Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Torture & Property Rights

If we listen to the testimony of torture survivors, remarkable patterns emerge. It makes no difference if the setting is in Asia, the Americas, Europe, or Africa: torturers frequently refer to their victims as "property." "Nobody knows where you are. You've been disappeared. Even God doesn't know where you are. You belong to us now. You're ours!"

I was reminded of this again by SteveG, who operates an interesting blog called Philosophers' Playground. Yesterday, SteveG asked his readers what they thought of a passage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government that bestows property rights on anyone who manipulates natural resources. For example, hunters have a natural right to their quarry because (1) they've taken great pains to bag it, and (2) the quarry, in its "natural state," is common--that is, no one's possession--and thus rightfully belongs to anyone willing to exert himself. Here's the full passage SteveG quotes:
Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one. And amongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of nature, for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place; and by virtue thereof, what fish any one catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind; or what ambergrise any one takes up here, is by the labour that removes it out of that common state nature left it in, made his property, who takes that pains about it. And even amongst us, the hare that any one is hunting, is thought his who pursues her during the chase: for being a beast that is still looked upon as common, and no man's private possession; whoever has employed so much labour about any of that kind, as to find and pursue her, has thereby removed her from the state of nature, wherein she was common, and hath begun a property.
Now, I'm certainly no philosopher, and I have only a laymaiden's acquaintance with Locke. But this passage got me thinking about the torturer's claim to "own" his victim. At first glance, it seems both preposterous and wicked: preposterous because human beings aren't raw material for the taking. Individuals "own" themselves. They have exclusive property rights over their own destinies; wicked, because it treats individuals as if they were objects, thereby violating their autonomy.
But from the torturer's perverse perspective, an appeal to Locke's claim makes good sense. People are common property, there for the plucking by any authority or state with the gumption to take them and mold them into good, productive commodities--or, er, "citizens." They are raw material which become state property when the state goes to the labor of manipulating them for the "common good"--security, harmony, peace, strength, power, and so on. Most of the raw material is tractable and easily manipulated by conventional means such as the media and public education. But some of it is resistant. That's where the peculiar skills of the torturer come in. He's a specialist. It's his job to fashion recalcitrant raw human material into something that's of value to the authority or state for which he works. When he does this, acting as he does as an agent of the state, he exercises a vicarious ownership over the raw material his labor is malforming. He is, if you will, a steward.
The curious thing, though, is that the way in which the torturer adds value to and establishes ownership over the raw material he works with is by destructing it. Physical and psychological fragmentation, erosion of will, breaking of the spirit, and haunting of the memory are the means by which the commodity he hopes to end up with--an utterly compliant "citizen" whose wraith-like presence in the general public is an uncanny and unsettling warning to others--comes off the assembly line.
Photo credit: George Segal, "The Tunnel"