The Fascination and the Reality

Sunday’s Times raised the question again of what is our fascination with torture. (See article)  The recent release of the CIA memos forces us to think again of what it is about. Ostensibly, of course, it is about gaining information, but there are so many things wrong with that argument, starting with the fact that the information gotten through that means is likely to be unreliable.  Aristotle made that case 2,500 years ago, and still today many practitioners believe that the victims of torture will say anything to gain relief.

But torturers get very engaged in it, and the public gets fascinated with accounts of it. The man in the street gets flustered when asked to think about it, and the bureaucrats who authorize it can’t seem to get enough.

Partly it’s about revenge. If you can’t get to the perpetrators themselves, at least you can get to their compatriots, their families and friends. But the deeper answer is that it is about power — perhaps compensating for the feeling of powerlessness that terrorism evokes in us. Torture puts one person completely under the control of another in a way that all find disturbing and many find irresistible.

The accounts of torturers themselves, whether those recruited in childhood to serve genocidal campaigns in Africa or simple US soldiers who land the assignment in Iraq, suggest how compelling it can be — and how difficult to get over.  Not only does it profoundly affect its victims, it leaves an indelible imprint on the perpetrators.