On Torture by Ryan Kauffman

He’s naked and doesn’t know where he is. It isn’t the Pakistani hospital, sterile bed, the comforting monotone of a machine beeping to the rhythm of a heart, his heart, to remind him that he’s still alive after the surgery meant to repair his bullet-riddled abdomen, left leg, and testicles. This room, the one he woke up in after the anesthetic wore off, is all white. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. There are no windows here. Four halogen lights flood the cell. His eyes are watering. His eyes are watering and his wounds are itching and he can’t reach them with his shackled hands to scratch.

He’s been alone in this room for 47 days. 47 days of isolation in a room too bright for sleep. He’s chained to the wall by his hands, feet, and waist so that he can’t lie down. He can stand, and he can halfway kneel with his back against the wall. Twice a day, a guard in black—boots, pants, long-sleeved shirt, gloves, mask—steps into the cell with one cup of murky water and a spoon of green mush that smells of formaldehyde and tastes like rot. Still, his stomach aches for nourishment so bad that it’s stopped growling and he more inhales the mush than eats it. The guard doesn’t speak, doesn’t seem to breathe. He watches the guard’s chest as he drinks.

Once, on day 18 or 27 or 35, he was distracted from his second counting by a little girl sitting in the far corner of the room. Her knees were drawn to her chest, arms clasped around her shins. Her eyes were as white as the wall behind her, and when she opened her mouth – wide as if to scream—there was no sound and her tongue transformed into a tar-stained rope. He blinked and she was gone. How long could he go on before he forgot who he was? He didn’t know. He still doesn’t. What he knows is this: He is 32 years old, his captors are American, and the itch on the roof of his mouth is almost as infuriating as the itch between his legs. His name is Abu Zubaydah, but, when he says it out loud to himself, his voice lacks strength and the vowels catch in his throat.


Ancient Greece saw the rise of human reason, of our first engagement with philosophy, of the Socratic method and epistemology and paradigms and
a priori/posteriori models of thought. Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Xenophon. It was Heraclitus who wrote that a person never “casts a stone in the same river twice,” signaling the use of metaphor in higher thinking. And yet, despite the rational faculties traditionally attributed to the Greeks, they also created some of the most hideous torture devices the world has ever known and cultivated a legal system that made use of their inventions.

In c. 400 BC, the citizens of Athens began torturing slaves as a viable method for gaining evidence in legal matters ranging from murder to property rights. According to scholar Michael Gagarin, “A well-known rule held that in most cases the testimony of slaves was only admissible in court if it had been taken under torture … the orators frequently describe the rules governing Baoavoc [torture] and praise the practice as most effective and even ‘most democratic’.” This legal torture usually consisted of whippings and beatings, though sometimes, depending on the perceived severity of the crime and the good judgment of the court’s judge and jurors, harsher methods were deemed necessary.

The Rack was a contraption created to slowly rip the limbs from a slave who did not respond to whippings and beatings, or who was charged with crimes such as murder and stealing from a master. The slave would be stretched out on a table, his hands shackled to a stationary bar at one end. At the other, his ankles attached to a bar attached to a crank system. With each question and twist of the crank, his legs would be stretched outward from the rest of his body – making a full human form thinner in tiny increments. Such stretching should have led to ruptured ligaments and cartilage, but due to the slowness of this process, these soft tissues would only stretch like a rubber band, which would be painful, but not disabling. The interrogator would turn the crank until the slave’s answers were convincing, or until his joints—wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles—separated and his lower femur snapped in half and he begged for his legs to be amputated.

There is no recorded inventor of the Rack. Records could have easily been lost or accidently destroyed over the course of 2,300 years. Or, after Aristotle publicly condemned the legal use of slave torture near 320 BC, the credit was intentionally stricken from record out of shame, though this is unlikely. Long after legal torture became a fiction, the courts still used the threat of it as a way to remind slaves of their innate “otherness,” that their bodies were not theirs, but the physical property of the masters.


House cats, felis catus, are known to “play” with their prey before killing it. The feline, perhaps black or white or a mix of the two that makes the animal look grey in snow-covered brush, will perch up on a low-hanging branch and wait, silent. Her slit eyes narrow as a mouse or squirrel sits underneath the branch. The unsuspecting victim raises its nose and takes in a sniff of earth-tinted air. Its ears straighten, legs stiffen, and its rib cage expands and deflates quicker as its heartbeat begins to gallop. Something, it knows, is not right. 

That’s when the cat pounces, twisting in the air to land, controlled, directly on top of its prey. She bats the smaller animal with a clawless paw, then takes a step back as if to watch her prey’s fear take over – squeaks and squeals and the snorting of labored breath. The cat doesn’t growl or roar like her bigger cousins. Instead, she purrs, and pounces again. This time, she swats with her claws, but only enough to injure a leg or wing or eye. If the creature is small enough, she’ll hoist it into the air with her front paws and see how many times she can claw it before it hits the ground, seeming to savor the way nail rips flesh and the moment of silence after a tiny body comes down on frozen dirt.


