Saturday, June 30, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thinks the Scales of Justice Tip in Favor of Torture

For pity's sake. How much longer will the people of the United States of America continue to tolerate the suited thugs that run their government and the gowned thugs that claim to dispense justice?!*

Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the highest and last court of appeal in the land, got into a revealing verbal scuffle with a Canadian judge at a recent Ottawa conference. During a panel on terrorism, torture, and the law, the Canadian judge quipped: "Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra 'What would Jack Bauer do?'" (This, of course, refers to the hero of the popular television show 24. Agent Jack Bauer regularly tortures bad guys to save the U.S. from imminent disaster. The show could just as well be titled Ticking Bomb.)
Okay. To be honest, the Canadian judge's observation (although true enough) was probably also intended to provoke Scalia by criticizing the uber-conservative agenda he pushes on the bench. But does the good Justice rise above the dig? Nope. Instead, he incredibly defends Bauer's MO of torturing terrorists week in and week out. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles," Scalia retorted. "He saved thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer [for torturing]?" Scalia asked this question of his fellow jurists, but then (true to form) jumped in with his own answer. "I don't think so," he said. "So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes [for example, right to a jury trial]. And ought we to believe in these absolutes."
And so ends Torture Awareness Month, with an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court declaring that torture, if done under the "right" conditions and for the "right" reasons, ought not to be criminal. In fact, in the best Hollywood style, torture's downright heroic.
Holy Bill of Rights, Batman!
*I don't mean to imply that all suited politicians and gowned jurists in the States are thugs. It just seems that, lately, many of them are--especially the ones in high places.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Torture Awareness Month Ends, and the Movers and Shakers Couldn't Care Less

Tomorrow is the final day of June, designated by the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition International and Amnesty International as Torture Awareness Month. Embedded within the month (June 26) was the UN-appointed International Day in Support of Victims and Survivors of Torture.

Computer searches for references over the past 30 days to "torture awareness month" from major U.S. newspapers and heavily trafficked high-end blogs reveal just how much of a shit was given:

Baltimore Sun: 0 references

Boston Globe: 0 references

Chicago Tribune: 0 references

Christian Science Monitor: 0 references

Los Angeles Times: 0 references

Miami Herald: 0 references

New York Times: 0 references

Seattle Times: 0 references

Wall Street Journal: 0 references

Washington Post: 0 references

Okay. We expect silence like this from conventional media. That's why we have progressive bloggers to fill in the gaps. So here are some data from a random selection of big box left-leaning blogs:

Boing Boing: 0 references

Crooks & Liars: 0 references

Daily Kos: 0 references

Majikthise: 0 references (although Lindsay has been mourning the tragic loss of her father this week and hence not posting)

Pandagon: 0 references

The Thinking Blog: 0 references

Think Progress: 0 references (although two very good postings on torture-related news)

But there were a few organizations (almost all of them religious) that took Torture Awareness Month with the gravity it deserves. Kudos to organizations such as Pax Christi, Pace e bene, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Santa Clara Council of Churches, and the hundreds of low-end, small box bloggers who remembered and witnessed. You can get a good idea of who they are by googling "torture awareness month." They may be tiny blips on the blogosphere radar screen, but they're keepin' it real.
By the way: how many people do you reckon were tortured in the time it took to read this post? I dunno, because figures are obviously hard to get. But at least one or two is a safe bet, don't you think?

The Torturer Speaks

"Torture is the most ancient of the fine arts, older than the so-called art of love, and certainly richer and more varied. The art of love is nothing but a dozen positions and a couple of dozen refinements, but torture has a thousand varieties. All animals can couple, but man is the only animal that tortures. The essential ingredient of torture could not be more simple: all you need is a collective, constituted group operating on a man in isolation. The group, as we know, is stronger than the individual, and torture is the first way of proving it. Torture is also the first of the experimental sciences. All it calls for is a pair of bare hands and a gang to hold the patient down and assist in the experiment. Furthermore it is an art which, like all the primitive arts, dance, song, story-telling, poetry, requires nothing but the body. As for the art of love, well, the zones of pleasure are very much fewer than the zones of pain, and pain is more intense and can last much longer. Pleasure is not the opposite of pain; it is a different thing altogether, poorer and more limited."

This excerpt (pp. 299-300) is from the sadly-neglected novel Incognito by Romanian author Petru Dumitriu. Dumitriu, who experienced WWII and the post-war Soviet bloc firsthand, published the novel in 1962. His novel is semi-autobiographical.

The speaker is one Major Bulz, described by the novel's protagonist as "the only torturer I have known at all well." Major Bulz's left hand is deformed: webbed and fused fingers. "He hated the world for having given him a hand like that."

In just a few lines, Dumitriu deftly captures some of the characteristic features of both torture and torturers: the utter simplicity of torture as an "art," the multiple ways to cause pain, the torturer's grudge against the world that fuels his activities in the torture chamber.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Torture in the News

Top Story
President Blows Off Students Expressing Concern About Torture

"We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions, and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants." This from a letter presented to the President on Monday by 50 of the nation's brightest high school seniors. The students, selected as members of this year's national Presidential Scholars, handed the statement to President Bush during a photo op in the East Room. Bush, apparently taken by surprise, glanced through the letter and then dismissed it with the familiar mantra that "the United States does not torture and that we value human rights." (For more on "the United States does not torture," see the bottom story in this segment of Torture in the News.)
Three of the kids explain why they confronted the President in this CNN interview. Wow!

