Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The US Embrace of Torture: Can It Be Broken?

Many people in the US accept the use of torture. Does this represent a confused attempt to lash out against broad swaths of the rest of the world for what they say and think?

Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty
It is very frustrating to see data showing that 46% of US people think torture is okay. (See "Torture Can Be Useful, Nearly Half of Americans in Poll Say" by Somini Sengupta in The New York Times, December 5, 2016.)

Many of us have worked to change the practices of the US government with respect to indefinite detention and torture. In large part, we have been guided by the idea that the general public didn't have the facts and/or were not thinking clearly about what was really going on. We have believed that if people in the US looked hard at the practices of their government, there would be a hue and cry for change that could not be ignored.

January 11, 2017, will mark the end of 15 years of lawless detention and torture at Guantanamo. Over the coming weeks, there will be many attempts to call up the entire recent (and not-so-recent) history of US abuse, and to call for change.

I am beginning to wonder if we will continue to fail to accomplish change until we better understand why so many US people like the idea of torture.

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I look at the image above and think: is it really about getting information? or is it about something else?

There is abundant expert opinion that torture is not an effective way to get information. (In recent weeks, Donald Trump's nominee to head the Defense Department, Gen. James Mattis, has said as much.)

Thirty years ago, my sister published a fundamental work on the topic, The Body in Pain, which "analyzes the political ramifications of deliberately inflicted pain, specifically in the cases of torture and warfare."

People allude the ticking time bomb scenario as a pretext for torture and other forms of abuse -- à la the TV drama 24 -- but that is fiction.

No, it's not about getting information. (Though that's a story people tell themselves to make themselves more comfortable.)

So what is it about?

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The picture above looks to me not like getting someone to talk, but like getting someone to stop talking.

Is it possible that the support among US people for torturing people -- particularly when the people tortured have come to be people from the Muslim world -- has something to do with silencing them and people like them? In particular, is it a way of symbolically "gagging" the Muslim world, effectively gagging its members from offering a critique of the US that is difficult to hear?

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The Muslim world is not a monolithic entity, and there is certainly no "authorized" critique of the US coming from it. And yet . . . .

Characteristics Associated with Westerners and Muslims
Traits associated with Westerners among Muslims in predominantly Muslim countries, and
Traits associated with Muslims among non-Muslims in the US, Russia, and W. Europe
(Pew Research Center)

I was fascinated to see data from a Pew poll comparing perceptions of people in the West about the Muslim world to perceptions of people in the Muslim world about the west.

I guess I wasn't surprised to see that 50% or more of the people in the West perceive people in the Muslim world as "fanatical" and "violent." (Hey, at least they also perceived them as "honest.")

I found it ironic that people in the Muslim world returned the favor, and then some. They perceived people in the West to be fanatical, too, and to a larger extent (58% vs. 53%). And they perceived people in the West to be violent to a much greater extent (66% vs. 50%).

I think I'll return to violence and fanaticism in a subsequent blog post, but for the moment let's set them aside.

The really interesting thing to me is the other traits that people in the Muslim world strongly associated with people in the West: selfishness, greed, immorality, and arrogance.





Well, that may resonate with some of us, but it is possible that the great majority of US people have no idea that this is how people in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) tend to view them . . . .

Or . . . even if some people know, they may just brush aside those perceptions.

But is it possible that a lot of people in the US do know that this is how they are viewed in the Muslim world?

Moreover, is it possible that deep down it agrees with their own critique of US society?

Come to think of it, socially conservative people in the US are certainly troubled by what they perceive as immorality in the US. And to some extent, at least some of them worry that we have problems with selfishness, greed, and arrogance in our society.

So maybe there is a critique to be made . . . .

But coming from those other people?

That's a tough pill to swallow.

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The foregoing is written in recognition that we really are stuck in our confrontation with torture.

On all rational and objective factors, it should be possible to stop torture in its tracks.

We are achieving some "wins," but there is a troubling remnant of support for torture in US society.

Maybe we need to explore new avenues for change.

In that spirit . . .

Assume it is true, at least to some degree, that there is an embrace of torture by a large part of the US populace, and that embrace, at least to some degree, stems from a deep-seated conflict they are experiencing over the critique they perceive from the Muslim world. Might that not suggest that a much different approach than those we are currently using will need to be taken to break the grip of that embrace?

Related posts

Now would be a good time for people in the US to learn some facts about Islam, and about its followers (Muslims), and to reflect on the adversarial position the new president has promised to adopt toward it and them.

(See REFLECTION: When people say "the Muslim faith itself is the source of the problem")

Chicago was the site of major protests against U.S. detention practices in Guantanamo, as well as in Bagram, other prisons throughout Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world, on and around January 11, 2012. We called for an end to indefinite detention, unfair trials, and torture.

(See Chicago Protests Guantanamo Detention)

Thinking about the Holocaust Museum's depiction of the reliance on brutality and intimidation during the Holocaust, all I could think of was the repeated use of similar tactics by the U.S. military against prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

(See Holocaust Museum: "Those Nazi Bastards!"