Sunday, 15 February 2009

Sunday Night is.. Rostropovich playing Bach / On torture

Bach's Suite for Solo Cello: Bourrée (Paris, 1962)

When I die I want to turn into a cello. Or maybe I could be buried inside a cello. The sound comes from somewhere just below the heart but works its way up through the heart. It is as if the base of your spine were a tree and the tree were singing.

Far-fetched. I might have put that better years ago, in 'Metro';

...The wind is scrabbling at the glass - perhaps
The trees are waiting to be let in.
The branches say nothing
Expressing only an incoherent thirst
For music, a music so violent and awful
That it can only leave them waving their arms.
Imagine the cellos sprouting dark green tongues
And moaning softly of their lot; their past
Of growing, cutting, hewing, shaping
To this one point of supreme helplessness.
What's eating them? And yet it's good to be eaten,
To become the food of passion and to feel
The stomach rise in suicidal independence...

I think that's still all right. A little risky at the very end maybe. Suicidal independence? Hmm. Maybe...


Sunday mornings is when dad rings for our weekly part-Hungarian, part-English conversation. The idea is to make it entirely Hungarian but occasionally English creeps in. At times it takes over. He was telling me about the Nicky Campbell panel discussion programme he had just been watching on TV. This time one of the subjects was torture and he wanted to discuss it with me.

I don't think he quite knew what he thought, though when he told me that everyone cheered the woman who declared in ringing tones that there should never be any torture anywhere, he felt a slight unease. Maybe the cheer came too easily for him. Another panellist wondered what the woman might say if her own child's life could only be saved by torturing someone.

I said what I would normally say. The question assumes too much. It assumes that people speak the truth under torture, not simply what the torturers want to hear. In that way it is ineffective.

Yes, but morally?

What I think, and sometimes say, is that if anyone harmed my children I would want to rend them slowly limb from limb. I don't think I could tell myself not to feel something I do in fact feel. But feeling is complex, so, at the same time, I would want to be restrained, because I have a certain awareness that if my individual act were to be repeated every time someone felt like exacting revenge, life would be hell. States act partly as intermediaries or proxies for plaintiffs, partly as impersonal keepers of order. I am satisfied, for these purposes, to be assimilated into the body of the state. That is to say after I have calmed down. Or before it even happens.

That's because my personal feeling is not to be confused with the obligations of the state. I recognise the distancing the state affords as a form of benefit. While wanting to exact full and painful revenge on the offender on a personal level, I wouldn't want the state to embody my passion since passion, by its very nature, peaks and fluctuates. The state should be less subject to fluctuation in its judgments: it should take a longer view. (Hence my feeling that all knee-jerk legislation is wrong and harmful.) Beyond that, there is something particularly awful, I personally feel, about state execution. I would not wish the state to act with the deliberation I lack in my passion as executioner on my behalf. Nor would I want the state to inflict the pain I might want to inflict. Basically I want the state to act humanely in such ways I consider to be humane. I want the state to agree with me of course, but not all the time.

That's the easy part.

The difficult, complex part is defining what level of suffering it is appropriate for a state to inflict. Prison is loss of liberty. We accept that. We do not accept state corporal punishment now, and we have long rejected torture.

So what constitutes torture? When you sit in a dark room and are given third-degree in a police cell, meaning someone shouts at you while shining a light in your eyes? When your interrogators insult you? When they are sarcastic to you? When they make you stand in a corner and write a hundred lines? When they keep you awake? When they strip you naked? When they strip you naked and make you stand before people whose presence acutely embarrasses you? When they slap you? When they beat you? When they waterboard you? When they put you on the rack? When they light a bonfire under you?

The photographs of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib, were certainly humiliating and brutal. Are humiliation and brutality the same as torture? The 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

.. that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment...

which derives from:

the inherent dignity of the human person

The terms used are briefly defined as:

Torture: existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain;
Cruel or inhuman treatment: no specific purpose, significant level of suffering or pain inflicted;
Outrages upon personal dignity: no specific purpose, significant level of humiliation or degradation.

