31 May 2004

We Should Call Torture By Its Proper Name

The same issue of the Times contained an op-ed piece by Adam Hochschild that condemned both the misleading euphemisms of public authorities, and also the consistency of the forms of torture currently reported with those of older torture regimes. Hochschild�s only historical error was to identify sleep deprivation (currently euphemized as �sleep management�) as a technique, �Widely used in the Middle Ages on suspected witches by inquisitors.�(5) Witches were an Early Modern phenomenon, relatively little pursued by inquisitors, but rather by secular officials. Erroneous history does not strengthen modern cases � the tormentum insomniae was indeed a recognized form of judicial torture (the only kind known to medieval and early modern Europe), and it was clearly torture, as the technical term tormentum indicates; early modern legal officials had no need for euphemisms, since torture was for them a legal incident. But Hochschild and Sontag have finally gotten the word out to a wider public: what is happening is unquestionably torture, and it is being done by Americans and probably by their allies in Iraq and elsewhere. What Donald Rumsfeld refused to address as �the torture word� is there nonetheless, and it cannot be disguised by terms like �abuses.�

One reason (aside from the bad publicity) for organizations and states to avoid the word �torture� is that the term has acquired an enormous degree of opprobrium over the past two centuries. When the practice reentered modern political usage in the nineteenth century, as Rejali has pointed out, it did so by stealth, becoming, as William Blackstone long ago pointed out, �an engine of the state, not of law� � and still later an engine of ideology, instrumentalizing the state itself. Torture is never an isolated act by individuals; it is always systemic.

Somehow, it's not a surprise that one of the 'modern' tools used by the Bushlag archipelago turns out to have an ancient provenance in imposing the worship of violence. Blessed are the warmakers?

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