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The Breakdown of Torture

The Breakdown of Torture: A Multifaceted Memoir of Mutilations and Miracles

Human potential and ingenuity are virtually limitless, and such traits are exemplified through the accomplishments of humankind in a relatively short period of time.  An unfortunate characteristic uniquely trademarked to human civilization, however – the act of torture – harbors with it ghastly thoughts of pain, cruelty, agony, and suffering.  It is an action, and is arguably even a tool created by humans for humans.  When it comes to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or CIDT, aside from who is involved such as the tortured or the torturers, the innocent or the guilty, or right or wrong, they do promise one result: victims.  As the whole world progresses into the future bearing with it conflicts such as the French occupation of Algiers and the 9/11 “terrorist attacks” on the United States, one can actually observe the regressive steps humans have taken in dealing with conflicts.  Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are not only ineffective and inefficient in their intended attempts to complete their objectives, but they are also morally and socially unacceptable.  Although the faces and purposes of torture cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are constantly changing, its core figure remains static invoking oftentimes nightmares of, again, pain, cruelty, agony, and suffering.  The human civilization as a whole must view the concept of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment with a great deal of concern as they reflect the current and future health, well-being, and inter-relationships of both the civilization itself and its surrounding environment.

First one must possess a general background of torture in order to fully understand its multi-dimensional intricacy.  Just recently in 1984, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment published the definition of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment:

“…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.  It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

This lengthy definition covers various angles, as well as that under no “exceptional circumstances” may any entity justify its use of torture, including “state of emergency, war, or an order from a public authority” (UN Website).  Regardless of these declarations, nations and organizations have and still utilize torture and various forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to further agendas.

In today’s standards, specifically in the United States of America, the general populace views torture as a physical and painful means of extracting desirable information.  This view, however, was not and is not always the case; as such, one of the earliest accounts of torture was recorded before the Common Era in approximately the year four hundred (400 BCE) in Achaemenian Persia.  King Artaxerxes utilized torture as a means of both covering the truth and ensuring a type of “order” in his kingdom favorable to his regime.  While many historians generalize his personality as a “gentle and noble spirit” (Dryden), his reaction to Mithradates proves otherwise when the latter leaks the truth about what had actually happened in a battle at Cunaxa on 3 September 401 BCE.  Mithradates was enclosed in a coffin-like contraption, leaving only his head and feet to protrude, and was covered and force-fed honey mixed with milk (Lincoln, 2009, 158).  As his entire body was constantly turned towards the sun, flies accumulated upon his exposed skin while he defecated inside the coffin, whereby “worms and maggots boiled up from the decay and putrefaction of his excrement, and these ate away his body, boring into his interior” (Lincoln, 2009, 158).  Mithradates was physically and chemically broken down and ate to death for seventeen days upon which his dead body was removed and showcased to the public (Lincoln, 2009, 158).  Bruce Lincoln highlights that not only did the public observe the physical pains Mithradates experienced should an individual carry out an action unfavorable to the king, but there also was a subliminal and sub-conscious message broadcasted to the audience.

Once the body of Mithradates was revealed, all eyes witnessed what was left of his now gruesome and repugnant body.  This then literally translated to a message that all liars and dissidents are fundamentally composed of wretched, grotesque, and corroded elements, ultimately justifying any action to cleanse such “vile” and unwanted beings from a society.  Lincoln links this historical event with the United States incident with Abu Ghraib stating that United States Ground Infantry personnel also sought to root out terrorists and enemies of the United States.  The Abu Ghraib incident, however, failed to produce the desired result of obtaining more information “vital” to the national security of the United States in which: firstly, most, if not all, detainees were subject to any and all of the features outlined in the definition of “torture” of the Convention; secondly, seventy to ninety percent of detainees were innocent of any crimes (“Red cross says,” 2004).

Additionally during the Korean War, the Chinese developed and invented techniques which primarily focused on sensory deprivation.  The objective was to force captured American prisoners to produce “false confessions of participation in war crimes for use in propaganda” (Schell, 2009, 17).  As time changes, so do the aims and the desire or need to satisfy them.  Torture is a multifaceted tool that not only invokes physical pains upon its victim, but also brings with it a level of pain which far exceeds that which is tangibly felt upon the surface of an individual.