So there are three distinct categories. The term torture is given a fuller definition in the UN Convention above, like this:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

There may not seem much point, in ordinary debate, in quibbling about where outrages on personal dignity shade into cruel or inhumane treatment and, finally, torture. The key concept is: the inherent dignity of the human person. I am, of course, deeply sceptical about how many of the states that have signed up to the Convention observe it in this spirit, but I am very much for the spirit. Though that's not difficult either. It's always easier to be for the spirit of something.

My own list above is simply a haphazard collection of actions taken against individuals by people in authority. The book I have just finished reading - a quite marvellous book, The White King, by the Hungarian novelist György Dragomán - is soaked through with brutality, particularly the kind of brutality states inflict on individuals, teachers inflict on children, but also the kind children inflict on each other.

When I was at school I myself was on the receiving end of some acts of brutality, none of which would be tolerated today. I wouldn't however call it torture. Being publicly slippered? Caned? What if it hadn't happened at a London school but at Abu Ghraib? What if it happened now? Surely it would come under one of the three definitions? Yes, but that's now. It was part of the currency of life then.

I expect that, in popular debate, 'torture' does now expand to cover all three areas of mistreatment. It's part of the rhetorical drive of our era, something we have learned from advertisements and other forms of propaganda, and it makes it easier to cheer full-heartedly when someone condemns it.

Cheering, like booing, is easy, was my father's hunch, and I share it. I deeply distrust those moments when everyone feels thoroughly righteous. They are nearly always the points at which we start burning people. And that's torture.


Gwil W said...

Sunday night was a György Ligeti (1923-2006) cello solo performed by Vienna's rising cello star Sol-Daniel Kim (aged 18yrs).
Ligeti was born in the small village of Dicsöszentmarton in Romania but the family moved to Cluj when György was aged 6.
A bit later he escaped from Hungary. Turned up in Vienna. It was in December 1956.
To me the dramatic and hectic music sounded quite a a bit like a swarm of bees gone mad.
Ligeti became an Ehrenmitglied der Wiener Konzerthausgesellschaft along with Benjamin Britten & co.

Anonymous said...

Some wise words there, George, and I agree with most of them. Particularly I agree with the way you deal with how governments should distance themselves from passions of the individual. Many have not done that and pander to the masses with knee jerk reactions. Often, that has the opposite effect of what they are trying to achieve.

As for torture, it's debatable what is torture these days. Surely, locking someone up and removing their liberty is a form of torture. But that's an accepted form of torture. So what is an 'acceptable' form of torture? In a hypothetical situation, would it not be acceptable that wiring up someone's genitals and giving them multiple electric shocks to reveal the time and methodolgy of the attacks on the Twin Towers before it happened, so preventing those attacks? And what about the hypothetical case of locating a dirty nuclear bomb in the middle of London. You have the man who has hidden it and you need the information before it goes off in six hours time. What do you do then? Read him his rights and not interview him until his lawyer is present, or do you torture the information out of him?

It's an interesting debate.

Writearound said...