Also in the News

Torture Continues in Nepal, Zimbabwe, and the Ukraine

In a report released Tuesday, Advocacy Forum Nepal, a human rights NGO, announced that the Nepalese Army and Nepalese Maoist rebels are equal opportunity torturers. The AFN has recorded over 1,300 new cases since April 2006. In that same time period, nearly 28% of detainees claim they were tortured, with minors suffering the worse abuse.
According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, torture is on the upswing for the third straight year in Zimbabwe, with 300 alleged cases occuring so far this year. Along with Angola, Zimbabwe is the only Southern African Development Community (SADC) that refuses to sign the International Convention on Torture. There are 14 nations in the SADC.
You most definitely don't want to be arrested in the Ukraine. According to reports filed by the UN Committee Against Torture, the Council of Europe, and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Ukrainians are regularly subjected to torture from the moment of their arrest to their subsequent conviction and imprisonment. As detainees, they're tortured to elicit "confessions." As convicted criminals, they're tortured just because guards enjoy ass-kicking.

UK Attorney General Calls for Investigation

Lord Goldsmith, the UK Attorney General who will soon vacate his post, earlier this week called for an inquiry into allegations that British troops stationed in Iraq have tortured detainees. Goldsmith's call comes on the heels of the acquittal of members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment accused of prisoner abuse.

More Revelations of Cheney's Involvement in Prisoner Abuse

In Part II of their series on the Vice (and I do mean vice) Presidency of Dick Cheney, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker chronicle Cheney's hardline defense of torture in the war on terror that led to the administration's notorious distinction between illegal torture and permissible cruelty in the treatment of detainees.
(Hat tip to Kim)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bloggers on Torture: Volume 2

Dr. James Benjamin at a fantastic blog called The Left End of the Dial V2.0 offers an equally fantastic post entitled Torture: A Tentative Definition and Outline of Causative Factors. The post is an abbreviation of a longer scholarly article that's currently in press.

As an aggression researcher, James is interested in the psychological and social factors that contribute to the emergence of torture. He closely examines a number of causal possibilities, dividing them into "distal," or longterm background factors that influence one's readiness to engage in violence, and "proximate," or immediate, situational ones. Very insightful stuff!
Photographic Appendix
D.W. Horstkoetter, a seminarian at Union Theological and blogmaster of flying.farther, participated in public witness yesterday to commemorate the International Day in Support of Torture Victims. Check out the wonderful photos he took. (They may take some time to load, so be patient. They're well worth the wait.) Thanks, D.W.!

The Open Invitation to contribute to the

still stands!

Post your thoughts on the question

"What is torture, and is it necessarily immoral?"

(or any variant of said question),

let me know, and the Maiden will link to it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Speaking of Disappear: Did you Know that Today Is Torture Awareness Day?

What? You didn't know? You haven't heard?

Yeah. How 'bout that, huh?
Today's the tenth "International Day in Support of Victims of Torture." It was designated by the UN General Assembly as an annual commemoration of the ratification of the UN Convention Against Torture (20 years ago today). But apparently not too many, including the United Nations, give a rat's ass. You won't hear about it from the mainstream media, and the UN didn't even bother to put it on this year's calendar.
Disappeared. The International Day in Support of Desaparecidos is now itself a desaparecido.
Almost disappeared, that is. The good folks at Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition have events scheduled in Washington DC. Take a look at their web page and sign on to their petition to repeal the 2006 Military Commissions Act.
And after you do that, start making every day Torture Awareness Day in your local community. Check the links in the sidebar of this blog. They have lots of good ideas to help you get started. Don't let torture awareness slide down the chupadero.

Torturespeak: "To Be Disappeared"

The language of torture is uncanny. As Marguerite Feitlowitz observes in her brilliant A Lexicon of Terror, torture rips "benign domestic nouns" from their conventional context and appropriates them as vocabulary for its own perverse discourse. Suddenly, words which are either neutral or positive take on sinister connotations. Hence the eeriness of torturespeak.

Take "disappear," for example.* In conventional discourse, it's a relatively innocent word. At most, it occasionally indicates frustration or puzzlement: "My keys have simply disappeared!" But in torturespeak, "disappear" becomes a fear-inspiring transitive verb. It's not simply something that happens to my car keys or my wallet. It becomes an act--or, even more uncannily, an unact--that's deliberately done to human beings: "She was disappeared."
Torturespeak's appropriation of "disappear" originated in Argentina during the horrible years of its Dirty War in which upwards of 30,000 people "disappeared." The military authorities used it to acknowledge that people were vanishing--they came to be called desaparecidos--but to deny any complicity. As Argentine Army general-in-chief Roberto Viola said, desaparecidos were people who were "absent forever." They vanished because it was their "destiny" to vanish. But everyone knew that this was mockery. What Viola clearly meant was that the miliary would create a destiny of disappearance for anyone who dared to get in its way. Malcontents would vanish into a chupadero, a vortex into which people get sucked. Anyone falling into a chupadero--a torture chamber--became a chupado, someone who has been sucked down a drain, someone who's been disappeared.
How strange, how unsettling, to hear this kind of language. How can a person be disappeared? The phrase connotes utter erasure, vanishment, dissolution, ceasing-to-be. And it suggests that the disappearance was sucked-down-a-drain sudden--poof! That a vibrant human being could be here one moment and totally gone the next without a trace: how can the human mind wrap itself around such a thing? The magician makes coins, rabbits, and scarfs disappear. We understand this. But to make humans disappear? This reduces them to inanimate, impotent objects, pliable stage props. We uneasily sense that some kind of category mistake is being made, that we're using language appropriate to objects to refer to persons. And the result is a jarring, uncanny dissonance.
And yet this is, of course, the whole point of torturespeak: to malform discourse, just as it malforms victims, in order to intimidate and terrorize. Language itself becomes a torture instrument, reminding those of us who haven't been disappeared to watch ourselves lest the same mysterious fate befall us. And for the torture victims themselves? Torturespeak adds psychological despair to their physical agony. Time and again, torturers tell their victims "You don't exist. You don't exist. You're no one. You've been forgotten by everyone on the outside. You don't exist."
This language erases the victim, slowly and painfully. Torturespeak's goal isn't merely to forestall the victim's future. It's to warp reality so that she never really existed at all. General Viola said it well. When a person is disappeared, she becomes "absent forever"--past, present, and future. She never was. Poof. Even if she manages to crawl out of the torture chamber, to claw her way back up the chupadero, her self, her personality, her memories--everything which identifies her--are gone. It's as if she never was.
*Today, in the U.S., examples of other once-benign words come to mind: interrogation, enhanced, extraordinary, rendition, habeas corpus, security, and so on.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bloggers on Torture: Volume 1

Recently, I wrote a number of bloggers inviting them to post on this question: "What is torture, and is it necessarily immoral?" Several have already posted reflections, and I want to share them with the rest of you. I'll link to more as they come in.