Bruce Lincoln, as well as Jonathan Schell, touch upon a few of the symbolic and psychological components of torture in the critically-acclaimed work The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World written by Elaine Scarry which are truly horrifying and destructive once analyzed.  Within the introduction this work, Scarry explains how physical pain and psychological or emotional pain are all connected and transcend one another.  As soon as an individual experiences physical pain, it is a feeling “unlike any other state of consciousness – [it (pain)] has no referential content” (Scarry, 1987, 5).  The verbal expression of pain itself “shatters” (Scarry, 1987, 5) a fundamental and crucial boundary: a language universal across all cultures and societies of the human civilization that breaks down not just that individual human, but also the human as a whole.  Torture and its resulting pain “assault[s] the foundation of [the torture victim’s] own world, although [the victim] does not know it” (Schell, 2009, 17).  Physical pain must not be confused and allied with psychological suffering as the latter does have “referential content, is susceptible to verbal objectification, and is so habitually depicted in art” (Scarry, 1987, 11).  The concept and practice of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment supersede any other experience known to humankind: designed for use on humans by other humans, an alarming degree of betrayal that leaves consequential implications in both the near and far future.

The theory and writing Elaine Scarry proposes are supported through science with extensive testing after neuropsychologist Thomas Elbert of the University of Konstanz in Germany performed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tests on individuals who were tortured.  Two areas in the brain are known to have links with post-traumatic stress disorder: the amygdala, which invokes fear responses; and the hippocampus, the shrinkage of which impacts the “storage and retrieval of long-term memories” (Jones, 2010, 5).  After closely studying one of the first neuroimaging results, Elbert and his colleagues noted “abnormal slow-wave activity in the frontal cortex – a marker of disrupted neural function” (Jones, 2010, 5).  This indicates much of the difficulties torture survivors possess in their attempts to recite their experiences which therefore perpetuate “the fear response condition by the trauma they have suffered” (Jones, 2010, 6).  Even more profound is the explanation Thomas Elbert provides of post-traumatic stress disorder victims in that, “[R]eminders of trauma often elicit flashbacks that are experienced in the here and now, not as past events in a different place, and therefore cause great stress” (Jones, 2010, 5).  Torture victims live in their episodes of mutilation and/or humiliation day in and day out.  Since they are incapable of sharing specific events and experiences of their torture, it is extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible, for them to receive aid.  Compounded with the study at the University of Konstanz, these victims essentially become a vegetable trapped in their own world of pain and suffering which they relive in vivid detail on a daily basis.  Acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment leave torture victims tortured for life with slim chances of complete recovery.

Torture and cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment have laden the human civilization with serious, consequential implications and an ominous future.  These acts are not only heinous of their own accord, but they also portray a much broader scope of the human civilization and the direction in which it is traveling.  In a related example, Jacque Fresco, a social engineer of the Venus Project currently running in Venus Florida, advocates a complete redesign of the cultures and societies of the world.  While technology has exponentially and vastly advanced, the human culture and norms have remained relatively static.  The monetary system, which includes economic systems such as socialism, communism, fascism, and capitalism, perpetuates dysfunctional and disconnecting human behavior not only with the relationship with nature but also with the relationship with other humans.  This is because money, which in of itself is synthetic both physically and sentimentally, becomes the primary focus of life rather than the betterment of the quality of human life altogether.  The ability to produce and service will always remain constant; the ability to purchase these products and services, however, will not always remain constant because of the inherent nature and basic principles of the monetary system.  Fresco exemplifies this concept with the United States during World War II, during which the nation only possessed approximately six hundred first-class fighter aircraft (Fresco & Richardson, 2009).  Shortly after its involvement, the United States produced more than ninety thousand planes per year despite the fact that it did not have the funds – money, gold, or otherwise – to do so (Fresco & Richardson, 2009).  The demand and “need” for them, however, as well as the amount of available resources at its disposal, enabled a nation to quickly mobilize a massive fleet (Fresco & Richardson, 2009).  Removing the monetary system entirely is a feasible solution but must be replaced with a new system and Jacque Fresco proposes a resource-based economy (Fresco & Richardson, 2009).  There exist three inter-related ideas with torture and cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment and the reevaluation and redesign of all cultures and societies.

