In Solzhenitsyn's great book Cancer Ward, the plight of a bunch of Soviet prisoners with various tumours is clearly meant to be a wider commentary on the malignancy of the political situation just after Stalin. As Solzhenitsyn knew from bitter first-hand experience, that situation included denunciations, round-ups, interrogations and long sentences and exile to labour camps. "Imagine it happening to you, being taken away ... and put in a dungeon", says the central character Oleg to the nurse Zoyenka at one point. Imagine that indeed - the uncertainty, the fear, the torture, the suffering.
Unlike cancer which is hardly ever out of the news, torture is not much mentioned these days. I think people generally assume that torture's now comparatively rare, that it's more of a relic of the distant past than a significant feature of our own 21st Century. Didn't it basically die out along with smallpox, the plague, witch trials and a belief that the world was flat and inhabited by angels, devils and other supernatural creatures? Or at least, wasn't torture more or less gotten rid of after the Second World War or the end of the Cold War? Strangely, no, it wasn't. On the contrary, torture has proven to be surprisingly stubborn. When, for example, torture made an unwelcome re-appearance in the form of "waterboarding" and other "enhanced interrogation" techniques in the US-led "war on terror", this was nothing like the historical aberration it may have seemed. As James Ross explains, the only kind of torture that's been killed off (more or less, see below) is torture as judicial process - the idea (accepted for centuries) that it's perfectly legitimate to subject a defendant to the rack or hot irons to get a confession. Once obtained, the blood-spattered confession was seen as incontestable "proof-positive" of guilt.
After the Gestapo, Stalin's NKVD interrogators and a host of other 20th-century torturers, the world has - it's true - officially renounced torture. Yet, though banned globally and reviled by government officials whenever it's unearthed, torture has never actually gone away. Here are just a handful of contemporary examples - a few bleak snapshots of our not-so-wonderful all-singing, all-dancing 21st Century world:
- In Iraq more than 30 people are believed to have died in custody as a result of torture between 2010 and 2012 alone
- In Eritrea government critics and dissenters have recently been forced to walk on sharp objects barefoot or to roll on the ground over sharp stones as punishment for trying to flee the country and other alleged offences
- In the Philippines a police "torture roulette" wheel was discovered in January, where different types of torture were being meted out according to the spin of a wheel
- In Syria torture has been carried out on an industrial scale during the conflict, with one cache of photos alone believed to show the results of horrific torture on 11,000 people who died whilst in government custody
- In Mauritania, courts have declared that "confessions" extracted under torture and other ill-treatment are admissible as evidence, even if they are subsequently retracted (an exception to the historical abolition of judicial torture)
- In Libya Amnesty has documented 23 cases of deaths under torture since the end of the 2011 conflict
- In Israel there have been than 800 complaints of torture against the Israel Security Agency in the past 13 years, but there hasn't been a single criminal investigation as a result
- In the USA no-one has yet been brought to justice for "water-boarding" and other torture in CIA-run secret detention centres during the 2002-7 period, while the US intelligence committee's 6,000-page report into CIA torture remains classified
And so on and so on. These quick examples are drawn from Amnesty's new briefing on torture (there are plenty more), a document which makes the rather startling claim that far from dying out in the modern world, torture is actually flourishing. That's right - flourishing. We may live in an age of advanced technology - of gene sequencing, micro-computing and superconductors - but we're still in a time of savagery as well, where the deliberate infliction of pain on a fellow human being is relatively commonplace. According to Amnesty figures, torture has been recorded in 141 countries in the last five years. In many cases - think of China, or Egypt, or Nigeria, or Mexico - the abuse has been carried out on a wide scale, becoming almost routine practice among those that carry it out.
I suspect we're still a long way off from finding a definitive cure for cancer, and I'm sadly almost certain that we're not going to wipe out millennia of torture in the next few years either. That said, we can still support efforts to try to combat it (efforts like Amnesty's new Stop Torture campaign).
One of the things that helps prevent torture is getting independent doctors into places of detention (as the medical profession likes to say, prevention is better than cure). In Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward it's too late to prevent the onset of cancer, but doctors are still the bulwark against certain death. Solzhenitsyn's book is set in Uzbekistan, a place of exile for Soviet political prisoners. Half a century ago it was the scene of detention and torture. Sadly it still is.