It's curious that almost all the bloggers who've responded so far come from a religious perspective. Only one "secular" blogger has weighed in. Wonder what that means...
Anyway, here are the first responses. They're really quite good. Thanks to everyone who's already contributed, and thanks in advance to those who will. It's an open invitation, so feel free to weigh in.

  • In one of the finest short pieces on torture from a Christian perspective I've ever read, Thom Stark of Semper Reformanda concludes that there's no converting the imperial pathology that gives rise to torture. But it can be creatively resisted by nurturing alternative communities with countercultural values. Following Bill Cavanaugh (who really ought to be required reading for all Christians), Tom sees this as "eucharistic resistance." (By the way, I've been a big fan of Thom's blog ever since I ran across it. It's prophetic, thoughtful, and technologically hip.)

  • Orthodox priest Father Stephen over at Glory to God for All Things condemns the act of torture as unequivocally contrary to Christian belief, especially when performed in the name of religion. But he makes a distinction between torture and torturer, insisting that while the act is sinful, the agent is never totally removed from contrition and salvation. Father Stephen's point is well worth remembering. Otherwise, it's too easy to demonize torturers, who in their own way are victims too.

  • In Anglican Resistance, Father Bill Carroll offers a hauntingly beautiful sermon-meditation on torture and idolatry. Also influenced by Bill Cavanaugh, Father Carroll argues that the Eucharist is a memorial (in part) of the torturous breaking of a man which in turn restores, rather than destroys, communicants.

  • Two bloggers, Ben Myers from Faith & Theology and Maha from Mahablog, chose to respond to my question with a comment rather than a full post. Since their comments are relatively short, I reproduce them both here.

Ben Myers:

I think the UN Convention Against Torture provides a reliable definition. In general terms, I'd describe torture as the state-sanctioned treatment of detainees in cruel, inhuman or degrading ways.From a human perspective and also from a Christian perspective, it's clear that torture can never be acceptable or justifiable under any circumstances whatsoever. The American theologian George Hunsinger has put it like this: "If torture is not evil, then nothing is evil." I think that sums it up precisely.


For a definition, this is from a dictionary: "Infliction of severe physical pain as a means of coercion or punishment." I would add psychological pain as well, such as by means of sensory deprivation or isolation. Yes, it is immoral. One could make a "greater good" argument--that torture is not immoral if it saves other people--but all objective evidence I know about show that information by torture is nearly always wrong. People torture other people because they want to. They are gratified by it. That's sick.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Torture and the Gaze

On January 12, 1977, Argentine student Alicia Partnoy was "disappeared." Uniformed Army personnel came to her home and whisked her away to a concentration camp named La Escuelita, the Little School. She was a prisoner there for nearly 4 months, and was then transferred to a "regular" prison, where she was held captive for two-and-a-half more years.

The Little School specialized in torture. One of its most destroying rules was that all prisoners had to be blindfolded at all times, 24/7. If a prisoner felt his or her blindfold slipping, a guard had to be summoned to tighten it. Failure to do so brought swift and harsh punishment.
Blindfolding or hooding is a commonplace technique of modern torture. It's been used on both political and criminal prisoners in almost all of the 150-plus countries that have been caught torturing during the last 15 years: in Northern Ireland, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo (although the US Army now "officially" bans hooding, the CIA doesn't), Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, Mexico...the list goes on and on.
The obvious purpose of blindfolding or hooding is to cause psychological distress and physical discomfort. A blinded prisoner is disoriented spatially and temporally, experiences intense isolation, powerlessness, and anxiety, and in general feels utterly vulnerable. Additionally, hooding overheats the prisoner and makes it difficult for him or her to breathe--especially when the hooded head is drenched with multiple buckets of water (a common torture practice, refined recently by the technique of waterboarding).
Blinding tortured prisoners, then, makes them more pliable, less likely to revolt or rebel or resist interrogation. If prisoners are blindfolded around the clock, as at La Escuelita, it also has the bonus of protecting the identity of their tormentors.
But I think there's another reason torturers so frequently cover the eyes of their victims: shame. My guess is that all but the most hardened torturers--and occasionally, perhaps, even them--experience shame at what they do to other human beings. Usually, the shame is repressed, underneath consciousness. Sometimes, perhaps, it comes rushing to the surface, motivating the unexpected and surreal acts of kindness on the part of tormentors that many torture survivors write about: a stick of gum, a loosening of the rope, a murmured word of sympathy.
There's something about the human gaze that's inescapable, isn't there? We look into a human face, we note the vitality of the eyes staring back at us, and we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we stand in the presence of a being--a fellow human--to whom we owe respect and compassion. Her face, her eyes, bore into us, demanding from us an ethical response. Her face, as the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it, traces "where God passes." Regardless of whether one takes Levinas literally or metaphorically, his point is clear: seeing the face of the other puts us in a profoundly ethical space that elicits from us recognition of the other as worthy of our moral consideration. If we fail to live up to this invitation, the other's eyes judge us. So the eyes are the windows of both the other's soul and ours. If we abuse her, we see the silent recrimination in them, and see ourselves as falling morally short. We feel shame. The gaze of the tormented in turn torments us. This may be part of the reason guards can fly into rages when prisoners, refusing to deferentially lower their gaze, stare straight into their eyes.
You don't need to be a philosopher to get the point. All of us have had the unpleasant experience of having to face people to whom we've been unfair or surly--a spouse, a child, a colleague--and we feel ourselves naked and exposed under their gaze. In fact, many of them notice our discomfort, and out of kindness turn their gaze away from us as we stumble through our apologies. Moreover, "conscience" is at least in part a "what if I'm seen by someone" constraint, akin to the uncanny experience of feeling watched ("I feel as if somebody's staring at the back of my head!") when we're doing something we know to be shameful. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who works with the criminally insane, notes that serial killers frequently mutilate the eyes of their victims because they can't stand being "seen" and judged by their victims. If Levinas is correct, all of us desire to avoid the look of the other whom we're mistreating.
Fortunately for our and society's moral health, most of us simply can't avoid the face to face encounter with the other. His or her gaze calls us to account. But torturers can. Torturers can transform persons with reproachful eyes into anonymous mannequins with erased faces. They become less than persons--creatures that no longer eyes that bore into our souls--and can therefore be beaten, mocked, fucked, humiliated, and if necessary killed without the torturer feeling the shame that under normal circumstances would paralyze him. And when the rest of us become bystanders who tolerate the torture of others, we protect ourselves from the gaze by hooding victims with labels: terrorist, scum, fanatic.
Is it any surprise that the hood has become the de facto international symbol for torture?

