The Philosophy Issue

Moral Collapse of a Nation

What the war on terror has done to America.
Moral Collapse of a Nation

The son of an Afghan farmer, who was killed on Jan. 15, 2010. A member of the "kill team" is posing behind him.

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

The actual existence of torture in American jails is well known. Nonetheless, the publication on 16 April 2009, by the new United States administration, of documents that had hitherto been kept secret revealed details concerning the actual way in which torture was being carried out. I will briefly summarize these facts.

One is struck, first of all, by the incredibly persnickety regulations that were formulated in the CIA manuals and taken over by the legal authorities in the government. Up until then it had been possible to imagine that the practices of torture were what are called “blunders,” involuntary transgressions of the norms, occasioned by the urgency of the situation. Now on the contrary, it is clear that these were procedures fixed down to their least details, to the nearest inch and the nearest second.

They are divided into three categories, each of which comprises several degrees of intensity: preparatory (nakedness, manipulated feeding, sleep deprivation), corrective (blows) and coercive (being hosed with water, locked in boxes, or subjected to torture by immersion). Slaps on the face must be administered by the fingers spread out, halfway between the tip of the chin and the bottom of the earlobe. Hosing a naked prisoner with water can last for 20 minutes if the water is at 5°C, 40 if it is at 10°C, and up to 60 if it is 15°C. Sleep deprivation must not last longer than 180 hours, but, after 8 hours’ rest, they can begin again. Torture by immersion can last up to 12 seconds, no more than 2 hours per day, for 30 consecutive days (a particularly tough prisoner underwent this torture 183 times over, in March 2003). A prisoner should not be locked in a box for more than 2 hours, but if the box allows the prisoner to stand upright, he can stay there up to eight hours at a stretch, 18 hours per day. If you put an insect in with him, you cannot tell the prisoner that its sting will be extremely painful or indeed deadly. And so on and so forth, for page after page.

The indispensable partners of the torturers are the government’s legal advisers, who are there to ensure that their colleagues are immune from prosecution. This, too, is new: torture is no longer represented as an infraction of the common norm, regrettable but excusable; it is the legal norm. With this in mind, lawyers resort to another series of techniques. To get around the law, interrogations need to be conducted outside the United States, even if this means American bases. According to the official legal definitions, there is torture when the intention to produce intense suffering can be attested; so it will be suggested to the torturers that they deny the presence of any such intention. So slaps on the face are given not to produce any pain, but to cause surprise and humiliation. Being locked in a box is not meant to lead to sensory disorientation, but to make the prisoner feel uncomfortable! The torturer must always insist on his “good faith,” his “honest beliefs” and his reasonable premises. Euphemisms must be systematically employed: “reinforced techniques” instead of torture; “expert interrogator” for torturer. Care must also be taken to avoid leaving any material traces, and for this reason mental destruction is preferable to physical damage; for this reason, too, any visual recording of sessions is to be destroyed afterwards.

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians. Todorov is a Bulgarian philosopher who studied at the University of Paris with Roland Barthes. He is the author of numerous books, including On Human Diversity and Hope and Memory, and has taught at Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

130 comments on the article “Moral Collapse of a Nation”

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Anonymous

Torture is wrong. Period.

One more word added to the above is 100% bullshit.

And you know it.

Anonymous

Torture is wrong. Period.

One more word added to the above is 100% bullshit.

And you know it.

Anonymous

LOL...nothing is 'always wrong'. 'Wrong' is defined within the bounds of specific circumstances. Lions eat lambs. Is that 'wrong'?

If you SAW an individual plant a bomb, via some remote mechanism, but, could not locate that bomb, AND you KNEW it would kill 10 innocent people (women and children, for example), would it be appropriate to torture this person to locate the device before innocent people were killed?

Israelis contend with this dilemma daily.

Anonymous

LOL...nothing is 'always wrong'. 'Wrong' is defined within the bounds of specific circumstances. Lions eat lambs. Is that 'wrong'?

If you SAW an individual plant a bomb, via some remote mechanism, but, could not locate that bomb, AND you KNEW it would kill 10 innocent people (women and children, for example), would it be appropriate to torture this person to locate the device before innocent people were killed?

Israelis contend with this dilemma daily.

Anonymous

What a load of BS TV head. If you don't set standards of right and wrong then what do you care about the bomb anyway? Just place bets on the outcome and profit. Greed is great after all isn't it? Torture and prosper America.

Anonymous

What a load of BS TV head. If you don't set standards of right and wrong then what do you care about the bomb anyway? Just place bets on the outcome and profit. Greed is great after all isn't it? Torture and prosper America.

Anonymous

That farmer's son was murdered for fun, , and they murdered several more. those guys stood trial, but i don't remember what transpired after that.

Anonymous

That farmer's son was murdered for fun, , and they murdered several more. those guys stood trial, but i don't remember what transpired after that.

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