How many human beings, at this moment, are being tortured somewhere in the world? What are the reasons for torturing, and what does it mean to torture a person? Is torture something new; how far back in history does torture go? What is the responsibility of the citizenry of a government using methods of torture? Do we have a responsibility to protest unjustifiable torture of those in states other than our own? Is torture ever justifiable—and if so what controls should be put on such practices?
Torture is defined by dictionaries (such as Encarta World English Dictionary) as (1) the inflicting of severe physical (or psychological) pain on somebody as punishment or to persuade someone to confess, (divulge), or recant something; (2, or the term can be used to describe) the methods used to inflict pain on people; or (3) the anguish suffered by the victim of torture. Then, notice significantly, that the term torture is used to describe something that has been twisted into an unnatural shape.
The World Medical Association defined torture in its Tokyo Declaration of 1975 as:
… the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.
A continuation of this declaration, typical of such global documents, offers this loophole: …”The actions must not be part of a ‘lawful sanction.’”
Torture has apparently been part of human cultural history throughout. Individual and group torture was and is found among primitive tribal peoples. Advanced groups such as the Mayans and Aztecs used ritual sacrifice (cutting out the hearts of live victims) as a scapegoat to the gods or neighboring peoples.
Greeks and Romans used torture to extract information or confessions from slaves and gradually on other enemies of the state. Forms of torture can also be found among Egyptians and Jews. Crucifixion is a well-known method of torture of the Romans, causing slow death by asphyxiation or heart collapse. The Romans would also turn a murderer lose in the wilderness with the dead corpse of the murdered one chained to his back until worms and disease brought a painful death. Wikipedia lists the breaking wheel, burning, boiling to death, flaying, disembowelment, impalement, crushing, stoning, dismemberment, sawing, scaphism and necklacing as further torturous punishments.
Torture in the Middle Ages came both from the state and religious institutions. The torture rack and quartering were infamous medieval methods of torture. Jews and Turks suffered horrible persecution in Europe, and Christians subjected Christians with whom they disagreed to the rack and burnings.
Modern methods of torture have added shocking denigration of personal dignity, isolation in small boxes, electrical shocks to sensitive body parts, waterboarding and forced feeding, among other methods.
The four Geneva Conventions sought to protect basic human rights of prisoners and non-combatants. The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was announced in 1987. The Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture was ratified by 17 nations, including the U.S., that same year. Despite these declarations, torture has been practiced by many regimes, including that of the United States.
Globally, North Korea seems to lead the world presently with its extensive use of torture in its six prison camps—as documented by Amnesty International, the Human rights Watch, and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Reported extreme abuses in these detention centers leaves listeners aghast but provides few possible solutions. One blogger writes, “We did nothing to prevent the slaughter of Jews in WWII when few knew the details, but what will we do now when we know the horror of these camps which have existed so much longer than those of Hitler and Stalin?”
Treatment of captured spies, and especially terrorists with basic human respect seems to be agreed upon my most. But are there ever exceptions? A thoughtful discussion of torture must include consideration of the rights of a government over its citizens, the use of exceptional extremes in cases of national emergencies, proper responses to grievous terrorist attacks and loss of innocent lives, along with issues of security versus privacy.
Issues regarding human rights violations at Abu Ghraib by U.S. prison guards have been left hanging. The Government’s use of contractors (e.g. CACI) and legal complexities complicates establishment of responsibility. In Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, water-boarding and other means against international standards were used. The use of private iPods and cameras has exposed these practices to the world. The U.S. Congress and President cannot agree about prisoners held without charge, and some painfully force-fed, at Guantanamo Bay Prison.
Torturous killings have taken place in many political and military conflicts. The genocide of Jews, the horrors of Stalin’s Gulag’s 53 camps and 423 labor camps, the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, torture in Latin American dictatorships, the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims and Croatians in the Bosnian War (1992-1995) are all atrocities popular history usually slights. They exhibit the mystery of evil, man’s inhumanity to man, and propensity for human groups to erupt with murderous vengeance against neighbors.
After revelations of Hitler’s atrocities, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram studied the willingness of volunteers to inflict pain in cases where their personal conscience and reservations may have been overridden by obedience to a higher authority. In these 1961 experiments, an authority figure, the Experimenter had collusion with an actor as the Student, who was being instructed by the Teacher, the volunteer. Millgram asked: “What is there in human nature that allows an individual to act without any restraints whatsoever so that he can act inhumanely… and in no way limited by feelings of compassion or conscience?” Despite recorded grunts and screams—as if from the Student—but with forceful commands from the Experimenter, 65% of the volunteers, though many with strong objections, followed the instructions of the Experimenter, inflicting the maximum 450 volts of shocks for each wrong answer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTX42lVDwA4, accessed 23Jul2013.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. How high on your social radar scale is the issue of torture?
2. Experiments like Millgram’s are no longer used for obvious ethical reasons, but if it should be administered again these days, what do you think the results would be?
3. Do you agree with the old saying that when one human being suffers, all suffer? How do we deal with the overload of negative information about suffering we deal with most every day?
4. Is torture a reality we just need to get used to?
5. If you were going to respond somehow to some torture going on in the world these days, which situation would you choose?
6. At what point would horrendous torture in a country lead you to advocate for intervention by the U.S. or some collaboration of nations?
7. Is torture important enough to be discussed at least one day each year?
8. How did you respond to this article? What criticisms or suggestions do you have to make it a more effective introduction to this problem?
9. How do your religious beliefs or humanistic ethical views affect your attitudes and opinions about torture?
1. Citizens of the world have a responsibility to know about the practice of torture and insist on some kinds of effective controls regarding its use.
3. Serious investigation and consideration of torture and methods of torture, leads many to conclude that torture violates the dignity of a human being, demeans the personhood of the torturer, and contaminates the quality of information gained. Arguments of successful interrogators have affirmed better results from more humane and patient methods.
3. Torture should be considered from historical, sociological, psychological, theological or humanistic perspectives. We are all bystanders, and bystanders have responsibilities.