Torture in the News

Holy Grail of Torture?

The Pentagon is set to start issuing a new nonlethal weapon, the "Active Denial System" (ADS) to troops. ADS is a cutting edge "crowd control" weapon that shoots out millimeter rays (similar to microwaves, but smaller) which penetrate the first 1/64th of an inch of skin. They cause intense pain to the target, but (according to the weapon's developers) no longterm damage. David Hambling, who monitors nonlethal weaponry, worries that there are all sorts of ways--aka torture--that a gizmo like this could be "misused."
(Hat tip to Pandagon)

Fort Bragg Meets Gitmo
There's now some hard evidence to link Fort Bragg's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school and Gitmo. In a document obtained by the ACLU through the Freedom of Information Act, the former chief of interrogation at Gitmo (whose name has been blacked-out) says that his guys and gals were taught interrogation techniques by SERE instructors. This is a big deal, because SERE is a training program in which students (usually Army Rangers) are "captured" and "interrogated" by mock bad guys. The training is supposed to harden up future combat soldiers who one day might be captured by real enemies, and it includes techniques such as sleep deprivation, stress positions, and sexual humiliation. Carol Darby, spokesperson for Fort Bragg's Army Special Ops Command, denies that SERE teaches interrogation techniques, but admits that the SERE school training is "sensitive"--meaning that what goes on in it is secret.
(Hat tip to Salon)

Psychologists Do Their Bit for Freedom
A couple of psychologists working for the CIA and associated with SERE have been teaching how to "reverse-engineer" the "survival skills" taught at SERE--which basically means how to apply what's been learned about how to crack people through torture to the interrogation of "terrorists," "insurgents," and other enemies. Dozens of civilian psychologists have sent an official complaint to the American Psychological Association about the participation of these two members of the profession in "the development and migration of abusive interrogation techniques, techniques which the International Committee of the Red Cross has labeled 'tantamount to torture.'"
(Hat tip again to Salon)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Camel's Nose

Somebody calling himself The Barefoot Bum and describing himself as an "anarcho-humanist" makes some shockingly nonhumanist observations about Muslims. I offer them here to illustrate how even "progressives" can go on rants that demonize their targets and legitimize disdainful attitudes that encourage torture. My bet is that the author of this post doesn't consciously condone torture. But when you characterize an entire group of people as "pedophile worshipers," "genital mutilators," and "hand choppers," you not only drop any pretense of finesse or fairness. (It's reminiscent of Bush's "evil-doer" blanket description, isn't it?) You also invite brutality.
With progressives like this, who needs neo-con imperialists?

Update: A commentator on The Barefoot Bum's red herring response to me complains that I treated The Barefoot Bum unfairly. "[I]t was have so selectively quoted you without a bit more context," he wrote. "She could've at least used a whole sentence." Okay. Below, I quote (with apologies to my readers for assaulting them with this) the concluding paragraphs of The Barefoot Bum's offending post. They're representative of the whole thing.
What's important in all this is not this single ranting post written by a single ranting blogger. What's important is that we now live in a culture that gives moral permission for this kind of vileness to be said publicly and unblushingly. In order for governments to torture with relative impunity, their citizenry must be reshaped to see as acceptable what an earlier generation would've (at least publicly) dismissed as reprehensible. I'll post more on this refashioning of moral constraints next week. But for now, a few "whole sentences."

"Get this straight: Until the vast majority of hand-choppers Muslims drag themselves into the twenty-first century (or even the eighteenth century), we're going to intentionally provoke them and show them disrespect. We're doing this intentionally because the mere existence of this misogynistic, totalitarian, gay-hating culture/religion is an offense against the sensibilities of the civilized world. We'd be just as happy to let the Muslim world rot in peace (keeping the doors of Western society open to anyone who develops that crucial second brain cell and realizes that Islam is a disgusting offense to human decency) until they drown in their own medieval bullshit, but that ain't gonna happen. We can't just cut the world in half. Protest and we'll laugh with glee, because we know we're getting your goat. Act with violence and we'll retaliate. Go to war andwe'll fight back.We're not going back to the ninth century. Period. We're not going back to intolerance, misogyny, sex-hatred, and religiously-mandated stupidity. We're not going to submit. Ever. We won't submit peacefully: You'll have to fight. And if you fight us and [sic] you'll lose: we're stronger and smarter, and you have not even begun to test our will. Mistake civilization and tolerance for softness at your peril. The contemptible slaves that are Muslims have no fucking clue what a free people are capable of."

Hat tip to Siobhan!

