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Nelson LichtensteinThe Effective Immorality of Torture: Linking Latin America to Afghanistan and the Middle East

Margaret Power
Illinois Institute of Technology

Historians against the War
American Historical Association, San Diego, CA
January 9, 2010

Much of the discussion on torture in the United States has centered on the question of its effectiveness, which was measured in terms of whether or not the information extracted under torture is accurate and the extent to which the practice of torture has hurt the image of the United States. To see what the U.S. army had to say on the subject, I read military theorists in Parameters, the journal of the U.S. War College in Carlisle, PA, as well as declarations by former FBI and CIA agents, all of whom criticize the use of torture either because it is ineffective or because it damages U.S. standing in the world. In my presentation today I expand the definition of effective to look at the broader and long-term impact of torture on individuals and society to argue that it is indeed effective – and immoral. I would like to make it clear that torture is not 100% effective. Many people survive it and continue to resist and struggle. Individuals may be weakened and organizations undermined, but they are not destroyed and they frequently heal and rebuild and continue to fight for the ideals they believe in.

Exactly one year ago today President Obama held a press conference to nominate Leon Panetta as CIA director and (ret.) Admiral Dennis Blair as National Intelligence director and to lay out his plans for “fighting terrorism.” At that time he said, “I was clear throughout this campaign and was clear throughout this transition that under my administration the United States does not torture.” Instead he promised to “abide by the Geneva Conventions” and “uphold our highest ideals.”1 Then on January 22, 2009, he signed executive orders to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year and to ban harsh interrogations, in other words torture.2 In April 2009 the Justice Department released memos (which soon become known as the Torture Memos) that described in graphic detail the brutal techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration and used by the CIA to extract information from those it suspected of having committed acts of terrorism or of having knowledge of them.3 While this could have been an important step to ending the practice of torture, Obama immediately undercut its potential impact by saying that he had no plans to pursue an investigation of those who had sanctioned or committed these illegal and criminal acts. “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”4 To hammer home that inaccurate statement, Obama then went to the CIA to tell them to keep up the good work! This is, quite simply, impunity! We need to oppose this refusal to punish or even try those members of the U.S. government who have committed brutal human rights abuses, or wrote the memos that sanctioned the crimes, or created the intellectual and immoral climate that encouraged indeed demanded the physical, mental, and emotional torture of other human beings. Impunity serves to preserve the status quo and does nothing to discourage present and future human rights abuses. As of today the Obama administration has not charged a single member of the U.S. government or military of torture, Guantánamo is still open, the U.S. government continues to torture people and Bagram Air Force Base has become the Afghani Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo. Obama is not Bush, but the needs of the U.S. empire to extract maximum economic profit at home and abroad, to exert the greatest possible political control, and to eliminate, subvert, or co-opt dissent have not fundamentally changed with the election of the new president. The Obama administration’s failure to oppose robustly the coup in Honduras and to demand Zelaya’s restoration to power, or to condemn the human rights abuses that have taken place since the coup --a stance that not only was out of step with the majority of Latin America but also with international law – clearly indicate that support for U.S. economic interests in the region continues to trump legality or even the attempt to develop a more astute policy that would lead to improved political relationships with Latin America. Torture has been and is an integral, important, and effective, albeit immoral, tool used by the U.S. government to obtain its goals, both at home and abroad. (As the HAW pamphlet “Torture, American Style” points out, there is nothing new about the U.S. government using torture against those it deems the enemy.)

Since 2002 at least 2,000 people have been held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. In 2009, there were at least 615 people there. According to Amnesty International, the CIA has carried out interrogation of these prisoners and they have been subjected to torture. Lawyers for detainees held at Bagram sought to obtain the same legal rights that prisoners at Guantánamo finally obtained in 2008: the right to a judicial review of their cases. In September 2009 the Obama administration opposed such a review, a legal stance that sadly mirrors that of the Bush administration. In other words, under Obama torture and the abuse of human rights continue. Why?

Torture continues because it is effective; some of the information obtained may be inaccurate, but much of it isn’t. But of even more critical importance is the debilitating impact that torture has on those who have been tortured, their families and acquaintances, the political movements of which they are part, and the communities and societies to which they belong. In this context, torture is a very effective tool of social control and political domination. It is precisely because torture contributes to achieving U.S. goals that the U.S. government, both under Bush and now under Obama, continues to practice it.

