Whenever the topic of torture and the mistreatment of prisoners is revisited in the media, as it has recently been with President Obama's hesitance over closing Guantanamo Bay, my mind returns to the most powerful piece of writing on the subject that I've ever run across. This particular essay also happen to be part of one of the most significant Holocaust books ever published, Jean Amery's At the Mind's Limits.
Some familiarity with the author's biography is necessary to understand the relevance of his writings to the present day. He was born Hans Meyer in 1912 in Vienna, the only child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. He was totally assimilated into Christian society, much like Primo Levi in Italy, and it was only with the Nuremberg Laws that he began to think of himself as a Jew.
Against his mother's wishes, he married a Jewish woman, then fled with her to Belgium. Two years later, he was arrested by the police and sent to a camp in southern France. He escaped in 1941, returned to Belgium, and worked in the resistance. But he was arrested again, this time by the Gestapo. Somehow he managed to survive Auschwitz and after liberation became a journalist.
But before he was sent to Auschwitz, Amery was tortured, an experience he described as "the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself." Part of his essay on the subject is a refutation of Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil," which she coined to describe Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Israel.
According to Amery, Arendt was mistaken because she "knew the enemy of mankind only from hearsay, saw him only through the glass cage."
"If one insists on it," continued Amery, "[my torturers] were bureaucrats … . And yet, they were much, much more. … [T]heir serious, tense faces … were not swelling, let us say, with sexual-sadistic delight, but concentrated in murderous self-realization. With heart and soul they went about their business, and the name of it was power, … [an] orgy of unchecked expansion." In torture, Amery saw the Third Reich embodied in "all the density of its being."
Much has been written, said Amery, about the victims of torture and their loss of dignity, but it's a judgment he found "ethical and pathetic." What is lost in torture, he contended, was trust in the world. "At the first blow … this trust … breaks down. The other person, opposite whom I can exist only as long as he does not touch my skin surface as border, forces his own corporeality on me with the first blow. He is on me and thereby destroys me."
I revisited Amery's book, which has been part of my library for nearly 30 years, soon after I finished Tzvetan Todorov's Torture and the War on Terror, recently published by Seagull Books. This brief essay reminded me of Amery's writings in the skillfulness and force of its argument. It was written before President Obama took office. Still, even if our new leader changes the direction of the country for the good in these matters, the book would have relevance since it reminds us — both Americans and American Jews — of certain things we may have forgotten during the Bush administration. The book also contains a series of stark black-and-white photos by Ryan Lobo that are very much to the point.
Todorov is considered one of Europe's foremost intellectuals; he's written a number of books dealing with literary and cultural theory, the Holocaust and what he calls "the new world disorder." In addition he is director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and has taught at Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the University of California.
The first mistake made in the new millennium, argues Todorov, was that it became common practice to speak of a "war" against terrorism. The misuse of this terminology can be seen in some of the measures adopted after Sept. 11, both in the United States and in certain European countries.
Todorov discusses any number of these regrettable developments, but he states unequivocally that the most detrimental consequence of how such consistent "war" language affects politics is the damage it does "to the status of truth in a country's public life."
"On numerous occasions," continues the writer, "the American government has deemed truth a negligible factor that could be easily sacrificed to the will for power. We now know that the preparations for and outbreak of the war against Iraq was based on a double lie or double illusion — namely that Al Qaeda was connected to the Iraqi government and that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, biological or chemical. This casual attitude toward the truth did not disappear even after the fall of Baghdad. Just as the entire world was discovering the pictures of torture and the stories of executions at Abu Ghraib prison, the American government was asserting that democracy had gained ground in Iraq. And while hundreds of prisoners rotted away in Guantanamo, detained for years, subjected to degrading treatment, without lawful judgment or possibility of defending themselves, the U.S. government nonetheless proclaimed that its forces were engaged in the pursuit of human rights."
A Democratic Frame of Mind
Such developments are troubling, writes Todorov, because they happened in the world's first democracy, not in a country subjected to totalitarianism or one with a history of repression. But perhaps the most damaging effect of waging an unlimited war against "the enemy" was the adoption of torture as a legitimate practice.
"The decisive turning point," writes Todorov, "was the so-called 'Torture Memo' submitted by the United States Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel.
"The strategy of the document is to admit to the acts of violence endured by the prisoners, but also to contest their qualification as 'torture,' in what amounts to a redefinition of a term that did not seem problematical until then. According to the memo, 'certain acts may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity' to be qualified as torture. It states that, 'for an act to constitute torture […], it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture […], it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.' "
As the author writes, this document didn't introduce acts of torture to the world, but it did make them — especially the horrific practice of waterboarding — legal and so contributed to their spread.
I was reminded of certain passages in At the Mind's Limits as I read Todorov's essay and especially that in torture Amery saw the Third Reich embodied in "all the density of its being." As Todorov argues so brilliantly, what business did a democracy have being in this arena, even on a theoretical basis?
Perhaps the greatest tragedy in Amery's life came at its conclusion. He took his life in 1978, years after he had left the Nazis behind (again like Primo Levi). As he wrote of torture's unending effect: Once his skin surface as border was violated, his torturer had destroyed him.
We should keep Amery's powerful sentences in mind — plus all that Todorov has so artfully laid out for us — as our elected officials and President Obama debate what should be done next in Afghanistan.