The routine has changed. After 47 days devoid of external sound, the white room has been flooded with the constant screech of Rammstein’s Du Hast. In reaction to the loud music, his eardrums have begun scarring over and cerumen, or earwax, compacts in his ear canal. His concentration is faltering. Thoughts vanish before he can grasp them and he’s unable to count the seconds as he once had. He’s sleeping even less. 

Guards, still dressed entirely in black, enter his cell more often, but not with water and “food.” They enter his cell to punch him in the stomach, to see who can leave the widest red slap mark on his cheek. They gouge at his wounds and eyes. They laugh and tell him he will never get out of here, that his family will be subjected to worse if he doesn’t cooperate. They use words like “mother” and “daughter” and “hopeless” and “waste,” jabbing his ribs when he doesn’t, or isn’t able to, respond to their satisfaction.

But he doesn’t know. When they turn the music off and ask him—command him—to share information about upcoming Al Qaeda attacks on American soil, he can do little but speculate over the amplified thump of heartbeat in his ears. He’s met many of the men his interrogators ask about, and he gives them physical descriptions and locations as clearly as his wasting faculties can conjure. He delineates how his organization was, once, integrated with the mission of Al Qaeda, but that he played no part in the planning or implementation of the 9/11 attacks.

They don’t believe him. They gouge his left eye until, without the presence or expertise of a doctor, it is decided that he doesn’t need it. A man or woman takes a knife and cuts the eye from its socket. As he screams, whispers in his ear tell him that this wouldn’t be happening to him if he would cooperate. What he knows is this: His mother had silk for hair, he will never be free again, and there is no such thing as depth perception when looking at a white room with one eye. His name is Abu ________.


In a 1988 debriefing, the CIA deputy director of operations, with regards to coercive interrogation techniques, stated, “physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective.” The following January, the CIA supported this claim by admitting to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.” With this stance in mind, the CIA, FBI, and US Military changed their interrogation tactics to be non-coercive. This meant bartering intelligence for individualized incentives and delivering a detailed list of detainees to the Red Cross and built-in accountability for treating detainees as humans with unalienable civil rights. The regulated techniques for interrogation remained bound to these basic humane standards for 12 years.

            The word torture means the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. Its roots can be found in the Latin torquere, meaning to twist, as in the twisting of a crank, or leg, or psyche. 

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 catalyzed another change: A tectonic shift in the way the American intelligence community perceived detainees (particularly, Muslims). Their individuality was stripped and they were seen merely as a small piece of the evil whole that was Al Qaeda. Driven by revenge and hatred and, perhaps most of all, fear that treating assumed terrorists humanely would somehow corrupt the righteousness of the American cause, leaders in the CIA used President Bush’s Memorandum of Notification – a memo that granted central intelligence agencies the ability to “undertake operations designed to capture and detain persons who pose a continuing, serious threat of violence or death to US persons and interests who are planning terrorist activities”—to reinstate the use of coercive interrogation tactics. Although the memorandum did not, anywhere in its literature, use the words torture or interrogation or regulation, the CIA’s spin on the word “coercive” quickly led to the alienation of humane. 

In order to justify the use of their “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA contracted two psychologists with no prior experience in centralized intelligence, military procedure, or interrogation. This fact leads to one of two possible conclusions: 1.) The CIA, having 12 years prior to the new program admitted the ineffectiveness of coercive tactics to the Senate Intelligence Committee, truly believed they could get different results by attempting to throw a stone in the same river, or 2.) The distinctions made by scraps of language such as “coercive” and “non-coercive” and “humane” and “inhumane” and “interrogation” and “torture” no longer mattered. 

The acknowledged result, over the program’s six-year existence, was the detention of 98 individuals, 34 of whom were subjected to “enhanced interrogation.” Upon further study, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee was able to identify a minimum of 119 detainees, 39 “interrogated,” and 1 dead. Given the significant discrepancies in these two sets of data, it can’t be certain what else the CIA’s corruption of language permitted them to hide or destroy. The true numbers—how many were, in reality, subjected to “enhanced” techniques such as isolation treatment, sensory deprivation, and waterboarding—may never be completely known.  


The word torture means the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting the pain. Its roots can be found in the Latin torquere, meaning to twist, as in the twisting of a crank, or leg, or psyche. 


