Disguise and deny
by Tom Morris
New Internationalist magazine, September 2000
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 (197~83) 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 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').
Tom Morris (email@example.com) is Public Awareness Co-ordinator
for Amnesty International Canada