Torture's Long Shadow
By Vladimir Bukovsky
Sunday, 18 December 2005
One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing.
Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to
find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off
the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already
confessed to stealing it."
This joke, whispered among those who trusted each other when I was a kid in
Moscow in the 1950s, is perhaps the best contribution I can make to the current
argument in Washington about legislation banning torture and inhumane treatment
of suspected terrorists captured abroad. Now that President Bush has made a
public show of endorsing Sen. John McCain's amendment, it would seem that the
debate is ending. But that the debate occurred at all, and that prominent
figures are willing to entertain the idea, is perplexing and alarming to me.
I have seen what happens to a society that becomes enamored of such methods
in its quest for greater security; it takes more than words and political
compromise to beat back the impulse.
This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent
the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed,
with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our
planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar
after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and
every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were
hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these
"interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture
will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the
professional disease of any investigative machinery.
Apart from sheer frustration and other adrenaline-related emotions,
investigators and detectives in hot pursuit have enormous temptation to use
force to break the will of their prey because they believe that, metaphorically
speaking, they have a "ticking bomb" case on their hands. But, much as a good
hunter trains his hounds to bring the game to him rather than eating it, a good
ruler has to restrain his henchmen from devouring the prey lest he be left
empty-handed. Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine
analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When
torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been
outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the
service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday,
Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more
than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving
the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin
could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD
against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's
predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.
So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to
legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the
risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would
anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what
was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship
with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the
American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if
Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading"
(CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on
terrorism, then the war is lost already.
Even talking about the possibility of using CID treatment sends wrong signals
and encourages base instincts in those who should be consistently delivered
from temptation by their superiors. As someone who has been on the receiving
end of the "treatment" under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a
distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous. Long gone are the
days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of
London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a
prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about
the "Chekist's handshake" so widely practiced under Stalin – a firm squeeze of
the victim's palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very
convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a
labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat
an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?
Now it appears that sleep deprivation is "only" CID and used on Guantanamo Bay
captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the
NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin's "show trials" of
the 1930s. The henchmen called it "conveyer," when a prisoner was interrogated
nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim
would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.
I know from my own experience that interrogation is an intensely personal
confrontation, a duel of wills. It is not about revealing some secrets or
making confessions, it is about self-respect and human dignity. If I break, I
will not be able to look into a mirror. But if I don't, my interrogator will
suffer equally. Just try to control your emotions in the heat of that battle.
This is precisely why torture occurs even when it is explicitly forbidden.
Now, who is going to guarantee that even the most exact definition of CID
is observed under such circumstances?
But if we cannot guarantee this, then how can you force your officers and your
young people in the CIA to commit acts that will scar them forever? For scarred
they will be, take my word for it.
In 1971, while in Lefortovo prison in Moscow (the central KGB interrogation
jail), I went on a hunger strike demanding a defense lawyer of my choice (the
KGB wanted its trusted lawyer to be assigned instead). The moment was most
inconvenient for my captors because my case was due in court, and they had no
time to spare. So, to break me down, they started force-feeding me in a very
unusual manner – through my nostrils. About a dozen guards led me from my cell
to the medical unit. There they straitjacketed me, tied me to a bed, and sat
on my legs so that I would not jerk. The others held my shoulders and my head
while a doctor was pushing the feeding tube into my nostril.
The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood
came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing
until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I
could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at
first; I wheezed like a drowning man – my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor
also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther
and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing,
carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would
choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that
the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then
began to pull the pipe out bit by bit.... Grrrr. There had just been time for
everything to start healing during the night when they came back in the morning
and did it all over again, for 10 days, when the guards could stand it no
longer. As it happened, it was a Sunday and no bosses were around. They
surrounded the doctor: "Hey, listen, let him drink it straight from the bowl,
let him sip it. It'll be quicker for you, too, you silly old fool." The doctor
was in tears: "Do you think I want to go to jail because of you lot? No, I can't
do that...." And so they stood over my body, cursing each other, with bloody
bubbles coming out of my nose. On the 12th day, the authorities surrendered;
they had run out of time. I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor
those guards could ever look me in the eye again.
Today, when the White House lawyers seem preoccupied with contriving a way to
stem the flow of possible lawsuits from former detainees, I strongly recommend
that they think about another flood of suits, from the men and women in your
armed services or the CIA agents who have been or will be engaged in CID
practices. Our rich experience in Russia has shown that many will become
alcoholics or drug addicts, violent criminals or, at the very least, despotic
and abusive fathers and mothers.
If America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships
into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has
historically been an instrument of oppression – not an instrument of
investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how
to "legalize" torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening.
If it isn't stopped, torture will destroy your nation's important strategy to
develop democracy in the Middle East. And if you cynically outsource torture
to contractors and foreign agents, how can you possibly be surprised if an
18-year-old in the Middle East casts a jaundiced eye toward your reform
Finally, think what effect your attitude has on the rest of the world,
particularly in the countries where torture is still common, such as Russia,
and where its citizens are still trying to combat it. Mr. Putin will be the
first to say: "You see, even your vaunted American democracy cannot defend
itself without resorting to torture...."
Off we go, back to the caves.
Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and
psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities, is the author of
several books, including To Build a Castle and Judgment in Moscow. Now 63, he
has lived primarily in Cambridge, England, since 1976.