Waiting for the Barbarians

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Edmund Burke

When I conceived of this blog about books, I thought I would start with The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, and move on to James Joyce’s modern masterpiece Ulysses, which has some structural parallels with The Odyssey.  I still plan to work my way through those books, but I very strongly feel the need to look at something else first.  This is a book I read first about 25 years ago, when it had already been in print for about ten years.  The title is Waiting for the Barbarians, a relatively short 160 page novel first published in 1980 by J. M. Coetzee.  My memory of the book was refreshed by the 2008 recording of an opera by Philip Glass, with the same title and a libretto taken from the novel. ( A discussion of the opera can be found on my music blog, Good Music Speaks.)  

barbarians1J M Coetzee is a South African novelist, and Waiting for the Barbarians is his third published novel.  It contains strong themes of violence, colonialism, “othering”, and the use of torture among other things.  The topic of torture is what made me recollect this novel and reread it recently.  Comments about torture are all over the news right now, as it has become a hot topic of the political campaign for President of the United States.    Consider these recent remarks by Donald Trump, leading GOP candidate:

“Torture works. Believe me, it works.  And you know what?  If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing.”
November 25, 2015

“I’d bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of alot worse than waterboarding”
February 7, 2016

“Well you know he may be talking, but he’ll talk a lot faster with torture”
March 22, 2016 (About Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam, in custody)

Mr. Trump is condoning the use of torture in no uncertain words.  I was not surprised at any sort of controversial remark made by someone with the personality and ego of Donald Trump, but what has shocked me is the great amount of support he has gotten from the American voters.  He has run a campaign that has tapped into the anger and fear of a large number of people, and that is the spot on dictionary definition of a demagogue.  There is a great number of Americans still under economic stress from the recent recession, and they are afraid of the future, angry at the status quo and they are voting Mr. Trump to the brink of being the Republican party nominee (at the time of this writing).  

J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee

All of the press that Mr. Trump’s comments about torture have received has reminded me of the Coetzee novel. A novelist, living and working in the political climate of South Africa during the time it was written, had a lot of cultural baggage to contend with.  The Apartheid government of South Africa, that racially segregated system of white minority rule in effect from 1948 to 1994, was still very much in effect in 1980 when the novel was published.  Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island.  Black South Africans could not travel freely around the country, they had to have passbooks to leave their home areas to pass into another section of South Africa.  There was resistance to the Afrikaner-dominated white government, like the Soweto School Uprising in 1976.  A couple of years earlier, it had been mandated by the government that half of the school subjects be taught in black schools in Afrikaans, the Dutch-derived language that the white minority ruling class spoke.  Black high school students objected to learning in the what was seen by them as the language of the oppressor.  An estimated 20,000 students held demonstrations and protests which were met with fierce police brutality and gunfire which killed hundreds of students.  Stephen Biko was one man involved in organizing protests which culminated in the Soweto Uprising.  Biko was stopped and arrested at a police checkpoint in August of 1977, in one of those places where black citizens had their passbooks inspected.  He was arrested under a Terrorist Act law, and “interrogated” by police for 22 straight hours. He was tortured and beaten during this interrogation, and suffered a head injury resulting in a coma while in police custody.  Three weeks later, he was driven naked and handcuffed (and still comatose) to another prison over 600 miles away that had a hospital.  He died shortly after arrival.  This was the South Africa that Coetzee knew at the time he was writing Waiting for the Barbarians.

The novel centers on an unnamed Magistrate of a border town on the edge of an unnamed Empire.  Clearly there are echoes of Apartheid South Africa, but one of the brilliant things about the novel is that placing it in a fictional, nameless Empire makes the novel transcend time and place in a way a historical novel could not.  The small colonial town administered by the Magistrate doesn’t even have need for a jail at the beginning of the novel.  “We do not have facilities for prisoners,” he explains. “There is not much crime here and the penalty is usually a fine or compulsory labour….”  It is quiet and peaceful until the arrival of soldiers from the “Third Bureau”, special forces led by the sinister Colonel Joll. The Empire has declared a state of emergency amid rumors that the indigenous people, the “barbarians”, were preparing to attack the town. Colonel Joll is tasked with leading an expedition to capture some of the barbarians, who are brought back to the town where they are “interrogated”, tortured, beaten and some are killed in the quest for information about a potential attack.  Fear of an attack has created a situation where emergency powers were invoked to do anything necessary to accomplish the security goals of the Third Bureau. Colonel Joll’s methods are as elegantly simple as they are evil.  “Pain is truth; all else is subject to doubt.”  As he says, “First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth.  This is how you get the truth.”  Colonel Joll clearly could have a future as a lecturer in the foreign policy department of Trump University.

