Torture Is Not to Make People Talk, But to Make Them Remain Silent


Yesterday I opened a bag of cinnamon-coated pecans, put a few into my mouth and began enjoying their distinct taste. Suddenly I was flooded with memories from almost 20 years ago, of gathering pecans under a tree in my grandmother’s garden on the kibbutz where she lives.

That a simple object like a pecan can bring back sensations from my past is not a feature unique to my psyche. In his monumental book, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust tells his readers that often the past is hidden “beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect.” And indeed, an accidental sensory encounter with an object, be it some kind of food, clothing, or a show on television, can awaken memories from the past.

Marcel Proust is not the only one conscious of this remarkable dimension of the human psyche. The people who practice torture in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, and in the other 73 countries targeted for torture by Amnesty International, also are well aware of it.

Have you ever asked yourself why torturers use cigarettes to burn their victims or shoes to hit them? Why, when raping women or connecting electrodes to men’s testicles, do torturers have a radio on in the background?

Torturers know that the objects they use will continue to haunt their victims. Perhaps some day while the victim is sitting in a coffee house talking to friends, someone will light a cigarette, triggering harrowing memories from the interrogation room. Or maybe while driving a car, the tortured person will recognize the voice of a radio broadcaster, taking her back to the cell in which she underwent horrendous violation. It is not by chance but precisely for this reason that torturers use everyday objects-they know that their victims will re-encounter the objects outside the prison walls.

Dr. Pierre Duterte, who wrote The Body’s Memory, points out that the victim’s body is also an object which brings back the torture: “Not being able to endure the sight of your own naked body in a mirror, because of memories of forced stripping in front of laughing torturers. Not being able to stare into the mirror which endlessly reflects the image of your body forever marked by the imprint of barbarity. That’s what your body can be, your own image transformed in the representation of torture.”

Torturers know that the objects they use will continue to haunt their victims.

Duterte continues: “Every time you notice that you cannot hear someone talking on the side where your ear has been destroyed by beating, you return to your Iranian prison cell. When this happens countless times every day, you end up preferring to be alone…”

So, why is torture used? What goals does this monstrous practice attempt to achieve? The prevailing conception people have-the conception propagated by “60 Minutes” in one of its recent programs dedicated to Israel’s legalization of torture-is that torture is used in order to extract information from enemies or members of insurgent groups.

For example, on November 14, 1996, the Israeli Supreme Court lifted an interim injunction that prevented interrogators from using physical force. According to Human Rights Watch, the court’s ruling was based on the state’s contention that there was a well-founded suspicion that the defendant “possesses extremely vital information, the immediate procurement of which would help save human lives and prevent serious terrorist attacks in Israel, and that there is real concern that these are to be carried out in the near future.” The state invoked the so-called “ticking-bomb scenario” to justify the practice of torture, and the Israeli Supreme Court approved its use.

One should remember that, unlike Israel, totalitarian countries which practice torture rarely need to provide an excuse to justify their inhuman actions. Yet when they do offer some sort of justification, it runs along the same lines: “there is hidden information that the state needs to know.”

The fact of the matter is, however, that the opposite is closer to the truth. The major reason behind the use of torture is to silence and control. When Galileo proved the motion of the earth, he was declared a heretic by an assembly of Cardinals, hauled before the Inquisition and compelled to recant under pain of torture. The Church was determined to stifle any view that threatened its orthodoxy, its order.

Control of a People

Yet torture is not only about controlling the victim, who more often than not will be unable to speak out for the rest of his or her life; it is also about controlling the population as a whole. As an imminent threat, torture is used to intimidate groups or individuals-ranging from peasants in Mexico and protesters in Apartheid South Africa to the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria-which oppose the existing order within the country in which they reside. When one analyzes the history of the use of torture, where it was practiced and why, it becomes clear that torture is not simply about inducing a person to speak, but rather it is about silence-ensuring that particular activists are broken and popular opposition remains suppressed.

Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.