Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder made the disappointing announcement that the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will take place in Guantánamo Bay before a military commission. Holder had, among other things, been keen to restore dignity to the United States federal court system and demonstrate to the world our principles of fairness, justice, and due process by holding the trial in New York. Instead, the eyes of Americans and the world are back on Gitmo, where the scene of torture, not justice, continues to play out.
From the European religious wars to modern revolutions, the question of torture persists throughout history; scenes of inquisition, violent interrogation, and coerced confession haunt our archives. As we post-9/11, 24-watchers know, being tortured almost always involves being questioned. Or rather, torture is rationalized as the means by which to extract answers to hitherto unanswered questions, though the sequence of events is variable. Questioned, then tortured; tortured, then questioned. Tortured while under pressure of the question. In a real sense then, the debate over Shaikh Mohammed’s trial has been about the staging of the scene of interrogation. Where, after having compromised our so-called values so blatantly, are we going to ask the rest of the questions?
What if questioning itself is a kind of torture?
As anthropologist Talal Asad has written, “putting to the question” actually used to mean “putting to torture” in the Christian Middle Ages. In the scene of torture, questions are monstrous. There are no satisfactory answers, despite which questions are delivered with the imperative that the tortured subject produce capital-T truth. Does the question itself produce the guilty response? Does repeated questioning produce or change belief? What does silence mean in the face of the question?
We in the humanities are trained not to solve problems, but to generate questions. Rich, smart, incisive, and capacious questions to which there are no pat answers. Generous questions, which create room. Questions which open our inquiries out into new scholarly terrain. Questions which bring about more questions. The generation of the right question is absolutely crucial for the creation of productive work.
And there is no artless question, which is why the leading question is so often an incitement to protest. Questions set the stage for their responses, and all questions have rhetorical effects. You may remember this one. On October 3, 2010—in the heat of the national controversy over the Cordoba House community center, just weeks after Florida pastor Terry Jones advocated burning the Quran, and a month before the mid-term elections—ABC News hosted a town hall debate with an incendiary question for a title: “Holy War: Should Americans Fear Islam?”
ABC’s question established not just the premise, but the contours of the debate which followed. The title, “Holy War,” featured prominently on a large backdrop to the stage, was at best a bald ratings-seeking move by the network. Vague (war?) and yet histrionic (war!), it was ill-suited to a conversation between Americans about the cohabitance of plural faiths in the United States, which is what the town hall purported to be.
Instead, “Holy War” and its incendiary subtitle advanced the figuring of Islam as not just America’s Other, but an Other to Americans—that is, the figuring of a religion as an Other to “the” (here homogenized) people of a nation.
Asking whether or not to fear one’s neighbors’ religion only legitimized the idea that certain people are not properly neighbors at all; they must be managed as threats and guarded against, never mind invited over for tea. The question did that.
Of course, questions need not have explicitly political stakes. There are other scenes, and other ways to think about questions, though I want to suggest that here, too, we can think with the metaphorics of torture.
In an iconic stand-up performance in 1982, Bill Cosby shared the nitty-gritties of marriage and parenting. In a piece called “Brain Damage,” he talked about dealing with little kids and the exhaustion of having to settle sibling squabbles. And he detailed the response that parents get when they ask a child why she did this or that, why he shaved his head, why she smacked her brother, why he snuck chocolate cake before breakfast? The answer is always—and here you must imagine Cosby’s delightful voice—a whiny and elongated, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.” “I don’t know.”
Brain damage, Cosby says. But there is something else on offer in this familiar familial scene: an elemental example of the human response to the Question. How, let’s be honest, do most of us fare when we are “put to the question,” when we are badgered, interrogated, or even just asked nicely? It doesn’t matter whether we know an answer or not, or whether we’re hiding something. The instinct to say “I don’t know” runs deep in all of us, from the classroom scene to the roadside, pulled over by a traffic cop.
Sometimes we don’t answer a question because we are afraid or nervous. Sometimes, out of ignorance or lack of confidence. Sometimes, there’s an element of perversity in the non-response. But often, our lack of response is not about the question—it’s about being questioned. For even seemingly innocuous questions can be squirm-inducing. What are you studying? Why are you a vegetarian? Are you going to have children? Do you want to be friends?
Every question inaugurates a new context, and the uncertainty of the response our own response will generate is enough to keep us quiet: from “Did you kill this man?” to “Will you marry me?” Or maybe it’s the uncertainty of our own response that’s operative. It is too easy, after all, to respond to a question before you know the answer.
In David Foster Wallace’s immortal words, “There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other.” In a world of questions, the demand for answers overwhelms. Verily, we torture ourselves.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.