The Magistrate does not participate directly in the torture of the prisoners, in fact he recognized the captives as member of a fishing tribe unlikely to have any information.   “Did no one tell him these are fishing people?  It is a waste of time bringing them here! “ ……” did no one tell him these prisoners are useless to him?  Did no one tell him the difference between fishermen with nets and wild nomad horseman with bows?  Did no one tell him they don’t even speak the same language?”  Colonel Joll’s only reaction to that information is “Prisoners are prisoners”, and no one has the courage to stand up to him.  The Magistrate does not participate, but neither does he prevent nor stop the interrogation and torture of these people.  He tries to turn a blind eye and says “for a while I stopped my ears to the noises coming from the hut”.  He is still loyal to the Empire, the colonial power that Joll represents.  

After this first batch of prisoners are finished being interrogated by Colonel Joll, they are released and Joll leads another trip out for more prisoners to question.  One girl is left behind, eyesight damaged and feet broken in the ordeal she suffered.  She resorts to begging to survive, and sleeping outdoors in the cold weather.  The Magistrate cannot allow this, so he takes in the “barbarian” girl to live in his apartment and finds her work in a kitchen.  He sleeps with her, but does not have sex with her.  He objectifies the girl, ritually washing her feet and massaging her legs.  The Magistrate tries to learn from her what happened in the torture chamber, by studying the marks on her body and questioning her himself.  In this way, he shares a similarity with Colonel Joll, in that he also does not treat the indigenous “barbarians” as fully human.  The Magistrate is charitable, parental, pities the barbarian natives, dislikes seeing them cheated by local businessmen or mistreated by the townspeople.  His taking in of the nameless “Barbarian girl” is an act of expiation, of penance, but he does not truly love her or treat her as an equal of any sort.  She offers her body to him for sex, but he does not desire her.  She suffers his gloomy disposition, and a certain measure of indignity when he visits a local prostitute for the sex he did not desire from her.  The Magistrate does not understand himself what he wants from the relationship with the barbarian girl.  Eventually, he embarks on a trip with her to return her to her people to live.  Afterwards, back at the town, he learns from a confidante of the girl how sad he made her.  “She could not understand you.  She did not know what you wanted from her……Sometimes she would cry and cry and cry.  You made her very unhappy.  Did you know that?”  The Magistrate begins to realize his emotionally abusive treatment of the girl is another side of the same coin that is Colonel Joll’s interrogations.  The Magistrate says, “I am the lie the Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow”.

The “civilizing mission” of well-meaning colonialism, represented by The Magistrate, relies on creating a myth of “The Other”.  By believing the native people in a colonial land are somehow lesser, in need of civilizing, of governing, it makes them into something less than human. This “othering” helps the colonizers define themselves as acting benevolently.  This condescending treatment of “the other” is a slippery slope.  Once you define a group as somewhat less than human, with corresponding human rights, then you can convince yourself to treat them in any sort of fashion for the “greater good”.  In Coetzee’s novel, the native people are defined by the Empire as the “barbarians”, and when the security of the Empire is at stake they can be tortured for information.  The needs of a supposed emergency situation takes precedence over any benevolent attitude towards the indigenous people.  In traveling to return the girl to her people, the Magistrate is seen as a traitor and collaborator with the enemy upon his return.  Agents of the Third Bureau detain the Magistrate and torture him in the same manner of the prisoners.  They do not want information from him, they only seem to want to inflict cruelty.  As the Magistrate tells us.

“They [his torturers] were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself.  They did not come to force the story out of me of what I had said to the barbarians and what the barbarians had said to me. So I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces.  They came to my cell to show me the meaning of humanity, and in the space of an hour they showed me a great deal.”

Fear of a rumoured attack by the barbarians was the justification for all of these extreme measures.  It is ironic that the attack never materializes, and the only persons in the novel that act barbarically are representatives of the Empire.  Those fears are the justificaton for torture, in the name of security of the Empire’s interests.  

