Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Until Next Week...

Dear Friends: The Maiden is traveling, and will post no new messages until early next week.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Torture, Ticking Time Bombs, and the Part of the Report that WAS Read

A clumsy way to do ethics is to take the worst case scenario and use it as raw material from which to manufacture ethical strategies. I remember one or two (thankfully, not more) of my ethics professors doing this in my college days. Your mother is being attacked by a crazed rapist. You have a gun in your hand. What ought you to do? or You have the opportunity to assassinate Hitler. Should you go for it?

Worst case scenarios (or thought experiments, as the professional philosophers like to call them) are bad ways of doing ethics for the obvious reason that they're so unlikely. I suppose it's possible that someone could try to rape your mother in front of your eyes, or that you might have the opportunity to assassinate a meglomaniac dictator, but the chances are against it. So why use such scenarios as test cases? Far better to generate ethical principles and moral strategies from realworld scenarios.

Much of the torture debate in North America (but not so much elsewhere) either explicitly assumes or has in the back of its mind a worst case scenario: the ticking time bomb. A weapon of mass destruction has been planted in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Authorities have captured the terrorist who knows the WMD's precise location and the exact time of its detonation. May they torture him to save hundreds of thousands of lives? Put in less Hollywoodish terms, the scenario is one that stresses urgency: may we torture someone to prevent an imminent disaster from befalling innocent people?

History has shown that this is an unlikely situation. There is no known actual ticking bomb torture case. These sorts of things may happen on shows like "24," but not in real life. The intelligence that interrogatory torture obtains is generally (a) unreliable, (2) small change of little importance, or (3) already known for the most part by the torturers. And as this blog has documented over and over, most torture isn't interrogatory anyway. Its purpose is to punish, to intimidate, and to assert authority. It's these types of situations, not improbable ticking bomb scenarios, that ought to be the test cases when debating the ethics of torture.

Now, I raise this obvious point because the 2004 Schlesinger Report on torture, which I introduced in an earlier post, discusses torture and morality exclusively in terms of the ticking bomb scenario in a brief Appendix H. The analysis is astoundingly simplistic. "Most cases for permitting harsh treatment of detainees on moral grounds begins with variants of the 'ticking time bomb' scenario," write the Report's authors. The reader's expectation is that this is a preliminary to taking a different, more fruitful approach. But the expectation is quickly disappointed, because the authors slide right into a strangely coy justification of torture from a ticking bomb perspective--as if no other torture scenarios either exist or are worth considering.

In a stressful ticking bomb scenario, the Report continues, it's understandable that military personnel would be tempted to use torture. But "a morally consistent approach...would be recognize there are occasions when violating norms is understandable but not necessarily correct." So if a soldier indeed does step over the line, he or she must do the honorable thing and turn themselves in to their superiors.

Huh? What this amounts to is: if you torture, be sure to do the right thing afterwards. What about doing the torture itself?! Here it is: military professionals much "accept the reality" that in some situations "morally appropriate methods to preserve...lives may not be obvious." "The tension between military necessity and our values will remain."

So, it appears that the prevention of torture isn't a priority for the Schlesinger Report, perhaps because it thinks of torture only as a desperate attempt to forestall absolute calamity. The problem, of course, is that "absolute calamity" is a relative term, and what seems calamitous to one interrogator may not at all seem so to another. The give-away is the Report's use of the term "military necessity." This is a weasel expression that can be used to justify nearly anything.

Perhaps the most ominous line in the whole Report is this: "National security is an obligation of the state, and therefore the work of interrogators carries a moral justification." But it's not entirely clear if this means that interrogators ought not to torture because such behavior would reflect badly on the state, or if torture is ethically permissible because interrogators are working to preserve the state. Given that the Report identifies the necessity for torture with ticking bomb scenarios, thereby implying that torture only occurs in situations of immediate and horrible urgency, the latter interpretation seems most appropriate.


Friday, July 27, 2007

Torture, Moral Disengagement, and the Report That Wasn't Read

I've been re-reading the Schlesinger Report lately.

