The diction here also exposes the elaborate, quasi-medical, inventive methods that torturers use on their victims. Finally, Coetzee emphasizes that the central event of torture, the interrogation of the prisoner, is in fact a cover story: a huge lie. The Magistrate has prepared 'high-sounding words' with which to answer the interrogator's questions about his dealings with the barbarians. But there is no conversation, no questions, and no single interrogator; instead 'they came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal'. What 'they' demonstrate to the Magistrate is that when his body is in severe pain, he is incapable of thought, language, or ethics. As Coetzee puts it, he learns 'what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well'.
Five years after the publication of Coetzee's novel, in 1985, the literary critic Elaine Scarry published The Body in Pain. At the risk of stating the obvious, in this seminal book she explores what happens to people when their bodies are in pain. And in the most important chapter for our purposes, 'The Structure of Torture', Scarry examines what the consequences are of inflicting pain on others – both for the inflictor and the afflicted. She argues that torture pivots on a display of agency, which often involves the victim being confronted with or 'being made to stare at' an outlandish and often outsized weapon.
Scarry asserts that torture is not only physical, but also verbal. The spoken component is the interrogation, which is almost always an integral part of the torture process. Interrogations provide a justification for torture, via the idea that it is the necessity of information-gathering that propels the violence. However, torturers' questions are usually irrelevant or even meaningless. All that is important about the words is their tone and the unequal power relations that they dramatize. As the prisoner is broken down, she becomes increasingly quiet and preoccupied with her body, and the torturer exponentially verbose and concerned with words and explanations. Eventually, if she says anything at all, the prisoner comes to speak the torturer's language, since her own has ceased to exist.
Whether questioning the prisoner, or hurling asseverations, abuse, and orders at her, the interrogator does not make important discoveries. Instead, he produces the interrogation as a performance that is at centre-stage of what Scarry terms 'the structure of torture'. She goes on to write, in terms that chime plangently with Waiting for Barbarians:
For the prisoner, the sheer, simple, overwhelming fact of his agony will make neutral and invisible the significance of any question as well as the significance of the world to which the question refers. Intense pain is world-destroying. In compelling confession, the torturers compel the prisoner to record and objectify the fact that intense pain is world-destroying.
Confronting severe anguish, the prisoner finds that questions and answers fade into the background and seem trivial and inconsequential. Towards the end of this excerpt, Scarry twice uses the term 'world-destroying' to describe pain's effects. This resonates with her larger thesis, which is that pain is destructive and unmakes the world, whereas the creation of life is constructive and makes the world – her book is accordingly divided into two parts, 'Unmaking' and 'Making'.
In torture the pain inflicted is so intense that a confession is almost inevitable. Despite this, both torturers and people who are opposed to torture share a veiled contempt for confession. Confession tends to be interpreted as a betrayal of one's people, politics, and principles. Yet it is impossible either to betray or be true to something that no longer exists for you. During torture, the world shrinks to the size of the torture chamber and even language ceases to exist, despite the torturer's incessant chatter. Nothing else is real other than room, torturer, prisoner, and weapon. As Scarry puts it, 'The body is its pains, a shrill sentience that hurts and is hugely alarmed by its hurt; and the body is its scars, thick and forgetful, unmindful of its hurt, unmindful of anything, mute and insensate'. Confession is also often unreliable. The apparent revelation that Saddam Hussein trained al-Qaida in the use of weapons of mass destruction, famously used as justification for the second invasion of Iraq in 2003, was elicited by torture and later retracted.
Scarry draws a distinction between the pain of the prisoner and that of the dental patient undergoing tooth-drilling, the religious penitent who self-flagellates, or the old person experiencing aches and discomfort as daily realities. The dentist's drilling is a shortlived, if admittedly unpleasant experience. One knows how long to expect that pain to last and takes painkillers to militate against its shrill agonies. With torture, one has no idea how long its duration will be, whether any relief will be provided for the injuries afterwards, or when it will start up again. The person who mortifies her body out of religious conviction regulates her pain and can stop it at any time, whereas the torture victim has no such control. Both these types of pain – dentistry and self-inflicted spiritual pain – also have a rationale and future-orientation behind them, and are chosen on that basis. Even the old person, whose suffering may seem more random and is not elected, takes comfort in looking back on a long life and the knowledge that that same life has led naturally to the body's decay and death.
Scarry links torture to a juxtaposition of Self and Other which I have discussed elsewhere. To be able to torture someone else, one has to disregard that person's humanity, which is located in their cognizance. If one recognizes a spark of consciousness in the Other, it becomes more difficult to inflict pain on them, since one can then imagine how they feel and what they think about treated in this cruel way. Scarry recalls the German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt's evaluation of how the Nazis were able to starve and murder the denizens of their concentration camps. They did this by inverting the direction in which the pain was believed to flow. Rather than focusing on the suffering they made others undergo, they instead told themselves, 'What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!'.
The connection that Scarry makes between torture and the denial of the Other's humanity is extended in Tzvetan Todorov's The Fear of Barbarians. Todorov calls torture 'a gangrene on democracy' and a 'mark of barbarity'. He agrees with Scarry's point that non-admission of the Other's humanity leads to torture, but argues that paradoxically it is a simultaneous recognition of the Other's sentience that shapes the nature of torture. '[T]he others are like us', he writes; 'they have the same vulnerable points as us, they aspire to the same good things'. If we are able to put ourselves into the enemy's shoes, we will be all the more adept at pressing their weak spots. Todorov also highlights the sense of unlimited power that committing acts of torture gives the torturer. Unlike murder, which is finite, torture goes on and on, making its designer 'feel close to the gods'. Torture is therefore, according to Todorov, worse than murder.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states that 'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment'. This is not to say that torture ceased to happen after the Universal Declaration was made in 1948, but governments used to at least try to hide it if they tortured. But during the War on Terror and its toxic half-life, what Todorov calls 'the adoption of torture as a legitimate practice' was implemented by the United States and its allies.
