'And They Did Shoot Him'

In Part III of his massive "literary investigation" of the first five decades of the Soviet Union’s prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the chapter entitled "The Fingers of Aurora," writes that in the first days following the Bolshevik coup d’tat, Lenin and those surrounding him understood how important it was to create a new, Soviet prison system capable of imposing "the most decisive, draconic measures to tighten up discipline." It was necessary for the party, now in power, to use whatever measures it could get its hands on to keep, defend and expand that power.

Sure, the ideologues of the party, and its functionaries, certainly said they were creating a new kind of prison, a new kind of punishment, a new kind of forced labor, for a new kind of human being and a new and better human society. That was the end, the end to which concentrations camps and "merciless mass terror" (to borrow from Lenin himself) were applied.

(If ever we needed an argument that suffering and death does not sanctify a cause, we need to remember — thousands of fervent, devoted and committed men and women suffered and died to ensure the success of Lenin’s party during from the time the Bolsheviks seized power in the winter of 1917—1918 until the end of the Civil War in 1921.)

But the revolutionaries of October 1917 could not do it on their own. There were few of them, and despite the fact that many had been through the Tsarist prisons, labor camps and exile (such as they were), they were more then willing to solicit expert advice from that body of Tsarist gaolers, lackeys and interrogators still standing as the dust was clearing:

Of course, even the Tsarist jailers were not entirely a loss to the proletariat, for after all theirs was a profession important to the most immediate purposes of the Revolution. And therefore it was necessary to "select those persons of the prison administration who have not become totally calloused and stupefied in the patterns of Tsarist prisons [And what does ‘not totally’ mean? And how would you find that out? Does it mean they have forgotten ‘God save the Tsar’?] who can be used for work at the new tasks." (Did they, for example, answer precisely, "Yes, sir!" and "No, sir," or turn the key in the lock quickly?) And, of course, the prison buildings themselves, their cells, their bars and locks, although in appearance they remained exactly as before, in actual fact had acquired a new class content, a lofty revolutionary meaning. [Italics in the original.] (Vol. 2, Part III, p.12)

(All Gulag citations are from the Harper & Row paperback edition of 1974.)

I thought Lenin himself had been much more emphatic in his demand that Tsar’s prisons, camps and personnel be saved in the face of very idealistic revolutionaries who wanted them demolished. In fact, I’m fairly convinced I saw a citation from a letter of his chiding a fellow revolutionary for wanting to demolish the former Imperial prisons and reminding him how useful they would be. If it’s there, I couldn’t find it, but no matter. The bigger of the Tsar’s prisons were saved for the original use, with some of their original jailers kept on the payroll, freeing up the young and aspiring Bolshevik interrogators, camp managers and wardens to turn Russia’s many monasteries and far-flung copper mines into prisons and death camps for the new revolutionary men they were creating.

And destroying.

It was this that first came to my mind when I read this weekend that Team Bush was making "secret" use of Soviet-era prisons and "detention facilities" (and no doubt their pensioned, long-retired warders and lackeys) in unnamed Eastern European countries, quite likely in contravention of whatever international and European Union treaties and conventions those countries have signed. And US law too, I suppose, though I guess that hardly matters either. It has a precedent, after all, with the US military deciding to use the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, that infamous symbol of the Ba’ath party/state’s terror. I suspect more than a few tours of Saddam’s "rape rooms" and "torture chambers" were given to high-ranking US gummint types and stupid Republican Party campaign contributors (dabbing tears and hearts palpitating with emotion at the noble and wonderful thing we had done) while, a few doors down, US soldiers and some of Saddam’s "rehabilitated" torturers eagerly continued their work on behalf of the new management.

A smart American "liberator" would have bulldozed the place, rather than patch the holes and replace the furniture. But it’s clear the invasion and occupation of Iraq was definitely not about liberating anyone. Certainly not Iraqis.

If bourgeoisie society has one distinct advantage (and it has many), it is that sadism is not one of the social graces, and has little place in polite society. Or even the rough-and-tumble of commerce and competition. If liberal democracy has one distinct advantage over other forms of government (and it has precious few that matter much), it is that it gives few career opportunities to sadists. In a proper liberal society, liberally governed, there simply is little room, and few lawful career opportunities — and almost no social respectability nor chances for advancement — for those who get tremendous enjoyment out of the humiliation and torture of other human beings.

