Our government tortures people. This is not in dispute. Just because George W. Bush says “We do not torture”
over and over again does not make it true. He may not be lying, but when your definition of torture is “inflicting
pain until there is serious risk of heart failure or death” than almost nothing qualifies as torture. But it is well
documented that we use psychological torture such as sensory deprivation, preventing prisoners from sleeping,
forcing them to stand for hours on end, stripping them naked and pissing on their sacred texts, and yes,
occasionally just beating the shit out of them. Not to mention water-boarding, but that sounds like too much fun
to be torture.
The point is, unless you work for the Bush administration, there is no dispute that the government uses torture.
What can be disputed is why we torture, and the answer to this question is far more important than the fact that
we torture in the first place.
The most obvious answer is that we use torture to soften up prisoners for interrogation, making them more likely
to give us good intelligence that will allow us to go after the “evil-doers” and keep our children safe. But this is
bullshit, because anyone who knows anything about torture (I’m talking about military officials at the pentagon, as
well as former soldiers like John McCain who have actually been tortured) understands that it is completely
ineffective for gaining good, useful intelligence. The methods used in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are
actually adaptations of methods used on our own soldiers during the Korean War to get them to make false
confessions. The psychological torture we use will disorient a prisoner so much that he will barely know who he
is, let alone what he is confessing to. So torture is a very effective method for getting people to say what you want
them to say, but not for obtaining useful information.
“But,” one could say, “maybe the military experts on torture just forgot to tell Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld that
torture doesn’t work. Maybe they think that they’re really getting useful intelligence and just don’t know that it’s
not working.” I might buy that if we were just talking about Bush—he might sincerely believe that torture is
keeping America safe—but I think Cheney and Rumsfeld are just a little bit smarter than that. Cheney at least
must know that torturing prisoners is not providing us with good intelligence.
So that rules out the first explanation. We do not torture to gain useful information, so perhaps we torture as a
deterrent. If the evil-doers know that we’re going to strip them naked and stack them on top of each other, they
might think twice before doing all that evil that they keep doing. Of course, if we think about how we might react
if we saw pictures on the news of our neighbours being shamed and degraded by an occupying power that
considered us evil, I don’t think we would sheepishly retreat to our holes and hope they don’t come after us, and
that doesn’t seem to be what our enemies are doing. If the situation were reversed, we would be out there
planting road-side bombs at every opportunity, and I’m pretty sure Cheney knows that torture is not deterring the
terrorists but only inflaming their hatred.
So it doesn’t get us good intelligence and it doesn’t serve as a deterrent. Cheney is not a stupid man, so he must
know this. Why on earth, then, would he continue to be so aggressive about creating and maintaining the
president’s right to use torture (a right the president did not have until this administration)? Even after John
McCain’s bill banning the use of torture passed in congress with overwhelming bi-partisan support, Cheney—who
had fought vigorously against it—made sure that Bush attached a signing statement to the bill declaring that the
president had the authority to ignore this law if he felt it was necessary. Why? Why, Dick? Why?
I think I know the answer, and at first it may sound like I’m making wild accusations, or that I’m just joking
around, but I am dead serious. I think they torture people because it’s fun for them. Not fun in a “Hey, let’s all
go over to Rumsfeld’s house and play Twister™” sort of way, but fun in a “Hey, let’s all beat the piss out of the
weak kid on the playground just because we can” sort of way. They get off on it. It makes them feel
powerful. Dick Cheney has a power fetish.
Again, this is not a joke, it’s not hyperbole, and it’s not just my attempt to say something shocking. If you really
think about it, you’ll come to the same conclusion. It explains everything: why they invaded Iraq, why they’ve
expanded the powers of the president to the proportions of a 14th century monarch, and why they torture people
when it really doesn’t benefit the United States in any way. The reason for all of these things is that they did them
because they could.
There are two basic explanations for why the powerful do the terrible things they do. The first is illustrated by
Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov (the best book ever written) in Ivan’s story of “The Grand Inquisitor.”
In the story, Jesus Christ returns to earth during the inquisition, and is put to death for heresy. The Inquisitor, who
gives him the death sentence, explains that the Church has had to undo the damage caused by his teachings, and
lie to the people for their own good. According to this idea, the powerful accept knowledge of the truth and do
the brutal things that must be done for the good of the people. They must do these things, to remove the burden
of freedom from the masses, who want be subjugated so that they may go on living their lives in blissful ignorance,
free from responsibility for the atrocities it is necessary to commit in order to keep civilization going. If our
government tortures prisoners out of a genuine belief that they are doing this for our own good, and if they keep it
secret so that we need not suffer from the guilty conscience of knowing the horrible things that must be done to
keep society intact, this explanation would apply. But as I have shown, it doesn’t.
There is another, much more insidious explanation, and this is the one that does apply to this administration, as
well as to the wealthy elite who own the corporations that own the government and will soon own everything in
the world. This is the explanation that can be found in George Orwell’s 1984, another tremendously good novel
which should be required reading for everyone. Towards the end of the story, after Winston Smith has undergone
a particularly long and brutal ordeal of physical and psychological torture at the hands of the Party under the semi-
divine rule of Big Brother, the Inner Party member O’Brien confronts him with the question of why the Party is
willing to go so far in maintaining power. Winston begins to give Dostoevsky’s explanation: that the Party is
brutalising its people for their own good, but O’Brien cuts him off. No, he says, the big secret is that the powerful
do not see power as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. They do not care about such an abstract concept
as “the good of the people”—the good of the people is whatever the Party decides it is. They go after power for
its own sake.
And these are the kinds of people who are running the world today. They know that what they do is harmful to
the majority of human beings, but they don’t care. They understand that our civilization is not sustainable, that the
poor around the world are suffering because of the wasteful decadence of the super-rich, and that unless we
change our way of life soon there is no hope for the survival of future generations. They’re not stupid. Some of
them are wilfully ignorant, but most of them know full well that what they’re doing is wrong and destructive. They
just don’t care.
If there is such a thing as evil, it is the result of too much power in the hands of too few people. Power must be
distributed as widely and as evenly as possible if we are not to be slaves at the mercy of tyrants. And due to the
global scale on which the consolidation of power is happening today—which is even worse than Orwell
imagined—coupled with the apocalyptic destruction that modern technology is capable of rendering should things
get out of control, it is more important than ever that we close this dangerous gap. The powerful never give up
power willingly—not even to save the human race. Power must be taken from them if there is to be any hope for
our children, or for theirs. For the sake of every human being, including the children and grandchildren of the
powerful who are so blinded by their lust for power that they ignore the fact that they are condemning their own
descendants to death, we need a revolution. And we need it as soon as possible.
Torture and the Problem of Power
Kem Stone - December 2007