This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

December 8, 2005 - torture: from the dark ages to today

Sometimes you stumble across a book you didn't know you were looking for. For me, it was finding the library's copy of "The History of Torture and Execution," by Jean Kellaway.

Every time I come across the story of somebody stretched on the rack -- or wedged into the Spanish boot, or broken by thumbscrews, or victimized by any of a variety of infernal devices -- I feel an immediate sense both of horror and of recognition.

Maybe it's because so many of the people I read about as a child were scientists, and were often subjected to punishment for "heresy" -- the crime of not agreeing with powerful people.

It didn't make any difference, of course, that the scientists were doing no more than recording actual observations and making obvious inferences about the real world. It didn't make any difference that what they were saying was true.

What mattered was that somebody in a position of authority was given the right to force confessions, coerce the "recanting" of some belief, or brutally extract the names of others to be tortured.

Inevitably, such permission turned into the gruesome and ghastly abuse of power. History is littered with the maddened, mangled, or murdered remains of innocent people.

The irony is that things secured through torture are unreliable. People will say anything to get the pain to stop. They confess to things they never did. They promise to change their minds or hearts, but (assuming they manage to get away) don't.

And they carry a lifelong hatred of the people who bound and injured them.

So if torture is not a reliable instrument of securing either information or long term behavioral change, why does it persist?

Because it's not about any of those things. It's about power. It's about control. It's about corruption.

I have read stories about torture in modern day dictatorships, or oppressive regimes. But like most people, I associate torture with the ignorance and depravity of the Dark Ages.

So I was deeply alarmed, back in 2002, when the CIA floated a "trial balloon," carried by many national newspapers, to find out how the nation felt about torture, post 9/11. The reassuringly swift flurry of public astonishment led to a lot of government back-pedaling.

Except, we now find, there was an August 2002 memo from the Justice Department suggesting that President Bush had the authority to override international torture laws.

More recently, Senator John McCain introduced a bill to Congress explicitly banning torture. It carried by a vote of 90-9. McCain is both a former prisoner of war, and a torture victim.

Incredibly, according to the Denver Post, "Vice President Dick Cheney has tried to persuade Congress to exempt the CIA from the proposed ban, and Bush has threatened a veto if the ban is included in the bill."

I was shocked that the Vice-President of the United States wants the option to use torture, and would say so right out in public. President Bush, who said, "the U.S. does not torture," nonetheless wants the right to.

It makes you wonder. Are they seeking permission -- or forgiveness?

Of course, nine Army reservists were convicted of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Other "suspects" have died during "questioning" by American soldiers, as has been widely reported. There are now rumors of secret prisons in Eastern Europe, run by the CIA.

Let me put that another way: the U.S. does torture. We still don't know the full extent.

There are apologists for our Empire, who first recite the atrocities of criminals, then suggest that torture is too good for them.

But this is the fact that is always obscured: there is no way to ensure that torture will be used only against the guilty.

Shall we now we resurrect the foot press, the tongue tearer, the Spanish Spider, the revolving drum, and the Iron Maiden?

And on whom shall we use them next?

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