Apparently, the House of Representatives Wants Educated Torturers

Last night, the US House defeated the McGovern Amendment to cut funding to the School of the Americas.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that the vote was 209 in favor and 214 against.
So it's Thanksgiving at the gates of Fort Benning once again this year!
Update: Over at Levellers, Michael Westmoreland-White has an excellent post about the vote, complete with a link to the rollcall. Take a look. Contact your representative.

Bloggers on Torture: An Open Invitation

Seems to me that some of the best social, political, philosophical, and religious commentary going these days come from bloggers (okay, a lot of crap comes from bloggers too). So I've been wandering in blogland inviting their thoughts on this question:

"What is torture, and is it necessarily immoral?"

s the responses get posted, I'll link to them here at Death and the Maiden. This is an open invitation, so if I haven't yet got around to writing you a personal note, you shouldn't wait. Post your thoughts, and feel free to pass the invitation on to others. Since the politicians and the professional academics and the media talking heads for the most part don't want to deal with the topic of torture, let's start the conversation ourselves.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Torture as Policy

In a September 2006 interview in the Oval Office, President Bush insists that what the rest of the world is calling "torture" in fact is legal. "What this government has done is to take steps to protect you and your family...Whatever we have done is legal...I'm not going to tell you specifically what's done, because I don't want the enemy to adjust...I'm comfortable the American people understand that..."
Watch the entire interview:

Torture as Porn

Isolation as Torture

"...if you want to erase a man's mind, deprive him of contact with the rest of the world. This has nothing to do with obtaining information: torture of all kinds -- physical or mental -- produces the result that people will say anything to make it end. It is about power, and the thrilling discovery that in the right conditions one man's power over another is unlimited. It is an indulgence which turns its perpetrators into everything they claim to be confronting."

George Monbiot argues that solitary confinement accomplishes the end towards which torturers strive.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Torture Is a Weapon, Not an Interrogation Technique

How often must it be said? Torture isn't an effective interrogation technique. People who think otherwise are just plain wrong. They've been watching too many Diehard movies and 24 episodes. Information gleaned from torture is notoriously unreliable. Either it's fragmentary, or it's dated, or it's fiction.

So why do nations and terrorist groups and prison systems (keep in mind that the vast majority of torture victims are criminal, not political, prisoners) continue to torture? No doubt part of the reason is the mistaken assumption that torture is an efficient intelligence-gathering technique. But the primary reason, as Naomi Klein pointed out a couple of years ago, is intimidation. A nation that tortures sends out a clear signal: don't fuck with us, because we're crazy. We'll strap you down and shove an electric cattle prod up your ass. We're crazy.
Torture is a weapon of deterrence. The government that makes use of it hopes it will terrorize enemies foreign and domestic.

Today's the Day to Shut Down the School of the Americas! PLEASE: Call, Fax, E-mail Your Congressperson!

From SOA WatchUrgent Action Alert! June 20, 2007
Congress Votes on a Funding Cut to the SOA/WHINSEC Today and We are Close to Winning!

Take Action - Call your Representative to ask her/him to
Vote YES on the SOA/WHINSEC Amendment Now!

As early as this afternoon, Representatives Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and John Lewis of Georgia will introduce an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to cut funding for the School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC)! Tomorrow, this weekend, and next week you can relax, but we need you to make calls and send faxes NOW, even if you have already made a call. House Representatives often make decisions based on the volume of calls, so let's all call our Representatives and even call a few more!

The vote will happen today, possibly as late as 9 or 10 p.m. Keep an eye out for another email from SOA Watch - we'll let you know as soon as debate begins. You should be able to view or listen to that House debate on C-Span. (At the bottom of the page, click on "Live Stream")

It's very important that you continue to contact Congress today through telephone calls and faxes to let Members know they have constituents who support human rights and the closing of the SOA/ WHINSEC. See below for a sample script.

It only takes a minute! (Be sure to click the "Send a Fax" box to have the fax sent)Call Congress at 202-224-3121 Now!Please take a few minutes today to call the DC office of your Representative through the Capitol Hill Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Ask to speak with the foreign affairs legislative assistant. Calls to the DC office of your Representative are the most effective tool to make sure your voice is heard this week, so please take the time to call your Representative! We are hearing that the volume of calls you are making is overloading the House Switchboard number so if you cannot get through, please call their office directly. You can look up their phone number by accessing the Clerk of the House phone directory and note that all phone numbers have a "202" area code. Keep the calls coming and make a call every few hours before the vote happens on Wednesday afternoon!!!Here is a suggested message for you to convey:

"I am calling Representative ________ to urge her/him to vote YES on the McGovern amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. This amendment is a cut in funding for the School of the Americas/ WHINSEC. New information indicates that WHINSEC has allowed known human rights abusers to instruct and receive training at the school. The governments of Costa Rica, Argentina and Uruguay have made public announcements they will no longer send students to the school, citing the negative image and history of this institution. Voting YES on this amendment sends a positive human rights message to Latin America and will help to improve the U.S. image abroad. As an elected official in Washington D.C., I hope you will represent me and vote YES on any amendment in the House that would cut funding for the school."

It's been a year since our last vote in Congress, and it's the work of so many people struggling for justice in the Americas that has gotten us to where we are today.

DON'T SLOW DOWN NOW! We are so close.

Torture in the News

Seymour Hirsch explains how trying to investigate torture at Abu Ghraib killed the career of a U.S. Army general.

A recent LA Times editorial asks: Will the CIA continue to subject prisoners to what President Bush demurely calls "alternative" interrogation techniques that may border on torture?"

Mark Danner reflects on the rhetoric of torture.

Freshman Senator (D-OH) Sherrod Brown regrets voting last year to approve the Military Commissions Act, or Torture Bill.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Seriously: It's Time to Shut Down the School of the Assassins

Once again, US Rep. James P. McGovern is trying to push through federal legislation that will close the notorious School of the Americas (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, in a clumsy bureaucratic attempt to salvage its reputation). The School of the Americas, located at Georgia's Fort Benning, has been training thugs for a couple of generations now in the fine art of "enhanced interrogation." Its graduates have gone on to man death squads and torture teams throughout Central and South America, and now the Middle East.
Please click here to send your congressperson a letter urging him or her to support McGovern's latest effort to close down this horrible place. Its existence is just one more example of state-sponsored--and tax-funded--torture.

