Let the Pain Begin

Humans show an enormous capacity to inflict pain—both on animals and on each other. The terminology itself raises questions. We are quintessentially animals, but we live deluded that humans are something greater.

Maybe it’s because we read and write, fly around in airplanes, or cook food. Perhaps it’s because some of us wear clothes or believe in a higher being. That last part is really complicated—the very concept that raises us above other creatures, and provides us with a soul, simultaneously makes us kill, maim, and torture with impunity—arguably it brings us right back to primeval times.

Some days back, an immigrant from Eastern Europe shared with me his plans for the weekend: he and a friend were getting up bright and early on Saturday to kill a pig for Christmas.

In the recent Republican Senate tsunami, Joni Ernst made headlines by boasting of her pig castration talents, but this guy was something else altogether.

“How do you kill the pig? By cutting its throat?”

“No, I kill it with a knife to the heart.”

He explained that this was more humane, and proceeded to describe how they subsequently used a blowtorch to remove the hair, and then salted the skin. In parts of Eastern Europe it’s a rare delicacy, eaten raw.

We discussed at some length whether sausage would be made from the pig, and whether he would retrieve the intestines for the casing.

I bet you’re working up an appetite for lunch.

The tripe smells absolutely vile, and neither my friend nor his wife can abide to have in the house—when they make sausage, their preference is to buy casing imported from Romania, which costs next to nothing. Since knifing hogs in the heart is not for the fainthearted, I have to assume the pong is truly stomach-churning.

I reported this tale of piggery to an African guy I know, and he nodded.

“Yes, the people from Cape Verde do exactly the same. Not just with pigs, but with goats also.” In a bizarre twist, after the goat is killed  you blow a few sturdy lungfuls of air into the animal through the hooves—this separates the hide from the flesh, and makes it easy to skin the creature.

Now I wonder who on earth discovered that!

These rather grotesque stories set the scene for what comes next: the Senate report on the use of torture by the CIA.

Three main things strike me about the report.

First, the systematic use of rendition: much talked and written about, filmed and denounced, but never admitted. The report now released involves the UK, Poland, and other countries—the British intelligence services redacted parts of the report, allegedly due to concerns about national security.

In these countries captives were tortured, using the flavor du jour, waterboarding, along with a range of other techniques. The report took nine years to prepare and cost forty million dollars, in itself a remarkable sum.

One of the conclusions from the intelligences services that opposed its release is that ‘Americans will die if the world knows what Americans have done.’—I don’t doubt that for a minute.

The second point is that there is little evidence that the torture worked. Undoubtedly the interrogators were told all sorts of things. I write about torture in both The India Road and Atmos Fear. In my first book it’s only a short passage, but in the second torture appears in various contexts, both Western and Eastern.

Only the U.S. Senate has published a document of this nature, which is to the credit of the American administration, but of course many other nations could publish similar tomes—in some cases revealing much more sinister and widespread practices.

I’m not a man who dwells on matters for too long, but it does strike me as I pen these words that at this precise moment there are people in cells and chambers around this world screaming for mercy—I find that very unsettling.

And all this stuff happens in the name of God.

Last but not least, I was horrified at the nature of some of the practices themselves. I’m not just talking about prisoners who were waterboarded hundreds of times, but about practices like sleep deprivation and  rectal feeding.


Only five hundred pages of six thousand seven hundred are available, and these are heavily censored.

Only five hundred pages of six thousand seven-hundred are available, and these are heavily censored.

I guess my judgement is colored by the fact that torture was a fairly common topic in Portugal when I was growing up. Where kids in America or Britain might never have come across the terms, I remember my parents talking about the tortura do sono, or the estátua, since they personally knew people who had been tortured through sleep deprivation or being made to stand immobile for long periods.

These practices were not uncommon in the Portugal of Salazar, just as they were usual in the corridors of the Stasi.

I think the descriptions of rectal feeding bothered me most.

The notion of forcing prisoners on hunger strike to ingest food isn’t the issue so much, but the sadistic notion of pureeing the regular rations of pitta bread and humus for anal administration is pretty gross.

I feel sure that it was merely a way of further humiliating detainees, since it would have been perfectly possible to provide alternative nutritional supplements and intake methods—techniques used in hospitals for decades.

The level of redaction, or censorship, in plain English, that the report suffered will do nothing to allay suspicion that far worse acts were committed. When we consider that these actions were carried out within the very nations that advertise themselves as beacons of democracy and freedom, it’s hard not to feel ashamed.

From the perspective of Islam, even moderate Islam, this has all the trappings of a shot in the arm for Jihad. Popular wisdom is exactly that, and there is a well-known Portuguese aphorism:

Quem semeia ventos, colhe tempestades.

If you plant winds, you reap storms.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


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