Firstly, torture and cruel, degrading, or inhuman treatment are disconnecting and ensures dysfunction within human civilization just as the monetary system has, is, and will create.  Jonathan Schell writes, “The torturer and his victim are close to each other.  There is physical contact.  Yet in every other respect they are as distant as it is possible for one person to be from another,” and that, “every form of fellow-feeling…have been reduced to absolute zero” (Schell, 2009, 17).  In the instance of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, humans lose contact with one another.  When humans torture one another, they must detach from all natural, social aspects of life either to torture or be tortured.  In the monetary system humans gradually lose sight of any humanistic pursuits and instead must pursue an unnatural medium to survive.  Both of these scenarios promote and gradually create a civilization primarily bent upon disconnection and synthetics, causing a breakdown on arguably epic proportions.

Secondly, and more specifically focusing on certain cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, Metin Basoglu, director of the Istanbul Centre for Behaviour Research and Therapy in Turkey, explains the “cognitive dissociation” (Jones, 2010, 3) with this treatment.  Biologically, humans are equipped with the “flight-or-fight” response as soon as they are faced with a threatening situation.  When a victim is being tortured, however, he or she is restricted in that he or she is unable to act upon either response and dissociates itself from the situation.  Basoglu reports that, “The victim’s emotions, thoughts, sense of self and memory, which in normal life are integrated into a coherent experience, become strangely separated” (Jones, 2010, 3).  Not only must the torturer disconnect or dissociate him or her from the act, but also the tortured is forced so as to escape unbearable psychological and physical pain.  This forced dissociation produces two polar conflicts: on one side, it is instinctual and natural for a human to incorporate all other normal senses to connect with the presently ongoing scenario; however, on the other side, a shocking and traumatic experience such as torture immediately force instincts and other natural behavior from the system of the victim, regardless of how powerful or natural those instincts may initially be.  Compounded with the disconnection of the torturer, it is concluded that, “dissociative experiences induced by repeated trauma can lead to a general tendency to dissociate in everyday life” (Jones, 2010, 3).  Jones further expands upon this dissociation that these victims additionally feel a, “detachment from the self,” with which they endure, “internal states and reality in an unreal or distorted way” (Jones, 2010, 3), which can lead to “amnesia and identity disorders such as multiple personality disorder” (Jones, 2010, 3).  The situation creates a division and disconnection in both parties, and once added together literally creates a world of division and disconnection.

Thirdly, this compounding breakdown is more than a self-deconstruction of the human civilization; it is, “an ‘undoing of civilization,’ and, probably more reliably than anything, it foretells the descent of a civilization into barbarism” (Schell, 2009, 17).  Synthetics lead to disconnection, which then moves to carelessness, and finally results in a collapse.  In reference to Elaine Scarry, should torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment continue unquestioned by trading freedom for security, one may presume an endless downward spiral in which a simple human is unable to retain the shallowest of connections for another.  Currently, money is the desirable object for which humans desperately seek everyday even if it requires them to submit to economic slavery.  Information, false confessions, or any other desirable knowledge are the desirable object for which humans desperately seek, even if it requires torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.  Reproducing on larger scales in an atmosphere that willingly accepts torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment will undoubtedly produce an unsustainable, inhuman planet in which violence is acceptable irrespective of the content or context within which it is used.  It is then necessary to evaluate or in some cases reevaluate the effectiveness and efficiency, or lack thereof, of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, thereby drawing possible resolutions, reformations, and conclusions.

Stepping outside of the realm between the torturers and tortured, astonishingly debates of the practices and theories of torture rage through discussions.  Firstly and most importantly, however, despite the fact that the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment previously published a concrete definition of “torture,” nations such as the United States, particularly the Bush administration, Kenneth Roth writes, pushed to “redefine torture virtually out of existence” (Roth, 2006, 1).  The entire attempt to redefine “torture,” is already inefficient in of itself when a definition already exists.  After many months of planning and drafting, however, scripted in the infamous “torture memos,” torture is generalized as “pain associated with the loss of a major bodily organ” (Roth, 2006, 1) and as such intentionally left its definition to wide interpretation.  The pulling of fingernails and severing off ears do not meet the qualifications of “torture” under those memos, and mock-execution-by-drowning, or “water-boarding,” is a “professional interrogation technique” (Roth, 2006, 1).  Kenneth Roth additionally writes that the Bush administration has found ways to circumvent scripted laws and exploit loopholes, such as offshoring detainees to other nations who would then be subject to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment since they are “non-Americans held outside the United States” (Roth, 2006, 1).  Although the process is tiresomely and frustratingly slow, nations such as the United States must cooperate with international organizations once laws are established, regardless of any unfortunate and unexpected “exceptional circumstances.”  Furthermore, such organizations must draft and publish specific definitions and criteria of “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CIDT),” and leading nations must also abide by these set laws rather than attempting to exploit loopholes or rewriting them on their own terms.  “Democracy requires accountability and transparency” (Dershowitz), and if the United States and similar nations like it pride themselves on democracy, order, and leadership, they must be the first ones to take the first steps to adhere to and enforce their morals, ethics, and ideals.  As soon as this is achieved and countries abide by set laws of what “torture” is and what it includes, the droning, semantic-riddled debates will also end.

