A clockwork orange

In Anthony Burgess’s classic novel, one of the main characters and our narrator is reduced to A clockwork Orange – a man unable to exercise his own free will – through the use of a closely monitored but controversial technique, touted as the solution to juvenile delinquency and in the case of the story, as a combatant to the socially unacceptable ultra violence that Alex and his “droogs” regularly participate in.

The methods in Burgess’s story involve aversion therapy – a method that associates a certain stimulus with a negative or unpleasant sensation – and while doctors and medicos alike will say that it is vastly different from torture (and essentially, it certainly is) what transpires in A clockwork Orange is surely what you and I would consider torturous.  Definitions of aversion therapy may preclude descriptions of torture, but this certainly isn’t the case if you consider torture’s definitions of severe pain and suffering, physical or mental.

The book’s narrator, Alex – through the process of conditioning (the “Ludovico technique”, as it is called in the novel) – is essentially forbidden to exercise his own moral choices in life, something that the chaplain in the prison where he is initially held is strongly against and something that he argues, is a necessity to humanity.

Similar points may now well be being raised in the political sphere, as reports on the slowly combusting case of the “secret CIA” prisoner programmes in the International Herald Tribune earlier this week – which initially harked to gross misconduct and a gruesome picture of out of control operatives partaking in sadistic activities – are now claiming (and the story carefully treads the line between vindication and condemnation) that the CIA programme was “closely watched” (August 27) – a sort of Ludovico technique of their own.

The article, outlined specific details of the requirements for each prisoner, which included precise instructions for lighting cells, the exact volume of the constant white noise being played to the suspects being held captive, the temperature of the water to be used for water boarding and for how long, amongst other strict instructions.  While this control was said to ensure that the program was “safe and legal”, the article seemingly borders on contradiction when it later quotes a document as stating that “the prisoner finds himself in the complete control of the Americans”.  – Not too unlike our Alex and his Clockwork Orange nature, it seems.

The IHT also makes reference to initial news reports citing “aberrations” in the field (such as “threats of execution by handgun or power drill”) no doubt to embolden claims made later in the story, that the activities inside this Washington-run programme were “by no means one of gung-ho operatives running wild.”

Whatever the case may be, international human right’s agreements outlaw humiliating and degrading treatment.  Furthermore, the Geneva Convention also requires all persons to be treated with “humanity” – whether they are protected by the convention or not.

While Alex who in A clockwork orange, comes in for some heavy-handed and life-changing treatment closely monitored by its perpetrators – who swear they are improving society, leading us to ponder inevitable questions of abuse – the results of the brutal though calculated methods of torture (and torture has been used as a method of obtaining information for hundreds of years) being used by the CIA are now also being questioned.

Just as Burgess asks whether society will accept the inhumane treatment of those we deem as behaving unlike humans, are we now more likely to accept that these methods of torture and control are a justified, legal, humane and moral reality in interrogating prisoners?  Or are they indeed even useful in obtaining meaningful, accurate information?  The outcomes remain to be seen.

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