Torture as Individualized War, War as Socialized Torture

[T]he destruction of bodies in modern warfare moves toward a generalized practice of torture. We have not so much abandoned the practice of torture as shifted the locus of an act of violent sacrifice—the genus within which torture is a specific cultural form. The battlefield is strewn with the disemboweled and beheaded, with severed limbs and broken bodies. All have died a terrible death in a display of sovereign power. To view the battlefield is to witness the awesome power of the sovereign to occupy and destroy the finite body. ((Kahn, Paul W. (2009-09-23). Sacred Violence, Kindle Locations 768-772). University of Michigan Press. Kindle Edition. As will be evident, Kahn’s work, in this book and others, provides the background for this post.))

The classic scene of torture is a confrontation between solitary wills, directly involving small groups at most, lead interrogator vs. captive, plus henchmen and observers, but in relation to opposed vastly larger identities. Our imaginary dramatization of torture offers a cathartic personalization of great events, history at an accessibly human scale. Two collective bids for the status of universal truth confront each other through individual representatives, amidst a search for determinative facts – facts that the captive is believed to be hiding, but also, recalling a very old tradition, the facts confirmed in the “trial by ordeal.” The characters of those two bids for truth are held to conflict along the same axis that defines the drama itself and its embedded ironies, of a Western or liberal democratic individualism tormented by an overriding collective necessity, and of an ideology of martyrdom twisted into an individual’s to be demonstrated self-preference. The two positions seem to turn and distort each other into their own opposites, even if neither worldview is ever simply present in its counterposed human reductions.

sacred_violenceAs individuals and individualists, we react viscerally, if vicariously, to the very essence of torture and to the principle of its effectiveness: which last need not be considered strictly in regard to its supposed sole justifying purpose, the acquisition of so-called actionable intelligence, but may, in the very uncertainty of its utility, even at the outset of the “enhanced interrogation” program, rely primarily on demonstration of the torturer’s own unequivocal faith, love of country, love of fellow citizens or members of a community, willingness to fight for and defend them by any means necessary and available, up to and including one’s own destruction. This intelligence about ourselves, on the dependency and relative insignificance of the individual, converted by war into one sheddable cell among others in an arisen national body, the Casablanca determination ((

…as to the feelings of two people.


)), stands as the first and most important, most fervently sought secret proven by torture. The contrasting alternative faith that our most ardent torture critics, not coincidentally our most ardent critics of the targeted killing and “drone warfare” campaign, represent so well is a fundamentally libertarian, originally modern and liberal faith based among other things on metaphysical individualism, in the political dimension the “inalienable rights” of any person specifically against the collective authority of the state. ((Kahn’s observations on torture often apply equally well to the relentlessly unilluminating political discussion of the targeted killing program. We can substitute appropriate drone-related terms for torture in the following passage also from Sacred Violence, Locations 105-109:

To most liberals, torture appears as a display of pure power: the torturer says to the victim, “I can do this to you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” This asymmetry of power is anathema to liberal morality, which insists on the equal dignity of and respect for every individual. From the liberal perspective, law has no place for torture and politics must be circumscribed by law. Most academic work today is little more than repeated demonstrations that torture violates the fundamental principles of liberalism. In truth, liberalism has nothing interesting to say about torture.

)) Subjectively, it is the difference between the national cemetery and the grave of the soldier you knew. The torture victim occupies the latter position in the drama.

As for the counter-position, that of an American intelligence operative facing a defiant captive during the early part of the last decade, a period in which the United States was not merely closer in time to the 9/11 events, but escalating to globalized inter-state war, the decision on whether to set “normal limits” aside on interrogation practices might have in the abstract seemed easy, and quite to the opposite effect than for today’s observers looking back in judgment. The thought may help us to envision, as overall we have in fact excused, such operatives and those who directed them as also captives – captives of events, of the oaths they took, and also of personal limitations in knowledge, experience, or virtue. They were each other’s captives, and they were most of all our captives. They were not, of course, in predicaments identical or substantially comparable to those of their victims, but they and the nation they represented were in a symmetrical predicament – one that also happens to fall under a certain “objective and morally clear” definition of torture. They were more like the captive who is not physically harmed, but is threatened with harm to loved ones: “If you tell us what we need to know, you can save your family”; “If you put this man in a box, you may save lives,” or “If you do this awful thing, you may save your fellow citizens.” They were subjected to pain and threats of further pain, if specifically as mental anguish, while being asked or ordered to do things that they might otherwise never have done. ((The story of a mob boss or a revolutionary or a superhero or a witty dwarf prince or, of course, a soldier at war might capture our sympathies for the sometime torturer, especially the retaliatory, avenging, or protective torturer, a common enough character in American popular literature and film to suggest that explaining and (re-)affirming him or her is among the latter’s main purposes.))

