Article Five of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proscribes torture, describes it as involving “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.” It aims to be expansive, but by including the words “inhuman” and “degrading,” it only waters down our understanding of torture. Torture is, as its opponents have depicted it, indeed a spiritual and legal and philosophical outrage. But these abstract considerations are trifles compared to the immediate physical cruelty it inflicts on its victims. Sadly, the latest round of recriminations over U.S. government torture has demonstrated how many people pretend otherwise.
It is true that there have been many fine philosophical condemnations of torture. Andrew Sullivan’s in The New Republic is the best, a must-read, and his moving exposition of how torture “is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul,” how “it takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human,” and how it harms both perpetrator as well as victim, should convince anyone that torture is unethical.
Yet this argument is pernicious in its own right. Torture should not be banned because of what it does to the soul; it should be banned because of what it does to the body. Torture is so horrific not because it is inhuman but because it really, really, really hurts. To gloss over this is at best callous; at worst, cruel. A glance at the history of torture makes this clear. For centuries, Christian authorities managed to convince themselves, perhaps most famously during the Spanish Inquisition, that by torturing heretics and outlaws they were actually elevating the souls of their victims. Even those of us who embrace the redemptive power of suffering recoil from this perverse logic, and rightly so. The cries of the body overwhelmingly outweigh the imperatives of the soul.
Still, responses to the torture memos have focused mostly on abstractions. People ask, “What does this torture mean for us? For our values? Our democracy?” But no one asks, “What does this mean for them, for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah?” They are, after all, the elephants in the room, the people whom We the People brutalized with water torture nearly 200 times. We torture others and then we agonize over our own fate. Has anyone noticed how sick this torture-and-cry mentality is?
I respect people who argue that torture is necessary in limited cases, and if it ever is justified, it almost certainly was for the two men for whom I now express sympathy. But believing that torture can be justified does not in any way preclude the moral necessity of feeling sorry for its victims. Say what you will about how hardened a devil Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is, but if media reports are accurate, even he broke utterly after only two minutes of torture. This is not a man who knew what he was getting into.
If there is any reason that Americans tend to focus on the spiritual and not the physical consequences of torture, it is that it helps us to preserve our feeling of superiority over our enemies. This is a well-earned feeling, and its rightness remains very much in force in spite of this latest shame of ours. But our superiority is not nearly so great as we imagine: That is the lesson of torture from which we try to hide.
A fanatical believer abandoned his dearest principles in two minutes—how long would it take each of us to abandon ours? As Sullivan sagely notes, torture makes us aware of the “inescapable frailty of the human experience, mocking the claims of some seers to be above basic human feelings and bodily needs.” Torture, like death, is one of humanity’s great equalizers; everyone reacts to it the same way. Awareness of it beckons us to acknowledge that we are infinitely more physical than we are spiritual, if indeed we are spiritual at all and not just chemical bodies with chemical brains, and thus that we are not so very different from even the most wicked men.
It is because of this bodily nature of ours that it is so profoundly inhuman to pretend that abstract spiritual degradation is an evil comparable to concrete physical suffering. Talking about broken values rather than broken people will only destroy the very sympathy that we need in order to shun torture in the first place.
Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.