A Bum Rap for de Sade


American torture of Iraqi prisoners has been called "sadistic" but that unjustly demeans the memory of the Marquis de Sade. It is no such thing. The merry Marquis lived (1740-1814) in La Coste, France, and had by all accounts a voracious sexual appetite and a fine disregard for convention. He threw wild parties and the partygoers indulged in orgies galore--complete with whips, and all. They pushed the envelope, explored the boundaries of erotic pleasure and its relationship to pain. This was far too much for the Powers That Were, both clerical and secular; they condemned him to prison for doing openly what they may have dreamed of doing but had to repress the very dream. Only the Revolution freed him. Thus did Sadism pass in to the language, but inverted.

There was no torture in de Sade's parties, because there was no compulsion to participate. All these years, he's had a very bum rap, and one is being rolled out yet again. Torture is the infliction of suffering which is not invited--which is, of course, normally the case. It comes in many flavors--emotional, physical, mental--often mixed together. And I would say that all the current protests in D.C. notwithstanding, torture is a primary business of government.

President Bush has said that even to humiliate prisoners--a mild form of torture--is "not how we do things in America." Of course, that's what everyone would like to think. But it isn't true. Torture happens wherever government happens; it's a perfectly customary, Standard Operating Procedure and always was. From mediaeval dungeons to Gestapo cells to KGB basements, governments torture their prisoners to loosen their tongues; they always want to know what their enemies are up to, lest more of their hired thugs get ambushed and killed, so reducing their own power. Precisely as is the case in today's Baghdad. Only the manner of torture has changed, over the centuries; not its use or purpose.

"Sleep deprivation" is openly approved by the US military brass, as a means of "prepping prisoners for interrogation"; I would call sleep deprivation most certainly a form of torture. But they don't; that's on the "acceptable" side of the line. Stripping them naked and taking their photographs, on the other hand, is not. More later about those photos. Notice, such torture is a government commonplace. Watch "NYPD Blue" any week; once the prime suspect is in the "interview room" the show's "hero" (I kid you not!) will on occasion hit him, while entirely unable to resist; in order to make him talk. And of course, the torture need not be physical; a court-approved way of getting suspects to confess is for the police and/or district attorney to deliberately lie to them, for example to say they have an eye witness to the crime when in fact they do not. The anguish felt later when such government deception is revealed is surely a matter of mental torture. "Blue" is billed as a "reality" show; that is said to portray how the police actually work in New York City. I believe it. That is how government does its everyday work. It uses force and fraud; the use of force is precisely and uniquely what all government is always all about, and is by definition what differentiates it from the Market--in which only persuasion is employed, always with the free option to turn down any proposal.

The extent to which government uses torture is a matter only of deciding how to define the word, where to draw the line. To me as a human being, with sole rights over my own life, it is torture to be forced to do anything I do not wish to do. That means that every time I have to obey a law that government wrote, unless doing so happens to be what I'd choose anyway, it is torture--mild or acute or in between. Those who have watched the IRS in action may wonder whether the torturer enjoys his work . . . or hers. I can tell you for sure that when an intended victim calls his bluff, questions his authority and brushes him off, it absolutely spoils his day. The photos first revealed by CBS's "60 Minutes II" c/o Dan Rather are remarkable. In all, American soldiers appear to be enjoying their work. In one, the lady soldier is laughing out loud in apparent real pleasure, while pointing at the privates of a row of naked prisoners. And I noticed particularly that all the photos are highly artistic, with naked bodies arranged in tableaux, elegantly proportioned for pictorial effect; one can see that even with large portions blurred by the censor. Intended, perhaps, to become high-price collectibles. Perhaps they will. But meantime, let's suppose the party was not just by invitation; that the torture was real. Then we have photographic proof that the torturers were happy. And one of them, we're told, is in civilian life a "corrections officer," i.e., a government jailer. That carries awesome implications for our understanding of its "justice" system and the perverts who run it. De Sade never tortured anyone, yet for two and a half centuries his name has been a synonym for doing so; while government, which tortures everyone every day, is blamed for it only on the rarest occasions. Time to put the record straight.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched http://TinyURL.com/QuitGov , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?" and in 2016, an unraveling of the great paradox of "income tax law" with "How Government Silenced Irwin Schiff."