Culture Magazine

Uncertainty, Anxiety, and Torture

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
The New York Review of Books has an interview with Mark Danner, who has been following “the use of torture by the US government since the first years after September 11.” He’s talking about he recent Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture. Given my current thinking about anxiety and culture, I was struck by Danner’s remarks on anxiety in the CIA. Here he’s talking about the torture of Abu Zubaydah, one of the first ‘high value’ victims (I’ve bolded the word):
It’s an epistemological paradox: How do you prove what you don’t know? And from this open question comes this anxiety-ridden conviction that he must know, he must know, he must know. So even though the interrogators are saying he’s compliant, he’s telling us everything he knows—even though the waterboarding is nearly killing him, rendering him “completely non-responsive,” as the report says—officials at headquarters was saying he has to be waterboarded again, and again, because he still hadn’t given up information about the attacks they were convinced had to be coming. They kept pushing from the other side of the world for more suffering and more torture.
And finally, grudgingly, after the eighty-second and eighty-third waterboardings, they came to the conclusion that Abu Zubaydah didn’t have that information. So when they judged the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah a “success,” what that really meant was that the use of those techniques, in this brutal, appalling extended fashion, had let them prove, to their satisfaction, that he didn’t know what they had been convinced that he did know. It had nothing to do with him giving more information as he was waterboarded. The use of these techniques let them alleviate their own anxiety. And their anxiety was based on complete misinformation. Complete ignorance about who this man actually was.
You see this in this report again and again. You see that CIA headquarters is absolutely convinced that these people know about pending attacks. And what the torture proves is that they don’t know it. And mostly the reason for this is that information about current attacks was very, very tightly held. That’s the way terrorist organizations work. They’re cellular structures, with information distributed on a need-to-know basis. And unless you manage to capture the person about to conduct the attack, or Osama bin Laden, you are going to have a very hard time finding people who know about current attacks.
There are moments of clarity in the report where CIA interrogators are conceding, internally, that we know astonishingly little about who these guys are. And yet this huge machinery of torture was put into place and defended at all costs.
We translated our ignorance into their pain. That is the story the Senate report tells. Our ignorance, our anxiety, our guilt, into their pain. It’s one reason why I think—looking much more broadly at policy—it was a grave error for President Bush not to replace people in the CIA after September 11. Because you had an agency that out of its guilt about having failed to prevent those attacks—guilt that extended from the director down—could think only of preventing another attack. And while preventing another attack was extremely important, it wasn’t the only thing. And I think here their hysteria caused them to operate in an irrational and counterproductive way.
These particular actions did little to nothing to relieve official anxiety. In fact, because the torturing proved so ineffective, the program may have increased anxiety rather than alleviate it, for these actions simply underscored our ignorance.
The list of things we humans do to alleviate our anxiety about the unknown is going to be very very long. Consider, as a source of examples, medical treatments. It’s only in the last century or so that we’ve developed effective medical treatments. And quackery still thrives, and while most of it may be outside the medical establishment, there is no doubt some quackery that has managed to get endorsed by organized medicine.
What about the “war on cancer”? How much of that money has been well spent.
And so forth.

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