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The International Writers Magazine
: Torture

James Skinner

I’ll break into my essay with two examples of literary horror. The first extract goes something like this:
"Commander Fernandez, sucking at his tenth cigarette continued to pace about the darkened room. A solitary extendable lamp was lit just above the prisoner. He was naked and strapped by his neck, arms and legs to a purpose built chair, raised on a plinth about two feet above the ground. Two marines stood by on either side. The prisoner was barely conscious yet showed no signs of bruising. He had two steel needles, three inches long, plunged into his chest just below each nipple. ‘Ok, once again. Why Forrester?’ said Fernandez, standing in the dark about three feet away. ‘Why was he singled out?’ The prisoner remained silent. Fernandez moved into the light and nodded at the marines. Each one took hold of a needle. They slowly revolved them, scrapping against the prisoner’s ribcage."

My second example differs in physical abuse but is equally repulsive.

"At over six thousand feet, a hundred miles east of Bahia Blanca and after two hours flying time, the old Dakota started its descent. The airplane began to shudder as the pilot reduced speed to an almost gliding pace. The roar of the powerful engines in reverse thrust deafened even the very drowsy. A cool gust of air entered the cabin as the rear exit door was opened. Sergio, barely conscious, felt cold. His mind started to wander through endless scenes of surreal thoughts. Flashes of red explosions coupled with calm stills of small mice being dissected kept flowing through his brain. The mice grew smaller and smaller and the flashes turned into a dark blue pattern of cubes coming at him at increasing velocity. He heard a soft voice uttering a single climatic cry, ‘God!’ His agony was over as his convulsed body hit the freezing dampness of the Atlantic Ocean."

Is this the prose of a warped writer? Or could it be part of a report by a sadistic journalist during some forgotten war in Latin America? It is a bit of both. These are passages from my forthcoming novel on the Falkland Island’s war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982. It demonstrates how most of us humans have the ability to think and design methods of hurting our fellow beings. However, in moving from fiction to action lies a difference between rational deliberation and insanity. We can all conjure up infinite ways of torturing a living creature or sustain hours of exposure to brutal scenes of inflicted pain in books or on the screen without batting an eyelid. It is part of our every day life. Yet between visualizing or thinking about an act of barbarity and actually conducting one is a gulf as wide as the ocean. Or is it?

Torture has been around for centuries and was even a common legal practice in many ancient civilizations. Early Roman laws were influenced by the information obtained through the torturing of slaves thus adding validity to their testimonies in court. From the mid XIV century to the end of the XVIII century torture was a common and sanctioned part of the legal proceedings of most European countries. The Catholic Church took advantage of the situation and approved its use in cases of heresy entering the history books as part of the infamous period of the Inquisition. Whilst many prominent historical personages such as Aristotle and Sir Francis Bacon condoned the practice, others came to the fore and condemned it outright. In the European Middle Ages, St. Augustine pointed out its moral perversity. His famous quote is a symbol to all defenders of international human rights. I quote: ‘Torture forces even the innocent to lie.’

How about all the different methods of abuse that have been around for years? We have the old fashion rack, an instrument that stretched the limbs and body of a suspect, as well as the thumbscrew, a metal-studded vice in which the thumbs of the unfortunate being were compressed until he squealed. Moving on towards the XIX century when electricity was invented, all sorts of diabolical instruments and methods were designed that are still in practice today. Short and sharp bursts of high voltage currents attached to any part of the body you can think of has been used over and over again by umpteen numbers of organisations throughout the world to assault, humiliate and denigrate their fellow humans. Modern techniques now include the sophisticated use of psychological and pharmacological methods conducted thanks to medical research into the psychology of pain. Would you believe it!

No need to dig into the recent past during WWII and the Cold War to expose the horrors committed by the unmentionable monsters in Germany and the U.S.S.R. They already fill most libraries throughout the world. Despite the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, revelations of widespread practice of torture such as in French Algeria and Greece during the 1950’s are only a glimpse at how it continues to be adaptable to many cultures in the learly 21st century as a form of vindictive action against aliens. Although torture has been universally condemned, it is still widely practiced in many regions, including Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

So why all the fuss about the recent atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq in the infamous prisoner-of-war camp in Abu Ghraib?

The answer is in human nature itself. The belief that only sadistic individuals are capable of committing torture was questioned if not disproved by a group of, ironically US scientist way back in the 1960’s. A group of volunteers made up of ordinary people from all walks of life were told to administer a sort of memory test to a ‘victim’. The actual suspect was an actor strapped down and attached to an electrode that had no electricity connected to it. When ordered to increase the false ‘voltage’, the majority of ‘volunteers’ continued to administer what they thought were serious levels of electric shock despite the screams and protests of the ‘actor-victim’. What does this prove? That under certain circumstances and unusual situations of pressure, some, if not most human beings can turn into outright monsters and inflict torture on others without batting an eyelid. Such must have been the case of the American guards in Iraq whose photographs of them and their victims were screened around the world. Does this exonerate the culprits?
Heavens no! They are as guilty as sin. But then so is Saddam Hussein, and George Bush, and Tony Blair, and Bin Laden, and Mr. Chips, and Goldilocks and the three bears, and…’
I remember an old saying my father used to quote. ‘All the world is a little queer. Saving thee and me. And even thee is a little queer!’
Author’s note: Queer means strange and not the ‘other’.
© James Skinner. June 2004.

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