Torture & Property Rights

If we listen to the testimony of torture survivors, remarkable patterns emerge. It makes no difference if the setting is in Asia, the Americas, Europe, or Africa: torturers frequently refer to their victims as "property." "Nobody knows where you are. You've been disappeared. Even God doesn't know where you are. You belong to us now. You're ours!"

I was reminded of this again by SteveG, who operates an interesting blog called Philosophers' Playground. Yesterday, SteveG asked his readers what they thought of a passage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government that bestows property rights on anyone who manipulates natural resources. For example, hunters have a natural right to their quarry because (1) they've taken great pains to bag it, and (2) the quarry, in its "natural state," is common--that is, no one's possession--and thus rightfully belongs to anyone willing to exert himself. Here's the full passage SteveG quotes:
Thus this law of reason makes the deer that Indian's who hath killed it; it is allowed to be his goods, who hath bestowed his labour upon it, though before it was the common right of every one. And amongst those who are counted the civilized part of mankind, who have made and multiplied positive laws to determine property, this original law of nature, for the beginning of property, in what was before common, still takes place; and by virtue thereof, what fish any one catches in the ocean, that great and still remaining common of mankind; or what ambergrise any one takes up here, is by the labour that removes it out of that common state nature left it in, made his property, who takes that pains about it. And even amongst us, the hare that any one is hunting, is thought his who pursues her during the chase: for being a beast that is still looked upon as common, and no man's private possession; whoever has employed so much labour about any of that kind, as to find and pursue her, has thereby removed her from the state of nature, wherein she was common, and hath begun a property.
Now, I'm certainly no philosopher, and I have only a laymaiden's acquaintance with Locke. But this passage got me thinking about the torturer's claim to "own" his victim. At first glance, it seems both preposterous and wicked: preposterous because human beings aren't raw material for the taking. Individuals "own" themselves. They have exclusive property rights over their own destinies; wicked, because it treats individuals as if they were objects, thereby violating their autonomy.
But from the torturer's perverse perspective, an appeal to Locke's claim makes good sense. People are common property, there for the plucking by any authority or state with the gumption to take them and mold them into good, productive commodities--or, er, "citizens." They are raw material which become state property when the state goes to the labor of manipulating them for the "common good"--security, harmony, peace, strength, power, and so on. Most of the raw material is tractable and easily manipulated by conventional means such as the media and public education. But some of it is resistant. That's where the peculiar skills of the torturer come in. He's a specialist. It's his job to fashion recalcitrant raw human material into something that's of value to the authority or state for which he works. When he does this, acting as he does as an agent of the state, he exercises a vicarious ownership over the raw material his labor is malforming. He is, if you will, a steward.
The curious thing, though, is that the way in which the torturer adds value to and establishes ownership over the raw material he works with is by destructing it. Physical and psychological fragmentation, erosion of will, breaking of the spirit, and haunting of the memory are the means by which the commodity he hopes to end up with--an utterly compliant "citizen" whose wraith-like presence in the general public is an uncanny and unsettling warning to others--comes off the assembly line.
Photo credit: George Segal, "The Tunnel"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Torture Fucking

Torture is a caricature of the everyday world. Everything in the world of torture gets inverted. A coerced confession of something you didn't do becomes truth. Guilt rather than innocence becomes the normative presumption. Torturers become heroes, because they do what they do to protect the rest of us. The tortured become villains, either because they're guilty (the normative presumption) or because, if "exonerated" and released, they are unwelcome reminders of something dark and dirty we don't want to think about. Their sheer presence haunts us.

