It happens to be a rainy day and my plans for a nice hike have been postponed, so what a better way to be productive than to catch up on some reading. Instead of some light reading, however, I picked up Torture and Democracy. Perusing once again Rejali’s detailed account of various torture devices invented and applied through human history and across nations, I started thinking about the distinction between torturers and the tortured.
For most people, the roles of the torturers and the tortured are clearly defined: those who torture are the strong ones and those tortured are weak, victims, and under the control of the torturers. That is not always the case. Those who focus on exhibiting control over others by using torture are in my opinion weaker, both physically and psychologically, than the individuals they torture. While reading The Question by Henri Alleg, I could not help but think that while the so-called victim is no victim at all, those torturing him are not only victims of the act itself but in the event that the desired outcome is not obtained, they crack. They rely so much on the act of torture and count on the weakness of the tortured that if they do not encounter one, the other, or both, they become slaves to and limited by their anger and aggression. The louder they yell and the more enveloped by anger they become, the weaker they present themselves.
When I was growing up, for example, children were disciplined so that they learn the appropriate mode of conduct and turn into productive and well-behaved adults. I remember instances of hits on the palms, boys being stripped down to their underwear “to learn their lesson”, and many of us asked to stand up, facing the wall, hands up for ten minutes, all because we disrupted the class atmosphere by engaging in such “outrageous” acts such as laughing out loud. The actions on the side of teachers were done with the intention to punish the young students and teach them that misbehaving has consequences, usually negative ones. Well, I certainly learned that there are consequences for every action. The problem was that I never felt that the disciplining methods were proportionate to the alleged violation of conduct that was committed. Therefore, being disciplined only made me angry and more convinced that there is nothing wrong with me; rather, the problem was in the system. As I stood in the principal’s office, being disciplined and reprimanded, I refused to apologize, did not make a sound (as much as it hurt), and once even smiled back. Needless to say, my actions only aggravated the principal and teachers even more. Here was a nine-year-old kid who had the power to make her principal and teacher lose control and yell in desperation. Even then, I knew I was not the victim; they were. The victims to a system that sought control and total domination over everyone’s action and crumbled when it could not achieve these.
According to many, the developed world has moved away from the methods referred to in the previous paragraph. This is why we denounce corporal punishment. This is why we want to kill humanely, whether animals or persons. What is humane, however, is not the act of killing, but the fact that it is not prolonged and painful. The end result in both situations is largely unfavorable for the person against whom the act is exercised, but for his killers, the notion that they did so humanely helps them preserve the belief that they are still law-abiding persons who love and respect fellow human-beings and will under any other circumstance not even hurt a fly. People are no longer barbarians who take a life as if it means nothing; instead, they have graduated to be civilized creatures who still take a life, but do so humanely, claiming to respect the person whose life is being taken. Even if we convince ourselves that the above is true, the presence and wide application of torture warns that we might not be that far off from our ancestors as we would like to think we are.