Tortured Truth

On 15th July 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary that she believed "in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart". Circumstances went on to prove that her faith in the goodness of mankind was misplaced-- less than nine months later, at the age of sixteen, she was allowed to succumb to typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

While Anne's unwavering belief may be attributed to the innocence of youth, more seasoned individuals among us like to share a similar sentiment, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Whether it be early man's use of primitive tools to maintain supremacy among the clan (immortalised in Stanley Kubrick's interpretation of Arthur Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey"), or more sophisticated tactics employed in mass genocide, there appears to be a strong predilection in man to turn to the dark side.

One does not need to be a psychologist (or even its armchair version) to understand that the power over another person's will is the ultimate driver of this misbehaviour. Whether it be a bullying teenager at school, a dominant partner in an unhappy marriage, or a rogue nation throwing its weight around, the positive feedback loop leads the wielder to justify hostile and brutal acts as means to a desired end.

In a famous controlled experiment at Stanford University in 1971, a group of twenty-four healthy undergraduate students were selected to role-play the relationship between prison guards and prisoners. The students quickly adapted to their roles, but the experiment had to be terminated when it was observed that the "guards" were developing genuine sadistic tendencies that crossed the boundaries of accepted (and expected) behaviour causing emotional trauma to their "prisoners". The study thus needed an authority figure (in this case, the Professor) to guard the guards and prevent them from engaging in acts of lawlessness.

Is our self-righteous humanness just a defensive masquerade meant to protect our own selfish well-being? Is humanity a pretentious value that can be discarded whenever it becomes politically prudent? The darker side of human history suggests that the propensity for oppression lies hidden just below the surface, and only societal norms like laws and regulations prevent people from descending into moral anarchy. In the absence of this communal control, even children are not immune to acting out their darkest animal instincts, masterfully portrayed in William Golding's "Lord of the Flies".

And when a state accepts the use of heinous and inhuman acts as official policy, be it Nazi Germany during World War II or America today, it makes a mockery of the values that bind people and nations together. The Nuremberg trials went a long way in condemning the perpetrators of the holocaust; a similar hearing is needed now to punish policy-makers who took liberties with the law and approved the use of torture on prisoners of war.

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984

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