Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Waiting for the Barbarians by ‎J.M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by fireflydances » Mon Sep 23, 2019 10:21 pm

The Empire in Waiting for the Barbarians uses torture to control the population and secure information. I would like to look at torture from the present moment or at least the recent past. First, is torture something that must be regarded as a necessary tactic or should any act of torture be considered a war crime?

Here is a formal definition of torture which might be helpful: Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes to obtain information or a confession, to punish for an act committed or is suspected of having committed, or to intimidate or coerce.

Please feel free to incorporate something about torture as presented in the book, or not to mention the book at all.
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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Tue Sep 24, 2019 9:26 pm

Torture has been used in every conflict by all sides, including police interrogations. Some more horrific than others, but torture nonetheless.

I don't know that it's necessary, but I don't know how you're going to stop it. I'm also not sure interrogators would get the information they want without it. But is the prisoner only giving information because of the torture and can it be trusted?

I suppose some display of force is necessary to keep prisoners in line or else what's to stop them from rebelling? But how much is too much?

In the book, Joll tortured everyone because he assumed everyone was guilty...of something, even old men and a young boy. Even women. His torture was brutal, even fatal. He didn't care. I doubt he got much useful information from the practice. Once a captive person realizes he or she is going to die anyway, why give the interrogators what they want. Stay silent, lie, spit, resist...what difference does it make?

When the torturer displays behavior worse than the captives, he is either getting a thrill from the brutality and/or driving the opposition to rebellion that he would say justified his methods.

As the Magistrate asked: "Do you have trouble sleeping at night?" I often wonder if the torturers do. That line of work has to, in itself, be mental torture.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by nebraska » Wed Sep 25, 2019 12:15 pm

Very thoughtful answer, Snoopy! :cool: There isn't a lot to add.

When it comes to things like war I agree torture may be unavoidable. War is hardly like a schoolyard game where the defeated team happily hands over a flag to the victor, knowing they have a chance to play again next recess period.

Do we all define torture the same way? Is is possible that what I see as merely "applying pressure" is seen as "torture" by someone else? Probably. Everyone is conditioned and formed by their culture, religious beliefs, and personal history, so their perceptions and definitions differ.

Col Joll was a brute and a cruel man without conscience. I think we see him that way because we have first been lead to believe the Magistrate was a good man and the natives were peaceful. If the story were told from Joll's viewpoint, with his thoughts and feelings and motives presented first, perhaps we would see him as a just man fighting for the righteous civilization, just trying to protect the people he was sworn to serve.

Yet another question with no simple answer.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by fireflydances » Wed Sep 25, 2019 8:20 pm

Both good and thoughtful responses!

I think that the act of torturing another human being requires that one party ignore or disbelieve in the humanity of the other. From what I've read, torturing to obtain information is a flawed undertaking because most people in agony will say anything to make it stop or die in the process.

At the same time I can see how torture becomes a tactic during war. In a sense the act of torturing is no different from incendiary bombing or chemical warfare. Except in one way. Bombing occurs at a distance but torture is an up-close phenomenon. Face to face, present at the unraveling of another human being with all of horror that this entails. To be able to stand by and watch another go down in such a way requires a shocking level of inhumanity. Once one has tortured another man or woman to death is there any action that such a person could not commit? Can the former torturer take up their old life? Can they somehow be expunged of their violence? Or are there borders inside the human psyche, so that once you have calmly watched the destruction of another person you are no longer completely human, and should no longer be completely trusted?

If we put war aside and consider situations where torture has been used as a tactic to control or destroy certain groups of human beings -- think the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi concentration camps and torture that occurs in a prison environment -- we are dealing with an even more horrifically detached level of cruelty. No heat of war when emotions, particularly fear, warp the mind. No, it is an ice cold inhumanity that consciously chooses to apply massive amounts of pain to secure some end, some goal, and, of course, it is here where we find our Colonel Joll. I truly believe some torturers simply enjoy what they are doing. Any objective sense of purpose has been abandoned and the act of causing pain as become an end in itself.
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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Wed Sep 25, 2019 9:22 pm

Your point is well taken, Nebraska. Do we all define torture the same way? :perplexed: Does it have to be violent to have consequences? :tommygun:

I'm sure in this day and age, where people are offended by the drop of a hat, the slightest sign of force or display of power is sure to put some people off. The MeToo movement has certainly gone to extremes from innocent people being truly brutalized to equally innocent people being vilified for patting someone on the back or making an off-color comment.

Yet other people watch "reality" television programs about cops on the mean streets, making of murderers, serial killers, etc., and call it entertainment. I saw a video on FB where a suspect (under some influence), in handcuffs and only a towel wrapped around his waist, is defecating while police are reading his rights. I don't know who shot the video or why, but people are sharing it and making snarky comments. Would that make all of us guilty of torture for considering this man's predicament entertainment and therefore okay for ridicule?

Where do things like kiddie beauty pageants fit in? These pageants have been criticized for having long-term effects on the children/parents/families. These children are body-shamed, exploited, verbally abused, etc. Would that be considered torture? Who should be held accountable--the pageant officials? The parents? The audience? The sponsors?

Programs about people addicted to plastic surgery...are the addicts being self-tortured? Should the doctors/hospitals be held accountable? Are viewers enabling them by calling it entertainment?

Maybe there is a little bit of Joll in all of us as well as the Magistrate?
We get upset by some things and look the other way at other things. And some of us are amused by others' misfortunes.

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Waiting for the Barbarians - Question #6 Torture

Unread post by fireflydances » Sun Oct 06, 2019 10:51 am

Sorry for being away so long -- the school year always eventually grabs the center. It has given me some time to consider torture in a wider context.

I guess I would maintain that Waiting for the Barbarians is very specifically about government torture. There are other situations where people, including children, experience overwhelming violence that wrecks havoc on their souls. In some cases the situation has a group dynamic, in others it's one individual who destroys the soul of another human being.

For me Colonel Joll is a stand-in for any government apparatus that is designed to destroy a group of human beings. We all want to assume that the power of government is always focused on protection and support. It's meant to be an organizing force for good, a way of bringing people together and moving them forward --- good roads, safe water supplies, schools, fire houses, houses of worship, places where people come together in celebration. But when a government brings to bear violence with the intention of destroying people it negates the purpose of governing.

So Joll, as written by Coetzee, is a deliberately two-dimensional character and we never get that access to his interior in a way that would allow us to understand his motives. And I would argue that for those who are hunted down by a government --- such as the barbarians -- this is how they perceive the representative of such a government. As a force with one blinding objective.

We are only given privy to the Magistrate, an ordinary man who finds himself in a situation where he must choose sides. We sit through his process which does not proceed in a straight line. In the process he becomes more and more like those barbarians. Basically his eyes are opened. His way of looking at the world is transformed.

So far the reviews of Depp's portrayal of Joll give me little hope that critics understand why Depp's Joll doesn't have the interior of Rylance's Magistrate. It has to be hard to find a way of giving life to a character when the focus completely on the exterior. Yes, the actor can create an interior life to give some heft to the process of invention, but the role still demands a strict adherence to a very narrow trail. I will expect to see Johnny using his visual palate to help define Joll, but I sure wish the critics came at the film with some deeper knowledge of the book.
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies