Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Question Ordinary

I ran across the following tidbit in a footnote from Wyndham Lewis’ 1928 biography of the 15th century poet François Villon:

“The Question Ordinary, or Question by Water, was applied as part of the routine procedure of Justice to recalcitrant or to taciturn prisoners. The stubborn one was bound, hand and foot, to staples in such a manner as to stretch his body as far as possible: a rack or trestle two feet high was placed under him, supporting his middle. The Questioner, with his assistant, then proceeded, the one to hold the prisoner’s nose and thus compel him to swallow, the other to place over his mouth a horn funnel. Into this water was poured…about nine litres altogether, by degrees, sometimes through a linen cloth. The patient was then unbound and allowed to recuperate before the treatment was (if adjudged necessary) repeated.”

You may recognize this time-honored method, with only slight alterations, as “waterboarding.” Villon himself suffered this torture in the dungeons of Meun, in 1461, as he attests more than once in his verse. It was common not only during the infamous Spanish Inquisition, as has been pointed out before in what remains of the free press, but as we see here, in medieval Europe in general. What’s interesting in this passage is its air of antiquarian curiosity. A great deal had changed between 1461 and 1928, and involved in that change was a general recognition that torture was an uncivilized relic of ignorant times, made repugnant to modern sensibilities because of centuries of gradual moral and intellectual progress.

It’s rather too easy to be smug about the past, because we tend to take our own ethical standpoints for granted, forgetting that they are the product of long struggles. Torture did not originate in the Middle Ages. We can trace it back to the earliest civilizations. The Romans, who exceeded all previous cultures in cruelty, codified it to such a degree that one could argue a traumatic effect on Western history. They invented, for instance, that grotesque form of the death penalty known as crucifixion, used on untold thousands of people as punishment for crimes ranging from petty theft to rebellion. That this symbol of viciousness became the emblem of the new triumphant religion of Christianity is more significant and more troubling than most of us would wish to admit.

In the case of the “Question Ordinary,” the ostensible reason for the practice is to make someone talk. Those who have taken the time to study torture have explained at length how naïve this reasoning really is. A guilty person may or may not tell the truth under torture. It depends on such factors as whether the truth will actually be perceived as such by the torturer, the preconceptions of the torturer as to what the truth is or should be, and of course how determined the tortured person is to resist the pressure. An innocent person, on the other hand, has no options whatsoever since the torturer assumes his guilt: he must simply figure out what the torturer wants to hear, and tell him that. That no innocent persons are tortured would be the most naïve idea of all, and this is of course the lie that the torturers and their justifiers continually tell us.

But beyond all these considerations, it seems to me that the crucial element here is a lack of any feeling of ethical conflict when inflicting extreme pain on someone perceived as an enemy. If this were an unusual situation that was only applied in extreme cases where vital information was needed, the practice wouldn’t have been so widespread. The fact is that torture expresses rage, hatred, and a thirst for revenge. You can dress this up with ideology, or with seemingly calm rationales based on notions of justice or expedience, but when it comes to the actual practice, the experience of torture, the unavoidable truth emerges. It is an expression of the savage, hateful side of human nature. Yet this fact is precisely what is being repeatedly suppressed and denied by our government, because it represents a regression to a previous form of civilization, one that we have supposedly grown past.

The core political principle of civilization was domination by force. It wasn’t the only principle, but it was the one constant element that authority always fell back on, so to speak. This became increasingly so in the ancient world, as states sought to create empires. In later stages it was thought that the severity of punishment acted as a deterrent to other criminals, although increasingly the opposite effect was achieved. Brutality often created unrest and rebellion rather than docility. Deterrence was only a rationale then, as it is now. The real point was inflicting pain on the criminal in revenge for the pain he or she inflicted on the victim of crime, or on authority or society.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fantasized about getting “even” with someone who has done him harm—human beings want to hurt back when they are hurt. This is really the root of cruelty as a method of official “justice.” In the Christian and Muslim conceptions of hell, this impulse was translated into a cosmological doctrine. Dante’s Inferno, for instance, catalogues the torture of sinners after death in symbolic fashion. The guilty suffer unending pain and punishment. When torture is conceived as an eternal condition, the human desire for revenge inflates punishment to a level that becomes self-contradictory: unlimited cruelty visited on limited human beings can never be truly just, no matter what they may have been guilty of.

