Thursday, June 24, 2010

Torture Talisman, Torture Taboo

Recently an otherwise seemingly thoughtful person said to me, "I know torture ordinarily doesn't work because you can't coerce someone into giving you trustworthy information. But don't you think there are times when the government has to step over the line to save lives? You know, if terrorists have a nuclear bomb or something?"

The juxtaposition in his question is fascinating and not at all uncommon. It boils down to, "Intellectually, I know it doesn't work, but emotionally, I want to believe it can protect me anyway."

When we understand a thing is inert, but believe in its power anyway, the thing in question is commonly called a talisman. A religious symbol on a necklace. A weapon you won't be able to reach, or don't know how to use. The salutation "Be safe," as though saying it could make it so.


The world can be a scary place, and the government often has an interest in making it more so. Truman "scared hell out of the America people" to get the Truman Doctrine through Congress; today, fear is kept at a simmer by announcements of color-coded threat levels; barking airport and subway reminders that we must be alert and suspicious; bellicose political rhetoric and op-eds about the imminent danger from Iran and Islam. In the face of so much fear, legitimate or manufactured, it's natural for the mind to grope for a source of comfort, like Linus pulling close his security blanket. If it really hits the fan, that anxious part of our unconscious tries to soothe us, there's that one thing we can turn to and count on to protect us.

The right, which is adept at telling its adherents what they want to believe (white Christians are a persecuted minority; the economy is being destroyed not by corporatism and crony capitalism, but by welfare queens and minority mortgage deadbeats; terrorists attack America because they hate our freedoms) has both met and increased the demand for a torture talisman by promoting fantasy dramas like "24" and torture-saves-the-day novels by writers like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. Yes, Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh assure us, our enemies are as evil as they are committed to our destruction, but if we just "take off the gloves" and follow the lead of fictional characters like Jack Bauer and Mitch Rapp, we can make ourselves safe again. It's as simple and appealing a promise as the benefits of "Drill, baby, drill," and as destructive.

And it's a particularly pernicious promise because torture is not only a talisman, but also a hard-won taboo. Societies don't erect taboos casually, or against items devoid of psychological or emotional appeal. Taboos are instead emplaced with great difficulty, over a long time, against practices generational experience proves both terribly destructive and insidiously seductive. Torture was one such, prohibited even during the Revolutionary War, even during World War II, but then embraced by one weak and deviant administration and now held in reserve by another. Remember, Obama hasn't ended torture in America: doing so would require investigations and prosecutions, as the law itself demands. Rather, he claims merely to have "prohibited" it. Which sounds good, until you think about it for a moment. The old president permitted, the new president prohibits… what does that mean? That to both men, torture is not a matter of law, but simply one of policy.

What can be done? The answer will be different for everyone. You can donate to organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, projects like the ACLU's Torture Report, and bloggers like Marcy Wheeler who've done a great deal to uncover the truth of what America has done through torture to its values and its security. You can sign petitions and write to your senators and congressperson. I do what I can with my novels, writing reality-based thrillers depicting the real causes and consequences of torture to counter the fantasy narratives pedaled by the right. And I hope to continue to do so in partnership with terrific progressive publications like AlterNet, Firedoglake, GRITtv, and Truthout. The right has done America a lot of damage by cross-promoting its ideology through fiction. It's past time the left returned fire, using every tool at its disposal, including fiction, to restore America to safety and sanity.

(Originally published at The Nation)


aaron said...

This last sentence bothers me.

Encouraging people to lie for any reason seems like exactly the sort of thing you're protesting in the preceding paragraphs; that the end justifies the means and laws don't matter as long as your intent is to help. There are, after all, laws against false advertising, right? I mean, you're the one with the law degree, I'm simply positing the question. Even if they aren't, the phrase "every tool at its disposal" is certainly implicative of accepting criminal conduct. There's a healthy amount of "they did it *first*" in there as well. Hell, Barry, I expect better.

