Google tells me that torture is the action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or in order to force them to do or say something. I don’t know where Google gets that information, or whether to take that as a an authoritative answer.
Does the Geneva Convention define it in the same way? A portion of the Geneva Convention’s definition is reprinted here. Except I have no idea who has put it on that website, or whether they have done so correctly and accurately.
And here is a definition reprinted by the Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma.
Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or person acting in an official capacity. (United Nations, Secretariat Centre for Human Rights, 1987)
I continue to be at somewhat of a loss, regardless of what I read.
I am, however, convinced that there is a distinction, even if it is one that is only of degree, between ordinary abuse and torture. I am equally convinced that I was tortured, and when I read accounts of survivors of political torture or witnesses of war crimes and ethnic cleansing, their stories resonate with me more than those of children who were simply badly mistreated.
That is not to discount anyone’s experiences. I am simply saying there’s another angle on this that I’ve needed to understand in order to fully grasp who I am, what I have done, and where I have come from.
Torture, in my mind, involves a deliberate attempt to reconstruct the mind of the victim in a particular way. It is not only about cruelty or inflicting suffering, but about intentionally and deliberately changing the recipient of the cruelty. By my definition, torture and brainwashing cannot be separated and are dependent upon one another.
(To read more about brainwashing and how it works, click here.)
The above definition is only my personal opinion. It does not come with any authority, and the Geneva Convention does not endorse it. But the “ah-ha” and the click into place I got out of reading accounts of those tortured in “re-education camps” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution was more intense and more helpful than what I got out of many years of therapy. Even if their stories bear, on the surface, absolutely nothing in common with mine. (I believe many of those accounts are in Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, but I am not sure, and I can’t find what I read that was so helpful to me.)
However, it makes me see dissociation in a somewhat different light. In a word, it makes me think of dissociation as a form of resistance.
If thought reform is the end goal of torture, then it can be taken for granted that the torturer not only wants his victim to do something in particular, but to think, believe, or feel something in particular–probably several things.
A part of the horror of what I recall about growing up is exactly that: thoughts and beliefs in my own head that I disagreed with, that I knew were destructive to me and maladaptive, but that persisted despite the pain they caused me or the distaste I had for them.
In that sense, dissociation is not merely a protection the mind has against overwhelming emotions or destructive thoughts, but it represents a refusal. I could not, in other words, keep my thoughts and feelings from being reformed by the torturer, but I could place those thoughts and feelings as far at the periphery of my awareness as possible. I could refuse to allow them into the core of myself. I could refuse to conflate them with my understanding of who I was and what I thought and fetl. I could deny them, numb them, and resist them.
Denial is sometimes a strength. Dissociation is a form of refusal. They require courage.