Torture is never justified. Torture dehumanizes the torturers, even more than the victims, and demoralizes the society that condones and allows it. Torture does not produce safety or security or even accurate information. Under torture, people will say anything, implicate anyone. The use of torture undermines our moral credibility and makes a lie of any claims that we stand for democracy or even decency. Every time we torture, we create a hundred new enemies.
On a spiritual level, torture, pain and death release powerful energies. We have a choice: we can nurture our souls on the energies of love and compassion, or we can pump up our power by feeding on the pain of others, and become addicted to the rush. We might begin torturing under the justification of safety and security—but we end by torturing for the sake of torturing, crack addicts of pain infliction.
Torture has long term, poisonous affects on the society that practices it. One reason many of us choose to call ourselves Witches is to consciously identify with the women and men who were tortured and burned by the inquisition throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries during the Witch persecutions. Our traditions remind us of how people were taken, on the word or whisper of a neighbor, an enemy, a rival for land or lover, and tortured until they confessed to anything the Inquisitors suggested, naming others to be subjected to the same pain and humiliation. The Salem Witch trials in Massachusetts in the 1690s were the last spasm of the torture-fest. Nineteen people were hanged, one died under torture, at least five more died in prison, and all were later exonerated—after they were dead.
Those events are now hundreds of years in the past, but they still leave cultural residues—in our hesitation to stand up and speak out as strong women, in our mistrust of our own intuition and of information that is not officially sanctioned by the authorities, in all the cultural icons that identify women’s strength with evil.
What will be the residues of our current bout of torture? When I was a child growing up in the Fifties, we played endless games of war and spies in which we imagined standing up to the horrible tortures many of our elders had actually experienced. Torture was something the bad guys did—like the Nazis. Torture was the defining characteristic that made them the bad guys—and not torturing, treating even our enemies with some minimal human decency—was what made us the good guys.
What will it mean for our society in the long run that this divide has broken down? Do children today play Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? If so, who will they grow up to be? How will the soldiers who have participated in torture ever come back and be reintegrated into a gentler world?
And if we begin by torturing suspected terrorists, how long will it be before we start torturing political dissidents? Terrorists won’t need to bother destroying our society, should that be their aim—we will already have done it to ourselves, and made ourselves into exactly what we most fear.
(For more information on the Witch Burnings, see Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics. Boston, Beacon, 1982)
(Two current movies that explore these issues are Rendition, that dramatizes our policy of secretly sending suspects abroad to be tortured, and In the Valley of Elah, that shows the destructive impact on our own soldiers of the demoralization of war. Both are based on true stories, and excellently and sensitively written, directed and acted. All our policy makers should see them.)