Torture turns out to be a microcosm or specific individualization of war, as war itself also turns out to meet the supposedly objective and supposedly morally clear definition of torture under an only slight modification: War is the socialized “infliction of physical or mental pain for the purpose of breaking the will.” As or more objectively and clearly, terror is socialized torture, an infliction of physical and mental pain on the social-political body, just as torture in its employment and in its broader effect is a form of terrorism. One leads to and in a sense demands the other: “Torture and terror are reciprocal phenomena: terror is met with torture, and torture with terror” ((

Wherever terrorism has reappeared, torture has never been far behind. Recall Latin America and Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and before that the wars of decolonization. More recently, think of the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and the Middle East. Torture and terror are reciprocal phenomena: terror is met with torture, and torture with terror.

Sacred Violence, 227-229.)) – until and unless the will on one side, or the ability to realize that will, is broken. Before such time, terrorism receives a socialized, terroristic reciprocation in the form of so-called counter-terrorism, which will re-combine and employ terror and torture by other means that are in another sense always the same means. The real cognitive difficulty with the label “War on Terror” was therefore not simply, as has often been said, that “terror” is a tactic, not an enemy, but that the phrase was and is a tortuous self-contradiction: “War on Terror” says “war on war,” “terror against terror,” and “torture against torture,” though, if it also suggested a masochistic commitment to escalating self-disfigurement, so can any religious devotion, or any affair of the heart, viewed from outside the circle of faith or love.

Prosecuting torture-terror against terror-torture demanded as a further act of imagination or faith, though not for most the first such act, a refusal to consider it as anything other than a justifiably defensive reaction, as to a bolt from the blue, a novum from nowhere. For political purposes, the terror against terror could be justified only as a closing of the fundamental breach that it also manifests, not as in any sense a further continuation or re-escalation within a pre-existing torture-terror cycle. Within the terms of current attempts to define torture ideally and as an inexplicable discontinuity, another such novum from nowhere or from the quarantinable personal evil of a President, Vice-President, and staff, the only detectable difference between war in general and torture in particular would appear to be a mere difference of magnitude. To oppose one is simply to oppose the other, utterly, and to condemn every single one of those bastards, not you and me. Yet the function relies on that same peculiar mechanism, as illogical as it is familiar – a not merely psychological but psychologically as well as politically “constitutional” mechanism – that also enables the lesser magnitude to exceed the greater in our sympathies, the waterboarded man over the battle-shambles of corpses, the single tragedy over the statistic, the soldier we knew and not a landscape of sacrifice. This disproportionate focus exactly proportionate to a single life provides each of us with a seemingly solid support, until the time that we are overwhelmed or overwhelmed again, as in the moment that we may, for example, watch a skyscraper full of our fellow citizens collapse into fire, smoke, dust, and debris, and, in terror, consider who and what anyone is, and is for. “Only in common is death tolerable.” ((“Nur gemeinsames Sterben ist erträglich,” PLN: Die Passionen der Halykonischen Seele, Werner Krauss, 2d Ed. (1983), p. 27.))

6 comments on “Torture as Individualized War, War as Socialized Torture

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  1. And you don’t think ‘torture’ and I mean hanging on a bloody meat hook, isn’t happening in the wonderful world of Morsy, that the Citadel where Qutb released his last breath, is back in business under new management, The likes of Al Baluchi, will funnel money to another generation of hijackers, if not stopped, KSM will direct how and why, and Zubeydah will handle the logistics.

