Sunday, January 02, 2005

Torture Unmakes the World (Again)

I originally put up the post below on December 16. This morning, while reading The Guardian, I came across a word I haven't seen in print in a long, long time. Strappado. It seems that we are using a version of this form of torture at Guantanamo. Our soldiers are suspending men from their handcuffed wrists for hours at a time.

Some of this is coming to light because four of those in custody are British citizens. Not that lap-dog Blair will do anything about it, but his citizens are being tortured by us.

Anyway, I'm re-posting what I wrote earlier on torture. It still unmakes the world. And it still leaves me speechless.
Stregoneria is the Italian word for witchcraft. I am not a witch, nor do I believe that witches ever existed. I am not a Wiccan, although if people want to honor the earth by worshipping it, I find nothing to condemn such practices.

For years, I read accounts of those who were tortured into confessing to witchcraft. These confessions entailed fantastical stories of diabolical pacts and the killing of infants. I wanted desperately to redeem those who had suffered at the hands of their torturers, to try to find the "real" story behind what happened, but alas, their words are lost to us. That's one of the effects of torture: it deprives one of language. Pain unmakes the world as Elaine Scarry so brilliantly argued in The Body in Pain. She writes:
"World, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture and not through the confession as is wrongly suggested by its connotations of betrayal. The prisoner's confession merely objectifies the fact of their being almost lost, makes their invisible absence, or nearly absence, visible to the torturers. To assent to words that through the thick agony of the body can be only dimly heard, or to reach aimlessly for the name of a person or a place that has barely enough cohesion to hold its shape as a word and none to bond it to its worldly referent, is a way of saying, yes, all is almost gone now, there is almost nothing left now, even this voice, the sounds I am making, no longer form my words but the words of another."

I have been sick since Abu Ghraib. It is that sickness that comes when one knows that great evil is being perpetrated and one is helpless, powerless, to effect a change that will make it stop. As more and more details by eyewitnesses emerge, I wait for my fellow citizens to rise up in one voice and say "not in our name." But all is silence. The way it is silent in the torture chamber, except for the screams and the groans and the meaningless words that are offered to the torturers to make them stop their unholy violence.
The ACLU has released a spate of documents obtained under the FOIA. If you can read them in their entirety, you have a stronger stomach than I do. Each detail is like a blow to my personhood, but it is so remarkably reminiscent of the transcripts I read in archives, struggling to hear the long-dead voices of those who had been killed in the name of a religion that would brook no competition.

One of the most haunting of voices comes to us from Johannes Junius, who was executed for witchcraft in Bamberg. Junius managed to bribe the guards and get a letter out to his daughter. In his letter, Junius mentions two particular forms of torture: the strappado and thumbscrews. Thumbscrews apply tremendous pressure to the nailbeds. Try putting a nail shot out of a nail gun through your thumb nail and you'll get the idea. The strappado was a method in which the victim's hands were tied behind his or her back. A rope was attached to the ceiling and then the rope was attached to the hands. The victim was then hoisted up to the ceiling. Put your hands behind your back and imagine being lifted by those same hands. The effect was to tear the muscles and pull the joints from their sockets. A "jolt" refers to dropping the rope suddenly, so the prisoner's weight would bounce the already destroyed body and inflict more pain.
The letter was printed in Kors and Peters collection of witchcraft documents. I have posted most of the letter below. I think that if the Iraqi and Afghan prisoners that we have tortured could speak, they, too, might write similar things to their loved ones. Torture does not produce truth: it produces noises in response to pain.
Many hundred thousand good-nights, dearly beloved daughter Veronica. Innocent have I come into prison, innocent have I been tortured, innocent must I die. For whoever comes into the witch prison must become a witch or be tortured until he invents something out of his head and -- God pity him -- bethinks him of something. I will tell you how it has gone with me. When I was first time put to the torture, Dr. Braun, Dr. K├Âtzend├Ârffer, and two strange doctors were there. Then Dr. Braun asks me, "Kinsman, how come you here?" I answer, "Through falsehood, through misfortune." "Hear, you," he says, "you are a witch; will you confess it voluntarily?  If not, we'll bring in witnesses and the executioner for you." I said, "I am no witch, I have a pure conscience in the matter; if there are a thousand witnesses, I am not anxious, but I'll gladly hear the witnesses." Now the chancellor's son was set before me ... and afterward Hoppfens Elsse. She had seen me dance on Haupts-moor. . . . I answered: "I have never renounced God, and will never do it -- God graciously keep me from it. I'll rather bear whatever I must." And then came also -- God in highest Heaven have mercy -- the executioner, and put the thumb-screws on me, both hands bound together, so that the blood ran out at the nails and everywhere, so that for four weeks I could not use my hands, as you can see from the writing. . . . Thereafter they first stripped me, bound my hands behind me, and drew me up in the torture. Then I though heaven and earth were at an end; eight times did they draw me up and let me fall again, so that I suffered terrible agony. . . .

