The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A Darkness of our own

July 3, 2007

“The third hearing of my man took place at two o’clock at night; I had previously worked for eighteen hours on end. He had been woken up; he was drunk with sleep and frightened; he betrayed himself. From that time I cross-examined my people chiefly at night….Once a woman complained that she had been kept standing outside my room the whole night, awaiting her turn. Her legs were shaking and she was completely tired out; in the middle of her hearing, she fell asleep. I woke her up; she went on talking, in a sleepy mumbling voice, without fully realizing what she was saying, and fell asleep again. I woke her once more, and she admitted everything and signed the statement without reading it, in order that I should let her sleep. … That the wife had been kept waiting on her feet the whole night was due to the carelessness of my sergeant; from then onwards I encouraged carelessness of that kind; stubborn cases had to stand upright on one spot for as long as forty-eight hours. After that the wax had melted out of their ears, and one could talk to them….

“My colleagues had similar experiences. It was the only possible way to obtain results. The regulations were observed; not a prisoner was actually touched. But it happened that they had to witness–so to speak accidently–the execution of their fellow prisoners. The effect of such scenes is partly mental, partly physical. Another example: there are showers and baths for reasons of hygiene. That in winter the heating and hotwater pipes did not always function, was due to technical difficulties; and the duration of the baths depended on the attendants. Sometimes, again, the heating and hot-water apparatus functioned all too well; that equally depended on the attendants. They were all old comrades; it was not necessary to give them detailed instructions; they understood what was at stake.”
                                — Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler’s 1941 novel A Darkness at Noon recounts the arrest, imprisonment, and eventual execution of an Old Bolshevik (who is a composite figure) during the purges and show trials of the late 30s. It’s a brilliant novel–every time the protagonist starts to become sympathetic, we are reminded that he himself has been responsible for the “physical liquidation” of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people (the numbers are unclear), purging those who represented ideological weak spots, until he himself becomes identified as an ideological weak spot. He’s a bit like Tony Soprano–every time I started to like him, he killed someone with his bare hands.

In the passage above, one of the jailers, an old party hand himself, recounts the interrogation techniques he used to break recalcitrant kulaks who refused to divulge where they had hid “excess” (probably non-existent) grain.

These techniques probably sound familiar to you, because they are now being used by American interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and possibly elsewhere). I have repeatedly read investigative reports that trace these techniques to a Cold War era program intended to train US soldiers to withstand interrogation if captured by the Soviets or the Chinese.

And still they shy away from the absolute truth, perhaps unable to face the bald facts: we are using the techniques of the KGB and NKVD, the great bogeymen of the Cold War.

We even justify ourselves using their logic:

“In the opposite camp they are not so scrupulous. Any old idiot of a general can experiment with thousands of living bodies; and if he makes a mistake, he will at most be retired. The forces of reaction and counter-revolution have no scruples or ethical problems.” —Darkness at Noon (again)

Can we truly say that freedom and liberty have triumphed over oppression?

Happy Fourth of July.

+ posts