  2. Maybe we are to understand at the outset that this lays out simlarites, collapsing categories, among terrorism, torture and war in a the sense that we already understand them as political, some sort of collective action. But only war among is limited to the political. Terrorism and torture within the family or family like groups perhaps belongs n the category tree as well.

    The drama of collective/individual, the dynamics of power among humans themselves, between humans and whatever set (only) seems to exclude humans is n some sense the source of the political. War on this stage is metphorical but terror and torture are not.

    In way I can’t articulate, the seeming disconnect betweeen the the response and the magnitude, “that also enables the lesser magnitude to exceed the greater in our sympathies” comes from this source within the family and is not irrational but only not clearly understood.

    • To the extent that the polity is not a “family-like group,” and that the political does not by extension summon or evoke a “familial” or quasi-familial identification, then the political is merely an instrumentality for the realization of particular, pre-existing objectives limited by the horizon of the family or the individual within the family. If that was so for all citizens, then the political could never summon the “ultimate sacrifice”: There would never be a reason or justification for the family or individual ever willingly to offer up a life – enclosing the entire set of its in this sense pre- or non-political possibilities – to the political. (When the draft notice appeared in the mailbox, it would be returned to sender or anyway the draft would be resisted to the utmost.) The classic definition of the political, what Aristotle meant by defining the human being as a or the “political animal,” means that the organization into the political state is as “natural” as the family, and we could even say that it’s as natural as the organization of the self as a self. Without a political or collective identity our familial and individual identities are incomplete. Apparently, the latest up to the moment natural science supports the notion of the naturalness of this pre-disposition in terms very close to the ones that Aristotle himself might have used, if perhaps with greater attentiveness to their embedded implications, as “genetic” and “biological.” This is a matter of “genesis” and “life” or the “meaning of life” – logos of bios – itself. In classic anthropology, largely adopted by modern natural law up to a very specific and problematic point that we’ve discussed before or are always discussing, the individual cannot be thought apart from family and the polity or society. The modern liberal ideology is permanently vexed by this problem, which continually re-appears especially and predictably at the moment of danger, or the realized, torturous putting of the question to the liberal as to why he or she “ought to be” at all.

  3. Leave out political opponents, because this is the bete noire, but what is the difference between Gadahh getting a Hellfire, and getting a waterboarding, one is rather irreversable, and has likely collateral damage,

    • That is the Yoo/Bybee argument, extended in defense not just of our own people, but of potential enemy peoples whom we would rather view as potential citizens of a constitutional government. However, torture, as I have attempted to explain, is uniquely contradictory of the very same liberal democratic ethos, or at least of half of it, whose embrace by others we claim to seek. We are not willing to be the kind of people would have to be actually to torture very effectively, which is what I think people really mean, because they are not really capable of saying anything more, when they claim that “torture doesn’t work.” The torture we are willing to do already is too much torture for us to bear under current circumstances, and no one, whom I know of outside of rightwing internet discussion threads where anything is possible, has called for further “enhancements.” We may have been terrorized or tortured by terror, but we haven’t been hurt or threatened enough to go any further, and risk disfiguring ourselves so much in the process that we wouldn’t be able to recognize ourselves anymore.

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  1. […] recognize nonetheless sums up the stakes of said argument quite well. Over on Zombie Contentions, CK MacLeod brings up just such a rarity. Focusing on the philosophical aspects of war, in this case spinning […]

  2. […] a comment thread at Psychopolitik, B-Psycho’s place, after some discussion of my post here on war as socialized torture, Mr. Psycho puts a question to me: “Is it, in your opinion, possible to accurately see the […]

  3. […] on Torture as Individualized War, War as Socialized Torture for CK MacLeod’s argument, plus […]

  4. […] recognize nonetheless sums up the stakes of said argument quite well. Over on Zombie Contentions, CK MacLeod brings up just such a rarity. Focusing on the philosophical aspects of war, in this case spinning […]

  5. […] on targeting of civilians, as on horrendous weapons, mistreatment of prisoners and ambassadors, torture of captives, the violation of treaties, and so on remain matters of reasonably considered self-interest. They […]

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