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photos by Lara Shipley


April 17th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, 2002:

You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect in the box with him. You would, however, place a harmless insect in the box. You have orally informed us that you would in fact place a harmless insect such as a caterpillar in the box with him.

George Orwell, 1949:

‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compart ments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

‘In your case, said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.’

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the mask-like attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.

‘You can’t do that!’ he cried out in a high cracked voice. ‘You couldn’t, you couldn’t! It’s impossible.’

‘Do you remember,’ said O’Brien, ‘the moment of panic that used to occur in your dreams? There was a wall of blackness in front of you, and a roaring sound in your ears. There was something terrible on the other side of the wall. You knew that you knew what it was, but you dared not drag it into the open. It was the rats that were on the other side of the wall.’

‘O’Brien!’ said Winston, making an effort to control his voice. ‘You know this is not necessary. What is it that you want me to do?’

O’Brien made no direct answer. When he spoke it was in the schoolmasterish manner that he sometimes affected. He looked thoughtfully into the distance, as though he were addressing an audience somewhere behind Winston’s back.

‘By itself,’ he said, ‘pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain, even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable — something that cannot be contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved. If you are falling from a height it is not cowardly to clutch at a rope. If you have come up from deep water it is not cowardly to fill your lungs with air. It is merely an instinct which cannot be destroyed. It is the same with the rats. For you, they are unendurable. They are a form of pressure that you cannot withstand. Even if you wished to. You will do what is required of you.

Tags: Language and Literature · Obedience and Insubordination · War



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Number 6 // Apr 17, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I knew I couldn’t be the only person who immediately thought of Room 101 upon hearing this story.

  • 2 Brown label commenter // Apr 17, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Let the [caterpillars] eat Julia, not me!

  • 3 On Torture « Mike’s Blog // Apr 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    […] you can find them here; Julian Sanchez (h/t Yglesias) points out that they basically used 1984 as a how-to manual for […]

  • 4 Thoreau // Apr 17, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    Turns out that Room 101 had some fans:


    I wonder what Bybee’s office number is.

  • 5 Micha Ghertner // Apr 19, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Rachel Maddow made this same analogy, using video from the 1984 film version.

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