I could've sworn I've heard you argue against this sort of "at all costs" rhetoric as well.

And against blatant partisanship and the sort of sloppy thinking that allows one to support a *side* rather than a policy or an issue.

Sigh. Am I not understanding you here? Is there something I missed? Have you truly come to the point that you're linking to Michael Moore, Huffington, and Chimp and don't see anything wrong with what they do and how they do it?

I was with you through no torture. And again on rule of law vice rule of men. The rest (seems to be? is?)becoming something I can't follow with respect.

Mark F. said...

Your definition of a talisman, and your use of torture as an example of a talisman for some reason makes me think of the last scene of "No Country For Old Men".

Tommy Lee Jones talks about a dream he had: "My dad was going on ahead to make a fire out there in all that cold. But then I woke up." (The clocks are ticking, and the movie ends.)

There are a couple of different interpretations there, I think. I jump back and forth between them, like looking at a "three-pronged widget". But my favorite interpretation is this: "I had a fantasy that daddy was going to take care of me and make everything all right. But then I woke up, and I had to face reality."

America insists on living in some fake Disneyland. Regardless of how twisted and sadistic that "Disneyland" might be to other countries and cultures...

-Intrinsic Spin, Interrupt.

Barry Eisler said...

Aaron, a few thoughts in response.

First, possibly I should have included a qualifier like "appropriate" or "reasonable" or "legal" before the word "tool." FWIW, I assumed those concepts would be implicit, but I might have assumed incorrectly.

Second, I think you're conflating the notion of fiction with the notion of lies. Someone once said that nonfiction is facts; fiction (good fiction, anyway) is truth. More specifically: Inside Out is fiction. There's nothing in it that's untrue. See also: 1984, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Quiet American, etc. (Not putting myself in such august company, just using these works to illustrate a principle.)

Where am I supporting a side, rather than a policy or issue? I would argue the opposite: my stance on torture has been consistent throughout the Bush and Obama administrations.

I'm not sure I understand your objection to MM, HP, and TSC, either, as they've been consistent on torture across administrations, too.


Ellen said...

Barry, heard you on this morning's radio show in LA, Stehpanie Miller. I'm definitely going to get your book. As to the O'Bama and Bush administrations, I am dumbfounded why America isn't screaming for justice. I guess we have been hit with so many issues we don't know where to look or what to think anymore. We feel betrayed. No matter which party, or what candidate we vote for, they lie to us and are motivated by greed. I fear we've slipped into our own Spanish Inquisition. We vilify each other (I'm talking about the workers of this country), vote the "brand" and sadly both brands are in bed with Corporate / International interests, not to mention all the $$$$$$$$ being thrown at the military. So nothing changes. The tortures which mirror what was done in Medieval Europe, which brought about the exodus to this country in the 1600 and 1700’s, are being repeated all over again. If Americans don't wake up, like the Salem Witch Trials, they're next.

aaron said...

I'll try to respond in order, since that usually helps in effective communication...

Firstly, I am horrible at figuring out things that are supposed to be understood. If it isn't stated, there is a greater than median probability that I will not pick up on it. Implicit qualifiers rarely register with me.

Second, I've heard a couple quotes resembling that before; that fiction is the art of using a false story to explain a greater truth. I'll buy that (Christ spoke in parables for a reason!) but I don't think I was getting confused by that concept to begin with. Your novels use fiction to make political/philosophical points, mirroring the fictional offerings of Flynn; roger. Duly noted. My objection was that you (it seemed to me) mixed in the efforts of Hannity et al with that metaphor, and I don't think America needs more full-of-shit talking heads from either side of the socio-political spectrum.

