Tag Archives: torture

torture in afghanistan: who are our enemies?

my vancouver blogger friend jonathan narvey has a discussion about the current allegations that the canadian military looked the other way when people they had detained in afghanistan were transferred to afghani prisons where the canadian military knew, or should have known, that the detainees would be tortured. please see jonathan’s article and various comments, including two from myself, here.

among others, jonathan referred to the taliban as “our enemies.” to that i said:

they are not OUR enemies. they are the enemies of a country in dire need of peace and democracy. our enemies, as the enemies of the world all over, are despotism, poverty, fanaticism, lack of education, misogyny and war.

jonathan replied that

our enemies are more than conceptual

i’d like to use this space to think about this a bit.

“the problem is the problem. people are not the problem” is one tenet frequently cited in psychology, in various forms (e.g. “i like you but not your behaviour XYZ.”)

so i see three things right now:

1. if we want to move away from the conceptual then we have to admit that “enemies” refers to people. who are these people? THE taliban? (or in the past, THE russians, THE germans, etc.) “the” taliban is a movement – a vague word if there ever was one – comprised of people from afghanistan and pakistan as well as uzbekistan, chechnya, etc. what we know about movements, especially authoritarian ones, is that the vast majority of people involved in them became members not because of sober decisionmaking but because of necessity, sentimentality (e.g. misunderstood religiosity/fanaticism), coercion or other unsavoury reasons. is the 13-year-old hero-worshipping boy our enemy? the father of 9 children who doesn’t know how to feed them? the grandfather who was told in no uncertain ways that he needs to join or else?

no, “the” taliban are not my enemies.

2. in fact, the word “enemy” does not work for me. as soon as i have an enemy, i give myself permission to treat her or him as unworthy of living. “the enemy” is not my problem.

3. but i agree that abstract concepts are not useful either.

so why don’t we say it like that:

people who rape, maltreat, murder, beat, torture, subjugate and commit other crimes need to be stopped and measures need to be put in place to prevent them from committing more crimes – through rehabilitation, incarceration or a combination of them.  (not through torture)

some of these people are in afghanistan. not all of them.  some of them are taliban. not all of them.

i am grateful that our military is trying to deal with the people who literally commit crimes against humanity.  it’s a very difficult job.  in all difficult jobs, mistakes are made.  i think it’s possible that one of the mistakes was to hand over detainees to prisons where torture was commonplace.  we need to look at that because if we don’t we, too, commit an act of criminal negligence.

escaping the prison of depression, out into a landscape of … ?

escape from prisonalmost two weeks ago now, catatonic kid (let’s call her CK) posted another entry in our cross-blog conversation about depression and language. in fighting darkness, recovering words, CK took her words and crafted a beautiful post. it’s a work of art and it, along with her readers’ comments, also raises a number of very interesting points. i found myself combing through at as i would for text research.

here are a two of the themes that came up for me:

though shalt not know, thou shalt not speak
dano macnamarrah left this comment:

my body shows the awful truth of living silently in pain. my arms and legs bear witness through countless pale scars of sewn up cuts, pink clouds from burns and livid areas of scabs i worry at.

… it’s safer and better to vocalize my pain, than share it on my skin.

i’ve spent years painting and scribbling my pain, but i have found that writing a blog is better than a diary. in a personal journal, one can get swept away by the terrible tides of isolated madness.

as CK pointed out, in an earlier post i had talked about the connection between creativity, oppression and depression. this connection can be seen again here. a therapist i saw for a long time often used the idea of torture as a metaphor of suffering in relationships. the essence of torture, he’d say, is to be captured and “done by”. torture is oppression. “living silently in pain” sounds like that to me. pain is the torture, silence is the prison guard, silence that says, “you are not allowed to know what’s going on. you must not speak.” and we all have that instinct to break out, or at least to do something about the torture and the prison. dano’s solution was to “share it on the skin”, using the language of torture (cutting and burning) to attempt a prison break.

says CK,

sometimes depression is all we know, all that’s familiar, and even though it’s dark we incidentally feed the darkness by not naming the seemingly unknowable.

a similar image, isn’t it? prisons are dark, and after we’ve spent a long time in them, they start to feel familiar and oddly comfortable. and we start using the language of prison.

how much healthier it is to use the language of words and creativity, and to share them out loud, as dano and CK and so many others do on their blogs.

language as a key to unlock the doors depression slams shut
when i first started collecting these themes, i had not even seen the connection between the images of prison and torture and the idea of unlocking doors.

