Torture as a public health issue

In a recent issue of the medical journal The Lancet there is a commentary by primary care specialist Homer Drae Venters concerning the glamorisation of torture in popular culture. In his article Dr Venters recalls a consultation with Kofi, an African survivor of torture who asked:

“Who is Jack Bauer?”

This is a good question on a number of levels. The Americans have Bauer and the ludicrous series 24, in which the hero goes around roughing up prisoners in his weekly struggle to save freedom and democracy. We Brits have the equally ridiculous characters in Spooks, a recent episode of which effectively legitimised political murder in response to personal antipathy. In each case we are being softened up to accept the relaxing of moral norms on the basis that the enemy has no morals, and this justifies dealing with them by any means necessary.

With the aid of statistics Venters discusses the increasing acceptability of torture in the American public psyche:

“Somewhere in the fog of war, terror, and politics, we have become accustomed to the idea of torture. Recent polling shows that American acceptance of torture is increasing, from 36% in 2006 to 44% in 2008. Additionally, more than half of Americans support torture in some situations, and an equal number support the practice of so-called rendition to other countries for the purpose of torture.

As I chatted with Kofi about how we arrived at this acceptance of torture in the USA, he said, ‘You have no idea what you would do to your neighbour if you thought he would harm your family.’ Kofi went on to explain that acceptance of torture can arise from a heightened level of fear, that overcomes good judgment and gives way to inhumanity.”

If irrational fear can lead people to behave with extreme inhumanity, the response of the humane should be to stoke the fires of reason. Torture, says Venter, is a public health issue, and we must address how its prevalence affects our ability to deliver care. Physicians should also strengthen ties with human rights bodies, and campaign against torture as they do with child abuse and domestic violence. Torture is far more than a political issue.