May 09
Lorraine Berry lives in the Fingerlakes region of New York, although it's her transplanted home. On weekends, she can be heard throughout the area, cheering on her beloved Manchester City F.C. When not writing at Does This Make Sense? or Talking Writing, she can be found hiking with her two dogs, hanging out with her two daughters, eating what her beloved Rob has cooked for her, or teaching creative writing at a small college in the area.


NOVEMBER 29, 2011 9:31AM

Habeas Corpus: Or Why We Love Torture

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Did you believe it when President Obama declared as one of his first acts of office, that he would close down Guantanamo? Were you like me, ecstatic, that finally we were going to restore to these men, many of whom were nowhere near any terrorist activity, some level of dignity? Did you believe that Obama, you know, golden boy of the Harvard Review  would not allow habeas corpus to continue to be ignored?

I did. 

Yet, nearly three years after he took office, nothing has changed.

“With the stroke of a pen," said Tom Parker of Amnesty International, "President Obama extinguished any lingering hope that his administration would return the United States to the rule of law by referring detainee cases from Guantanamo Bay to federal courts rather than the widely discredited military commissions."

Men are still imprisoned.

Still no habeas corpus. Still no such thing as a fair trial.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said "providing more process to Guantanamo detainees is just window dressing for the reality that today's executive order institutionalized indefinite detention, which is unlawful, unwise and un-American."

I have long suspected that the reason we torture and continue to torment these men is because of our twisted relationship to the body and pain. Let me explain. Or, better yet, let me draw upon the words of Elaine Scarry to explain.

To Have Habeas Corpus, You Must Have the Body.

One of the tenets of our judicial system.

But we live in a culture that denies the body. It denies it pleasure. It denies it autonomy. It offers to it suffering.

What if God had a body that could suffer?

Elaine Scarry's book, The Body in Pain, is a philosophical meditation on what pain does to knowledge and to truth and to one's sense of oneself as human.

She begins with the Judeo-Christian God's lack of body. Yes, of course, in the New Testament, God does have a body in the form of Jesus Christ. And there's a hell of a lot of suffering that gets inflicted on that body. And furthermore, there has been a tremendous amount of theological argument about whether the body of Jesus was ever fully human. In the Old Testament, God does not have a body. And what's more, the Second Commandment specifically commands that humans not dare to imagine what that body might look like-at least not by making graven images of it.

What does it mean that God does not have a body? To quote Scarry:

But to have no body is to have no limits on one's extension out into the world; conversely, to have a body, a body made emphatic by being continually altered through various forms of creation, instruction (e.g., bodily cleansing), and wounding, is to have one's sphere of extension contracted down to the small circle of one's immediate physical presence.Consequently, to be intensely embodied is the equivalent of being unrepresented and (here as in many secular contexts) is almost always the condition of those without power..

I want to repeat that sentence: "Consequently, to be intensely embodied is the equivalent of being unrepresented and (here as in many secular contexts) is almost always the condition of those without power."

Torture makes the world small. Torture makes the world the limits of the body. It makes the body the world. Pain becomes everything. What is truth when one is suffering?

In other words, to be represented by a body is to be finite, to be less powerful; to be controllable. It is not the suffering of Christ that is offered by the right wing as the source of their politics. If it were, their politics would be more compassionate, would recognize the body as the source of pleasure but also of pain. Instead, they make references to the Old Testament, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to Leviticus, to all the parts of the Bible where God seems to punish humans for simply being human.

It is the God of Sodom and Gomorrah who looks down on Guantanamo. It is the God of the Book of Lamentations who watches the extraordinary rendition of prisoners. It is that God that those who fear the terrorists call down upon their enemies. This "Christian" nation does not look to the loving, suffering Christ as its redeemer and savior. Instead, it looks to the vengeful God who smote the enemies.

Those in power who defend torture want to play that God. They want to usurp that power for themselves. Theirs is not a suffering God. They have the sense of their own power, which is not derived from having suffered; it is precisely because they are untouched by the suffering of others that they call themselves powerful. There is no compassion there. There is no "shared suffering."

When we were torturing prisoners at Gitmo, at Abu Ghraib, in those renditioned places that we didn't know--but which I always imagined dark and hopeless--I felt like Cassandra. I hammered away at the same point, over and over again. It was about bodies and the politics of the flesh. It was about how those who torture are also those who would deny a woman her right to choose. Or deny a gay couple their right to love. Or deny a man his right to terminate his life when his suffering became too much to bear.

