Torture Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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Picture of a blindfolded man, arms tied and raised above his head, framed in a red circle with a line through it ie, 'Stop the Torture'

If you have come here looking for gory details, then you'd better look elsewhere. The idea of this Entry is not to glorify pain and suffering, but to raise awareness of what torture really is, and what it is like to live in fear of it.

What is Torture?

The word 'torture' comes from the Latin verb torquere, meaning 'to twist'. Torture is usually defined as severe pain inflicted for punishment or coercion, or as extreme physical or mental suffering; but 'to twist' still lies at the heart of what torture is all about. Torture twists the body, mind, and spirit of the victim; it twists the essence of what it is to be a person out of the human body, and reduces what's left to the level of a worm, existing in a horrible instant, without hopes or dreams, dignity or identity.

Torture is the cause of grief for countless millions of people through the centuries, people from all walks of life, all colours, all creeds. No culture has remained untainted by the spectre of this truly appalling practice. Nor is torture a relic of the past, clinging to the primitive backwaters of our world; it exsists here and now, a keystone of countless national policies, and a subject of dispassionate talk in barracks and cafeterias around the globe. When one starts to look into this subject, the extent to which torture is still with us is utterly astounding.

The Torturers

The practice of torture has been with us since man's earliest days. Many of the world's religions speak of a hereafter promising endless torment for heretics; and many religions have openly espoused torture in the here-and-now, as a means of ensuring devotion. Conquerors of all persuasions routinely tortured subjugated peoples and prisoners of war. Those who wield power have a long history of using torture to keep it. Governments all over the world, all publicly deploring the use of torture to various degrees, still find it an expedient way of dealing with dissent.

But what drives an individual to torture another human being? From the Nazi tyranny in Europe, to the tragic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, those who have been arrested and tried for torture have often used the defence, 'I was only following orders. Look at me... I'm not like that!'

What turns someone's gentle son or loving husband into a remorseless torturer? The desire to dominate, subjugate, and impose one's will on another person is a basic component of the personalities of all human beings and, wherever social and political climates nourish that streak of nastiness, there will always be people who cannot resist the call. Studies have shown that any of us has the capacity to perform acts of unspeakable cruelty on those who are helpless1. There is a real danger in calling torturers inhuman... because, sadly, they're not.

Severe torture is used as a matter of course in almost two-thirds of the countries of the world; but torture, in some form, takes place virtually everywhere. It is the nature of societies that they must protect certain viewpoints, and limit the expression of dissent; and it is how societies respond to dissent that defines them.

The citizens of the world's great democracies enjoy a level of freedom that is only dreamt of elsewhere; and yet, even in our 'open societies', dissent often takes the form of violent protest, and physical conflict with the representatives of state authority results. This is where one has to watch very closely, because the line between the legitimate right of societies to maintain order and the brutalization of individual protesters is a hazy one.

Pepper sprays and gels, tear gas, and electric shock devices are increasingly common means that police forces use to pacify protesters. These 'Non Lethal Neutralizing Agents' were originally intended to provide policemen with an alternative to shooting people or beating them senseless. Their use has subsequently broadened to the point where they are now often used merely to disperse crowds. At what point does the use of such tools cease to be legitimate? At what point does interrogation become torture?

The Tortured

There are so many countries where severe forms of torture are a part of everyday life. Occupying forces are responsible for the persecution and murder of innocent people in places as diverse as Tibet, the Middle East, and the islands of the Pacific; and public policy has long supported the 'disappearance' of street children in Central and South America. These are not people who are, in the main, rebels or revolutionaries; they are just people who happen not to fit into the designs of the powerful.

The following cases are real. The people involved are real... and so is their pain.

  • Five Tibetan nuns committed suicide in Drapchi Prison, near Lhasa, after being beaten, electrocuted, and forced to stand in the sun for four days, because they refused to sing Chinese patriotic songs2.

  • According to Amnesty International, a 16-year-old Roma3 boy was beaten unconscious and burned while in police custody in Bulgaria. He suffered third degree burns to 15% of his body.

  • According to Amnesty International, prisoners, including women and children, continue to be beaten, raped , and tortured by Russian security forces in 'filtration' camps in Chechnya.

  • The International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet reported that children in Tibet as young as six, detained and tortured by Chinese police, have been beaten, shocked with electric cattle prods, and hung from the ceiling by the knees.4

  • Human Rights Watch interviewed children in Turkey, who described being subjected to electric shocks, hosed with cold water, and beaten with truncheons. One 14-year-old boy reported being beaten on the soles of his feet with a pick axe handle.

What Can Be Done?

There is so much that could be done to fight this on-going situation, but it seems that the majority of people are either unaware of just how rife torture is, or they subscribe to the 'What can one person do?' school of thought, the 'Little Man Syndrome'.

Torture is like a vampire: it is a powerful agent of evil; but, to a large extent, it can only live in the dark. Even the most powerful nations on earth cannot afford to be too brazen about the way they treat their citizens. As dependent as they are on trade, they must all at least pay lip service to the ideals of decent human behaviour as they are recognized by the international community.

In recent years, there have been enormous gains in the fight against torture. One of our most powerful tools in this fight is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the standard against which people the world over can judge the behaviour of their governments. Signed in 1948, the world has been slow to realise what it implies.

Article 5 States:

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Introduction to the Human Rights Watch summary of the year 2000 begins with the news that, world wide, national boundaries are less formidable barriers, and the pursuit of those who have committed crimes against humanity is more aggressive and relentless than ever; and, although the world's most notorious criminals continue to give justice the slip, their rings of henchmen are being stripped away and prosecuted as they never have been before.

Amnesty International is dedicated to the exposure of violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It relies heavily on the efforts of volunteers to support its letter writing campaigns, which have a proven record of materially improving the lot of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Post cards and letters from ordinary people around the world, politely inquiring about the welfare of a prisoner, may mean the difference between life and death. Could there ever be a simpler way to be a hero? The power of public opinion, and its expression through letter writing campaigns, should never be underestimated; and, although such humble efforts cannot change the world overnight, little by little they will change it!

The Internet

The Internet is a powerful tool that enables human rights organizations to disseminate information or pool resources in a way that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive. It is the ideal weapon to use against the clandestine nature of torture; the beatings, the electric shocks, and the most appalling kinds physical abuse, taking place in small locked rooms around the world, are now being challenged by people of conscience. They are ordinary individuals, but the weight of their combined efforts has the power to influence national agendas; and gradually nudge the world into a healthier state.

Amnesty International has launched a new weapon against the world's torturers called simply Stop Torture. It costs nothing to join, no special knowledge or experience is required, and registering is only a click away.

Stop torture is a website designed to equip on-line activists with everything they need to participate in the battle against torture. Anyone who registers will receive the latest information via email or mobile phone text messaging, anywhere in the world. They can then choose to join on-line petitions and email campaigns addressed directly to the people who are doing the torturing. Subscribers will also be able to send virtual postcards to friends, to further promote the cause.

1Stanford Prison Experiment.2This was reported by the BBC on 6 October, 2000.3There are estimated to be between six and ten million Roma people in Europe, most living on the fringes of society. They consider the name 'Gypsy' to be a disparaging reminder of centuries of persecution and disdain.4This was reported by the Associated Press, 11 September, 2000.

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