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What does it take to cause agony in another human being?

Last night, I turned away from the HBO miniseries Elizabeth. A man had attempted to kill the queen and he was being stretched on the rack in a creepy, dark, moist, windowless and hell-like torturing dungeon. The putative and apparent goal of the torture was to extract “information” from the man, who had been acting, it was believed, on behalf of the Spanish Cath-o-licks.

One thing I did notice before turning away were the several bureaucrats busying themselves in the background of the cozy torture cave. Their activities were unclear but they must’ve been filling out torture-related paperwork or reviewing reports on new devices or even mixing the perfect hydrochloric acid solution.

On reflection, the presence and demeanor of these Elizabethan-era office workers is in a lot of ways more offensive than the mere torture of a would-be queen killer (with whom, by the way, the audience is given every (clumsy) opportunity to sympathize, since he appears crazed just before he kills the queen, has a sort of boyish benevolent face and reddish light-brown hair, seems genuinely scared when he’s caught, and appears to be completely without the ability to deceive. He’s depicted, in other words, as an innocent pawn–the very sort of person who, if tortured, could and might give up the names of those more important persons who forced or asked him to assassinate her majesty).

While being stretched, the attempted murderer alternately screamed and whimpered. After threat of more torture, he offered the man overseeing his interrogation (one of the queen’s counselors) some “information.” What did he say? The scene cut just as he began to whisper answers to the questions being posed.

Did he tell the truth? In other words, did torture work?

A torturer has the capacity (or the need) to dehumanize the torturee. Dehumanization/objectification is typically the first step in all varieties of abuse.

When it comes to abuse, torture might be considered a special case. With torture there’s a putative immediate purpose beyond the mere satisfaction or gratification of the torturer. The person being tortured at Guantanamo, for example, might have information Homeland Security wants. Of course, humans can offer false information, can choose to withhold satisfaction from the torturer, can put pain in perspective, can imagine their heavenly rewards. Humans can transcend pain – which is not to say necessarily that they can conquer it, but that they remain human while enduring pain. Perhaps, they become more human in their suffering.

Is this not evident to torturers? Particularly to torturers whose goal is obtaining information?

A person being tortured is not a black box that opens when the correct button’s pressed. Like our gray matter, human consciousnesses are reticulated. The motivation for any utterance–a confession, “the naming of names,” or the location of a secret stash of U-235–is often multivalent. And this must be evident during torture – particularly torture of someone who is pious and humble, though even those qualities are likely unnecessary.

Remember when Iago was trying to determine his own motives for torturing Othello?

I hate the Moor: And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

And do you remember what Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in the margins of his copy of the play: “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity.”

Iago’s torture of Othello is more honest than the torture conducted by the US government on behalf of its citizens. Motive and method, for Iago, are clearly aligned; there is no subterfuge because Iago cannot even fool himself.

Can those saying they torture on behalf of the safety of the US citizenry be fooling themselves? Torture’s effect is terror, and that’s also its goal.

Iago’s speaking to the ether – and to an audience of theatergoers content to sit on their hands and watch as the play unfolds toward its inevitable calamitous ending. Pity and fear are their just desserts.

Was there a radical in the audience the night you went? One who tried to match wits with Shakespeare’s greatest villain and deter him from his appointed devilish task?

Say one member of the audience did climb to the stage and strap Iago to the rack and stretch his conniving limbs until forcing him to admit what traps he’d set for Othello and why. This would be a very a different play indeed, but here’s what the hero would be able to squeeze out of Iago:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth, I will never speak word.

We would learn no “information” other than that Iago – stretched to the limits of his joints, screaming and defiant – far more resembled a human being that we ever thought.

But wait. Who is the play’s new hero? It is the long and muscled arm of the CIA technical interrogation division? Or is Iago that arm, bound by its own fingers, choked by the possibility of itself?

To turn away from the tv is no great sin is it? Who am I denying by doing so?

But really, the bureaucrats were too much. It’s too tough a truth that clock-punching and attending to quotidian details is necessary and inevitable despite all else that’s going on.

February 22, 2008