Concert Notes for the Torture Memos

The text for this music is from the Torture Memos.

The Bush administration asked the Office of Legal Counsel to have a look at the convention against torture the United States had signed and figure out if there might be a way to reinterpret the phrase “intentional acts inflicting extreme mental or physical suffering are prohibited”.

John Yoo was the lawyer given the job of examining every possible permutation in the meanings of those words, surgically removing the inherent meanings of words and concepts everyone understands, and suggesting they mean something else entirely, our nothing at all.

The result is an attempt to depersonalize relationships and actions: to reduce the torturer, the tortured, the government authorizing his torture, and the lawyer justifying it to abstractions.

It took several hundred pages to try to make that simple little phrase ambiguous.

And in the end its not a very successful attempt. There’s a narrative embedded in the euphemisms, the pseudoscientific jargon, and legalistic sprawl. There had to be: it couldn’t be avoided.

And there’s a very clear and personal voice: the voice of John Yoo, both the author, narrator, and main character in his own work. That couldn’t be avoided either.

I imagine him working late one night in his office at UC Berkeley. It’s quiet, he’s been alone in the building for hours, struggling to define the precise temperature water should be to ensure that waterboarding doesn’t involve inflicting severe mental or physical suffering.

He pushes back his chair – maybe he pours himself a tiny glass of whisky. He looks out the window and, seeing the moon staring back at him through his own reflection, he closes his eyes, sighs, and scribbles down:

“Drawing distinctions between gradations of pain is not an easy task.”

Setting this text to music puts back into the words all the things Yoo tried so hard to remove: emotion, identity, personal intent and moral conviction.

The lawyer becomes a poet describing this point in history, and his own role within it, with the deepest possible clarity.

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One Response to Concert Notes for the Torture Memos

  1. gold account says:

    Professor Darius Rejali of Reed College , author of Torture and Democracy (2007), speculates that the term waterboarding probably has its origin in the need for a euphemism . “There is a special vocabulary for torture. When people use tortures that are old, they rename them and alter them a wee bit. They invent slightly new words to mask the similarities. This creates an inside club, especially important in work where secrecy matters. Waterboarding is clearly a jailhouse joke. It refers to surfboarding”– a word found as early as 1929– “they are attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them”.

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