Lithograph of dandelion-like flower with a face and empty eye sockets

Cul-de-Lampe (1890) | Odilon Redon / Public domain

Torture is one of those life experiences that in a milder form presents [itself] to the consciousness of the patient who is awaiting help, and the popular saying according to which we feel well as long as we do not feel our body does indeed express an undeniable truth.

—Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits

As I lay in bed in self-imposed internment, away from the spring bloom, I encountered this passage from late Holocaust survivor Jean Améry’s essay on torture from his 1966 collection, At the Mind’s Limits. It resonated with me, personally and politically, and I immediately transcribed it in full.

I am the bearer of an overactive immune system, which means that any number of substances—pet dander, liquid soap, polyester, vehicle exhaust, and especially pollen—could send my skin into a frenzy. Physical symptoms include itchiness, pain, dryness, redness, and swelling. Mental sequelae span insomnia, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, and social isolation. I’ve often described my conditions—chronic eczema and hives—as torture, and my body a prison. I look on in envy at the self-forgetfulness afforded to others in the genetic lottery.

A similar lottery prevails with regard to where one is born: in the West or the Global South, the United States or Mexico, Israel or Gaza. Put differently, into wealth or poverty, security or vulnerability, agency or subjugation. Those caught holding the short straw have little control over what happens to their own body.

It’s what once provoked John Rawls to ask: How would you like society to look if you were wholly unaware of who, or where, you’d be within it? His intention was to demonstrate just how different our governing principles might be if designed from behind a veil of ignorance.

I suspect that even the most able-bodied would opt for a more equitable and peaceful world than is currently the case. Self-interest dictates that, given the choice, most would eliminate ills such as famine and state violence if faced with the prospect of experiencing them themselves. At play is perhaps the most deeply-rooted of all human desires: to avoid unwanted pain.

This is what Améry is driving at when he suggests that “we feel well as long as we do not feel our body.” It’s an implicit account of suffering that’s instructively concrete. When we experience negative physical sensations against our will, we do not feel well. This is not to deny that we feel good when we experience bodily pleasure. Rather, it suggests that the freedom to not feel our body when we don’t want to is foundational to our wellbeing.

Torture is the most extreme negation of this freedom. It is considered a fundamental breach of human rights and illegal under international law. Here is the legal definition of “torture” currently used by the United Nations:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

The use of instruments of torture on prisoners of war in squalid interrogation rooms is an obvious fit. But many subtler, more insidious acts also appear to qualify.

Consider Israel’s 2007 blockade of Gaza, whose stated aim was to deprive inhabitants of basic needs. A leaked Israeli government document, Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip—The Red Lines, calculated the bare number of calories Gazans required to avoid malnutrition. Prominent Israeli government advisor Dov Weissglas allegedly described it as “putting Palestinians on a diet” just short of starvation. Israel told US officials in 2008 that it would keep Gaza’s economy “on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.”

Gaza has existed under the intensified threat of humanitarian crisis ever since the 2007 blockade. The psychological consequences of this precarity are nearly indistinguishable from those of torture: depression, anxiety, PTSD, fear of death, feelings of helplessness, and chronic pain, to provide just a sampling. And how could it be otherwise, given the radical loss of agency entailed in this state of being?

Such mass regimentation of bodies is what Michel Foucault infamously termed “biopower”: “The power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” Giorgio Agamben expanded that under such a regime, one’s ability to choose how to live is altogether denied, with one’s existence being reduced to “bare life.”

Life was stripped as bare as at any time in human history during the Holocaust. Jews consigned to concentration camps were beaten, starved, subjected to medical torture, and literally worked to death. Most women, children, and the elderly were immediately stripped, shaved, and gassed. Those kept alive for labor were forced to transport their murdered kinfolk to ditches and warned to refer to the bodies as “dolls” rather than corpses. In one memo outlining proposed efficiency improvements to gas trucks, Jewish bodies are called “pieces” and “merchandise,” and their bodily fluids, excreted during death throes, as “dirt” in need of draining.

The revelations of Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jewish people imbued the struggle for a Jewish state with renewed urgency. Améry articulated the post-war Jewish consciousness when he wrote that “the existence of no other state [meant] more” to him than Israel.