In c. 553 BC, 150 years before the democracy of Athens used torture as a necessary component of their legal structure, Perillos of Athens, a prominent bronze worker, invented and built an apparatus for torture that the world, to that point, had never seen. The Brazen Bull, inspired by a dream or the sacrificing statues of Moloch or a nightmare, was a hollow bronze statue large enough to hold a human inside. Phalaris the Tyrant contracted the Athenian bronze worker to engineer the device as a more painful form of execution for those who would be disloyal to the throne, and the Greek artisan didn’t disappoint. Perillos’ genius in this invention was a method that could be, at once, both efficient in its use and entertaining to the crown. Once a man was locked inside the bull, the statue would stand over a fire, heating the bronze and slowly boiling the detainee alive. The tortured would have no chance of escape. 

For the entertainment of the torturers, Perillos fashioned a horn that led from inside the bull to the statue’s open mouth. This bronze cone would muffle the screams of the boiling man or woman, making them sound like the angered bellows of a cow. When the project was finished, and Perillos promised the audible pleasure that could be created with his invention, Phalaris tested the device with Perillos inside, giving etymological roots to the word peril and illustrating the human capacity, whether to establish control or out of instinctual sadism, to create and use devices designed to torment the bodies of other humans. It is said that Phalaris marveled at his new toy as he sipped red wine from a golden kylix and carefully listened.


A cat, when falling from a height, has the ability to twist in order to right herself and land on her feet. Due to her flexible spine and low body weight, she can maneuver her upper and lower halves separately. This allows her to get her legs underneath her without increasing angular momentum and flipping out of control the way humans would if we were to try the same technique. But her technique isn’t the only difference between this falling cat and a falling man. Her tufted fur and ability to stretch her legs horizontally once righting allows her to decrease her terminal velocity to an estimated 60 mph, a speed at which her muscles can still handle the impact of her light frame hitting the ground. A free-falling human, on the other hand, reaches a terminal velocity of 130 mph regardless of his/her attempts to slow down or right.


He’s strapped to a table. The leather so tight his fingers twitch with each thump of his heart. A cloth is held over his face, and water suffocates him. He’s drowned 15 times now, and he no longer fears the way his throat chokes and his chest heaves. When he was younger, a memory that comes and goes quickly and vaguely, he was terrified of drowning, of tiring in the middle of a lake or the ocean and sinking. He doesn’t fear it now, but the lack of fear doesn’t make him hate it any less. Though it’s not there, he can almost swear some of the liquid streaming over his face is comprised of tears from his left eye. He wanders if the duct still works when the ball is absent, if weeping is something an empty socket can do.

Again, they want to know what plans are under way to attack American soil, the names of sleeper cells living in the states, and where Bin Laden is. After months of near-death agony, he still has no idea. So he lies. He describes the physical appearance of five separate Muhammads living in the US, swears the capitol building in Washington DC is a target for a dirty bomb, promises that Bin Laden has taken refuge in Iraq. And, as they make him repeat these indictments over the course of hours, of days, of weeks, he comes to believe his stories, dreams of them during fleeting moments of sleep, even though it’s obvious that his captors don’t.

They give him a few seconds after answering their questions to catch his breath before again covering his face with the cloth and pouring the water. He doesn’t think this will ever end. Or, this time will be the last time. He’ll convulse and twist and go limp and turn blue as the interrogators fail to revive him. He doesn’t struggle against the restraints. This is his life. What he knows is this: He is an official of Al Qaeda. He knows valuable information about the organization and its plans to stage upcoming attacks on America. He is a terrorist now. His name is ___ ________.


When I was four, 12 years before 2001, we moved to a bi-level house and I got my first pet. She was a black-furred cat with white paws. I named her Sparky because of the way her eyes glimmered under the 40-watt lights of our living room. Every day, when mom was still at work and grandpa was taking a nap, I would pick Sparky up by the midsection and walk over to the stairway banister. From the top, I could see down both half-flights to the basement level. It was a 15-foot drop. I would reach my arms up and out over the banister, my heart pounding in my chest and ears. Sparky’s pupils would narrow as she squirmed and let out a high-pitched yowl. I would let go and watch her drop and twist and land.

I did this every day, sometimes increasing the force with which I squeezed her midsection before letting go. She always landed upright and unhurt. Sometimes, I would toss her, letting go one hand at a time to spin her through the air like a football. Other times, I threw her down as hard as my little arms could muster. I don’t remember her ever landing on anything other than her paws. I remember kicking her across the room and chasing her with sticks from outside, trying to hit her in the face, aiming for her eyes. And I don’t know why I did this, why I preferred this activity to sitting on the couch with her purring in my lap. I don’t even know what I would have done had my attempts to hurt her worked. The thought never crossed my mind.

Ryan Kauffman is a writer, musician, and teacher in Richmond, Indiana. His previous work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, BOAAT Journal, Appalachian Heritage, and Word Riot. In 2011, he received first place in Northern Kentucky University's Social Justice contest for his song, "Poem." He teaches composition and creative writing at Ivy Tech Community College.

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