Monday, April 11, 2011

Revisiting torture

Torture; I know we spent a long time on it, however I found myself thinking about it today and discovering that I was still unsure as to what physical actions (or mental) qualify as this loaded term. Sure we sat outside in the sun and discussed what it could and couldn't be, yet I wonder about the video that we watched after, if it changed our collective view as much as it changed mine.

Originally I would have told you that humiliation in front of peers, while being degrading, unfortunate and unsettling, was most likely not torture. After seeing Ghosts of Abu Graib however, I wish to recant my previous view. I see the events that our government allowed and minimally punished as torture now, and it causes me to wonder where the boundaries really do lie. The boundaries that I refer to are not just those of our classification of torture but also of our perception of ourselves. I think that it is really interesting that we find ourselves in the precarious position of a hypocritical nation that is supposedly spreading peace and standing against terrorism while still behaving in this manner. (I hope that I am not alone in this sentiment)

The movie made me consider America's reaction to Japan after WWII when looking at how their army had treated the Chinese in Nanjing. Americans expressed such a wave of disgust at the horrid things (so horrid that I refrain from writing them here but I encourage anyone who does not know the particulars to look, as long as they promise not to blame me for the mental scarring that will follow) that these military men inflicted on the masses. Even more shocking was the Japanese response to the American wave of objection, which was that they were emulating our own government's handling of the enemy, which they based off of our previous war encounters. They thought that they were acting in the same way that "civilized westerners" acted. Even more disturbing is that they were not that far from the truth about us- one only has to look to the Spanish American war, or the U.S.A.'s involvement in squashing rebellions in South America to see this.

I had hoped that we had advanced in time from these brutal practices, yet this film shows me that the practices have only been switched torturing from the physical to the mental, totally reversing my standpoint on what torture is. So now I put it to you- am I the only one having this issue? What are your thoughts?


  1. Well, you know, I think I've always viewed "torture" as being mentally painful, regardless of whether or not the physical aspect is involved in the matter. The reason that a conclusion to this debate is so hard to reach is because of the problem of the definition. You know--tomato, tomahto. What someone sees as brutal might be seen as being perfectly reasonable to someone else. I am glad that you have personally redefined torture, but to me, I guess, I've always seen torture as mentally brutal, maybe as a result of the tormenting over my sexuality that I received in middle and high school. To me, that WAS torture. And while my experience cannot begin compare to something like Abu Ghraib or Nanjing, I believe that shaped the way I defined the brutal practice of torture.

  2. I completely understand the trouble when trying to define what torture is now. I think that when many people hear the word "torture" they think of a someone strapped down to a table, with physical brutality being dominant. But the more and more I read for class, and especially after watching that video, it seems that the worst kind of torture IS mental, and that seems to be completely correct when I really think about it. With people that suffer severe trauma to the body, it seems like in most cases they can heal, and their bodies will regenerate and in many ways "get better." But when the psychological aspect comes into it, there are psychological scars that seem to almost never heal for many people. Especially in today's society, I feel like people are plagued more by mental stresses than physical. Our government seems to have grabbed that and run with it in relation to their torture practices. Moreover, there seems to be this sick pleasure that some people get from breaking someone mentally more so than physically. It is almost as if there is more gratification that comes from mentally torturing someone than physically torturing them.

  3. While I do agree that the some of the details of torture may have shifted over the years, I do not believe that it has changed from a physical to a mental practice. Rather, I believe that the practice of torture has always been largely a mental manipulation that is often accomplished through acts against the body. I think that one of the things that makes torture so difficult to clearly pin down and define is the human tendency to excuse or ignore those questionable practices that are closer to home for us. For most people, military forces inflicting pain upon hostages for the purposes of extracting information is not a common occurrence in our daily lives; therefore, it is easy to readily condemn the act as torture even in the case of our own government. However, we are often witnesses to or participants in teasing, bullying, or social exclusion of some sort on a fairly regular basis. Because the majority of us witness or participate in these practices without any prologued suffering of our own, we are not so ready to condemn these as unacceptable in the same way as torture.

  4. I agree with Perry here (and in doing so, perhaps Colin), but I may take it a step further. Torture is totally a mental process. While taking this a bit too far, it is mentality that allows one to process physical pain. Even more so, it is arguably the mental fear of being hurt so badly that one will die that causes torture to be a completely mental practice. While it is the physicality of torture that causes us to look on in horror, it is the mental processing of the physical realm that truly disturbs us.

  5. I would echo Perry and Rush in the idea that torture has always been rooted in mental manipulation, and that physical abuse can be one of the means to affect the mind. Perhaps the general shift to more explicitly mental forms of torture can be attributed to a greater understanding of individual psychology, as well as a way of evading (unsuccessfully, I might add) the responsibility that comes with signing documents such as the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. By practicing torture, the US undermines its own credibility as well as the authority of these conventions both it and the majority of countries have signed.

    Colin, your mention of Japan’s response reminds me of Donnelly’s discussion on the potential role of powerful countries to shape human rights enforcement by setting an example. Hypothetically, I wonder what would happen if the United States and several other countries publicly renounced all torture practices by virtue of the UN Convention Against Torture. What would it take for other countries to follow suit? And for the US to finally adhere to internationally-binding agreements it has made regarding torture?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.