But having been tortured does not justify the torture of others, even under the guise of self-defense. Améry said as much when he condemned the systematic torture of Arabs in Israeli prisons shortly before his suicide in 1978. Intimately acquainted with the lifelong trauma that accompanies torture, he declared, “Where barbarism begins, even existential commitments must end.”

We know that thousands of Palestinian civilians have themselves been tortured, imprisoned without trial, and murdered in extrajudicial killings in Israel. Their farmland has been seized and their homes forcibly demolished. Their freedom of movement and trade has been restricted, their public infrastructure destroyed. They have been walled off from their own land in the West Bank and fenced into Gaza without adequate sewage treatment facilities. The little territory they have left has been increasingly settled by Israelis with the support of the government against international law. Economic opportunity is largely foreclosed, with nearly half of Gaza’s residents out of work—one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

Elaine Scarry discusses the inescapable certainty with which a tortured body grasps its pain; a pain which, “even with the most heroic effort,” cannot be ignored. Under Israeli occupation, one is similarly never not feeling the pain and vulnerability of their body; never, as a result, feeling well. This ongoing unwellness gives rise to mental anguish at one’s lack of bodily autonomy, making life feel at times unbearable. In need of a reprieve, some temporarily dissociate from their body altogether. Confronted with the prospect of indefinite pain and suffering, one becomes willing to take extreme measures to make it stop. Electing Hamas, a group that offered Palestinians redress, after “awaiting help” that never came, becomes intelligible from this vantage point. It wasn’t the first time in human history that militancy had arisen out of desperation.

This is not an endorsement of political violence but a reckoning with how and why it comes to be. When asked what he would have done if he were born Palestinian, Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister between 1999 and 2001, responded, “I would have joined a terrorist organization.”

Israel’s founding is itself a tale of terroristic acts, from the bombing of the British headquarters in colonial Palestine to the Deir Yassin massacre of more than a hundred Palestinian men, women and children. Irgun and Lehi, the Zionist militias that orchestrated the attacks, were dissolved into the IDF following the attainment of Israeli statehood. Two of its leaders, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, later became prime ministers of Israel.

The mistake among pro-Western commentators is to narrativize such violence today as senseless barbarism rather than politically motivated acts of desperation. By misclassifying extremist militants as irrational savages that hate our freedom, we risk reproducing the very conditions of unfreedom that engendered the violence.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Israel’s military response to the October 7 attacks has caused “unprecedented destruction and suffering […] including through the killing of civilians on a wide scale, extensive repeated displacement, destruction of homes and the denial of sufficient food and other essentials.” Since Israel began its assault on Gaza, at least 34,000 Palestinians have died and more than twice as many have been seriously injured. Bombings have leveled nearly $20 billion worth of infrastructure, including hospitals, schools, sanitation systems, places of worship, electrical lines, and two-thirds of all residential homes. The 2.3 million Palestinians still inside Gaza are facing acute shortages of food, water, and medical supplies as Israel continues to block aid from entering the region.

Israel’s scorched-earth policy does nothing but till the soil of violence, out of which the next generation of embittered Palestinian militants will grow. We observed this following the Iraq War, when the Islamic State used family members murdered by the US military as a recruitment tool for jihadists.

In holistic medicine, a treatment protocol consisting solely of symptom suppression is warned against; the illness festers until the medication is unable to contain it, at which point a stronger treatment plan is prescribed. This cycle repeats until there is no longer any way to manage the disease, which may become so severe that the patient dies. An alternative approach strives to identify the root cause and implement the necessary lifestyle change to remedy it.

A holistic politics of Israel would look deeper than the symptom of Hamas to the conditions that facilitated its rise. There, it would find a people subjected to decades of slow torture. To achieve lasting peace, we must demand an end to the long-standing war waged against Palestinian bodies. If not, opportunistic extremists like Hamas will continue leveraging the suffering of the dispossessed to gain power. Hanging in the balance is our very body politic, with the prospect of a nuclear third world war on the horizon.

The first step in avoiding this is acknowledging the painful, constant reminder of the body that precludes all wellness for Palestinians. We must meditate on the lottery that has arbitrarily put us here and Palestinians there, and ask ourselves how we’d like the world to look if the roles were reversed.