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What we all should know about torture

Courthouse News Service, July 21, 2023.

Most countries today torture people. Torture is not an “aberration” of “a few bad actors.” It’s a habitual practice in many nations — including the United States.

Torture developed as part of the judicial process.

Today we might say that a pharaoh who whipped slaves and worked them to death to build a pyramid to his magnificence was torturing them. The pharaoh thought of it as simple economics.

Humans have tortured one another for at least five thousand years. The history of torture is found, above all, in the law.

Torture was and is inflicted to elicit evidence in interrogations, of a witness or defendant, before or after condemnation, and as punishment.

Aristotle and Demosthenes (both 384-322 B.C.) wrote that torture was the surest way to obtain evidence.

The Romans’ torture system became the legal basis for torture in Europe, and later, the Americas.

Cicero (106-43 B.C.) wrote that the laws of torture were based on “custom.” Emperor Antoninus the Pious (reigned 138-161) declared that a master who tortured a slave had to sell him afterward.

Though Roman slaveowners could, and did, continue to torture slaves, Petronius Maximus (reigned for two months in 455) made it illegal for masters to make slaves fight wild beasts, without judicial approval.

The Roman system required two people to inflict torture: tortores performed the physical torture, while quaesitores asked the questions. This system survived in the Americas, especially in El Salvador in the 1980s, where U.S. Army officers and CIA agents acted as quaesitores, with Salvadoran army officers, and enlisted men as tortores.

The United States continued this process in the early 21st century in Iraq, in CIA “black sites,” and in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Many survivors of torture have recurring nightmares and a debilitating sense of guilt, whether they are guilty of anything or not, other than being tortured — which alone induces a sense of guilt.

Another result of torture is loss of affect: The survivor has difficulty expressing emotion, or feels no emotion, even when confronted with emotionally wrenching scenes —  a fatal car wreck, for example, or the death of a loved one. Or the torture victim may express inappropriate emotions, laughing at a fatal accident, or crying and trembling for no apparent reason, or withdrawing from an intimate relationship though he or she wants intimacy.

Most of the torture victims I know suffer bouts of fear and trembling for no immediate reason, and nearly all of them suffer to some degree from loss of affect. This is especially noticeable when they describe the tortures to which they were submitted: nearly always in a flat monotone, with no trace of emotion.

Lila was a beautiful woman of 24 when I met her. She was a mathematician. Lila was tortured because she worked for the Ministry of Education in El Salvador — a “subversive” agency in the 1980s.

The hood, rape, electroshock and being photographed naked were standard tortures in El Salvador, but Lila suffered an unusual side effect when she was living as an undocumented maid in the United States.

“There came a time when I could not open my mouth, the muscles were so stiff,” she told me. “The pain was horrible. ... Fifteen days passed and I was unable to talk. All I could do was take aspirin. It could be that it was psychological. For instance, since I've been talking with you, my jaw muscles have started to hurt again.”

Lila continued: “After one year in jail [in El Salvador], they tortured me so badly that my jaw and face swelled up and I bled from my eyes. Perhaps it was this coming back.”

Lila said this flatly, reflectively, as though being raped and tortured until she bled from her eyes, then years later being unable to eat or speak for two weeks, were matters of moderate interest to her.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because torture is exacted every day across the world today, including — don’t kid yourself — in the United States. Don’t believe me? Check out Prison Legal News, an excellent monthly publication written from inside our walls.

Torture is still being inflicted on a mass scale across the globe: one religion against another (in India and Israel), one ethnic group against another (Han v. Uyghur in China; many individual actors in the United States), and country against country (Russia v. Ukraine).

Torture has become policy.

Vladimir Putin is torturing millions of people in Ukraine, including children. Russia is killing roughly 50 fathers in Ukraine every day, The New York Times reported this week. What will become of their children — 18,250 children a year left without fathers, assuming that each murdered father had only one child. And what will become of the children’s children?

Putin should be brought before an international criminal court, tried and hanged, like his imagined enemies the Nazis were. Putin was born in 1952. He never suffered from a Nazi. He learned their tactics and adapted and adopted them for himself. Surrounded by his neo-Soviet, neo-Nazi sycophants.

Get taught torturing one person, you could go to jail. Torture an entire country, and what happens? Narendra Modi buys Russian oil on the cheap and sells it to the United States. I bet I’ve got some of it in my car’s gas tank. Yours too, my friends.

(Sources for this column include “The Roman Law of Torture,” by W.W. Buckland, Cambridge University Press, 1908; Theodor Mommsen’s “History of Rome”; Amnesty International’s 2013 report that found torture used by 141 countries of 195 countries in the world; and the author’s interviews, excerpted in “Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade,” Westview Press/Harper Collins, 1996).