There also are the repercussions of those who obtain knowledge that a country such as the United States violates the most basic human values through torture, particularly allies of the tortured victims.  Roth rhetorically questions, “Are we really safer when our governments’ investigative technique becomes a boon for terrorist recruiters, arguably generating more terrorists than it stops” (Roth, 2006, 1)?  Philip Heymann and Juliette Kayyem complement his question in their book Preserving Security and Democratic Freedoms in the War on Terrorism “torture creates martyrs who are living recruiters of new terrorists” (Santucci, 2008, 30).  In essence, the idea of “kill one to save one thousand,” works against the interrogator or torturer and is actually counterproductive.  One can even suggest that in this case killing one produces one thousand (followers of the fallen).  “In the long term, we don’t stop terrorist attacks by doing these things…we actually create more” (Jones, 2010, 5), adding more to the initial problems rather than resolving or solving them.

Kenneth Roth raises another vital question: “After all, how does the interrogator ‘know’ what is inside a suspect’s head” (Roth, 2006, 1)?  Much of the arrest is based off of circumstantial evidence, such as the individual “being of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity, religion, gender, and age” (Roth, 2006, 1) which already encompass a wide variety of possible suspects and when combined in any way, encompass even more possible suspects.  Alan M. Dershowitz also adds that “concerning the arrests made following the Sept. 11 attacks, there is no reason to believe that the detainees know about specific future terrorist targets.  Yet there have been calls to torture these detainees” (Dershowitz).  Additionally in 1987, after Israel permitted the use of “moderate physical pressure,” approximately “80 to 90 percent of Palestinian security suspects were being tortured” (Roth, 2006, 1).  Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to determine the specific thoughts and information an individual possesses.  Dan Jones and Bobby Ghosh, however, discuss a different approach as opposed to torturing or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in dealing with detainees and suspected terrorists.

Shane O’Mara, director of the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, implemented numerous studies on soldiers and discovered that “manipulating sleep, food and temperature,” a method of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, “produces severe effects on memory, even when people are willing to give up information” (Jones, 2010, 4).  Randy Borum of the University of South Florida in Tampa stated that how “social psychologists have shown that pressuring people to change their minds often produces precisely the opposite of the desired effect: it makes the more resistant to change” (Jones, 2010, 5).  Former United States military interrogator in Iraq pseudonymously titled Matthew Alexander stated in an interview with New Scientist that there exists an aura or understanding that one must debase the resistance of a suspect “physically or psychologically” (Jones, 2010, 4).  Contrary to popular belief, he states, “I never saw harsh techniques work.  Every time they were used, the detainee would clam up as they were scared that anything they said would make that pressure increase” (Jones, 2010, 4).  By further breaking down a detainee, especially while utilizing cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment methods, this actually works against the interrogator since the detainee becomes more fearful that, if by releasing more relevant information, notwithstanding if it is truth or lies, they will be subject to more harsh treatment.  O’Mara, Alexander, and Borum all agree that “there is a pressing need to gain a better understanding of the psychology of interrogation” (Jones, 2010, 5) and Bobby Ghosh highlights three high-profile detainee cases in which interrogators utilize passive, nonviolent techniques in their interrogations that awarded interrogators their ultimate prize.