It isn’t that there isn’t room for sadists in ours or any other (once) reasonably liberal society. Any place where human beings are vulnerable and authority is relatively untrammeled and unsupervised or where human beings are locked together against their will — prisons, schools, orphanages, police departments — you will find sadists, living secret lives, lording it brutally over their charges whenever they can and as often as they can.

But a sadist has had a hard time living a terribly respectable life in a society like ours. Legitimate career opportunities are few, with some having to find other places where the vulnerable are easy prey for abuse and torture. Or they turn to crime, performing in secret what men and women in other societies — societies that need torturers — do "openly," as both duty and pleasure.

Only governments have any real need to pay sadists for their skills. (Well, and revolutionaries too.) Because governments and revolutionaries are the only legitimate users of the services that the professional degraders and destroyers of men are happily willing and able to provide.

The world is full of societies that employ sadists to their full extent because the world is full of illiberal societies, nations and governments and communities which, for whatever reason, have decided that someone who can use a truncheon on a man’s anus in an artful manner to inflict as much pain as possible, or know just how much electricity a human being can take before his or her heart stops beating, are people whose skills and proclivities are valuable to the state. Sadists, men and women who are willing to kill and torture with their bare hands, rarely end up running countries, though both Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega show it does sometimes happen. But rather than hide their depraved desires to hurt, their enjoyment of human pain and suffering, the sadist earns a paycheck, wears a uniform, has status and position and respectability. And like most government workers, they have obtained bourgeoisie respectability without having to actually earn it.

So that’s why I’m concerned that Team Bush is working so hard to both hide and, at the same time, justify the mistreatment of people in the custody of the US armed forces. It’s not that I care much whether Khaled Sheikh Mohammed ever sleeps well again; he will answer to God for whatever he’s done and I doubt very seriously he’s going to get the answer he quite expects. Simply put, I don’t want sadists to have legitimate career futures at taxpayer expense, whether they work here, or on the far-flung islands of our global prison archipelago. I don’t want them to get medals, or rewards, or promotions, or accolades, or opportunities, or anything. I wants sadists in this country to stay hidden, to remain desperate, and to fear the light of day. I want no place for sadists in polite, or any other, society.

Besides, with the US military having been at war for more of the last 55 years than I count offhand, and the CIA operations branch always busy killing, teaching how to kill, or thinking about who to kill next, there are sufficient — too many, in fact — ways for the sadist to find a rewarding career with the US federal government.

Why torture? Why deliberately inflict pain and suffering on people? Fox News, and others on the Right, as well as some statists on the Left, talk constantly about the "ticking time bomb," that unlikely scenario in which someone in custody might know something that would save lives, and getting it from them means sticking something sharp and painful under their fingernails (under the supervision of a federal judge, of course) until the reveal all their secrets. And the day, including all the sweet, doe-eyed children and dottering grannies, is saved.

But that’s not why governments torture. They don’t torture because of need. Governments torture to humiliate and destroy. They torture to strip a person of his humanity, to make him or her face unrestrained state power alone, unaided and helpless. States torture and kill because they can, because even if the state isn’t really God, it can play God by taking life when it pleases and how it chooses. Because it is a way to annihilate a human being, slowly, one atom at a time.

And I fear that once torture becomes the federal government’s preferred way of dealing with "terror suspects," that it will eventually become the preferred way of dealing with all suspects — meaning you and me. Since anyone accused of a crime looks the same to the state, right?

Team Bush assures us, even as it rushes to hide the American Gulag from international inspectors, members of Congress, and its own citizens, that "Americans don’t torture." Our laws — the very same laws it wants to find ways over, under, around and through — don’t allow it. Which reminds me of another story Solzhenitsyn tells in Gulag, this time in Volume One, in the chapter entitled "The Supreme Measure." It is late 1917, and the newly installed Soviet government has just outlawed capital punishment:

At the beginning of 1918, Trotsky ordered Aleksei Shchastny, a newly appointed admiral, be brought to trial because he had refused to scuttle the Baltic Fleet. Karklin, chairman of the Verkhtrib [the Supreme Tribunal], quickly sentenced him in broken Russian: "To be shot within twenty-four hours." There was a stir in the hall: But it had been abolished! [Supreme Soviet] Prosecutor [Nikolai] Krylenko explained: "What are you worrying about? Executions have been abolished. But Shchastny is not being executed; he is being shot."

And they did shoot him. (Volume One, Part I, p.434—435)

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.