What Motivates Torture?

I see most of the media setting up two responses to this question (1) people are just no good and given the chance, and a nudge, they will torture other people (stanford experiment, etc) (2) the torturers (nee 'abusers' in US legalise) are freaks.

Nobody in the main media is saying that this is what the US IS. It is the logical working out of the war of all on all. The US is, briefly, at holding the high-ground in the war, and thus demonstrating its lowest ethics, because that is what it IS, and its personifications, like Lynndie England, make sense. Conrad's "Exterminate all the brutes," is just on point. This is not new, not a fluke (Lt Calley et al), and at the same time, people are not just no good.

There have been many instances in the past when an ethic of community was established that made this kind of systematic torture (recognized within the interesting division of thinking that capital can allow as different from the mass murder of commonplace warfare) largely unacceptable. That ethic of community was not necessarily dropped from the sky (though sometimes it was), but based on the notion that the troops were surviving because of the support of the people, that troops on the other side were a vital potential part of that support, and torturing them would not only make it difficult to turn them around, but make their buddies fight harder. Moreover, this ethic was established by looking back from the future, what people hoped they were building, a real commune where people could be free and creative and caring---and knowing from this vantage point looking back, that they could poison their own well.

The US has NOTHING to offer people along these lines any more. There is little left but spectacular consumer products, and techno-war. The US cannot make close human connections on the ground, and that is why it is possible for a non-existent unsupplied military to fight the US superpower to a standstill.

I have to add that I have some personal experience with torture, as one who got the short end of some of it, and who watched someone else call a halt to it. I will just address the latter.

As some on the list know, I have done research on Grenada and the still-imprisoned Grenada 17. For what it is worth, I think they are innocent as charged. They have been held in a 17th century jail for 20 years now and have a trial coming up again that may help them get out. I spent a year in Richmond Hill Prison with them doing research on the prison education programs they set up, in 1995-96. I was there earlier several times, and again afterward.

From 1983 to around 1992-93 the prisoners were repeatedly tortured, day in and day out. The torture involved physical beatings, and beyond, extended isolation, denial of sleep, etc. As can be imagined, the torture was especially cruel for the lone woman in the group, Phyllis Coard. The torture was stopped by one man, a new prison commissioner, Winston Courtney.

Courtney had been imprisoned in the jail he came to warden , later, by the leadership of the New Jewel Movement, the people who he held in jail. Courtney had been jailed by the New Jewel leadership for about 18 months, without charge. He had some reason to believe that while he was in jail, the People's Revolutionary Army had killed his son. Courtney was kicked out of the country while the NJM still held power and returned, to be prison commissioner, about 10 years after the US invasion.

During those ten years, the Richmond Hill prison was a hell-hole. I was not allowed in the jail in this period, but I interviewed guards who were there and who were unreserved, quite amused, about what they had done.

Courtney returned to take charge of the jail he had been in, and the prisoners who had imprisoned him. He encountered a staff that was not only habituated to torture, but enjoyed it. Courtney stopped the torture. He struggled every day to call it off, staying 18-20 hours a day in the jail because he knew that when he left, it would start again. He dedicated himself to breaking the cycle of abuse.

I watched him engage this truly heroic struggle which involved not just being on constant tour of the prison, but overseeing all the paperwork (guards would lose the orders for paper for the education program etc), guaranteeing the location of prisoners from moment to moment (making sure youth were not placed in the wrong cells, as the guards would do with some glee), making sure the food was ok, etc.

Courtney did this at great personal cost, knowing he would not only not be noticed, but that the government officials who appointed him were mostly unconcerned about the conditions of the Grenada 17 and that those officials would probably someday betray him. And, he faced a work force, guards and others, who were doing all they could to return to the old days.  They had been trained by Haitians and Americans.

Courtney also lobbied hard to stop the execution of the leadership of the Grenada 17. His voice was prominent in stopping their hanging.

Courtney served about 6 years, most of it in daily struggle to create a more humane prison. Then he was removed. His battle probably cost him his health, and eyesight.

I was truly amazed at what Courtney was doing, especially considering that he had every reason to behave differently, to take revenge, which could have meant just doing the daily chores of his job and letting the prison run itself. Instead, he struggled every day to not only halt the torture, but to provide an atmosphere where prisoners (many of the incoming prisoners were kids, 14, caught selling small amounts of dope) could actually learn something, like reading.

So, one day, I asked him, "Commissioner Courtney, I don't get it. You fight every day to make this place less brutal, more humane, when you have good reason to do otherwise. Why?

"Because I am a civilized ethical man, and if I do not do this, I am nothing."

According to the NJM prisoners, the torture has not resumed in Richmond Hill Prison.

On the whole, I don't have much use for wardens and cops.

Still, it has become clear to me that one person with courage and perseverance, can make a terrific difference. Courtney is proof.


To Rich Gibson's Home Page