Phil Weiss: When he was young, my friend Mohammad of Vancouver, an art curator and graduate student, served in the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq war. I asked him whether he'd observed or experienced torture, and how he feels about the debate over the U.S. doing torture. His response:
My encounters with torture are both personal and intellectual.
As an Iranian kid growing up in the 1970's, it was impossible to escape the tall tales of torture under the Shah's famous security forces called SAVAK. In the family, we were brought up under the assumption that mentioning anything about what grandpa and his friends said in the house in front of people at the school would result in his imprisonment and torture. When my cousin visited us from USA in 1972, my second question from him was "do they torture people in the jail back in USA?" (My first question was, why do you guys elect your head of state but ours will never change?)
He was so terrified by my question that I ended up being verbally tortured by my dad for speaking about the stuff that my grandfather was interested in at that time. I was told by him that this attitude of mine, in particular my tendency to speak my mind will sooner or later land me or my relatives in jail and under torture.
For my family after the revolution, the exercise of Islamic law by the government was nothing short of state-sanctioned torture. I was once arrested after the revolution with 4 liters (1 Gallon) of vodka in the trunk of my dad's car. My family had to work so hard to make sure me and my friends who were all taken to a revolutionary committee would not get lashed for carrying a large sum of alcohol with us. I received a very hard punch to my face in the interrogations about the alcohol in the trunk, and even though I was only 16, I still feel the realignment it caused in my jaw once in a while when I laugh or yawn very hard. The experience was terrifying because we were all blindfolded and I didn't know where the punch came from and wasn't sure if he will continue punching me. The experience left me both fragile and defiant at the same time. Certainly telling your high school, friends that you were tortured by the Islamic police elevated my status as a more masculine fellow at the high school.
As to my historical/intellectual views, I am a bit of a structuralist in the tradition of Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher when it comes to torture.
Whether we like it or not, torture has been a sinister but necessary instrument of maintaining social rule since it was outlawed by the modern democratic state after the triumph of the French revolution. The function I am speaking of here is not a direct, but an indirect one. The role of torture in modern states is similar to an oath of secrecy. It seals the boundaries of possible and impossible and implicates all those who are at the helm. Torture, along with a few other violent instruments like military initiation and hazing, rape of the female and gay military personnel, illegal police brutality on blacks and immigrants and so on and so forth, works as the exception from which the civil 'Law' receives its legitimacy. Torture and those other instruments of secret state violence legitimize the system by defining what is left out of the law; to define something, one needs to create the negative space that surrounds and defines it.
Torture functions best when everyone knows it could be happening, but no one can really puts their finger on it and government inquiries, if ever, can only point to its instances as aberrations that need to be highly reprimanded, and exceptions that in no way can represent the system.
The very fact of torture not being on the book gives the rest of the law and order apparatuses their coherence and public identity. Torture is like the darkness whose edges define where the light begins. This function of torture is mostly symbolic and even then and on an unconscious level, functions as something that everybody knows but never talks about.
For torture to function as such, it has to be used secretly and scarcely, and kept under the rug completely. The system has to fully pretend to strive for the rule of law and the exclusion of violence, if it wants to use torture--and other forms of state underbelly violence--to hold together the structure of law and order. States must minimize the use of torture and make sure that it never enters the arena as part of the publicly acknowledged law and order routine. At least that's how torture has been functioning in the modern states.
Today, torture has been incorporated in the US law enforcement process during George Bush's presidency to an extent that it has lost its classic function. Meanwhile, the government tries hard to find a new function for it within the system. Unfortunately the precedent for the use of torture has been set already for USA, and other western democracies, by their spoiled child. To understand the new function of torture in USA, one must first see how torture works in Israel.
In Israel, the torture of Palestinians works as a different separating mechanism, this time dividing the normal citizenry from the outsider/savages. This way, torture functions as a legal instrument of apartheid and racial/religious hierarchy . The acknowledgement of "anti terror" torture within Israeli law implies that measures like this are not for Jewish citizens of Israel and rather for those Arabs who are resisting colonialism. In other words, constitutionally endorsed torturing of Arabs grants the Israeli public their right as civil citizens of a rather Banana Republic.
On a different level, acknowledgement of torture as an instrument of law and order sends another message to the people: that the government is willing to do anything to protect the civil life from violence and insecurity brought upon it by the 'outsiders'. Again, torture becomes the instrument of definingby excluding those who are its enemies. It reassures the public that even though using torture is an aberration from morality, it is an excess that is essential to the separation of and terror. Compared to the classic modern state, The Israeli state does not instrumentalize torture through refraining from admitting it, but contrary, by practicing it while acknowledging that it is immoral.
This is the beginning of the end for the modern state, because the limited use of torture in the classic modern state is minimal and its function is merely symbolic. But once you acknowledge torture as an instrument of law and order, how can there be an end to its growing use? Israel may start by torturing some violent resistant fighters, but sooner or later torture will be applied to any Arab that was arrested on security charges--and there are suggestions of this practice in reports from Israeli jails.
The classic use of torture is a means of maintaining the structure of law and order by minimizing its role and utilizing it symbolically. This has been the case for three centuries. Yet the new function of torture is a publicly acknowledged utility that once legalized will understand no limit. It puts the government on a slippery slope through which the state and the population will become slowly emptied out of the main symbolic function of the humanistic form of the state, for its otherwise and often inhuman content.