Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Torturespeak: "To Be Disappeared"

The language of torture is uncanny. As Marguerite Feitlowitz observes in her brilliant A Lexicon of Terror, torture rips "benign domestic nouns" from their conventional context and appropriates them as vocabulary for its own perverse discourse. Suddenly, words which are either neutral or positive take on sinister connotations. Hence the eeriness of torturespeak.

Take "disappear," for example.* In conventional discourse, it's a relatively innocent word. At most, it occasionally indicates frustration or puzzlement: "My keys have simply disappeared!" But in torturespeak, "disappear" becomes a fear-inspiring transitive verb. It's not simply something that happens to my car keys or my wallet. It becomes an act--or, even more uncannily, an unact--that's deliberately done to human beings: "She was disappeared."
Torturespeak's appropriation of "disappear" originated in Argentina during the horrible years of its Dirty War in which upwards of 30,000 people "disappeared." The military authorities used it to acknowledge that people were vanishing--they came to be called desaparecidos--but to deny any complicity. As Argentine Army general-in-chief Roberto Viola said, desaparecidos were people who were "absent forever." They vanished because it was their "destiny" to vanish. But everyone knew that this was mockery. What Viola clearly meant was that the miliary would create a destiny of disappearance for anyone who dared to get in its way. Malcontents would vanish into a chupadero, a vortex into which people get sucked. Anyone falling into a chupadero--a torture chamber--became a chupado, someone who has been sucked down a drain, someone who's been disappeared.
How strange, how unsettling, to hear this kind of language. How can a person be disappeared? The phrase connotes utter erasure, vanishment, dissolution, ceasing-to-be. And it suggests that the disappearance was sucked-down-a-drain sudden--poof! That a vibrant human being could be here one moment and totally gone the next without a trace: how can the human mind wrap itself around such a thing? The magician makes coins, rabbits, and scarfs disappear. We understand this. But to make humans disappear? This reduces them to inanimate, impotent objects, pliable stage props. We uneasily sense that some kind of category mistake is being made, that we're using language appropriate to objects to refer to persons. And the result is a jarring, uncanny dissonance.
And yet this is, of course, the whole point of torturespeak: to malform discourse, just as it malforms victims, in order to intimidate and terrorize. Language itself becomes a torture instrument, reminding those of us who haven't been disappeared to watch ourselves lest the same mysterious fate befall us. And for the torture victims themselves? Torturespeak adds psychological despair to their physical agony. Time and again, torturers tell their victims "You don't exist. You don't exist. You're no one. You've been forgotten by everyone on the outside. You don't exist."
This language erases the victim, slowly and painfully. Torturespeak's goal isn't merely to forestall the victim's future. It's to warp reality so that she never really existed at all. General Viola said it well. When a person is disappeared, she becomes "absent forever"--past, present, and future. She never was. Poof. Even if she manages to crawl out of the torture chamber, to claw her way back up the chupadero, her self, her personality, her memories--everything which identifies her--are gone. It's as if she never was.
*Today, in the U.S., examples of other once-benign words come to mind: interrogation, enhanced, extraordinary, rendition, habeas corpus, security, and so on.