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Try This at Home: Getting in Touch with the Meaning of Torture

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VISITED BY A SPECTER OF TERROR I have long found holding my breath to be a powerful exercise. It calms my mind. It centers me. Truly, it alters my consciousness. Holding my breath for as long as I can has been part of how I prepare myself for my radio shows. I do it twice. The first time for a minute and a half. The second time for two minutes-or longer if I can do it. Lately, I've had a problem with this breath-holding practice. What's been happening is that when I get to the point where I really want to breathe again, where it takes an act of will to continue holding my breath, an image comes to my mind that brings terror to my heart. I start to think about the experience of those prisoners in the hands of my country who are being waterboarded as part of their "rough interrogation." I don't want to think about these people, but I just find myself -against my will-imagining what it would be like to be as desperate for breath as I am starting to feel, but not have any control over whether or when I'll be able to take that breath. It's a horrible, frightening feeling. I might attempt to use words to convey more vividly that intolerable feeling, that intense panic that's suited to the fact that our need for air is so much more urgent than our need for food and water. (Without food we die in weeks, without water we die in days, but without air we die in mere minutes-and the intensity of our need is proportional to that.) But far more eloquent than any words I might come up with will be the language of your own immediate experience if you'll try this experiment:
Try it. Hold your breath. Continue until it gets really difficult to keep holding it. Then try to hold it for another twenty seconds. And during that twenty seconds, imagine that someone is holding your head under water, and that you are wholly at his mercy, completely unable to raise your head out of the water. And imagine further that you have no idea whether or when you will be able to take that breath your body so urgently needs.
It's terrifying, isn't it? And it's a rather simple way -one can do it at home, it requires no special equipment, and it takes just a few minutes-for it to become very real what it means that our country has been inflicting such terror, as a matter of policy, on people in its custody. America has become a nation that tortures people. For inflicting such terror on people is surely torture, and it has been understood to be such for a very long time. Redefining words does not change reality. What's new is not that such terrible things would ever be done by agents of this country, but that they are being done now with the official approval -no, encouragement-from the very highest levels of the American government. I'm not prone in general to involuntary thoughts. This has been a very unusual experience for me. I don't have spontaneous thoughts about the acute suffering on cancer wards. But this issue of torture is not like cancer: about people's intolerable suffering from torture, we have a choice and therefore it is a moral matter. Accordingly, we Americans are obliged to consider the moral issues raised by what we are doing, and to judge what we have become. So I'm inclined to think that unusual and frightening experience of mine --this intrusion of the feeling of sheer terror into my breathing practices-- is perhaps one small instance of the many ways in which we Americans are being called -by conscience, or perhaps something beyond conscience-to look at what's happening in America and to take on the burden of righting the wrongs. WHAT HAS AMERICA BECOME? We are called upon to look at what America has become under its present leadership. Some people believe in absolute moral rules, while others believe that exceptional circumstances can justify taking exceptional measures. If one believes in absolute moral rules, then surely "Thou shalt not torture" would have to be one of them. But then, for those who believe that the end sometimes justifies the means, what then about torture? People have contemplated scenarios such as having a terrorist in hand who knows the whereabouts of a nuclear device somewhere on Manhattan that will be detonated in a finite amount of time. Some argue that it would be justifiable under such circumstances to torture the terrorist to find out the location and thus be able to prevent the destruction of the city and its inhabitants. What's the suffering -even the excruciating pain-of one person weighed against the lives of hundreds of thousands or millions. One can acknowledge the genuineness of such moral dilemmas, however, without that in any way justifying what America has actually been doing. We have no good reason to suppose that American torture in recent years has been remotely like that agonizing hypothetical of the Manhattan nuke. We have no good reason to believe that the torture practiced at the behest of the Bush administration has saved large numbers of lives, or has even had any non-trivial likelihood of doing so. Surely, if the Bushites are going to drag America down into lawlessness -and this torture does violate the laws of our land-and down to the level of the kind of regimes we always used to deplore and oppose, the burden of proof must be on the administration to demonstrate some such justification by extreme necessity. And surely, if the Congress is now gearing up to restore oversight to the actions of this lawless executive, one of the legitimate functions of hearings should be to establish whether there is any plausible justification for the torture this administration has practiced. Judging from the total picture of what this administration has done with its power -in relation to those it has detained and otherwise-the overwhelming probability, I would assert, is that there would be no such justification found. The fruits of the torture, I would wager, will be shown to be paltry and often even counter-productive. And the reasons behind the torture will prove to be as ugly as the practice itself. The reality is that torture occurs in the world mostly for very ugly reasons having nothing to do with moral dilemmas. Torture is practiced by people -both under the cloak of governmental authorities, and by purely private individuals-mostly because some twisted souls get a sadistic pleasure out of inflicting pain and terror on others. It is a matter of power. The sadist's love of the exercise of power over others -over their suffering, over life and death-is what torture is mostly about. The quest for power for power's sake. Is there any "principle" that better captures the overriding thread of this administration's conduct across the board? An investigation would likely show that it is indeed this sadistic lust for power that explains the recent American descent into waterboarding, and other forms of torture, as well. What will it take to rouse the American people to grasp the real nature of what is being done in our name, and to insist that it not only be stopped but repudiated as well? Well, just hold your breath.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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