His sole concern was to find out what they wanted him to confess, and then confess it quickly, before the bullying started anew. He confessed to the assassination of eminent Party members, the distribution of seditious pamphlets, embezzlement of public funds, sale of military secrets, sabotage of every kind. He confessed that he had been a spy in the pay of the Eastasian government as far back as 1968. He confessed that he was a religious believer, an admirer of capitalism, and a sexual pervert. He confessed that he had murdered his wife, although he knew, and his questioners must have known, that his wife was still alive. He confessed that for years he had been in personal touch with Goldstein and had been a member of an underground organization which had included almost every human being he had ever known. It was easier to confess everything and implicate everybody.
—George Orwell, 1984
Winston Smith, the central character of George Orwell’s great dystopian novel, is a man who can be broken by pain. In the dark chambers of the Ministry of Love, he endures a grueling regime of beatings and interrogations, plus a variety of other indignities: “They slapped his face, wrung his ears, pulled his hair, made him stand on one leg, refused him leave to urinate, shone glaring lights in his face until his eyes ran with water; but the aim of this was simply to humiliate him and destroy his power of arguing and reasoning.” Only when he confronts the nightmare of Room 101, a rat cage about to be placed over his head, does Winston give up the last token of his humanity, his love for a woman named Julia.
“It was a common punishment in Imperial China,” his torturer O’Brien explains with a professorial drone. As the device is being fitted over Winston’s head, with two enormous, starving rodents eagerly waiting to hurl themselves against his exposed face, Winston’s mind snaps. “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me!” he shouts, in the ultimate act of betrayal. Winston has finally achieved the experience necessary to make him love Big Brother. He finds a way to embrace the political forces that have destroyed his soul.
Does torture work? In this springtime in America, the question grips many minds—not whether “enhanced interrogation,” replete with water boarding, wall slamming, and sleep deprivation, is morally defensible in the framework of the American republic. These practices, we are told, have been abolished by the new administration, and the Justice Department memos that authorized such methods in recent years have now come to light. If former Vice President Dick Cheney has his way, classified government documents should also be made available that, he claims, will prove that enhanced interrogations made the nation safer.
This agenda—does it work?—would make issues of human rights irrelevant, or at best secondary, in a time of peril. In seconding Cheney’s views on the first day of congressional hearings regarding torture, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina made that point emphatically. He observed that such techniques had garnered valuable information from our enemies and that, furthermore, “one of the reasons these techniques have been used for about 500 years is that they work.” (Indeed, a powerful rhetorical argument that I am tempted to make as well on behalf of gambling, prostitution, and firearms.)
On the brighter side, with congressional investigations now under way, at least specific questions are being raised about the nation’s recent practice of torturing prisoners with a variety of harsh methods—methods developed under the supervision of smart people including lawyers and Ph.D.’s in psychology. Some of us would prefer not to know the details. But we need to know them if we are to think through the question of what it means to be civilized people.
Should it really come as a surprise that so many Americans wonder whether torture works? We are steadily bombarded by a stream of punditry and entertainment that obsessively replays the ticking-bomb scenario, in which torture is administered for the greater good: the extraction of useful information that could conceivably save thousands or millions of lives. So many voices—from special agent Jack Bauer on the Fox network-television program 24 to the Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz—insist that we must make room for torture if we want to remain a free people. Serious debate about whether torture is right or wrong is left to a few brown-rice-munching Unitarians.
This is why Orwell, whose hatred of tyrants was almost matched by his distaste for fashionable progressives, constitutes essential reading. To think about issues of tyranny and freedom in the modern state, and particularly in a modern democracy that still casts itself as a protector of human rights, one must turn to Orwell. No writer has more effectively sliced through the rotten carcass of bad reasoning than St. George, and his classic political allegories, Animal Farm and 1984, hold more political wisdom than any quantity of Justice Department memos can ever hope to match. To reread 1984