Hopelessness and Torture
“It’s a mistake to say this was about inflicting pain. These measures were about instilling a sense of hopelessness, and that led them to compliance.” — Jose Rodriguez, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (2002-5)
His statement, for the way he said it, is all the more striking. It was not about inflicting pain in his account—but before it was about gaining information, the waterboard was about “instilling a sense of hopelessness.” Not compliance, even, but the hopelessness that leads to it. We should not be so relieved that hopelessness, and not pain itself, was the goal.
Torture is not, at its essence, about the infliction of physical suffering, except as a means. The French writer Jean Amery was captured and (as he would have put it) “mildly”* tortured while fighting alongside French partisans. The purpose of the torture to which he was subjected—he had no answers and within minutes was making them up—was only ostensibly to obtain information. Its immediate result and truest purpose was the same thing Rodriguez has now offered as a defense: instilling hopelessness.
Amery reluctantly calls this hopelessness a destruction of “trust in the world” (a term with which he is not satisfied and reluctantly uses); that is, a destruction of any and all certainties, be they historical, scientific, or, primarily, ethical/humanistic. “It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules”: utter hopelessness, for the tortured man has had been subject to another’s attempt “[to] extinguish what was [the victim’s] spirit” and “to negate his fellow man.”
We might also term this negation (at which, for what it is worth, Emil Fackenheim, among others has nodded in agreement), an assertion of the non-value of what might be called, to draw from Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, the value of the tortured’s subjective experience of the world. That is, the man subject to torture loses his value as an individual, that nebulous quality imparted by the very sentience that raises us a little higher than animals. But because the subject himself drops away, his experience is meaningless. He has no value; he is outside the realm of humanity. And from this stems the hopelessness of torture.**
To defend torture through claims that we were merely “instilling a sense of hopelessness” is to defend torture on the basis of its essence, to brag about the fact that the victims were broken in a way that only torture can break a human being. Like all defenses of the indefensible, it is not enough.
“What was inflicted on me […] was by far not the worst form of torture. No red-hot needles were shoved under my fingernails, nor were any lit cigars extinguished on my bare chest […] it was relatively harmless and it left no conspicuous scars on my body. And yet, twenty-two years after it occurred, on the basis of an experience that in no way probed the entire range of possibilities, I dare to assert that torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”
After a moderate beating, he was hung a meter off the floor by his arms, until his shoulders popped out of his sockets and was then interrogated until he passed out. His account implies this was a singular event in his captivity, but one that encapsulates the entire experience. All quotations in this essay are from Amery’s essay “Torture,” in At the Mind’s Limits. The original French subtitle, not irrelevant here, is Attempts at Overcoming by One who is Overcome.
**Some readers, at this point, have the custom to enter into a discussion of Primo Levi’s musselmanner and the utter singularity of their hopelessness. That is not the custom of this post; if this is your custom, take a minute to do so. The post will wait.