Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Torture and Truth

In her book Torture and Truth, the classicist Page DuBois explores the ancient Greek practice of juridical torture and observes that only slaves and non-Greeks were exposed to brutal, physical interrogations before the law. Indeed, the torture of slaves was believed by philosophers like Aristotle and Demosthenes to be necessary because — as non-rational beings — slaves and barbarians were destined by nature to lie. Free, rational Greek citizens were judged capable of speaking the truth without coercion, but philosophers and jurists also recognized that a free, rational citizen was also clever enough to lie or conceal the truth even under the most extraordinary and inhumane duress. By contrast, the slave was stupid and craven, weak and lacking in fortitude; nothing he said could be trusted, and yet the slave's body was believed to "contain" or "conceal" truths that might be extracted violently. Therefore, a slave could only be trusted to utter the truth while being subjected to the lash and fist. Curiously, then, among the Greeks trustworthy, reliable testimony could only be spoken by a tortured slave. Demosthenes even claimed that no morsel of evidence ever extracted by torture had ever been proven untrue.

I find this to be a quite coherent summary of Charles Krauthammer's latest apologia for American empire, published Friday in the Washington Post and swaddled amid the breathless revelations of Deep Throat. Bemoaning the miserable image the United States has cultivated for itself in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and lashing out in his customary ways at those who question the regnancy of America, Krauthammer argues that

shutting down Guantanamo will solve nothing. We will capture more terrorists, and we will have to interrogate them, if not at Guantanamo then somewhere else. There will then be reports from that somewhere else that will precisely mirror the charges coming out of Guantanamo. What will we do then? Keep shutting down one detention center after another?

The self-flagellation has gone far enough. We know that al Qaeda operatives are trained to charge torture when they are in detention, and specifically to charge abuse of the Koran to inflame fellow prisoners on the inside and potential sympathizers on the outside.

Krauthammer, unlike Aristotle, lacks the courage to say what he really means. His entire rationale for maintaining Guantanamo Bay — aside from demonstrating "our" resolve in the face of the nattering appeasers — rests on the need to continue the procedures of "interrogation," which he refuses to concede might be tortuous in nature. After all, he reminds us that "the terrorists" killed 3000 innocents on September 11; these terrorists are chronic fabricators, liars by second nature if not by nature itself. If this is so, then why not waterboard them, spray them with urine, or filet them if need be?

And what end do these interrogations serve? It doesn't matter. Nowhere can we expect to hear precise and forthright explanations of how such procedures have aided the so-called war against terror; the Bush administration merely settles back into its arrogant posture and claims, vaguely and implausibly, that its efforts are bearing fruit. Yet the Greeks were right. Free citizens can lie and conceal the truth under questioning — say, at Congressional hearings or press conferences — and so their words are not to be trusted.