So what happened since 1461? There was a little thing known as The Enlightenment. Advanced thinkers and philosophers started to recognize an inherent dignity of the individual—not a mere means to an end, but an end in him or herself. From this came the idea of human rights, and not so coincidentally, a searching critique of theocracy and systems of authoritarian domination. Certain practices were unjust in themselves, regardless of the innocence or guilt of an individual, and prominent among these practices was torture. Justice was not the same as punishment; its purpose was not revenge, but the impartial good of society, untainted by cruelty or other savage impulses. Cruelty and hate came to be thought of as human flaws and shortcomings, from which civilized government should guard itself.

These ideas were central to the founding of the United States. In practice, of course, American society was plagued with cruelty and injustice, especially regarding African slavery and the American Indians. But this doesn’t change the fact that in principle the founders were intent on establishing a rule of law that respected the rights and dignity of the individual. Thus in the Bill of Rights we have provisions against imprisonment without charge or trial, warrantless searches, and “cruel and unusual” punishment, among other things. If we could just trust in the purity and good intentions of government authorities, we wouldn’t need any of this. But the thinkers of the Enlightenment recognized that the misuse of power was as old as civilization, and that therefore protections had to be ensured by law and not by mere trust.

Authoritarians don’t get this. They have great difficulty understanding why a guilty person should be protected from anything. They don’t see a connection between the plight of a guilty person and themselves—that the treatment of one would have an impact on the treatment of the other, or on the well-being of society in general. The torturer Bush looks at a phrase like “cruel and unusual” and says, “That’s too vague.” To his mind, cruelty is only something you could do to someone you care about—as far as guilty people like terrorists are concerned, no such category exists.

It took a lot of hard work, with a lot of backpedaling and mistakes and open conflict, to get to a point where torture is considered immoral. Yet there are entire segments of the population for whom the Enlightenment never happened. It’s as if previous strata of human civilization always co-exist with the later additions. Progress means that public life is generally in line with the latest developments, which are really developments in education and consciousness. Regression means that public life has reverted to outmoded previous stages of development.

When the morality of torture becomes a contested issue in public life, it’s a sign of regression. For one thing, it means that education is failing—ignorance has come more to the forefront. If we’re really not sure about the “Question Ordinary,” then where does this movement end? We could amuse ourselves by imagining a return to witch-burning, public flogging, and the use of leeches by doctors. But to see the serious consequences we only have to look at the history of the 20th century, in Germany and Russia for instance, to note that barbarism would take deadlier forms today than they did in 15th century Paris.

One of the important insights we’ve gained since the Middle Ages is that cruelty has a destructive effect on the perpetrator as well as the victim. Soldiers who are told to torture don’t realize that the practice will inwardly degrade them, tainting their own capacity for love and self-respect, causing them to revert to a virtually subhuman state—one that will cripple their capacities for a full life and cause untold suffering for themselves and others in the future. Torture can eventually produce a kind of moral infection in society as a whole—diminishing our capacity for empathy, higher thought, or peace of mind.

I’m sure that the key torturers in our current situation don’t think this way. They operate on the ancient level of hate, revenge, and domination. They may think that torture will scare the terrorist enemy, acting as a deterrent by projecting a kind of “bad ass” image of American power that should not be messed with. But I tend to believe that this is more of a propaganda weapon against the citizens of the United States rather than against foreign enemies. The Cheney gang has taken pains to actually foster a bogus “debate” on torture, which has the effect of both softening up public opinion and intimidating critics. People will be less likely to oppose neofascist designs if they fear that they could be subjected to torture. The push in favor of torture, flying in the face of centuries of civilized social progress, is really subversion, a deliberate attempt to undermine hard-won moral standards so as to ease the way for a China-style capitalist dictatorship.

Torture has been made pretty much of a non-issue in the presidential campaign this year. The electorate is perhaps more concerned in general with their economic self-interest than with a moral issue that doesn’t seem to affect them. I suspect a lot of people are insulated to the degree that they think their middle class status, or perhaps their white skin, will protect them against the government. It’s the old “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I have nothing to fear” mistake. But I also wonder how much the media downplays the issue for its own reasons, which thereby gives us a distorted view of what the public really cares about.

Despite torture being shrugged off in this way, I think it may be the most important issue of the campaign. What goes unspoken and unremarked is often a deciding factor. Torture doesn’t just represent hatred and revenge. There’s also, in this late era, something desperate about it. The Cheney group, the neocons, and their rightist allies, all consider it important enough to fight for, again and again. I doubt whether they will let something as inconsequential (to them) as an election defeat their intentions. The next president will either continue the reign of torture, or face a backlash from the torturers themselves.

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