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Barry Eisler

Former CIA agent Barry Eisler is the author of many books, including the New York Times bestseller 'Fault Line' and its forthcoming sequel 'Inside Out'

June 24th, 2010 12:36 PM

Torture Talisman, Torture Taboo

Recently an otherwise seemingly thoughtful person said to me, "I know torture ordinarily doesn't work because you can't coerce someone into giving you trustworthy information. But don't you think there are times when the government has to step over the line to save lives? You know, if terrorists have a nuclear bomb or something?"

The juxtaposition in his question is fascinating and not at all uncommon. It boils down to, "Intellectually, I know it doesn't work, but emotionally, I want to believe it can protect me anyway."

When we understand a thing is inert, but believe in its power anyway, the thing in question is commonly called a talisman. A religious symbol on a necklace. A weapon you won't be able to reach, or don't know how to use. The salutation "Be safe," as though saying it could make it so.


The world can be a scary place, and the government often has an interest in making it more so. Truman "scared hell out of the America people" to get the Truman Doctrine through Congress; today, fear is kept at a simmer by announcements of color-coded threat levels; barking airport and subway reminders that we must be alert and suspicious; bellicose political rhetoric and op-eds about the imminent danger from Iran and Islam. In the face of so much fear, legitimate or manufactured, it's natural for the mind to grope for a source of comfort, like Linus pulling close his security blanket. If it really hits the fan, that anxious part of our unconscious tries to soothe us, there's that one thing we can turn to and count on to protect us.

The right, which is adept at telling its adherents what they want to believe (white Christians are a persecuted minority; the economy is being destroyed not by corporatism and crony capitalism, but by welfare queens and minority mortgage deadbeats; terrorists attack America because they hate our freedoms) has both met and increased the demand for a torture talisman by promoting fantasy dramas like "24" and torture-saves-the-day novels by writers like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. Yes, Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh assure us, our enemies are as evil as they are committed to our destruction, but if we just "take off the gloves" and follow the lead of fictional characters like Jack Bauer and Mitch Rapp, we can make ourselves safe again. It's as simple and appealing a promise as the benefits of "Drill, baby, drill," and as destructive.

And it's a particularly pernicious promise because torture is not only a talisman, but also a hard-won taboo. Societies don't erect taboos casually, or against items devoid of psychological or emotional appeal. Taboos are instead emplaced with great difficulty, over a long time, against practices generational experience proves both terribly destructive and insidiously seductive. Torture was one such, prohibited even during the Revolutionary War, even during World War II, but then embraced by one weak and deviant administration and now held in reserve by another. Remember, Obama hasn't ended torture in America: doing so would require investigations and prosecutions, as the law itself demands. Rather, he claims merely to have "prohibited" it. Which sounds good, until you think about it for a moment. The old president permitted, the new president prohibits… what does that mean? That to both men, torture is not a matter of law, but simply one of policy.

What can be done? The answer will be different for everyone. You can donate to organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, projects like the ACLU's Torture Report, and bloggers like Marcy Wheeler who've done a great deal to uncover the truth of what America has done through torture to its values and its security. You can sign petitions and write to your senators and congressperson. I do what I can with my novels, writing reality-based thrillers depicting the real causes and consequences of torture to counter the fantasy narratives pedaled by the right. And I hope to continue to do so in partnership with terrific progressive publications like AlterNet, Firedoglake, GRITtv, and Truthout. The right has done America a lot of damage by cross-promoting its ideology through fiction. It's past time the left returned fire, using every tool at its disposal, including fiction, to restore America to safety and sanity.

(Originally published at The Nation)

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