To discuss the effectiveness of torture I will spend a few moments talking about the impact of torture in Chile. Following the 1973 coup, the military arrested somewhere around 100,000 people (some estimates place the number at 200,000) and tortured roughly 94% of them.5 In other words, most of those arrested were part of a larger network or community that reflected their political beliefs, cultural values, social aspirations, or family ties.

It is hard to assess what percentage of those who were tortured resisted the extreme pain, both physical and mental, to which they were subjected, but it is quite likely that the majority did talk, at some point and to some degree. To what extent the information they revealed was useful is, once again, hard to determine. A different question is what impact did providing the Chilean military with information, however unwillingly, knowledge which the military then used to infiltrate, weaken, or eliminate supporters of the left have on the individuals who supplied it and on the organizations to which they belonged?

For many, talking to the enemy was tantamount to violating the relationship they had achieved within the organization to which they belonged and the trust and comradeship which this entailed. For them the fact that they had been unable to withstand the torture, had given names of their own comrades, had revealed secrets, had in a sense collaborated with the enemy, was psychologically and politically devastating. For those who did not talk, the knowledge that those they had trusted had talked was also very damaging. In the former case, the individual who talked lost confidence in him or herself. This loss of self-confidence inevitably undermined the individual’s capacity to function in a positive and constructive manner, let alone continue to make the political contributions that they had once done. People who view themselves as traitors to the cause, organizations, and comrades they had pledged to uphold find it very difficult to regain the self-respect or trust they need to operate as a political cadre. In the case of those who did not talk, however much compassion and understanding they may have for those who did talk, they inevitably suffer some loss of faith in their comrades and, by extension, in the organization of which they had been a member.

Torture is a powerful tool of domination in terms of its immediate effects on the person who is being, has been, or fears she/he might be abused and on society at large. It also has both an individual and a collective impact that extends far beyond the time and place in which it occurs. Torture not only destabilizes an individual, it can also weaken the networks, community, and organization to which she/he belongs. And this is why torture must be seen as an incredibly effective tool: not just because it can result in the extraction of information, but also because it can lead to the undermining if not the destruction of those social bonds and the community and organizational ties that are central to any individual’s ability to challenge and resist.

In the 1970s Chile was a highly sociable country (just as Iraq and Afghanistan are today – or were). People seldom spent much time alone and individualism was not viewed as a virtue in Chile (anymore than it typically is in Iraq or Afghanistan). The experience of torture is first and foremost an individual and individualizing experience. In most cases, you are alone with the torturer(s) whose goal was to break you as a person.

The fear that the torture evokes spread far beyond the individuals who actually are tortured and permeates the society of which they are part. Fear paralyzes, isolates, and terrorizes a broad swathe of society, leaving people afraid to speak out, challenge, oppose, or resist the dictatorship. This fear ultimately leads to a breakdown in the collective bonds that define society and converts people into more atomized individuals, less likely and less willing to join with others to struggle for social change or to build organizations or movements.

Political movements are made up of individuals who share a sense of purpose, who rely on each other, and who have built a community together. If these elements are removed, then it is impossible for the individual to function as an effective member of a political movement or for the political movement to achieve its goals. It is in the destruction of social and political bonds, in addition to or beyond the particular information obtained as a result of the torture that torture can be highly effective.

U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has greatly contributed to the devastation of those countries and societies on so many different levels, ranging from the incitement of religious tensions, to the destruction of the infrastructure, to the imposition or reimposition of conservative and repressive policies and practices toward women. The torture of people at Abu Ghraib and in other U.S.-run facilities in Iraq or in Bagram and other facilities in Afghanistan is one important tool that contributes to the dismantling and weakening of those societies and facilitates, if only in the short term, the ability of the United States to rule. We need to oppose torture not because it is ineffective but because it is immoral and because it furthers the United States militaristic policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East.


1 “Obama Names Intel Picks, Vows no Torture,” MSNBC, January 9, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28574408/, accessed online January 2, 2010.

2 Foon Rhee, “Obama order Guantanamo Bay closed, bans torture,” the Boston Globe, January 22, 2009, accessed ohline, January 2, 2010, http://www.boston.com/news/politics/politicalintelligence/2009/01/obama_orders_gu.html

3 Mark Mazetti and Scott Shane, “Interrogation Memos Detail Harsh Tactics by the CIA,” The New York Times, April 16, 2009. Accessed online, January 2, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/17/us/politics/17detain.html?_r=1.

4 Ibid.

5 For a discussion of the numbers and the political considerations it evokes, see Steve Stern, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile. One the Eve of London 1998. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004, xxi, 158-61. The Valech Report, see http://www.gobiernodechile.cl/comision_valech/index.asp#MAP