The Worst Thing in the World
"You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world."
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
As the debate over torture continues, the creative evasions of the torturers, and their supporters, reach heights of circumlocutory fancy that are quite revealing of the desperation that follows from naming things accurately. There is a maledictory mesmerism like looking into a cobra's eyes to their insistence that we did not torture anyone in the cells of Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, that what was done there by them in our names was not torture because the United States does not torture, that the screams and pleadings of those enjoying "enhanced interrogations" were somehow slanderous in their fervency.
In fact, we are informed, there is no such thing as torture, really. Most of our prisoners were not murdered, or even crippled. Thus, under the terms of the definition the torturers wrote for themselves, they could not have been tortured because they did not suffer pain "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying . . . organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Since these prisoners did not die, their pain did not amount to the pain accompanying death, thus was not torture, thus anybody who did not die was not tortured. The 100-plus deaths that did occur were accidental mishaps of the enhanced interrogation process, also not torture. QED. So comprehensive was the tortured language of these tortuous definitions of what is not torture that it would in fact have been almost impossible for our guardians actually to torture anyone even if (hypothetically, of course) they had wanted to there is almost nothing short of death that did not fall within the latitude they granted themselves, and death itself is not torture.
And what of so-called "waterboarding"? A simulated drowning is not a real drowning, and it leaves no lasting physical damage. So benign is it that it was possible to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times in the space of one month with no further effects than constant blinding headaches, intolerable sound sensitivity, hundreds of seizures, language and memory impairments, and loss of the ability to speak coherently or recognize close family members but no recorded organ failures. Surely torture would be made of sterner stuff.
Indeed, we are informed that much of what was done to our guests was not even waterboarding defined as a complex process involving hoods, gags, inverted boards, and other impedimenta of the persuasive arts, and governed by a strict and highly professional set of rules specifying the frequency and duration of each "session," in which water was poured into the mouth and nose of a bound, partially suffocated, screaming, gagging, and convulsing subject, and the number of sessions per day, per month, and so on. Most of the 183 liquified inquiries posed to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were, we are assured, merely "water pourings," much more casual and informal than the waterboarding that seems to cause such upset. So, again, no torture.
One wonders, though, what motivated our inquisitorial military and intelligence personnel to bother not torturing their guests so often, and so relentlessly what it was that convinced them that performing procedures that did not produce objectionable levels of pain, did not always produce lasting damage, did not kill historically noteworthy numbers of subjects, was not torture by any reasonable definition that they accepted, would produce the kinds of results that torture is intended to produce? What made it worth going on after the first dozen, first score, first 100, first 150, "water pourings"? What made 183 instances of a procedure so minor it is not even a misdemeanor under their interpretation of the law so powerful that it would presumably force our most implacable enemies to give up, in our benign care, what, on the battlefield, they would have died to protect? What, too, possessed them to lie about it so pervasively and obsessively to deny the events of Abu Ghraib, to conceal the photos and reports, to claim that Abu Zubaydah had voluntarily agreed to reveal all his secrets after a mere 35 seconds of water pouring that in fact turned out to be 83 separate sessions that for some reason couldn't be admitted afterward? Why bother to deny not torturing anyone?
Orwell gave us a shattering picture of utter degradation the implacable sadism of power without restraint, the boot stomping the human face forever, the ultimate submission to the ultimate humiliation. So compelling were his fictional atrocities that even their author's name has become its own overworked cliché what real events can be denominated "Orwellian" without some hint of hyperbole?
But Orwell captured, in a tiny but profound detail of the bureaucratic Grand Guignol that makes up Nineteen Eighty-Four, an insight that draws a sorrowful sympathetic resonance from within our own lawyerly gulag. It is this: torture is not defined by the method used.
In Orwell's Room 101, each person faced a different form of torture, but each faced fundamentally the same horror. What awaited them there was the worst thing in the world. Whether it was rats, or beatings, or some other terror, it was their nightmare, from which they could not awaken. What broke them every one of them, inevitably was the fact that what they faced was the thing they could not face.
Our torturers worked from a less-creative palette of methods, but in precisely the same way. They had one tool which no one can withstand the method of repeated partial drownings. With that universal nightmare, they could subject anyone they chose to the worst thing in the world, or at least to the thing no one could bear. (Occasionally they customized their torments: prisoners at Abu Ghraib were stripped naked in front of women because of their known cultural revulsion at sexual exposure; the CIA planned to confine Abu Zubaydah in a small box containing insects because of his known horror of them. Orwell would smile in grim recognition.)
It is irrelevant to torture whether it leaves physical marks, causes lasting damage, or even causes pain. What makes torture powerful, and as Orwell knew but John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Dick Cheney, and George Bush claim not to what makes it torture¸ is not that it has some specified or specifiable tangible consequence, but simply that it is the worst thing in the world. Torture cannot be withstood because torture is, by definition, the thing that cannot be withstood. That may be the exquisitely sophisticated stroking of a psychological trigger, such as placing an insect in a box, or it may be the crude pummeling of a vital physical drive, such as drowning a bound subject by forcing water into their airway. What matters is not what is done but that it is done in a manner which inflames the subject's most fundamental fears, inescapably, irresistibly, and for the duration of the torturer's whim.
This is why waterboarding, and all the other crushing excesses of our nation's self-effacing, but very real, torturers, can have no other name but "torture". This is why those techniques were used, by those who now claim they were useless. This is what our nation has embraced as means of achieving its ends: the worst thing in the world. Winston Smith, facing the rats of his fears and nightmares, experienced just what Abu Zubaydah was threatened with in the insect-box, and just what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others faced, strapped upside down, gagged, and drowning: the worst thing in the world. Torture.