Disguise and Deny: Beware of "Operating Theatres" and "Intensive Therapy"

By Morris, Tom | New Internationalist, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Disguise and Deny: Beware of "Operating Theatres" and "Intensive Therapy"


Morris, Tom, New Internationalist


Anyone investigating reports of torture before the nineteenth century would have had a pretty easy time of it. That's because a good many religions and states practised torture as official policy, out in the open without any embarrassment.

Since then, however, a thick fog of shame has come to surround its use, and ever-more elaborate legal prohibitions have evolved. Now governments that practise torture often do so behind elaborate charades of secrecy, denial and hypocrisy.

Torturers and their bureaucrats during the Argentine military dictatorship (1976-83) seldom referred to 'torture' as such. Instead we heard of 'interrogation', 'intensive therapy', 'persuasion' or simply 'work', with torture rooms referred to as 'operating theatres'. Euphemistic references to 'excesses' and 'certain methods' fill Argentine Government reports into its own violence.

US officials spent years denying that their School of the Americas trained torturers. Faced with their own training manuals, they found it 'incredible', a result of 'bureaucratic oversight', that such material existed.

In the late 1950s, when news reached Europe that French authorities were systematically using torture in Algeria, the first response was disbelief. Torture was supposed to take place in 'aberrant' societies, such as Nazi Germany or the Communist Soviet Union. French officials claimed the reports were 'exaggerated', that those responsible were members of the Foreign Legion, and hence non-Frenchmen, and that although 'duress' was being used, it was 'not quite torture'.

But in ancient China, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome judicial torture was routine -- in law and in practice. In eleventh-century Christian Europe, heretics were subjected to it to force them to recant. By the Middle Ages, it was widely used in criminal trials as a means of obtaining strong proof of guilt or a confession. The Spanish Inquisition further codified torture techniques and exported them to the New World. Sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe saw the largest body of legislation institutionalizing torture that the world has ever seen.

The change in attitudes, culminating in the modern revulsion against torture, has occurred gradually in many countries over the past 200 years. As part of its criticism of the early modern world, eighteenth-century Europe condemned torture to a 'barbarous' past, along with 'superstition', 'despotism' and 'savagery'. A Russian state pronouncement from 1801 says 'the very name of torture, bringing shame and reproach on mankind, should be forever erased from the public memory'. …

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