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

You know, from a European perspective there seems very little difference between the crazy Arabs in the street burning American flags in the Middle East, and the crazy Americans in the street celebrating an assassination like you've just won a football game. USA!!! USA!!! USA!!! There's little difference between crazy zealots wanting to burn the Qu'ran, or teach intelligent design in high schools and crazy zealots waving the Qu'ran, banning women from driving and chanting Islam. There are nutters all around the world. We can't do much about them except ignore them. The scary places in the world, those countries in the Middle East and America, for example, are scary because they are allowing those nutters to dictate the political debate. It isn't the fringe anymore. It's almost mainstream. America needs to get a grip on itself. Pull its shit together and stop acting like a bunch of fucktards. They've set the world back 50 years, along with the British government, with their disregard for the ideals that made the Western world great, with their disregard for the rule of law and their disregard for the sovereignty of other nations.

Anonymous

You know, from a European perspective there seems very little difference between the crazy Arabs in the street burning American flags in the Middle East, and the crazy Americans in the street celebrating an assassination like you've just won a football game. USA!!! USA!!! USA!!! There's little difference between crazy zealots wanting to burn the Qu'ran, or teach intelligent design in high schools and crazy zealots waving the Qu'ran, banning women from driving and chanting Islam. There are nutters all around the world. We can't do much about them except ignore them. The scary places in the world, those countries in the Middle East and America, for example, are scary because they are allowing those nutters to dictate the political debate. It isn't the fringe anymore. It's almost mainstream. America needs to get a grip on itself. Pull its shit together and stop acting like a bunch of fucktards. They've set the world back 50 years, along with the British government, with their disregard for the ideals that made the Western world great, with their disregard for the rule of law and their disregard for the sovereignty of other nations.

Anonymous

"their disregard for the sovereignty of other nations." hmm thats sounds more like Europe to me... Europe still has many more problems than America. I am not saying the U.S has not done horrible things but Europe has done its fair share and worse... Also the U.S has the best relations in the word with its neighbors (somethig Europe is a little weak in). I have traveled and lived extensively in Europe and even today you can see how some Europeans hate other Europeans, which is one of Europe's biggest flaw not to mention Europe has it's fair share of "nutters" running politics (Silvio Berlusconi). Not all of us "crazy Americans" are bloodthirsty backward people we are the most diverse nation in the world (especially ,compared to Europe) remember that. The celebration of Osama Bin Ladens death was called for, for some of us who lost their children or family it was like the death of Hitler. If America set the world back 50 years, Europe has set it back at least 200 only within the past century.

Anonymous

"their disregard for the sovereignty of other nations." hmm thats sounds more like Europe to me... Europe still has many more problems than America. I am not saying the U.S has not done horrible things but Europe has done its fair share and worse... Also the U.S has the best relations in the word with its neighbors (somethig Europe is a little weak in). I have traveled and lived extensively in Europe and even today you can see how some Europeans hate other Europeans, which is one of Europe's biggest flaw not to mention Europe has it's fair share of "nutters" running politics (Silvio Berlusconi). Not all of us "crazy Americans" are bloodthirsty backward people we are the most diverse nation in the world (especially ,compared to Europe) remember that. The celebration of Osama Bin Ladens death was called for, for some of us who lost their children or family it was like the death of Hitler. If America set the world back 50 years, Europe has set it back at least 200 only within the past century.

tkaptur

I've never been to Europe, but I can bet there are the same bar hopping idiots, capitalist freaks and bible thumpers as the rest of the planet. Wake up you two idiots, which is better, my right or left and to smack you with.

tkaptur

I've never been to Europe, but I can bet there are the same bar hopping idiots, capitalist freaks and bible thumpers as the rest of the planet. Wake up you two idiots, which is better, my right or left and to smack you with.

Anonymous

"the U.S has the best relations in the word with its neighbors"

Ha ha ha ha haaaa. Would that be the Mexicans who you exploit and hurl racial abuse at or the Canadians who think you are all ignorant assholes?

Anonymous

"the U.S has the best relations in the word with its neighbors"

Ha ha ha ha haaaa. Would that be the Mexicans who you exploit and hurl racial abuse at or the Canadians who think you are all ignorant assholes?

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