One of the most troubling caricatures in the world of torture centers around intimacy. The language and act of physical love are twisted into the language of brutality and agonizing, humiliating physical treatment. Torture victims are inflicted with overt sexual abuse--cattle prods up the anus, gang-rape, sodomization--or more vaguely threatened with tough guy sexual metaphors--"we're going to fuck you up real good."
And the threats are, generally, good. Women and men--but especially women--are repeatedly raped and sodomized with both male penises and inanimate objects. Prisoners are bound in sexually humiliating positions. Algerian prisoners tortured in Paris in 1958, for example, were regularly "spitted": wrists bound to ankles, a metal bar behind knees, ass-up (and vulnerable), suspended in mid-air. "We're going to test your blood pressure before buggering you," one of them was told by a torturer.[1]
Torturers, like perverse lovers, pay special attention to the genitalia, especially when shocking their victims. Ostensibly, this is because the genitals are especially sensitive to pain. But there are other parts of the body just as easily hurt. Attention to the genitals is obsessional with torturers. It's fueled by a far deeper motive than maximizing pain.
Prisoners who escape physical rape are often psychically raped through sexual humiliation. The Abu Ghraib revelations of coerced simulations of coitus and sodomy among prisoners, panties draped over prisoners' heads, female guards mockingly grabbing prisoners' penises or baring their breasts: the foreplay, the cocktease, the 2nd base, of torture. Argentine torture survivor Jacobo Timerman recalls that prisoners were often forced to shout "I masturbate!" [2]
Incredibly, favored prisoners are sometimes offered sex as rewards for their cooperation or as bizarre gestures of pity. Timerman remembers an occasion when he received such an invitation from a "benevolent" guard: "Everything about him transmits generosity...He tells me there are some female prisoners on the grounds, if I'd care to go to bed with one of them. I tell him no. This gets him angry because he wants to help me and, by not allowing him to, I upset his plan."[3] Another Argentine survivor, Mario Villani, tells a similar story. One of his guards thought he was sweet on a female prisoner--"Skinny, you like the blond, don't you?"--and arranged for the two to be together in the same cell for an entire night.[4]
How to understand this?
At one level, what comes into play is the raw energy that torture can stir up in the torturer. The torturer realizes that the person before him--a person who may be sexually desirable but totally beyond the torturer's range of partners in the normal world--is utterly powerless, utterly his to do with what he will. Juvenile sexual fantasties of fucking whoever one wants to fuck are suddenly thrust into the realm of live possibility. Faces and limbs contorted in agony resemble ones contorted in ecstacy. Radical vulnerability and imagined invitation: one needn't be a de Sade to find these potent motivators. Roberto, the torturer in Ariel Dorman's play Death and the Maiden, describes the fascination that eventually leads to his rape of torture victims:
How much can this woman take? More than the other one? How's her sex? Does her sex dry up when you put the current through her? Can she have an orgasm under those circumstances? She is entirely in your power, you can carry out all your fantasies, you can do what you want with her...Everything they have forbidden you since ever, whatever your mother ever urgently whispered you were never to do. You begin to dream with her, with all those women... [5]
But of course a torturer never "makes love" with his victims. He always "fucks" them. The etymology of the word "fuck" is ambiguous, but two of its uses, current up through the 17th century, were "to strike" and "to penetrate." Fucking someone is assaulting them, invading their body, entering and conquering them. Bedroom talk between genuine intimates sometimes uses this assaultive language as harmless turn-ons: "Fuck me hard!" But in the lexicon of the torturer, the striking, penetrative function is taken with deadly seriousness.
This is because the torturer really is out to conquer the victim. Physical brutality is one of his tools. Psychical dismemberment and abject humiliation are two more. And sexual mastery is an especially effective way to accomplish all these goals. Kate Millet:
Torture is conquest through irresistible force. It is to destroy opposition through causing it to destroy itself: in despair, in self-hatred for its own vulnerability, impotence. It is to defile, degrade, overwhelm with shame, to ravage. In this it resembles rape. And the tortured come to experience not only the condition of the animal caged by man, but the predicament of woman before man as well. A thing male prisoners discover, a thing female prisoners rediscover. Torture is based upon traditional ideas of domination: patriarchal order and masculine rank. The sexual is invoked to emphasize the power of the tormentor, the vulnerability of the victim; sexuality itself is confined inside an ancient apprehension and repression: shame, sin, weakness. The victim tortured sexually is tortured twice as it were, first by being deliberately harmed, second by being harmed in a way regarded as the most humiliating of all humiliations. [6]
From the torturer's perspective, perhaps the most ironic inversion of physical love is this: that the body which the genuine lover wishes only to please becomes one which the torturer-lover wishes only to fuck and thereby turn into yet another instrument with which to torture the victim.
[1] The Gangrene, trans. Robert Silvers (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1960), p. 79.
[2] Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, trans. Toby Talbot (New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1981), p. 83.
[3] Ibid., p. 40.
[4] Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 79.
[5] Ariel Dorman, Death and the Maiden (New York: Penguin, 1991), pp. 59, 60.
[6] Kate Millet, "The Politics of Cruelty," in William F. Schulz (ed), The Phenomenon of Torture: Readings and Commentary (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1007), p. 165.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Ethical Test of Our Time: How Will We Respond?

There are certain issues that serve as ethical and religious tests for each generation. Torture is our test now, here, in the United States. How we respond to it will reveal a great deal about who we actually are.

Of course our government has sanctioned torture for years now. The sorry existence of the School of the Americas testifies to that. But the torture was clandestine, under the radar, inaccessible to average citizens.
Abu Ghraib changed all that. Now everyone in the country knows that our government tortures (although "torture" now becomes "enhanced interrogation techniques") or outsources torture ("extraordinary rendition"), and this knowledge demands a moral decision from us. Neither a plea of ignorance nor fence-sitting is an option. As individuals and as a society, we're called forth to respond to the test.
One step--a necessary but not sufficient step--is to demand that presidential aspirants respond to these five questions from Human Rights First:

5 Key Questions for Presidential Candidates

1. Do you think it should ever be lawful for American personnel to subject prisoners to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment?

2. President Bush is reportedly going to issue an Executive Order shortly that will lay out the permissible interrogation techniques for CIA intelligence operations. What standards do you believe the Executive Order should adhere to?

3. Do you believe that the United States should engage in the kidnapping and transfer of individuals to the custody of other governments for interrogation? What if there is a substantial risk those prisoners will be tortured?

4. The Military Commissions Act suspends the statutory right to habeas corpus for those battlefield captives detained as enemy combatants. What is your view of this provision?

5. If you were elected President tomorrow, what orders would you give your Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State regarding the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Forgotten Case of Torture: La gangrene

A couple of weeks ago I ran across a reference to an obscure book that's been out of print for a generation. The book, La gangrene, was originally published in France in June, 1959. It collects the accounts of seven Algerians tortured by Paris DST (Direction de surveillance territoire) police (The DST is roughly analogous to the FBI.) The prisoners were abused in late 1958 in a police building less than 300 yards from Paris' Elysee Palace, the French White House.
The De Gaulle government, which claimed that the book was "a tissue of lies and Communist propaganda," confiscated all unsold copies of La gangrene four days after its publication. Three days later, the French cops smashed the plates, preventing the publication of a second edition. Still, over 30,000 copies of the book had sold in less than two days, and the book was later reprinted in journals such as Jean-Paul Sartre's Les temps modernes. But the furor died down quickly, and today the story told in La gangrene is all but forgotten.