Abu Jandal unwittingly and initially unknowingly identified a number of al-Qaeda members from a photographic album, who opened up to interrogators Ali Soufan of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Robert McFadden of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service after they offered Jandal sugar-free cookies because he was a diabetic (Ghosh, 2009, 1, 4).  Rather than constantly responding with aggressive rants and lectures, Abu Jandal then began to converse with Soufan and McFadden.  In the spring of 2006, Matthew Alexander was once again applying passive and empathetic techniques while interrogating a Sunni imam linked with al-Qaeda in Iraq.  By simply offering a personal apology and offering an alliance and cooperation to battle their common enemy, the Shi’ite mullahs in Tehran, the imam willingly disclosed the location of a safe house for suicide bombers which then ultimately led the troops to al-Zarqawi (Ghosh, 2009, 4-5).  Army staff sergeant Eric Maddox’s successful passive interrogation of Mohammed Ibrahim led to the spider hole of Saddam.  Maddox said to Ibrahim on the final day of his last tour of duty two hours before his flight:

“I told him he had to talk quickly because Saddam might move.  I also said that once I got on the plane, I would no longer be able to help him.  My colleagues would just toss him in prison.  Instead of saving 40 of his friends and family, he’d become 41” (Ghosh, 2009, 6).

Eric Maddox (Army staff sergeant) adds, “If you have to inflict pain, then you’ve lost control of the situation, the subject and yourself” (Ghosh, 2009, 2-3).  Through the employment of common detective and police officer techniques, such as showing respect, researching and possessing as much knowledge of the detainee and subject as possible, empathy, understanding, and even kindness in some cases, passive interrogators are able to accrue a wealth of what they desire on a silver platter.

Humans have come relatively far in a short period of time, but their morals, ethics, ideals, cultures, and societal values have remained static.  Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CIDT) are all adverse and deplorable traits of the human civilization that have remained with humans since recorded time.  Not only are torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment intensely damaging on short-term scales, but they are also extremely detrimental for future generations.  These actions tap into the innermost sections of the human psyche of which no other feat is capable of doing.  They also possess the ability to literally, physically, and psychologically disconnect humans from other humans and all other entities, including their surrounding environment.  There already exist a plethora of alternatives to torture and forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that do not embrace or use coercive techniques which prove to be inefficient and ineffective.  Additionally, one must not underestimate human ingenuity: torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatments were invented by humans for humans; however, if people can also pool together efforts to discover and research more passive and humane interrogation methods, then the human civilization as a whole will advance into a commendable and superior status of sustainable, peaceful, and inter-related living.  Confucius philosophizes that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” and it is the responsibility of leading countries such as the United States to take that first step.


Dershowitz, A. M. (2001). Is there a torturous road to justice?. Los Angeles Time, Retrieved from http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith//courses01/rrtw/Dershowitz.htm

Dryden, J. (n.d.). Artaxerxes. Unpublished manuscript, The Internet Classiscs Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/artaxerx.htm

Fresco, J., & Richardson, S. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.thevenusproject.com/

Ghosh, B. (2009). How to Make Terrorists Talk. Time, 173(22), 40-43. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Hannah, M. (2006). Torture and the Ticking Bomb: The War on Terrorism as a Geographical Imagination of Power/Knowledge. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 96(3), 622-640. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8306.2006.00505.x.

Jones, D. (2010). Beyond waterboarding: the science of interrogation. New Scientist, 205(2750), 40-43. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Lincoln, B. (2009). An Ancient Case of Interrogation and Torture. Social Analysis, 53(1), 157-172. doi:10.3167/sa.2009.530110.

Roth, K. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch. (2009). Who profits most from torture? Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2006/7/13/who-profits-most-torture

Santucci, J. (2008). A Question of Identity: The Use of Torture in Asymmetric War. Journal of Military Ethics, 7(1), 23-40. doi:10.1080/15027570801951400.

Scarry, E. (1987). The body in pain: the making and unmaking of the world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

SCHELL, J. (2009). Torture and Truth. Nation, 288(23), 15-18. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Red cross says up to 90 percent of detainees in abu ghraib are innocent of any crimes (2004, February). [Online Forum Comment]. Retrieved from Red cross says up to 90 percent of detainees in abu ghraib are innocent of any crimes. (2004, February). Retrieved from http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=torture,_rendition,_and_other_abuses_against_captives_in_iraq,_afghanistan,_and_elsewhere_830#torture,_rendition,_and_other_abuses_against_captives_in_iraq,_afghanistan,_and_elsewhere_830

The United Nations, Cyberschoolbus. (2010). Torture Retrieved from http://cyberschoolbus.un.org/treaties/torture.asp



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