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Torture   (October 10, 2007)

Americans torturing people isn't necessarily new, but the notion that it's necessary or even acceptable is.

My friend and longtime blogger Ian Lind posted an item recently on Republican candidates vying with each other on who supported torturing suspects more. Then the microphone passed to Senator John McCain, who was tortured routinely for years by the North Vietnamese while a prisoner of war. He had a different point of view:

But just then, McCain, who spent five and a half years in a POW camp in Vietnam, decided to rain on the parade. “If we torture people,” he said sadly, "what happens to our military people when they’re captured?" After the debate, he went even further, offering a history lesson on one of America’s choicest "enhanced" interrogation techniques, water-boarding. "Do you know where that was invented?” McCain asked. "In the Spanish Inquisition. Do we want to do things that were done in the Spanish Inquisition?"
For a first-person account of the torture McCain and other captured airmen suffered in the Hanoi Hilton, I recommend Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi by John M. McGrath.

(Footnote: McCain was the front-runner in the 2000 Republican primary race until Bush's campaign destroyed McCain via Karl Rove & Company's innuendos (lies) and rumors planted in the South Carolina primary. Through their unceasing efforts, they spread the poison that McCain was unstable (nuts) and other even more scurrilous character assassinations. Thanks to Rove's handiwork, the better man, a man who had withstood 5 years of torture in serving his country, lost his party's nomination. Now our nation's economy has been fatally wounded and we are enmeshed in a quagmire in Iraq totally of Bush & Company's making. Would McCain have invaded Iraq? No. Far too late we now see who was truly nuts, and it wasn't McCain.)

I would like to recommend several other books on the subject of torture.

The first is an account of a famous 1971 experiment in which randomly selected undergraduate students were assigned roles as prisoners and guards. Within days the experiment had to be stopped, as the "guards" were brutalizing the "prisoners" so effectively that many were near breakdown. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

An earlier and equally famous experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s revealed that average people would, if ordered by an authority figure, torture innocent people in an adjacent room with high-voltage shocks.

Milgram concluded that ordinary people will follow orders even if the result is to produce great suffering in innocent others. Asked whether something like Nazism could occur in the United States, Milgram memorably replied that "if a system of death camps were set up in the United States of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town."
The next title, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism , describes how systemic torture is a key strategy used by right-wing dictatorships around the globe. The author's controversial thesis is that such U.S.-supported repressive regimes "break" their populations with campaigns of torture, assassinations and mass imprisonment as part and parcel of a "cleansing of society" in order to establish a largely foreign-owned "free market economy."

Regardless of whether you believe in that part of her thesis, the book's accounts of carefully planned society-wide torture campaigns is chilling. Such a campaign is currently underway in Burma. (Torture and genocide are popular with both left- and right-wing regimes.)

For a fictionalized but entirely believable account of torture from the point of view of an American torturer, I strongly recommend The Contractor by Charles Holdefer. ( The Permanent Press, New York)

The scenario is torn right from today's headlines: private "contractors" like Blackwater are hired to do the dirty work--in this case, interrogate/torture suspects. Fiction rarely explores the psychological and spiritual costs imposed on the torturer, and this book does so very realistically.

The ending was harrowing in a very unexpected way, and caused me to think about American-sanctioned torture--be it by military or intelligence personnel, proxies in Egypt or other "allies in the War on Terrorism" or as in this novel, by U.S. civilian contractors (Blackwater et. al.)--in a new and disturbing light. The Booklist review aptly summarized the novel's central theme:

George isn't just trying to figure out who he is; he is trying to figure out what his country is, and whether he is a good guy or just another terrorist wearing a different suit of clothes.
No list of books on government sanctioned, enthusiastically supported torture would be complete without Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn's brilliant three-volume account of the decades-long torture and murder of millions in the Soviet Union's prisons and gulags:

The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

The Gulag Archipelago 2

Gulag Archipelago 3

I know three volumes seems like a lot of reading, but Solzhenitsyn is one of our era's great voices.

If you can only bear to read three books relating to the torture which is paid for by your tax dollars and enthusiastically supported by our elected officials and many of those those seeking office, then read these three:

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil

The Contractor

The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

Thank you, Matt S., ($25) for your very generous donation to this humble site. I am greatly honored by your contribution and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


copyright © 2007 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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