CK again:

… discover those words which fit into the sore spots in our minds, and unlock the doors depression slams shut. meaningful language is a key – a very powerful tool we can use to experience the totality of being.

what a freeing thought, that these words are “discovered”, not, as in a prison situation, keys that are stolen and smuggled. what is needed then, especially in more intense experiences of depression, are the patience and energy to keep exploring. fortunately, if the right light is shone on what is found, every word, every phrase, every image can be a key, a gold nugget of freedom. the trick is to ask ourselves at every turn, “how can i use this? how can i use this word, this description, this little story, to escape the prison of depression?” (by the way, that brings me back to creativity. i’m thinking of my father, an artist, who would often exhort us not to throw out any little odd-looking doodads: “no, no, we have to keep it! i can use it in a collage!”)

my job as a counsellor is to help the people with whom i work to find and sustain the needed energy and patience. and when depression hits me, i need to run (yes, i said “run”; no time can be lost) to those who, in turn, can help me with that.

further on, CK says,

“i am depression’s dictionary”; and
“what resources do you discover when you begin to speak, and to map the hidden country of your mind?”

for those of us with years and years of dealing with depression, there is definitely still discovery, but somehow there is also a repository, a “dictionary” of depression. as i am writing this, i am actually imagining a word cloud. “lonely” probably wouldn’t show up big in my cloud, but “paralyzed”, “confused” and “indecisive” would loom large. when i “click” on these words in my mind, i will hopefully find some meaning – but also beyond that – maybe i need click again – an escape map: yoga. poetry. sunlight. walks.

if you deal with depression or other types of mental health challenges – what does your word cloud look like?  what’s on the map?

(ps. i wrote this post very tired, my eyes half closed through much of it. first i thought i should just leave it and edit it the next day. but it occurred to me that in view of the topic, writing it in this trance/fog might have its own revelatory power …)


image by amin tabrizi

guilt, cheney and guantanamo bay

junebugkitty, one of my stumbleupon friends, had some interesting comments on the topic of guilt that we started discussing here a few days ago.

he mentioned the famous milgram experiment, where subjects in a psychological experiment were required to administer electrical shocks to their fellows when told so by an authority. over 50% followed those instructions, even when informed that the shocks could be lethal. (a re-enactment of this was staged recently, with the same results).

he then says,

this all leads to the conclusion that the world is headed by a small amount of people that are emotionally different, and don’t have that guilt factor, and aren’t ashamed of what they do, so they have the physical capabilities of committing atrocious acts to protect their image.

the nerve it takes to order people to be tortured, to know that one is responsible indirectly for the deaths of hundreds of thousands cannot be ignored by a lot of people, yet the public still votes in wars, the government keeps guantanamo going, the torturing of people ruins somebody, that’s where post traumatic stress comes in.

but why? how is humanity able to commit acts such as this? i do not understand what makes those people different from me, and it scares me to think that i would do the same as they if presented with the opportunity. not because i am evil, or different from others, but just because the military uses basic instincts to teach to kill, fight, and not to act before you think …

how do they do it? and how do they get into the positions they are in, once fighting? the urge to kill is stronger than the urge to save.

i’m definitely confused on the concept of war and the events that take place there, and what inside a person makes them act like that. do you know what it is?

i don’t know if anyone knows for sure – but let’s think about this for a moment.

nancy defines guilt as an “internal sense of culpability, being responsible for the impact my actions have if they impact others injuriously.”

others associate guilt with shame and/or regret; others yet with remorse.

in the re-enactment of the milgram experiment, those who administered the shocks showed signs that they felt the injurious impact their actions had on others. that did not prevent the majority of them from acting on it and breaking off the experiment.

similarly, shame, regret and remorse are feelings, and usually feelings that are played very close to the chest.

the question is, is guilt, in these situations, a motivator  for action? or could one break off the experiment without feeling guilty?

one scenario might be where a person says right from the beginning that they will not hurt a person at all, or that they will only go so far with hurting a person, and then follows through on it. then the conviction takes the place of the guilt (and is probably much more motivating).

more likely, however, is a situation where a person slowly starts to feel uncomfortable until guilt and/or remorse get so high that they cannot take it anymore, and then they stop.

when i was watching the re-enactment video, i was also wondering what might be happening with the subjects after the experiment. were they lying awake at night wandering, “how could i have gone so far?” thoughts of remorse and regret. the same as guilt?

what junebugkitty seems to be wondering about are people who apparently do not experience such uncomfortable tension that they break off whatever injurious activities they are engaged in.

is it because the external pressure of authority is greater than the internal pressure of guilt?

is it because they find themselves in a physical or cultural environment similar to the one in the milgram experiment, where harming another is expected and sanctioned? (i.e. they are pressured by a faceless and nameless authority)

is it because they are inured to guilt?

the latter question could lead us back to what some of the commenters on this series of guilt talked about: guilt as manipulation. if, just for the sake of argument, dick cheney was brought up in an environment where he was constantly “guilted”, he has a number of choices. for example, he could

  • be spooked by guilt wherever he goes, never taking risks, always afraid of the guilt monster.
  • become hyper responsible.
  • deal with it in therapy or other self-reflective, self-changing processes.
  • become immune to the discomfort of guilt and simply disregard it.

if we have a number of people at the helm who have chosen to disregard guilt, who command an army of people who do not have the energy/will/courage to react to guilt, then it’s easy to imagine how we can have a nation that is not 100% up in arms against what’s happening in guantanamo.

(this post was mentioned in the carnival of political punditry)