So much of what I write about comes back to the body. It is the topic I cannot stay away from. It is the source of my politics. It is the source of my art. It cannot be separated from my brain. I am not a Cartesian. It's not just that I think; it's that I feel, and I touch, taste, smell. It's that I have orgasms, that I know the touch of flesh on flesh. It is that I have felt a baby pass through my birth canal, have felt the stirring of life within me. It is that I have been penetrated by another human being. It is that I have experienced pain. It is that I have looked at my body and seen a reflection of imperfection that I wanted to fix, and in seeing that, I have starved it, purged it, wished it different. And so, having been so much an inhabitant of my body, that I declare that bodies are the site of resistance.

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Eve didn't give humanity sin. She gave humanity knowledge. And God's punishment for that had been like something handed out by an angry father. “How dare you speak back to me? How dare you question my authority? I will make you sorry that you were ever born.”

Not only that, Eve becomes aware that she has a body, and in that awareness, a whole other world of sensory experience is opened up to her. Think about it: What does the term “to know someone biblically” mean?

As Scarry writes:

Part of the knowledge that comes with eating of the tree of good and evil is that they stand, without protest, as creatures with bodies in the presence of one who has no body. It is crucial that these two be said together: the problematic knowledge is not that man has a body; the problematic knowledge is not that God has no body; the problematic knowledge is that man has a body and God has no body-that is, that the unfathomable difference in power between them in part depends on this difference in embodiness … their awareness of the body will soon be correspondingly be heightened: the body is made a permanently preoccupying category in the pain of childbirth, the pain of work required to bring forth food…

And so, God places a curse on Eve and Adam's bodies. He makes it that they will die. He curses women to bring forth children in pain. He makes their bodies the source of suffering. He makes the fact that God has an urepresentable body and humans have a body the source of suffering, of separation, of pain.

It is that God who girds the loins of those who vote to torture. But their votes were predictable: they would control all of our bodies. They hate privacy. They think that none of us are entitled to it. They start with the terrorists. But they will not stop there.


Cross-posted at Does This Make Sense?

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Eloquent, Lorraine. I voted for Obama, but I'd developed too much cynicism toward politicians of any stripe to believe much of his blarney.
Thanks, Matt. I struggled with the language, trying to understand why we still torture. Obama has disappointed me in this respect, and it's a big enough issue that it taints my view of him.
Torture or violence is something that is taught at an early age to little children when they're abused and it escalates from there. In many cases this involves things that are often taken for granted like spanking children; this seems justifiable to many but it tends to escalate and it requires more each time to be effective, hence the escalation of violence.

It seems trivial to adults who've forgotten how important it is but to little children it is terrifying and it teaches them to be desensitized from an early age. It also teaches them to seek power so that they can be the torturer not the tortured.
T--that's where I am, too. Don't have a choice about not voting for him, but not happy, either.
Thank you for this.
I will vote for him. The alternatives are unthinkable and close-to-Evil.
The Israelis gave up torture decades ago. Thhey knew by the mid-60s that it just doesn't work.
When I read you on The Body, I often tuen then to Whitmann, bc it is, and your Body Writing is, spiritual.

Judging God is kind of dumb if taken literally. Job tried that and it didn't go over too well if one cares to re-read it. And let's remember we're all here by choice believe it or not.

As for Obama, from hunting down whistleblowers with a vengence to refusing to implement policies to prevent prison rape to reducing civil rights to condoning torture, it's hard to imagine anyone with such a hatred and loathing for justice as that man. In fact, he thinks it's moral virtue like Saul persecuting the Jews.
There are many non-Judeo-Christian cultures who practice torture, including those whose gods have bodies. And, of course, traditionally non-theistic cultures have had centuries of practice. How many of us first heard the term "torture" as part of "Chinese water torture?" My personal view is that torture is a human activity that has nothing to do with a religious or metaphysical view. It's more of a tribal Us versus a dehumanized Them.
I wonder sometimes if the human brain has evolved to the point where too many errors have crept in. Great piece.
to play devil's advocate....

not enough has changed.

it wouldn't really have been change though if they had shut down guantanamo and tortured the same prisoners somewhere else.

it looks like, "Both houses of the United States Congress approved a bill by February 2008 that would ban waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008. As he promised, President Bush vetoed the legislation on 8 March. His veto applied to the authorization for the entire intelligence budget for the 2008 fiscal year, but he cited the waterboarding ban as the reason for the veto.[213] Supporters of the bill supporters lacked enough votes to overturn the veto."

Election year posturing it seems since when Democrats had both houses of Congress nothing changed.

And, "On 22 January 2009 President Barack Obama signed an executive order that requires both U.S. military and paramilitary organizations to use the Army Field Manual as the guide on getting information from prisoners, moving away from the Bush administration tactics." is change. Incremental change--and yet--a smaller increment than I had had the audacity to hope for.
As a retired military member, I am completely disappointed in Obama as Commander in Chief. I can only say this now, because I AM retired. I would elaborate, but will respect my former disciplines...>