Fear motivates otherwise good people into doing evil things.  Franklin Delanor Roosevelt said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, but that did not stop him from signing Executive Order 9066 in February of 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  This ordered the military to round up between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans, remove them from their homes and detain them in camps.  Out of fear, people were moved to over a dozen camps at racetracks and fairgrounds, without charges or any form of due-process, simply because they were of Japanese heritage.  Two-thirds of these people, some 80,000 human beings, were AMERICAN CITIZENS born on American soil.  People were detained in these camps until January 1945, about a month after it finally occurred to the United States Supreme Court that citizens should not be detained without cause.  This was almost three years after people were removed from their homes out of fear that they could possibly be connected to further hostilities from Japanese forces.    Those that returned found their lives in ruin, businesses closed, jobs lost, homes not guaranteed to be intact.  Fear was the motivation for it all.

Fear was the motivation for the American government to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees at Camp X Ray at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.  These detainees were enemy combatants captured during the War in Iraq, and held indefinitely without any sort of war crimes trial.  “Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a catch phrase for practices considered by much of the civilized world to be torture, including candidate Trump’s personal favorite, waterboarding.  The Senate Intelligence Committee report on the use of these practices by the CIA begins with two statements.

#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.

#2: The CIA’s justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.

Torture, in fact, does not work.  This was proved at Guantanamo Bay.  No information was obtained during interrogation that proved useful to stopping any terrorist attacks.  Many times, false information was provided to interrogators in the hopes that the ordeal would stop.  Enhanced interrogation worked exactly along the lines that the Magistrate described in Coetzee’s novel.  

“…. Imagine : to be prepared to yield, to yield, to have nothing more to yield, to be broken, yet to be pressed to yield more!  And what a responsibility for the interrogator.  How do you ever know when a man has told you the truth?”.

The lack of information is consistent with the way terrorist cells are “organized”.    One small group of people working in one place has little or no knowledge of any other group in operation close or far away.  Terrorist groups are not any sort of traditional enemy, structured along any sort of traditional military lines.   Fear of future attacks caused the CIA to use practices that go against American values, against our beliefs in human rights, and caused us to sink to a level that we should strive to rise above.  I have to side with John McCain, Senator and former Republican Presidential candidate, when he is responding to Donald Trump’s statements about torture:

“…..these statements must not go unanswered because they mislead the American people about the realities of interrogation, how to gather intelligence, what it takes to defend our security and at the most fundamental level, what we are fighting for as a nation and what kind of nation we are”

“When we fight to defend our security, we fight also for an idea that all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights – that’s all men and women”
John McCain, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 5yr POW and victim of torture in the Vietnam War.  

John McCain

John McCain

Senator McCain holds a unique position, being one who has experienced torture firsthand as a soldier, and as a government official privy to the sorts of information obtained by the CIA efforts at interrogating prisoners.  I think his comments have to be seriously considered on this subject.  

Inciting fear, terror, is the stock and trade of true terrorists.  More important than even the damage and loss of life in the actual attack, is the fear that it can happen again.  Anywhere.  Anytime.  We should not let that fear create a state of emergency whereby we give up our values, our beliefs of what is right and wrong.  In order to remain a society worth fighting for, we need to keep believing in things like:

All men and women are created equal

There should be due process in administering law and justice

We should not engage in cruel or unusual punishments

Humans beings have inalienable human rights

Among those human rights are life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, security of person


We should not give up these principles, simply because the enemy does not believe in them, as we do.  We should not abandon our values when threatened, should not go against our beliefs out of fear.  We should not sink to a level of cruelty, dehumanizing ourselves in the process.  We do not want to become the barbaric ones.
In no way am I suggesting that people who have committed war crimes, atrocities, or acts of terrorism should be left unanswered.  By all civilized means, evil doers should be brought to justice.  War crimes trials should be held, sentences should be imposed.  Imprisonment is necessary to make sure evil acts are not repeated.  Some crimes certainly seem to justify even the penalty of death, but not cruelty and unproductive torture.  Administering justice in this fashion will not be simple nor easy, it will be cumbersome, undesirably slow, measured, and cautiously applied.  It is our own humanity, our very soul, that is at stake in how we, as a society, treat those who have done horrible, evil things to us.  I do not believe that we need to forgive or forget, but we should also not become the sort of monster we fear.  



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