An English translation of La gangrene--The Gangrene--appeared in 1960, published by an alternative and obscure press. I located a copy through an internet secondhand book dealer. When it arrived yesterday in the original dust cover, it looked virtually unread. The pages were yellowed and a bit brittle, but otherwise the book was in mint condition.
Sad. Because this suggests that the story of the horrible tortures committed in the heart of Paris in December 1958 went virtually unnoticed on our side of the Atlantic. If things had gone otherwise, if the firsthand accounts of torture documented in The Gangrene had received more attention, perhaps a revulsion against torture might've been generated in this country that could've forestalled US torture in Vietnam, SOA-linked torture in Central America, and the current round of enhanced interrogations, unlawful imprisonments, and outsourced torture in the war against terrorism.
Some background: between 1954 and 1962, Algeria, then a French colony, waged a war of independence largely spearheaded by the FLN, the Front de liberation nationale. As the war escalated, the Algerian nationalists painted the French as oppressors and fascists, and the French painted the Algerians as terrorists. Both sides appear to have committed atrocities at times. The Algerians bombed civilian targets, not only to intimidate the French but also to eliminate rival liberation factions (the so-called cafe wars). The French tortured suspects and engineered the infamous 1961 Paris Massacre.
Racist-based dislike of dark-skinned North Africans, coupled with the panic generated of a society that believes itself under the treat of terrorist attack and the anger fueled by war, weakened the French body politic, making it susceptible to the gangrene of torture.
The victims whose testimony is collected in The Gangrene were Mustapha Francis, 29, a dental student; Benaissa Souami, 27, a political science student; Abd el Kader Belhadj, 31, a science student; Moussa Khebaili, 26, a student in the School of Public Works; Bechir Boumaza, 31, a salesman; Ali Hadj, 42, a journalist; and Khider Seghir, 25, a pharmaceutical assistant. Rounded up separately, they were all accused of membership in the FLN, which French authorities had designated a terrorist organization. They were taken to DST Headquarters on the rue de Saussaies for questioning.
While in the hands of the DST, the prisoners were systematically beaten with repeated kicks and punches, particularly in the region of the abdomen; forced to perform exhausting physical exercises, and then beaten when they reached the point of collapse; suspended horizontally on a spit and tortured with electric shock, especially on the genitalia; waterboarded in a mixture of urine and vomit; tied to hot radiators; threatened with death and sexual abuse; and forced to sign pre-written confessions. Two of them required extensive hospitalization afterwards.
The seven men subsequently filed a civil suit against the DST Director, accusing him of "complicity in inficting beatings and wounds." As of the 1960 publication of the English translation of their story, none of them had been given his day in court.
One of the legal machinations that led to the abuse of the Algerian men ought to give citizens in the United States special pause for thought. A special powers act was legislated in October 1958 that suspended Articles 63 and 64 of the French Code of Penal Procedure for prisoners suspected of terrorist connections. These articles basically correspond to the English common law right of habeas corpus. The special powers act permited terrorist suspects to be held at specified domiciles for indefinite periods of time, and then astoundingly designated police buildings in which suspects are interrogated as "specified domiciles." This legalized the fog-and-night disappearance of French political prisoners, much as American ones are today disappeared in Gitmo and elsewhere.
Benaissa Souami describes in The Gangrene one of the tactics he used to get through his torture: "I constantly repeated to myself that one can be covered with filth and yet remain clean." Would that societies that sanction torture could say the same.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The First Blow Changes Everything - Jean Amery on Torture

Why is torture so abominable? One of the standard responses is that it denies human dignity. But torture survivor Jean Amery tells us that he doesn't know what the expression "human dignity" means. He does know, however, that the first blow forever changes the torture victim's world. His attempt to make sense of his own experience in At the Mind's Limits* is one of the most sensitive and insightful treatments of torture I know. Amery was a Viennese Jew (his birth name was Hans Mayer; he changed it after WWII to dissociate himself from all things German) who was arrested by the Gestapo in the summer of 1943 because of his involvement in the Belgian Resistance. He was taken to Breendonk, an old fortress near Antwerp that had been commandeered by the SS, and questioned under torture. Eventually he was sent to Auschwitz.
Generally, says Amery, we relentlessly cerebral humans tend to filter and codify even everyday experiences and events through abstractions. "Only in rare moments of life do we truly stand face to face with the event and, with it, reality." Torture is one of those moments. Torture, from the Latin torquere, "to twist," wrenches the victim out of the world of safe abstraction and hurtles him into brutal reality.
In that malformative moment, the victim begins the devolution from person to body. There occurs a "border violation of self by the other which can be neither neutralized by the expectation of help nor rectified through resistance." The boundaries of my body, asserts Amery, are also the boundaries of my self. "My skin surface shields me against the external world." So long as other people respect my body boundaries, my self likewise experiences itself as autonomous.
But when my body is attacked--and, furthermore, when I have neither the ability to defend myself nor any expectation of help from another person--then my self is attacked. The torturer "forces his own corporeality on me... He is on me and thereby destroys me. It is like a rape, a sexual act without the consent of one of the two partners." The other becomes "absolute sovereign" with the power "to inflict suffering and destroy," and the victim becomes nothing but hurting body, agonized flesh. "Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete. Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing else beside that."
In the brutal experience of being tortured, the victim collapses under the weight of desolate isolation, hopelessness, helplessness, and physical pain that reduces him to quivering flesh. There is no future, no chance of reprieve or rescue, no familiar landmark in this utterly foreign land that's beyond the mind's limits. Torture robs the victim of "trust in the world," the certainty that his self is inviolate and that others will respect the boundaries of his self.
Once lost, this fundamental trust in the world can never be regained. Torture, says Amery, has an "indelible character. Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him," and he will live forever in astonishment at a world in which some people boundlessly assert themselves by reducing others to body. "With the first blow from a policeman's fist, against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived."
Jean Amery killed himself in 1978, 35 years after the first blow that shattered his world.
*All quotations used here are taken from the essay "Torture" in Amery's book.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Torturer's Theme Song

(hummed softly as blows fall and bones break)
Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it's lonely here,
there's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that's an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that's left
and stuff it up the hole
in your culture
Give me back the Berlin wall
give me Stalin and St Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned the order of the soul
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
When they said REPENT REPENT
I wonder what they meant
From Leonard Cohen's "The Future"