Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pedro and the Captain

Pedro and the Captain ("a play in four parts") was published in Spanish in the 1970s but only translated into English in 2009. Mario Benedetti, the author, died in 2009 at the age of 88. He was born in Uruguay, but lived much of his life as a political exile. Adrianne Aron, who did the translation, also wrote an introduction, and I am going to quote part of that introduction here. This is a play about torture, and Adrianne Aron in her introduction tries to answer the fundamental questions about torture that I am always wondering about when the subject comes up, and that I am never finding any adequate-seeming answers to. Here is the passage I want to quote:

Invariably in public presentations somebody asks, "How can anyone do that to another person?" It's a semi-rhetorical question, delivered with a head-nodding disgust and followed quickly by an answer, or rather a multiple choice of answers spilling forth from the collective lore, bubbling up from springs as deep as the Bible and as shallow as comic books, as tragic as Job and as surreal as the mad scientist plotting to blow up the world.

Is torture done for vengeance, to inflict pain on the enemies of those who have been harmed? Is it done as punishment for a deed so heinous that legal methods seem too kind? For expedience, as the best way to get a confession? For pleasure, to satisfy the perpetrator's perverse desires? At long last, with this translation of Mario Benedetti's splendid little play, it becomes obvious to our English-speaking audiences that the right answer to the multiple choice quiz is "None of the above." Torture may be associated with any one of these motives, as it may be associated with spouse battering, child abuse, rape, and individual psychopathology, but that is not what it is about. Torture is a job, and the workplace where it occurs brooks nothing short of violent subjugation because that's what it takes to turn a human being into a thing, the product manufactured there.

Soon after we meet the torturer in Benedetti's play we learn that at first he was repulsed by his grim vocation, he hated it. Over time, though, he came to accept it proudly as a necessary service to the homeland. Far from being a "bad apple," he's an official "good guy," a well trained, well paid worker on the public payroll. He's a professional, he explains, not a sadist; a graduate of the US-sponsored School of the Americas (SOA), trained in the Mitrione method. Dan Mitrione was the CIA agent sent by the United States government to the armies of Latin America in the 1960s to professionalize their practice of torture. Significantly, there are attributions to Mitrione and the SOA in Benedetti's play, though the country where Pedro is being held is never mentioned. The globalization of torture makes time and place irrelevant.

Mitrione's techniques were borrowed from the French in Algeria, who learned their craft from the Germans, who refined what was brought forward from the Inquisition. Updated by psychological research and technological advances, those techniques are still being taught – in the torture curriculum at Ft. Benning's WHINSEC (the current name for the SOA); in the training given at Arizona's Fort Huachuca; in the instruction at ILEA, the US-sponsored police academy in El Salvador; and surely in other, less publicized places as well. The methods are applied by repressive regimes all over the world, as acts of institutionalized state violence, despite the fact that the laws of civilized society have defined torture as a criminal and indefensible act.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture states unequivocally that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." Even if it means disobeying the orders of a government or a superior officer, the Nuremberg Principles hold, a person must put moral responsibility above due obedience. The Geneva Conventions prohibit torture and categorically outlaw, at any time and in any place whatsoever, all cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment. Why, then, does it still exist? What is it about this sinister process that the forces of repression find so irresistible that they are willing to contravene civilization for it?

Is it revenge? This is a common assumption. "They" inflicted horrible suffering on "Us," so now it's pay-back time. While it is true that the Mitrione method emphasizes the importance of applying pain to the body's most sensitive spots, this is not for the purpose of punishing the prisoner or getting even, and certainly not to kill. Mitrione taught that the death of the prisoner represents the failure of the technician. The torturer is not out to physically destroy the body of the individual, but rather to inflict irreparable damage on the body politic, so that those who would speak up will be silenced, those who would seek empowerment will be crushed, and those who would try to live a normal existence will never live normally again.

The process only begins with the individual who is subjected to torture. It is not complete until the broken body and spirit of that individual are converted into an instrument to serve the powers which have put the process into motion; that is to say, until the damage done to this victim cascades into the larger community. The torture process is above all social-psychological in nature, using extravagant pain because only that will get victims to renounce their ideals and attachments – get them to feel that their God has failed them, their political commitments have brought them only grief, the values that gave meaning to their lives were all a mistake.