I agree that the state acting as a brake on the runaway reactions of individuals is one of its key roles. The government role however in a democratic society is also to uphold the general mores of society and through a system of visible and documented laws upholds those values which society deems essential if it is to safeguard the individual and society as a whole. The rights of the individual versus the common good has basically been the tension that has kept a democracy in balance or rocky according to how each is interpreted. The individual may seek revenge or a specific personal outcome, the state on the other hand requires that be tempered by what the best outcome is for the many. The difficulty of course is when the 'common weal' is assessed and judged only by those with access to power and the good of the many is translated into the good of the system which upholds the state and those that service the state, thus the maintainance of the apparatus of the state becomes an end in itself...but then Kafka and many others have been there before me . As you say, George, there are times when our personal needs and desires have to be reined in or checked by the needs of the many, the transparent and openly challengeable operation of a code of laws by which all are bound saves us from anarchy or tyranny. The behaviour of any citizen, be they state official or member of the public has to, in my opinion, be measured against the agreed and current system of laws. So if I were to attach electrodes to the genitals of a neighbour who I believed knew who had killed my child in a hit and run accident , for instance, I would be stepping outside the law and so therefore would any official who did the same thing for the same purpose.I suppose this is what underpins all democratic systems of law, it has to apply to everyone, no matter what their role or official designation. Once you allow that, in some instances, there are individuals, whoever they are, that are allowed to be above or outside the law and are indeed given specific permission by the state to be above the laws that apply to all citizens then I think something starts to rot at the heart of the system.
There are the endless scenarios people throw up where torture may well result in the common good but then there is the immediate common good and the long term common good. I ,like you, think the law should be quite ponderous and slow operating more in evolutionary rather than immediately reactive ways.
The concept of 'natural' justice always seems a little bit of a red herring to me as it seems to imply that sometimes the law acts against every human need for suitable retribution.Natural justice could be seen as a rough continuum running from someone getting their 'come-uppance' to someone suffering in a manner commesurate with the pain, both emotional and physical, inflicted by that person. The thing that worries me is that natural justice is actually just another way of feeling that someone has suffered in equal measure and that is impossible. If a man were to murder our child , should we murder his child ( should he have one) in exactly the same manner as he murdered ours..this is after all the only real eye and tooth; but of course it isn't because such horror is not replicable , thank god.
Torture to extract information is always unreliable as you point out, torture to deter others doesn't work as it only creates martyrs and sews dragon teeth to grow other 'martyrs', torture to make ourselves feel better, revenged or vindicated doesn't work as you cannot replicate the pain you feel at some horror brought about by others.Torture as the official and unofficial playground for the sadistic will ,sadly, always be with us as out there , there are always those that will seek to clothe personal and/or small group psychopathy in the robes of reluctant necessity. I do not wave some PC 'torture is always wrong' placard but suggest that probably torture does nothing to make anything better, least of all the society in which it occurs but then what constitutes a 'better society ' is a whole other question. Good post George, really found it challenging when you exercised the little grey cells on this.

George S said...

Much to pick up in your fine post, Writearound, but just one for now. You say:

"The government role however in a democratic society is also to uphold the general mores of society and through a system of visible and documented laws upholds those values which society deems essential if it is to safeguard the individual and society as a whole."

I am never quite sure how governments gauge the general mores of society, especially since governments are major actors in those mores in so far as they encourage or discourage certain transactions and attitudes. I don't say I mind this, it just sounds rather pious to speak of governments referring to the mores of their electorate. Unless we move to a referendum society (which I would not support) the government is, I think, an agency we place relative trust in (I refer to voting figures and majorities) to act on our behalf. The government in our form of parliamentary democracy is, in effect, an elected parent that does not have to bow to the wishes of its children. That parent has - and sees itself as having - an educational role. It relies a great deal on the sheer passivity of its children. Ever so often it has to buy a few treats, especially round election time.

Children electing their parents is just one image of course. Sheep electing their shepherds is another. As I say, I don't mind this - up to a point - since it is more or less unavoidable and better an enlightened liberal, temporary paterfamilias than the mob baying for blood, which it does tend to do on occasion.

Completely with you on 'natural' justice.

Main points: let's be precise when we talk about important things; let's always bear the long-term in mind; let's err on the side of generosity when we can.

Anonymous said...

Writearound, I, too, found much merit in your appraisal. However, pragmatism is a cruel mistress and she doesn't have time for ideology or philosophy. Only when you have faced her head on and come to a conclusion of how you will react in extreme circumstances, like the two examples I put in my first post, can you be sure of your real self. I think that, sometimes, the end does justify the means even though the means may go against everything you believe in.