international day in support of victims of torture: undermining the rationale for a degrading practice

In 1997, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 26 the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, with a hope of completely eradicating the practice.

While the alleged aim of torture is to obtain unknown facts, that red herring obscures its overall purpose. Regardless of an individual torturer’s intent, the consequence of such deliberate cruelty is extreme fear – in both an individual and his or her community – that strongly influences how people behave. As Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine, this fear is useful for governments seeking to neutralize dissidents:

As a means of extracting information during interrogations, torture is notoriously unreliable, but as a means of terrorizing and controlling populations, nothing is quite as effective.

Earlier in the book, Klein provides an example from the southern tip of Latin America, known as the Southern Cone, where torture became widespread during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s:

The torturers understood the importance of solidarity well, and they set out to shock that impulse of social interconnectedness out of their prisoners. Of course all interrogation is purportedly about gaining valuable information and therefore forcing betrayal, but many prisoners report that their torturers were far less interested in the information, which they usually already possessed, than in achieving the act of betrayal itself. The point of the exercise was getting prisoners to do irreparable damage to that part of themselves that believed in helping others above all else, that part of themselves that made them activists, replacing it with shame and humiliation.

Though intended to destroy the capacity for resistance, torture may ultimately feed resistance movements with angry people. Some torture survivors, according to Haifa Zangana, wait for an opportunity to take revenge against their torturers or strike a blow against the government that ordered or abetted their mistreatment. Whether governments that condone torture are short-sighted or simply seeking perpetual conflict, as in George Orwell’s 1984, is open to dispute.