Saturday, June 23, 2007

Torture and the Gaze

On January 12, 1977, Argentine student Alicia Partnoy was "disappeared." Uniformed Army personnel came to her home and whisked her away to a concentration camp named La Escuelita, the Little School. She was a prisoner there for nearly 4 months, and was then transferred to a "regular" prison, where she was held captive for two-and-a-half more years.

The Little School specialized in torture. One of its most destroying rules was that all prisoners had to be blindfolded at all times, 24/7. If a prisoner felt his or her blindfold slipping, a guard had to be summoned to tighten it. Failure to do so brought swift and harsh punishment.
Blindfolding or hooding is a commonplace technique of modern torture. It's been used on both political and criminal prisoners in almost all of the 150-plus countries that have been caught torturing during the last 15 years: in Northern Ireland, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo (although the US Army now "officially" bans hooding, the CIA doesn't), Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Mexico...the list goes on and on.
The obvious purpose of blindfolding or hooding is to cause psychological distress and physical discomfort. A blinded prisoner is disoriented spatially and temporally, experiences intense isolation, powerlessness, and anxiety, and in general feels utterly vulnerable. Additionally, hooding overheats the prisoner and makes it difficult for him or her to breathe--especially when the hooded head is drenched with multiple buckets of water (a common torture practice, refined recently by the technique of waterboarding).
Blinding tortured prisoners, then, makes them more pliable, less likely to revolt or rebel or resist interrogation. If prisoners are blindfolded around the clock, as at La Escuelita, it also has the bonus of protecting the identity of their tormentors.
But I think there's another reason torturers so frequently cover the eyes of their victims: shame. My guess is that all but the most hardened torturers--and occasionally, perhaps, even them--experience shame at what they do to other human beings. Usually, the shame is repressed, underneath consciousness. Sometimes, perhaps, it comes rushing to the surface, motivating the unexpected and surreal acts of kindness on the part of tormentors that many torture survivors write about: a stick of gum, a loosening of the rope, a murmured word of sympathy.
There's something about the human gaze that's inescapable, isn't there? We look into a human face, we note the vitality of the eyes staring back at us, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we stand in the presence of a being--a fellow human--to whom we owe respect and compassion. Her face, her eyes, bore into us, demanding from us an ethical response. Her face, as the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it, traces "where God passes." Regardless of whether one takes Levinas literally or metaphorically, his point is clear: seeing the face of the other puts us in a profoundly ethical space that elicits from us recognition of the other as worthy of our moral consideration. If we fail to live up to this invitation, the other's eyes judge us. So the eyes are the windows of both the other's soul and ours. If we abuse her, we see the silent recrimination in them, and see ourselves as falling morally short. We feel shame. The gaze of the tormented in turn torments us. This may be part of the reason guards can fly into rages when prisoners, refusing to deferentially lower their gaze, stare straight into their eyes.
You don't need to be a philosopher to get the point. All of us have had the unpleasant experience of having to face people to whom we've been unfair or surly--a spouse, a child, a colleague--and we feel ourselves naked and exposed under their gaze. In fact, many of them notice our discomfort, and out of kindness turn their gaze away from us as we stumble through our apologies. Moreover, "conscience" is at least in part a "what if I'm seen by someone" constraint, akin to the uncanny experience of feeling watched ("I feel as if somebody's staring at the back of my head!") when we're doing something we know to be shameful. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who works with the criminally insane, notes that serial killers frequently mutilate the eyes of their victims because they can't stand being "seen" and judged by their victims. If Levinas is correct, all of us desire to avoid the look of the other whom we're mistreating.
Fortunately for our and society's moral health, most of us simply can't avoid the face to face encounter with the other. His or her gaze calls us to account. But torturers can. Torturers can transform persons with reproachful eyes into anonymous mannequins with erased faces. They become less than persons--creatures that no longer eyes that bore into our souls--and can therefore be beaten, mocked, fucked, humiliated, and if necessary killed without the torturer feeling the shame that under normal circumstances would paralyze him. And when the rest of us become bystanders who tolerate the torture of others, we protect ourselves from the gaze by hooding victims with labels: terrorist, scum, fanatic.
Is it any surprise that the hood has become the de facto international symbol for torture?