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Rethinking Torture: Do We Really Hate Torture?

One pavilion of the National Intelligence Agency’s complex known to be the center of dreadful acts of torture by agents of former President Yahya Jammeh

I came across several comments of condemnation about the NIA/SIS “torturers” who testified before the nation about torturing the victims they were investigating. Of course, none of them would ever accept electrocuting people because that is simply inhumane and they won’t want people to see them as the personification of evil. But the condemnations had me wondering why many of us felt we had to condemn these torturers. Why do we hate torture? Is it because torture offends our moral and ethical sensibilities as a people?

If so, are we totally against any form of torture? I mean do we hate all types of torture or do we think some torture is acceptable? And importantly, if we supposedly hate torture so much, why did we sit by and watch Yahya Jammeh and his government torture our people? Certainly we all heard about or saw what they did to certain individuals because they paraded them on GRTS and we all heard about the so called witch hunt abuse. But we minded our business and closed our eyes to the abuse. Is it that we don’t hate torture as much as we claim, or is it that we only hate it when it’s inflicted on our friends and family? To make sure we are all on the same page, let’s define torture.

There are various definitions of torture; and what’s considered torture also varies from one country to another. But I’ll use a UN Convention Against Torture definition which defines “torture”  to be “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

Essentially, any act, physical or psychological, that is inflicted by a person of authority, on an individual, to get specific answers, or a confession, or as a form of punishment, is considered torture.

The definition above is very broad and if broadly applied, many of us would be guilty of torture at one time or another (unless you want to limit authority to only state authority). That is because many of us have either beaten our children or participated in the beating of thieves. Some of us also beat up on our spouses or other family members as a form of punishment or to get the truth from them. Furthermore, unless our Colonial Prison Act has since been amended, corporal punishment is allowed in our prisons. Some schools also allow beatings and in some countries, public flogging is allowed. In America, they used to electrocute people to death as a form of punishment. And if you think about it, solitary confinement, or the very idea of imprisonment itself, is torture.

But powerful people, in their desire to maintain control of people, always find a way to do what’s considered inhumane and claim it’s for the “public good”. To legally torture people, they negotiated and compromised, and they accept some forms of torture if it serves their purpose. The UN Convention Against Torture maintains that torture “does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.” They are basically telling us that if the pain or suffering arises from the STATE (lawfully), then it cannot be considered “torture”. That is how the powerful protect themselves and claim to be protecting the “greater good”. Makes you wonder if it is about the “pain inflicted” that offends our sensibilities, or is it about “who is allowed to inflict the pain.” Reason I ask is because whether arising from “lawful sanctions” or unlawful sanctions, the pain on those who are tortured remain the same regardless of who is inflicting it.

To further muddy the waters, other countries decided to use a different threshold to differentiate between what they consider torture and what others consider torture. In essence, what may be considered torture in America is perfectly alright in Gambia, because the threshold levels differ, and what the national laws allow are not the same. And what’s acceptable in Gambia (such as the food in Mile Two) may be considered torture in Sweden.

The differences in the definition of torture, and differences on what actually constitute torture, is why it’s important that Gambians  adapt our national laws to our socio-cultural realities as opposed to just copying and pasting so-called international standards, or just retaining these colonial laws. How else can we condone (not saying legally) the beating of our spouses and petty thieves (we embrace the big thieves), but then condemn NIA torturers for the same actions? A slap is a slap regardless of the reason! You will have a hard time condemning the NIA agent for slapping and kicking his victim if you got home and kicked and slapped your wife! And then you hear the simpleminded among us claiming to abhor all forms of violence while being a brute towards to their spouse!

We all know people can be deceptive. In fact, if you believe some experts, they claim that people lie on an average of twice a day. But whether you believe that to be true or not, we can all agree that so long as there are “accusations” or “charges” that are true, people will often revert back to our innate need to protect ourselves whenever we are faced with anything we perceive to be dangerous to our wellbeing or reputation. Many of us will plead ignorance, justify an act, blame another, attempt to deceive, or simply deny anything that will make our reputation suffer or affect our freedom in any way. Our inclination to deceive depends on what we stand to gain or lose when the truth is revealed. And as one searching for the truth, determining motivation always goes a long way in getting closer to the truth. Oftentimes, when an individual is accused of something, their tendency to deceive depends on what they stand to gain or lose. That’s why many investigations start with building some sort of a profile on the suspects/accused before any questions are asked of them. No one does anything for nothing. There’s always a motive for everything we do. But determining that motive is not always easy and for the torturer, motive matters very little as long they can obtain a confession. Getting factual statements from witnesses can be a daunting task and should not be assigned to just anyone. Torture is the first resort of the inadequate investigator!

For some torturers, questioning begins and ends with inflicting pain on the victim. But it’s noteworthy that inflicting pain is not limited to physical beatings, electrocutions, waterboarding etc, it’s also psychological. In fact, those who designed the torture programs of the USA are psychologists, although those who actually carried out the interrogations are mostly contractors with little experience in interrogation. The contractors simply followed the guidelines of these psychologists and willingly inflicted pain (physical and psychological) on their poor victims.

Ordinarily, no one should derive any form of pleasure from the pain of another. Unfortunately, humans are also capable of the extraordinary. Torturers, like sexual sadists, derive some elevated pleasure from the pain of their victims and the torturer often blame their victims as the reason for their torture. The torturer dehumanizes the victim and often views what they’re doing as some “necessary evil” that’s in the interest of the state or in our case, in the interest of Yahya Jammeh. And from what we’ve heard and seen at the TRRC, we can fault the Musa Jammehs and Tumbul Tambas for a lot, but we cannot fault them for their loyalty to Yahya. Extreme loyalty to a person, cause or misplaced nationalism, can allow, even the best of us, to torture or turn a blind eye to it. But Musa Jammeh, Tumbul Tamba and other torturers are not some aberrant psychopaths; they are normal people like us and yes, as much as we prefer to convince ourselves that we are good people, a dose of reality that we are also capable of evil will take us a long way. There’s a reason “mbuggal” and “tajjiray” are in our vocabulary!

Many of us would say that we won’t want to inflict pain on other individuals especially when these individuals are defenseless. That’s because humans, by nature, tend to be empathic, and inflicting pain on others tends to take something from our humanity. But as good as humans are, we are just as capable of evil.

The Milgram Experiment, which has been replicated many times over, shows how people are willing to electrocute others simply because they’re told to do so. Those who were torturing at the NIA and those who sat comfortably watching the torture are not necessarily some evil monsters that are totally different from us. Heck everyone that tortured or sat by and watched torture appeared innocuous and came across as men of religion with religious attire to boot.

For what it’s worth, one came with prayer beads around his neck! And they all insisted that beating and slaps are not torture; and if you’ve ever beaten your wife or beaten thieves, I would think you’d be inclined to agree with them unless you want to claim that you beat up your partner as a partner, and not as an NIA agent! And if that’s the case, you’re also a torturer but one with a difference; if we are going by the definition of torture that is.

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