Tuesday, June 5, 2007

"We are the priests of power..."

O'Brien: "How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?"

Winston: "By making him suffer."
O'Brien: "Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing."
Torture is about control--controlling actual and potential dissidents by malfiguring their identities, and then releasing them back into the general public so that they, as walking billboards for state power, can seed fear and intimidation. That's why effective torture is never really covert. Rather, its secrecy is pretend, faux, coy. Somehow, word has to leak into the open. Rumor, insinuation, the whispered report heard from a friend of a friend of a friend: such is the public relations network of torture. It's mysteriousness only serves to ratchet up anxiety and foreboding. The medium is the message.
George Orwell's 1984 spelled out the logic of torture: if you cut the human spirit into pieces, you can patchwork the fragments back together however you wish. And the best way to dismantle the spirit is to inflict agony on the body and mind. Torturers, as 1984's inquisitor O'Brien tells poor Winston Smith, are "priests of power." They know the magic words and rituals, they possess the arcane wisdom, the juju, to perform unholy eucharists. They transform humans into wraiths by breaking their wills. O'Brien knows that overt obedience simply isn't enough. We can walk the walk and talk the talk without buying any of it. Inner servitude , shattered resolve, bound will: that's the ticket.
If we read the memoirs of torture survivors who've somehow managed to verbalize their ordeals--an extremely difficult thing for them to do, as we'll see in future posts--the formula by which torturers rip spirits to pieces becomes pretty obvious. Isolation + physical/ sexual abuse + humiliation = fragmentation + regression + malfiguration.
Torture victims are secreted away from the "outside" world, hidden from their friends, relatives, and acquaintances. They lose all contact with normalcy. Their torturers continously assure them that they've been forgotten, that no one knows or cares where they are, that they have disappeared, that they are utterly alone. As one Argentinian torture survivor quoted in Nunca Mas relates, his torturers would say: "Since we disappeared you, you're nothing. Anyway nobody remembers you. You don't exist."
As the isolation sinks in, any sense of camaraderie or community that sustained the disappeared before her imprisonment erodes. The physical agony she suffers at the hands of her torturers, especially if it leads to the humiliating "betrayal" of her comrades through "confession," only deepens her forlornness. But because she, like all of us, in large part understands who she is through her social contexts and relationships, this isolation is not only emotionally devastating. It's also identity-unraveling. It's not unusual for torture survivors to have no or merely fragmentary memory of their pre-torture lives. The American Ursiline nun Sister Dianna Ortiz, tortured in Guatemala in 1989, to this day has only memory-scraps of her pre-1989 existence. For months after her release, she was unable to recognize even her parents or closest friends. Our identities hold our memories together. When the identity goes, so can memory.
At the same time that the torture victim's contacts with the outer world disappear, thereby beginning the dissolution of her identity, a perverse dependence on her torturers can develop. Brutal as they are, they're the only human contact she has. They do unspeakable things to her that break her will and reduce her to a state of utter dependence that can only be described as a second infancy. This coerced regression is complicated by the fact that sometimes the torturer pretends pity for her plight--"Let me help you. Help me to get you out of this horrible place. Just sign the confession"--at other times stresses his omnipotence--"We are everything for you. We are justice. We are God" (Nunca Mas, p. 25)--and at still other times manipulates the victim's agony and desperation in ways that horrifingly mimic erotic intimacy (Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden chillingly captures this dynamic). The torture victim has a new social context and new relationships that perversely fulfill her desperate need for a reprieve from her isolation, and each of them redefines her as absolutely subordinate, dependent, and needy, and each of them likewise keeps her in a constant state of anxiety and apprehensiveness. The fact that she often feels bone-deep guilt, either because she has "succumbed" to the torture and implicated friends and family, or because she feels herself filthy, dirty, and tainted from the experience of torture itself, further binds her to this new perverse community.
This is the new identity, the patchwork identity, that she takes into the "normal" world if she ever sees the light of day again.