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”

Displaying 91 - 100 of 130

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Anonymous

Why should Americans who are ashamed of what their country has become leave? If we all left, America would truly become morally bankrupt. In my opinion, the people who should leave are those who support this kind of repugnant behavior through any means, including trying to shame those of us with a conscience into silence by using the "love it or leave it" argument.

Anonymous

Why should Americans who are ashamed of what their country has become leave? If we all left, America would truly become morally bankrupt. In my opinion, the people who should leave are those who support this kind of repugnant behavior through any means, including trying to shame those of us with a conscience into silence by using the "love it or leave it" argument.

Anonymous

Just 'simply' not looking at this page doesn't solve the problem. This NEEDS to be looked at, and people NEED to be outraged and aware of what some people are unfortunately capable of doing. That is how shit gets changed.

Anonymous

Just 'simply' not looking at this page doesn't solve the problem. This NEEDS to be looked at, and people NEED to be outraged and aware of what some people are unfortunately capable of doing. That is how shit gets changed.

Anonymous

In regards to the top picture, they didn't even have the decency to put the kid in a reasonable position..."just toss him down right here. Oh, mind taking a picture for me too?" *hands buddy camera and poses*

It seems human decency is a rare commodity these days...at least in the military.

Anonymous

In regards to the top picture, they didn't even have the decency to put the kid in a reasonable position..."just toss him down right here. Oh, mind taking a picture for me too?" *hands buddy camera and poses*

It seems human decency is a rare commodity these days...at least in the military.

Anonymous

It's sickening in the fact that the soldier has the son in a pose similar to a hunter's "game". The son's body became an obect; a commodity worth a pose with a smile.

Anonymous

It's sickening in the fact that the soldier has the son in a pose similar to a hunter's "game". The son's body became an obect; a commodity worth a pose with a smile.

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