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Torture and the United States of Alyssa Peterson

I can sympathize with Montesquieu, who said in 1748, "So many men of learning and genius have written against the custom of torturing criminals, that after them I dare not presume to meddle with the subject." Horrifyingly enough, the debate over torture is now timely in America. Much has been told, but more needs telling.
What I want to say is this: Democracy dies on torture’s rack. We can’t be democratic citizens and torturers too.

The tragedy of Alyssa Peterson is revelatory. Peterson was one of the first female soldiers killed in Iraq. She was a 27-year-old from Flagstaff, Arizona. She spoke Arabic, and as an interrogator was assigned to a military prison. After objecting to the torture she was asked to participate in, she was reprimanded for showing too much "empathy" and reassigned. Not long after, she was killed by a gunshot. Her death was ruled a suicide.  According to the official report, "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she … could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."

We are all Alyssa Petersons. We cannot be in the torture cage and out of it at the same time.  Torture is about extinguishing what is unique and human in the victim. Franz Kafka got it right. In his parable, "In the Penal Colony," the torturer is killed by the horrible device he once used on others. The uniqueness we extinguish in others we also extinguish in ourselves. When we torture, we erase democracy’s very being.

In her book, Inventing Human Rights, historian Lynn Hunt also tells this story well. The abolition of legal torture in the 18th and 19th centuries was a consequence of – and essential to – the growing belief in the sanctity and autonomy of the individual. Without belief in individual autonomy (and empathy for others), there would be no democracy at all. Prussia abolished torture in 1754, Sweden in 1772, Austria and Bohemia in 1776. Great Britain was slower. And of course, slaves could be tortured here long after we declared that all are created equal. To the extent that legacy lives on in the torture of others, what we call our democracy is, at best, a bloody shadow of the real thing.

We can, of course, torture and claim to live in a democracy, like the former Soviet Union claimed to be a Republic. And some of us are capable of torturing one day and nurturing the next. Alyssa Peterson could not do that. And I’m claiming that those who can are unprepared for democracy.

Every American would see the burning of, say, the Declaration of Independence, as a grievous crime, an attempted subversion of our democratic aspirations. American state torture commits a much greater arson.

We are not really debating whether or not to investigate and punish Bush Administration torturers. We are debating whether state torture is compatible with democracy. It is not. I am not arguing a preference. I am stating what I believe to be an empirical fact.  We can’t claim a unique humanity for each of us while we deny uniqueness to others because that would undo the ontological premise of democracy. We can’t live inside the cage and out of it at the same time.
I believe that unless we hold those who authorized torture accountable before the law, torture in America will be both alive and dead, and that is dangerous. When Karl Rove reduces the question of torture to "policy differences" between administrations, he is arguing the case for torture, not just the case against prosecution of his cronies. If we do not enforce the laws against torture, then some of us will torture and some of us won’t. Just depends who’s president.

I understand the potential cost of investigation and prosecution, and I believe such costs are real. For instance, the chances of real health care reform might be diminished if the nation is absorbed and polarized by a criminal investigation of Bush Administration torturers. And the denial of health care to millions of Americans is torture, too. If we are to live fully human, democratic lives outside the cage, we will have to do both.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith