Sunday, August 19, 2007

Torture Expands

One thing that makes torture (aka "enhanced interrogation") palatable to so many of us is that it's so far away. It's done in distant (psychologically, if not geographically) places to people who are on the margins of respectable society anyway: terrorists, enemies of the state, thugs, criminals, bad people who want to hurt us.

Now, there's some truth in that. As a general rule, people who are marginalized--who are relatively unempowered socially, politically, and economically--are the most likely victims of torture. Like all general rules, this one isn't written in stone. Mainstream intellectuals and clergy, for example, were frequently targeted by fascists in Central America and Soviets in the USSR. But in large part, torture focuses on the marginalized, partly because they're easy targets, partly because it's easier to get away with torturing people about whom society-at-large doesn't give much of a shit anyway.
So far, so good--at least if you're a respectable member of society. But here's the thing: when it comes to torture, what counts as marginal is fluid. Standards shift, especially in times of war or crisis, and the class of people who are perceived as marginal and hence torturable tends to expand.
This tendency in torturing societies to widen the circle of those who may be tortured with impunity is observable, for example, in imperial Rome. Initially, the torturable class was limited to slaves charged with crimes. Then the shift occurred: slaves could be tortured both as defendants and witnesses. Then, another shift: freemen were also deemed torturable, but only when being interrogated for suspicion of treason. And then the circle expanded even more: freeman could be tortured as both defendants and witnesses in any number of criminal cases. By the fourth century, torture was a common practice, both in interrogation and in punishment.
A similar expansion occurred in Christian Europe. Although condemning torture in the late fourth century, the Church opened the door for the torture of heretics--those on the religious margins--in 1252, and the insidious expansion began again. From the mid-thirteenth to the late eighteenth century, torture was common in both criminal interrogation and punishment, and social class was no guarantee of immunity.
Torturability expands. That's the tendency. Illiterate, crazy, hate-filled "ragheads" are tortured today (we like to think). But when the torture circle widens, as it probably will (as it already has, for all we know) who'll be next? Muslim clerics? Muslim intellectuals? Anglo-Saxon dissidents? American citizens? All that's needed to qualify is to be perceived as a threat by a powerful government and a scared nation. This gets you an immediate transfer from the homeland of respectability to the hinterlands of marginality. And in that forlorn and desolate place, torture happens.
Edward Peters' Torture is a good source for the historical expansion of torture.