"The Pillowman"

I was at the opening night of Martin McDonagh's astonishing play, "The Pillowman," at the Studio Theater in Washington, DC, directed by Joy Zinoman. It's the best contemporary play I've seen in a very long time, and one that seems to me to speak powerfully to our current moment. (Full disclosure: I was at the opening because my other half has a minor part in the ensemble cast.) The production is reviewed here and here. Many will find its subject matter shocking, although there is minimal gore in the production.

The play is set nowhere in particular but in a police state which practices torture. A writer, Katurian, is arrested because he has written unpublished short stories about tortured and murdered children. We are told by the interrogators that three children have recently been murdered in ways eerily similar to the writer's stories. The suspect is also told that his retarded brother has been detained, interrogated and is being tortured. Katurian can hear his brother's screams in Pillowman150x150 the adjoining cell. Katurian is threatened with torture as well - is stabbed in the face with a pen, hooded, beaten up, and hooked up to electrodes (which are never used and might be phony for all we know). Eventually, Katurian confesses to the three murders. I won't give any more plot twists in case you get to see it.

But by the end of the play, I was unsure whether any child-murders had actually taken place. We find out in the play that some confessions are false; in fact, a majority turn out to be false. And yet some other confessions may also be true. And we realize that, in fact, when torture becomes a tool, the possibility of actually discovering any reliable truth is itself a chimera. Coercion destroys empirical reliability. No jury of peers is allowed to weigh both sides of the issue; no independent police force collects evidence; no independent judiciary ensures that a trial is fair; no lawyers operate with equal standing with respect to the evidence, which is itself filtered through the police; interrogators, for their part, lie and lie again. And the interrogators - one sounds like Bill O'Reilly in his passion for protecting children - have good intentions. In a world like this, truth is a fantasy, and reason is always subject to the distortion of violence.

Yes, of course, I could not help but think of the military justice system set up by Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and Rumsfeld for alleged "enemy combatants". At the heart of most such cases, the fact of torture or the threat of torture renders any solid grasp on the truth impossible. Some argue that being concerned with torture in the KSM case is to miss the forest for the trees. I can only reply by asking them if they really believe every word of every boastful claim made by the tortured Khaled Sheik Mohammed? I have no doubt that some of what that Islamist monster confessed is true; but I'm sure some of it isn't. And after his being tortured, I don't think there's any solid way to determine which is which. That's why he will never go to trial; and the families of his victims will never know for sure who really killed them on 9/11. This matters - not as a question of "moral vanity" but as a question of empirical truth. When "enemy combatants" can also be American citizens, detained on American soil, like Jose Padilla, we are closer to McDonagh's nightmare than we might imagine.

The problem with torture is not just that it produces bad intelligence, but that its existence and even the possibility of its existence taints all evidence and all testimony. It is simply incompatible with the entire justice system in the West since the Enlightenment and incompatible with military justice as well.  That is why it is illegal. Once it is endorsed, as you see most graphically in "The Pillowman," nothing is believable and everything is believable. Eventually the truth becomes merely one narrative's power against another - one set of stories told by one group compared with another set of stories by another. The issue of veracity is settled by power, not reason, by force, not justice. This is the Schmittian vortex into which the West has been hurled by the Bush administration. This is the vortex from which we have to escape. Under this president, it's impossible. But the next one will have a momentous choice.