As I mentioned in a previous post, spring quarter 2012 is almost over (almost because I still have one last paper to polish and submit...) and I am quite ready for summer. Before that happens, however, I think I should add some reflections from the seminar on torture I completed. I can honestly say that I wish I had not seen some of the pictures and films presented during the seminar, but I understand why it is important that we do see them and acknowledge them.
Several years ago I watched a documentary on the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster of 1986. The purpose of the documentary was to reveal a step by step description of what exactly went wrong. What made an impression on me was the fact that the disaster happened because everything went wrong. It was not simply a human error, it was not just one person’s error, it was not just one safety device failing. The breakdown of all the elements in the chain allowed the disaster to happen. Similarly, the practice of torture occurs not because one person has a particular taste for violence or because there is a failure in the system. Everyone must participate, either as a torturer, as a sanctioner, or as a bystander.
As the Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman points out, the type of regime has no relevance to the use of torture; rather, as long as those in charge are able to present a worthy goal of some ultimate freedom and security, the act of torture will be accepted and condoned by the majority. How the act is presented to the world highly relies on the point of view. Depending on whose side a person is on, torture can either be a great violation of human dignity or the ultimate expression of patriotism in the pursuit of security to the homeland.
Orwell portrays the danger of such distinctions and in his work Animal Farm stresses that considering the behavior one engages in, the label of that behavior is irrelevant to the outside observer. If all nations, regardless of how democratic they are, choose to employ torture to ensure security, the line between us and them is erased and if a true outsider were to look through a hypothetical window, he would not be able to distinguish between enemy and friends because without the knowledge of who is “us” and who is “them”, all humans would look the same to him as far as the practice of torture is concerned.
The fact that there is no difference between the so-called enemies and ourselves when it comes to disrespecting the law, each other, and humanity in general should be known to most people. However, we are used to pointing fingers at others and finding rationalizations for actions that would easily be regarded as despicable if committed by the enemy. A cultural shift is indeed in order if we are to stop ignoring what goes on in our own neighborhood before we start searching for criminals in the town across the river (or ocean). Until we realize that language is a means of controlling one’s thoughts and ideas, it will be hard to acknowledge that there is no difference between a dictatorial “enemy” torturing our combatants and our combatants “harshly interrogating” the enemy under the sanction of democracy.