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South Central Review, Volume 24, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 95-100

DOI: 10.1353/scr.2007.0006

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Are there times when we have to accept torture? / dorfman 95

Are there times when we have to accept torture?

Ariel Dorfman, Originally an Op-Ed in The Guardian
(Saturday May 8, 2004)

Is torture ever justified? That is the dirty question left out of the uni-
versal protestations of disgust, revulsion and shame that has greeted the
release of photos showing British and American soldiers tormenting
prisoners in Iraq.
It is a question that was most unforgettably put forward over 130 years
ago by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. In that novel, the
saintly Alyosha Karamazov is tempted by his brother Ivan, confronted
with an unbearable choice. Let us suppose, Ivan says, that in order to
bring men eternal happiness, it was essential and inevitable to torture to
death one tiny creature, only one small child. Would you consent?
Ivan has preceded his question with stories about suffering childrena
seven-year-old girl beaten senseless by her parents and enclosed in
a freezing wooden outhouse and made to eat her own excrement; an
eight-year-old serf boy torn to pieces by hounds in front of his mother
for the edification of a landowner. True cases plucked from newspapers
by Dostoevsky that merely hint at the almost unimaginable cruelty that
awaited humanity in the years to come.
How would Ivan react to the ways in which the 20th century ended
up refining pain, industrialising pain, producing pain on a massive,
rational, technological scale; a century that would produce manuals on
pain and how to inflict it, training courses on how to increase it, and
catalogues that explained where to acquire the instruments that ensured
that pain would be unlimited; a century that handed out medals for those
who had written the manuals and commended those who designed the
courses and rewarded and enriched those who had produced the instru-
ments in those catalogues of death? Ivan Karamazovs questionwould
you consent?is just as dreadfully relevant now, in a world where 132
countries routinely practice that sort of humiliation and damage on
detainees, because it takes us into the impossible heart of the matter
regarding torture; it demands that we confront the real and inexorable
dilemma that the existence and persistence of torture poses, particularly
after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Ivans words remind
us that torture is justified by those who apply and perform it: this is the

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2004 Ariel Dorfman
96 South Central Review

price, it is implied, that needs to be paid by the suffering few in order to

guarantee happiness for the rest of society, the enormous majority given
security and wellbeing by those horrors inflicted in some dark cellar,
some faraway pit, some abominable police station.
Make no mistake: every regime that tortures does so in the name of
salvation, some superior goal, some promise of paradise. Call it com-
munism, call it the free market, call it the free world, call it the national
interest, call it fascism, call it the leader, call it civilisation, call it the
service of God, call it the need for information; call it what you will, the
cost of paradise, the promise of some sort of paradise, Ivan Karamazov
continues to whisper to us, will always be hell for at least one person
somewhere, sometime.
An uncomfortable truth: the American and British soldiers in Iraq, like
torturers everywhere, do not think of themselves as evil, but rather as
guardians of the common good, dedicated patriots who get their hands
soiled and endure perhaps some sleepless nights in order to deliver the
blind ignorant majority from violence and anxiety. Nor are the motives
of the demonised enemy significant, not even the fact that they are naked
and under the boot because they dared to resist a foreign power occupy-
ing their land.
And if it turns outa statistical certaintythat at least one of the
victims is innocent of what he is accused, as blameless as the children
mentioned by Ivan Karamazov, that does not matter either. He must suf-
fer the fate of the supposedly guilty: everything justified in the name of
a higher mission, state stability in the time of Saddam, and now, in the
post-Saddam era, making the same country and the whole region stable
for democracy. So those who support the present operations in Iraq are no
different from citizens in all those other lands where torture is a tedious
fact of life, all of them needing to face Ivans question, whether they
would consciously be able to accept that their dreams of heaven depend
on an eternal inferno of distress for one innocent human being; or whether,
like Alyosha, they would softly reply: No, I do not consent.
What Alyosha is telling Ivan, in the name of humanity, is that he will
not accept responsibility for someone else torturing in his name. He is tell-
ing us that torture is not a crime committed only against a body, but also
a crime committed against the imagination. It presupposes, it requires, it
craves the abrogation of our capacity to imagine someone elses suffer-
ing, to dehumanise him or her so much that their pain is not our pain. It
demands this of the torturer, placing the victim outside and beyond any
form of compassion or empathy, but also demands of everyone else the
same distancing, the same numbness, those who know and close their
Are there times when we have to accept torture? / dorfman 97

