The first few millimetres of the tip of my left ring finger sat benignly atop the chopping board. A carrot I had attempted to split into matchstick lengths only moments before lay next to it, emanating silent waves of guilt for having suddenly and inopportunely rolled to one side. Sliced clean off by the swift chop of a bulky kitchen knife, I picked up the domed tip between two fingers on my un-maimed right hand, taking mental note of the strange rubbery sensation of flesh against flesh. Absentmindedly, I threw it into the bin with a swift motion. It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to reattach it, Frankenstein-style, later on. (Turns out the cut was shallow enough to not need stitches.)
For now, my eyes were drawn to the blood surging from the open cut. It was only then that the pain really kicked in and I realised exactly what I had done. In panic, my sister found me a towel that I quickly wrapped around my throbbing finger to stem the flow. Even so, my palms clammed up and my body spontaneously broke into a sweat. I walked to the nearest couch and sat down, trying to ignore the high-pitched whirring sound that began pulsating painfully between my ears. The walls around me slowly faded into black.
As I slipped into a brief state of shock, my mind took a fantastical journey at canter speed through the latent thoughts populating my subconscious. It finally settled on the topic it associated most closely with intense and unnecessary pain: torture.
My goodness, if someone so much as poured a drop of vinegar on my finger right now, I would give out the location of my country’s secret organophosphate nerve agent stockpile straight away. Even if I had no idea whether they existed or not. Or what the heck organophosphates even were. What if they shoved my finger into a jar full of chilli powder? Repeatedly? What if instead of a clean slice, someone had used a blunt saw to hack through my skin? What if they’d ripped my nails off one by one?
Far out, I’m already chickening out because I chopped a bit of my own finger off.
Bright lights gradually filtered through my eyelids, and I opened them to greet the white ceiling of our living room.
As the French philosopher Voltaire succinctly put it, the problem with torture is that “it [is] absurd to inflict torture to seek out truth… Often the robust and guilty one resists the ordeal, whereas the debilitated innocent succumbs to it.” If my run-in with a relatively tame kitchen knife was any indication, I’d fall definitively into this latter camp of debilitated innocents.
Torture is never acceptable, under any circumstance. By all measures, “ticking time bomb” arguments are a farce. Not only is there scant evidence for believing that torture yields life-saving information or accomplishes its policy objectives, but more damagingly, it completely sabotages any claim to morality upon which we stake our right to denounce the immorality of others. In fact, this is the final conclusion of a soon-to-be-released Senate investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11, state-sanctioned ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques. If you don’t want to have to wade through 600 pages of government-speak to grasp the horror and self-defeating nature of torture, watch the documentary Taxi To The Dark Side instead. It provides a much needed moral compass on the maligned role of torture in the War on Terror.
Torture also isn’t just what you see in a typical episode of 24. Physical mutilation and assault are forms of torture, but they are certainly not the only manifestations of it. The internationally agreed upon definition of torture can be found in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:
“Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
Let that sink in for a bit. Any act designed to ‘break a person down’ by inflicting systematic suffering – even if it leaves no visible scars on the body – is torture.
When we acknowledge the term’s wider application, it painfully throws into light the fact that torture is a great equaliser. A so-called ‘developed’ Western nation is just as likely as an under-developed one to commit atrocities against individuals. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were just icing on the cake. We need look no further than the USA’s en masse imprisonment of the mentally ill, or the indefinite detention that currently forms the backbone of Australia’s asylum regime. And what of the murky depths of torture carried out against local citizens by large Western-owned multinational corporations?
Perhaps this is what’s so confronting about torture. No longer are we able to stand on the world stage and unfurl our banners of freedom, democracy and enlightenment, proudly pronouncing our moral superiority over ‘evil’ foreign powers, without coming off as hypocritical and self-righteous. We may not condone beheadings or genocide, but acts of cruel and inhuman treatment can’t be graded like red wines. Torture is torture. By sanctioning no-less serious forms of torture within our own borders, we sink below a crucial bottom line of democratic respect for human rights, placing ourselves in the same company as some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
As our political leaders once again clamour to rejoin the War on Terror, it would do well for them to remember that no one country holds a monopoly over good or evil. To forget that timeless truth would be to stoke even further animosity against an already blighted record of messy interventions.