And this happened on Friday, June 30, and with God's help I had to bear the torture. . . . When at last the executioner led me back into the prison, he said to me: "Sir, I beg you, for God's sake confess something, where it be true or not.  Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow after another until you say you are a witch. Not before that," he said, "will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another. . . ."

And so I begged, since I was in wretched plight, to be given one day for thought and a priest. The priest was refused me, but the time for thought was given. Now, my dear child, see in what hazard I stood and still stand. I must say that I am a witch, though I am not, -- must now renounce God, though I have never done it before. Day and night I was deeply troubled, but at last there came to me a new idea. I would not be anxious, but, since I had been given no priest with whom I could take counsel, I would myself think of something and say it. If were surely better that I just say it with mouth and words, even though I had not really done it; and afterwards I would confess it to the priest, and let those answer for it who compel me to do it. . . . And so I made my confession, as follows; but it was all a lie.

Now follows, dear child, what I confessed in order to escape the great anguish and bitter torture, which it was impossible for me longer to bear. . . .

Then I had to tell what people I had seen [at the witch-sabbath]. I said that I had not recognized them. "You old rascal, I must set the executioner at you. Say -- was not the Chancellor there?" So I said yes. "Who besides?" I had not recognized anybody. So he said: "Take one street after another; begin at the market, go outon one street and back on the next." I had to name several persons there. Then the Zinkenwert -- one person more. Then over the upper bridge to the Georgthor, on both sides. Knew nobody again. Did I know nobody in the castle -- whoever it might be, I should speak without fear. And thus continuously they asked me on all the streets, though I could not and would not say more. So they gave me to the executioner, told him to stip me, shave me all over, and put me to the torture. "The rascal knows one on the market-place, is with him daily, and yet won't name him."  By that they meant Dietmayer: so I had to name him too.

Then I had to tell what crimes I had committed. I said nothing. . . . "Draw the rascal up!" So I said that I was to kill my children,but I had killed a horse instead.  It did not help. I had also taken a sacred wafer, and had desecrated it. When I had said this, they left me in peace.

Now, dear child, here you have all my confession, for which I must die. And they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God. For all this I was forced to say through fear of the torture which was threatened beyond what I had already endured. For they never leave off with the torture till one confesses something; be he never so good, he must be a witch. Nobody escapes, though he were an earl. . . .

Dear child, keep this letter secret so that people do not find it, else I shall be tortured most piteously and the jailers will be beheaded. So strictly is it forbidden. . . . Dear child, pay this man a dollar. . . . I have taken several days to write this: my hands are both lame. I am in a sad plight. . . .

Rest in Peace, dear Junius.


Sheryl said...

Yeeesh. I don't think I would want to share that sort of thing with even a close family member, at least not in such detail.

Torture is like rape. It's not just about bodily harm, but trying to take someone's dignity from them.

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