Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On Torture

There is no humanity here, no compassion. A dead man is hauled across the railings of a bridge and dropped like a sack of garbage into the Orontes river. Does it really matter who he is or which side he supports? The lifeless head lolls around and, for an instant, looks at the camera with questioning eyes. Of course the man is dead, he can't have questioning eyes, but the human capacity to seek meaning and impose it on their surroundings makes me see it as if the man is questioning. He looks at the camera and asks, though his mouth is hanging open as if in the throws of ecstasy, "Are you satisfied?" Then his body falls freely through the air but I don't have to worry if the impact will hurt him, he's dead. Still, I can't help imagine what it would feel like to hit the water at that angle, and from that height. It is a natural reaction, like watching a man about to be hanged and then reaching to feel your own neck.

What is it that makes a man capable of hurting another person in such a way, to cut out his throat or flay him alive? Is it some part of the brain? Or is the person doing this different from me in some fundamental way? He doesn't seem different, he talks normally to his friends, cheers on as the bodies fall into the water, and curses and insults as if this was just another day for him. The blood on his hands might as well be splatter from an omelette he was preparing, to be washed away thoughtlessly. No, there is nothing different between me and the person who has killed, or the person who has been killed. The very fact that we can hurt each other so horribly, that we are so creative in the ways we can inflict pain on one another, is because of our shared humanity. We know exactly what it takes to hurt somebody else because we ourselves can imagine it happening to ourselves.

But that raises an interesting question, if a man can torture another man because of their shared humanity, and because he can imagine what it feels like, then how can we explain the pleasure that the man feels in inflicting such horror? It is alienation, the torturer is destroying his own soul with every punch, kick or stab that he inflicts on his victim. He tortures himself, when he tortures another human being, and the marks affect him as much as they affect the victim's body. It is only the victim's body that feels the torture. Their soul, or humanity, or conscience - whatever you want to call it - is clear and untainted. Did Socrates have a point? Is it really better to suffer injustice than to pass it on? The calm and serene look upon the faces of the countless dead I have had to see over the past few months tell me perhaps it is, but then the very thought terrifies me.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I really think it is just the opposite. Killing or torturing someone is indeed very difficult. So the initial step is to de-humanize the victim. Turning it into an animal. It just starts with a "us" versus "them". "They" are not like us. "They" are monsters and in the end, it's perfectly ok to kill "them". They are not humans anymore. You can see this pattern in any large scale massacre. It always starts by denying some group humanity.

Maysaloon said...

Is that really the opposite? It just seems like I am saying the road runs up the hill whilst you say it runs down the hill. Tomato, tomato...