eyes, those who do not want to know and close their eyes, those who
close their eyes and ears and hearts.
Alyosha knows, as we should, that torture does not, therefore, only
corrupt those directly involved in the terrible contact between two bod-
ies, one that has all the power and the other that has all the pain, one
that can do what it wants and the other that cannot do anything except
wait and pray and resist. Torture also corrupts the whole social fabric
because it prescribes a silencing of what has been happening between
those two bodies; it forces people to make believe that nothing, in fact,
has been happening; it necessitates that we lie to ourselves about what
is being done not that far, after all, from where we talk, while we munch
chocolate, smile at a lover, read a book, listen to a concerto, exercise in
the morning. Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and muteand that
is what Alyosha cannot consent to.
There is, however, a further question, even more troubling, that Ivan
does not ask his brother or us: what if the person being endlessly tortured
for our wellbeing is guilty?
What if we could erect a future of love and harmony on the everlast-
ing pain of someone who had himself committed mass murder, who had
tortured those children; what if we were invited to enjoy Eden all over
again while one despicable human being was incessantly receiving the
horrors he imposed upon others? And more urgently: what if the person
whose genitals are being crushed and skin is being burnt knows the
whereabouts of a bomb that is about to explode and kill millions?
Would we answer: yes, I do consent? That under certain very limited
circumstances, torture is acceptable?
That is the real question to humanity thrown up by the photos of
those suffering bodies in the stark rooms of Iraq, an agonylet us not
forgetabout to be perpetrated again today and tomorrow in so many
prisons everywhere else on our sad, anonymous planet as one man with
the power of life and death in his godlike hands approaches another who
is totally defenseless. Are we that scared? Are we so scared that we are
willing to knowingly let others perpetrate, in the dark and in our name,
acts of terror that will eternally corrode and corrupt us?

Are We Really So Fearful?
Ariel Dorfman, Originally an Op-Ed in The Washington Post
(Sunday, September 24, 2006)

It stays with me, still haunts me, the first timeit was in Chile, in Oc-
tober of 1973that I met someone who had been tortured. To save my
life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after
the coup that had toppled the democratically elected government of
Salvador Allende.
And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man,
gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not
stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.
That is what stays with methat he was cold under the balmy after-
noon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be
warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him.
Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned
in that cell in the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders
from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what
had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish
that devastated life from my memory.
It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered
the current political debate in the United States about the practicality
of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect that victim,
force my fellow citizens to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness
that had settled into that mans heart and flesh, and demand that they
take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save
lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human
being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine
man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence
of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance
protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had
encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper
That is not, however, the only lesson that todays ruthless world can
learn from that distant man condemned to shiver forever.
All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying
to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over.

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2006 Ariel Dorfman
are we really so fearful? / dorfman 99

It was a mistake, he repeated incessantly, and in the next few days I

pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolu-
tionary who had fled his homeland and, as soon as he had crossed the
mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the
military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every
sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocioand
every word of it false.
But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking
his penis to electric wires, waterboarding him? How could he prove to
them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades,
just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?
Of course, he couldnt. He confessed to anything and everything they
wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices
and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all
this was imaginary, he was subjected to further ordeals.
There was no escape.
That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always
the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an
unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations, my life and
my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those
mutilated spines and fractured livesChinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian,
Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on?all of them, men and women
alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man
has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where
one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only
pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.
It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion,
a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past
decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, trans-
gressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national
and international, that has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and
shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away
when we formulate the questionDoes torture work?when we allow
ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to
defeat terrorism.
I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that
confessions obtained under duresssuch as that extracted from the heav-
ing body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in
1973are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not
do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity
or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.
100 South Central Review

I find these argumentsand there are many moreto be irrefutable.

But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate
by participating in it.
Cant the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured
by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are cor-
rupted, not only the intelligence that is contaminated, but also everyone
who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented
tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the
citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the
resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevi-
table in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?
Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not
understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security
and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be
tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we
do not realize that each of us could be that hapless Argentine who sat
under the Santiago sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he
could not stop shivering?