Third, regarding the process of taking sides. I could be misinterpreting-the both of us are aware that politics is an emotional area, and my perceptions get as unreliable as anyone else's when I'm discussing emotional issues-but it seems to me that you have decided that "the right" is the pro-torture side and "the left" is not. I find that to be an oversimplification, and disagree accordingly. I am about as right-wing as one can get. I'm just one bad day or missed meal away from donning my wookie suit and voting Libertarian, truth be told. And yet, I am against torture. Maybe we could just (within ethical and cost-effective boundaries) use every tool at our disposal, including fiction, to try and show both Left and Right how very wrong this is.

My objection to Moore, HuffPo, and Chimpy is not centered on their stand n torture, it's based on their stands on many other issues and the manner in which they go about espousing said viewpoints. Moore most especially pisses me off-I don't like attack "journalism", I don't like his efforts to manipulate statistics, I don't like the blatant falsehoods and misleading spliced footage of people to twist their statements (sometimes in mid-sentence) to reverse their meaning, I don't like a 300+ pound man telling America that we're too fat, I didn't like his claiming that Kim Jung Ill was "changing Korea for the better". I could go on, but the basic issue for me is that Michael Moore is an individual for whom I have no respect or tolerance. HuffPo and Chimpy - well, on your sidebar you have a short bit on what you made this blog for-"a haven from fulmination, disrespect, polemics, and other attack-style debate." Do either of those sites meet that standard? As you said yourself- "that kind of nonsense never enlightens and it never persuades. Let's not fall victim to it here."

Unknown said...

I agree with all but one of these statements. While the taboo against torture is a good one, but not all taboos are necessarily good.

Homosexuality for instance is a taboo not only in America, but throughout much of the world. It was erected long before we even knew what an STD was, let alone when the religious right used the fact that homosexuals tend to be at higher risk to justify their bigotry. As such, I've always felt we need to look at taboos on a case by case basis to determine whether they were developed for a good reason and whether that reason is still valid.

I'm not contradicting the facts of this post, just part of the reasoning behind it.

Valtin said...

Great post, Barry. The description of torture as a talisman against deep societal anxieties is quite profound.

While I think your point about the current administration reducing torture to a question of policy, not law, is a crucial one, under current circumstances, I don't believe we can say the Obama administration does not engage in torture. Both secret prisons in Afghanistan, and tales of torture there during the years of the Obama administration have been reported by the New York Times, the BBC, and the Washington Post.

Even further, the U.S. continues to use its Appendix M guidelines from the 2006 Army Field Manual to interrogate "enemy combatants" it deems not worthy of prisoner-of-war status. Appendix M, together with dubious aspects of the AFM itself, allow for use of sensory deprivation and overload, sleep deprivation, use of harsh fear-raising techniques, stress positions (which the AFM pointedly refused to put among its prohibited techniques), dietary "manipulation" (meant to instill "debility") and solitary confinement/isolation.

These techniques together constitute use of torture. Others, such as Physicians for Human Rights, Center for Constitutional Rights, the Constitution Project, have also made this point.

While President Obama appears to have ended the Bush administration's experiment with the SERE reverse-engineered "enhanced interrogation"-style torture, he has left in place the old KUBARK Manual psychological pressures noted above. These are sometimes called "torture lite", but the effects of isolation, sensory deprivation, debility, fear/dread, sleep deprivation and the like is often just as damaging, and sometimes from a long-term perspective, more so, than the more physically-oriented types of torture.

Anonymous said...

@Ellen --- you hit the nail right on the head. People are doing their best to scrape by and simply don't have the time to be as informed as they should be. that's why the quote "ignorance is bliss" is so befitting. If you put your head in the ground like an ostrich you can atleats say out of sight out of mine. And it really is tragedy overload/burnout with the oil spill, Katrina, 9/11, market crash, loss of jobs, economy, etc etc etc.

Unknown said...

I agree with Aaron that this issue should be about more than a battle of rhetoric between the "right" and the "left", but unfortunately restoring torture to its status as "taboo" seems the best way to stop the inhumanity-- and how do you do that but through rhetoric?