Todorov's The Fear of Barbarians was completed in 2007, but in its English edition, published in 2010, the French-Bulgarian literary critic reflected on the release of previously secret torture memos by Barack Obama's administration in 2009. These memos revealed the way the US sought to change the definition of torture after 9/11, so that 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' such as being played loud music, waterboarding, humiliation, sleep deprivation, and so on could be seen as 'increased pressure' rather than torture. Since The Fear of Barbarians' publication, more information has come out about the White House and US intelligence agencies' covert practice of torture. As recently as December 2014, the United States Senate published a shattering report on the CIA's torture programme. This exposed that prisoners were forced to stand on broken limbs, a man died of hypothermia after sitting all night on a cold floor naked from the waist down, and rectal interference had caused permanent physical damage to prisoners. The prisons of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba are bywords for terror, neglect, abjection, and violence.
The commonest justification of torture is known as the ticking bomb scenario. The idea, dramatized in the television show 24, is that a terrorist has planted a bomb which will explode in an hour's time, but its whereabouts are unknown. The utilitarian argument is advanced that the torture of a single terrorist is necessary in order to save the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocents. Todorov critiques the extreme implausibility of this set-up. In any case, as Scarry shows, confession is unreliable because a person will say anything when the body is in pain. The notion that torture helps win wars is also faulty. It might bring a few short-term gains, but in the long run, the torturers' reputation is tarnished, vast numbers of opponents are created, and people are radicalized because of the injustice. Another reason for torture is simple revenge, but as Todorov observes,
Terrorizing the terrorists also means that we are prepared to become their mirror image – to become even more hardened terrorists than they are.
The metaphor of the mirror in the context of torture underscores Todorov's broad thesis, which is that terrorizing the terrorists makes 'us' terrorists, and that the fear of barbarians makes us barbarians.
Let us now take a contemporary example from 'real life' as well as a literature, in the form of Moazzam Begg's experiences. Begg is from Birmingham and has Indian Muslim heritage. As a young man in the 1990s he worked for charities and as a political activist in such war zones as Bosnia and Chechnya. When 9/11 happened, Begg was working to create a girls' school in Kabul, but after the American invasion of Afghanistan he moved with his family to Pakistan. There he was seized from his home in 2002 by security forces and imprisoned first in Bagram and then Guantánamo Bay.
In the infamous legal black hole of Camp X-Ray in Guantánamo, Begg was detained without charge for three years, interrogated over 300 times, and tortured. After this ordeal, Begg worked with journalist Victoria Brittain to write his autobiography Enemy Combatant (2006). The book's title is significant: the US created the new category to refer to the people who were picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11. Rather than calling them criminals or enemy soldiers, who are covered by existing laws, the neologism ‘enemy combatants' meant that security officials didn't have to treat the prisoners humanely.
When he was first arrested, Begg has some awareness from current events and ‘the movies' about what is in store for him: ‘hoods, beating, electric shocks […], false accusations, death threats'. Yet nothing prepares him for the ‘naked aggression' he encounters. Not only does he wear a hood and is falsely accused, but also he is yelled at, kicked, abused, humiliated (his clothes are removed and pictures are taken of his naked body), has cavity searches, and his head and beard (a symbol of Muslim male piety) are shaved. The cruelty that upsets him the most is psychological. Night after night he is played the sound of a woman screaming; convinced that it is his wife, he almost suffers a breakdown.
Just as Todorov identifies 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' as one of the motivations for torture, so too does Begg find that the cells at Bagram Airbase are named after terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Islamists. These bullpens are labelled USS Cole, Twin Towers, and Pentagon, amongst other names. If the drive for vengeance were in any doubt, the filthy outdoor toilet has 'Fuck Islam' scrawled on its wall. And just as Scarry describes the othering of the prisoner that enables the torturer to break his body, so too a Christian guard tells Begg the only way he can fulfil his duties is to 'convince myself each day that you guys are all subhuman – agents of the Devil'. Eventually Begg is so traumatized by the punishments meted out to him that he promises to tell the Americans whatever they want to hear, illustrating again the shakiness of the evidence produced in torture situations.
Torture is barbaric, in Todorov's sense of the failure to acknowledge that others are like us. It leads to an increase rather than a diminution of terror. To bring this discussion up-to-date, several credible sources suggest that the occupation of Iraq and torture of people in Abu Ghraib was a significant recruitment tool for Daesh, or so-called Islamic State. Although his speech was not nearly as convincing as some have made out, Hilary Benn was right to point out in the British parliamentary debate about air strikes that the murderous group hold Britain and 'British values' in contempt. In the way that it denies the Other’s humanity, Daesh is barbaric, as well as being terrifyingly ruthless. It should be loudly proclaimed, though, that Bashar al-Assad has done more damage in Syria. In dark, hidden dungeons, Assad and his father Hafez before him tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians, fuelling radicalization more than anything else. All that being said, if Britain and America had stayed true to their alleged values and not colluded in rendition and torture over the last 14 years, Daesh's hatefilled anti-West poison would not have seeped into so many receptive ears.