Disguise And Deny
Torture / ATTITUDE
Anyone investigating reports of torture before the nineteenth century would have had a pretty easy time of it. That's because a good many religions and states practised torture as official policy, out in the open without any embarrassment.
Since then, however, a thick fog of shame has come to surround its use, and ever-more elaborate legal prohibitions have evolved. Now governments that practise torture often do so behind elaborate charades of secrecy, denial and hypocrisy.
Torturers and their bureaucrats during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-83) seldom referred to 'torture' as such. Instead we heard of 'interrogation', 'intensive therapy', 'persuasion' or simply 'work', with torture rooms referred to as 'operating theatres'. Euphemistic references to 'excesses' and 'certain methods' fill Argentine Government reports into its own violence.
US officials spent years denying that their School of the Americas trained torturers. Faced with their own training manuals, they found it 'incredible', a result of 'bureaucratic oversight', that such material existed.
In the late 1950s, when news reached Europe that French authorities were systematically using torture in Algeria, the first response was disbelief. Torture was supposed to take place in 'aberrant' societies, such as Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union. French officials claimed the reports were 'exaggerated', that those responsible were members of the Foreign Legion, and hence non-Frenchmen, and that although 'duress' was being used, it was 'not quite torture'.
But in ancient China, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome judicial torture was routine - in law and in practice. In eleventh-century Christian Europe, heretics were subjected to it to force them to recant. By the Middle Ages, it was widely used in criminal trials as a means of obtaining strong proof of guilt or a confession. The Spanish Inquisition further codified torture techniques and exported them to the New World. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe saw the largest body of legislation institutionalizing torture that the world has ever seen.
The change in attitudes, culminating in the modern revulsion against torture, has occurred gradually in many countries over the past 200 years. As part of its criticism of the early modern world, eighteenth-century Europe condemned torture to a 'barbarous' past, along with 'superstition', 'despotism' and 'savagery'. A Russian state pronouncement from 1801 says 'the very name of torture, bringing shame and reproach on mankind, should be forever erased from the public memory'. Torture was officially outlawed across much of Europe by the early nineteenth century. The facts, however, were that the use of torture and ill-treatment continued with new purposes and in new contexts - both in the European colonies (often under the banner of Europe's 'civilizing mission') and in Europe itself through newly emerging police forces and 'disciplining' institutions, such as workhouses, asylums, prisons and schools. The 'reformer' Jeremy Bentham set the modern, sanctimonious tone by calling his all-seeing, all-controlling disciplinary institutions 'machines for grinding rogues honest'.
Across the century we see torture everywhere - in the routine use of beatings and prolonged solitary confinement in English and US prisons; in the systematic use of rape, floggings and mutilations against the Putumayo in Peru and the people of the Congo Basin by Westerners in their manic search for rubber; and in the physical and mental tormenting of native children in missionary schools across North America later in the century.
In our time, torture needs to be kept secret - or made to appear unavoidable or natural or 'not really torture'. One common tactic is to target Untermenschen, non-people - people who are already widely discriminated against. Another tactic is to appeal to 'special circumstances', such as 'upholding civilization', 'defending national security' or 'fighting terrorism'. Increasingly, torture states are hiring PR firms, just as the Argentine torturers hired the Madison Avenue giant Burston Marsteller.
The public denial of torture has disastrous consequences. It produces communal stupidity (pretending not to know what everyone knows) and, later, shared amnesia. Far worse, it further isolates those who have been attacked. The reality of their experience is rejected. They are often reviled for daring to remind others of what they have allowed to be done in their midst. Finally, public denial means there is no justice for the victims, no accountability for those responsible for these crimes, and the increased likelihood that new torture regimes will appear. This is why the continuing struggles for truth and justice in countries like South Africa and Chile are so critical.
To stop torture we must name it for what it is, wherever and whenever it occurs. Expose it, deny it its hiding places - just as the courageous Chileans did who, in the early 1980s, under threat of terrible abuse, regularly unfurled a large banner outside a secret torture centre in Santiago - a banner that read 'Aqui se tortura' ('Here they torture').
([email protected]) is Public Awareness Co-ordinator for Amnesty International Canada.