You remember the Report, right? It came out in August 2004, and was a document submitted by "The Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations." This panel, commissioned by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was chaired by ex-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger (an old pal of Rummy). Also on the panel were ex-Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (ditto), Republican hawk and Rumsfeld advisor Tillie Fowler, and retired Air Force general and Desert Storm veteran Charles Horner. (With four military insiders like these, the "independent" part of "Independent Panel" obviously is loosely-defined.)
The Independent Panel's charge was to "provide independent professional advice on detainee abuses [at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and Afghanistan], what caused them and what actions should be taken to preclude their repetition." Its final report pretty much repeats the Bush Administration's line: abuses are the actions of lone rangers, not the consequences of policy.
Nothing much new or interesting there.
What is interesting are two appendices to the report: Appendix G, "Psychological Stresses [contributing to torture]" and Appendix H, "Ethical Issues [of torture]." Study of the first appendix suggests that administrative officials have astoundingly little self-insight. Study of the second one suggests that they flunked Ethics 101.
Let's look at Appendix G today, and save Appendix H for tomorrow.
In Appendix G, the Report's authors appeal to social psychologist Phillip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment as well as one of Albert Bandura's studies of moral disengagement to come up with a list of behaviors that discourage "normal self-regulatory mechanisms" and encourage "abusive treatment and similar immoral behaviors."
Two of these behaviors are especially descriptive of persons who actually perform torture: displacement of responsibility ("I was just following orders") and diffusion of responsibility (groupthink). But the other five are descriptive of apparatchiks who give the orders to torture but don't actually participate: moral justification (torture is justifiable if it serves a social good); euphemistic language (avoid "torture"; substitute benign expressions like "enhanced interrogation"); advantageous comparison (torture really isn't so bad compared to what terrorists do) ; disregard consequences of actions (minimize torture by attributing it to lone rangers and bad apples, not policy); and attribution of blame (torture victims are terrorists, and bring their suffering on themselves).
These behaviors create moral disengagement by downplaying torture on the one hand--using euphemistic substitutes, pointing the finger, if a public scandal erupts, at bad apples, making lop-sided comparisons between torture and terrorism--and emphasizing its importance on the other by creating a climate of crisis--torture is necessary to protect the common good, the horrible plans of terrorists have to be discovered before they can be carried out, and so on. This much is easy to understand. You don't need to have studied social psychology to see how this kind of thinking and speaking creates moral distance between "us" and "them."
What's truly incredible, though, is how the current administration, despite the caution about morally disengaging behavior in one of its own officially commissioned reports, continues to indulge in such behavior. In just the last ten days, with the publication of the new Executive Order on interrogation of detainees, President Bush and the White House have insisted that the US doesn't "torture," but only "interrogates," thereby also implying that any "torture" that takes place must be the behavior of bad apples; insinuated that enhanced interrogation--not "torture," mind you--is necessary to protect US citizens from 9/11-like attacks; and stirred up anger and fear by emphasizing the brutality and determination of the "enemy," thereby suggesting that US interrogation tactics are really pretty tame in comparison. We're the good guys--so good that even when we interrogate in ways that might appear torturous, we're not. Besides, they're the bad guys--so even if we do torture them (which we don't, by the way), they deserve it, because they'd do worse to us if they could.
Appendix G of the Schlesinger Report concludes with the warning that this kind of rhetoric, if tolerated, carries a "higher risk of moral disengagement on the part of those in power and, in turn, are likely to lead to abusive behaviors."
Did anyone in the White House actually read the Report?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Torture, US-Style: Slip-Ups in Mike McConnell's "Meet the Press" Interview

You'd think a National Intelligence Director would be a little more discrete. But the revelations about torture that Mike McConnell let slip last Sunday on "Meet the Press" are such that he's probably had his lips sewn shut this week. Or at least he might've, if the US public gave a shit about what he said. So far, there's been remarkably little flap, and almost all of it comes from the marginalized independent media that don't reach especially large audiences anyway. Yet McConnell said several things that ought to be red flags. None of them is brandnew information, true. But the fact that they were confirmed on national television by the US intelligence czar is sobering.
Admiral McConnell, who after all is new on the job and so not yet adept in spin, was asked by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert to comment on The Decider's "new" policy on torture. Here's the pertinent section of the interview (the entire transcript can be read here):

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the executive order the president issued about enhanced interrogation measures. What does that allow a CIA-held target—what kind of measures can they use to get information from them?
Admiral McCONNELL: Well, Tim, as you know, I can’t discuss specific measures. A variety of reasons for that. One, if I, if I announce what the specific measures are, it would, it would aid those who want to resist those measures, measures to train to understand them and so on. So I won’t be too specific. Let, let me, let me go back to a higher calling in this context. The United States does not engage in torture. President’s been very clear about that. This executive order spells it out. There are means and methods to conduct interrogation that will result in information that we need. And what I would highlight, I was, I was concerned and worried and quite frankly appalled by Abu Ghraib. My view was America risked losing the moral high ground. And so I focused on this when I came back. What I can report to you is that was an aberration. The people who were responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib have been held accountable, and, and they’re serving a sentence for that. That is not the program the CIA was administering. It is not the program that the president approved in the recent executive order.
MR. RUSSERT: But by the use of the term “enhanced interrogation measures,” there clearly are things that are used to elicit information. Have we eliminated waterboarding? Can you confirm that?
Admiral McCONNELL: I would rather not be specific on eliminating exactly what the techniques are with regard to any, any specific. When I was in a situation where Ihad to sign off, as a member of the process, my name to this executive order, I sat down with those who had been trained to do it, the doctors who monitor it, understanding that no one is subjected to torture. They’re, they’re treated in a way that they have adequate diet, not exposed to heat or cold. They’re not abused in any way. But I did understand, when exposed to the techniques, how they work and why they work, all under medical supervision. And one of the things that’s very important, I think, for the American public to know, in the history of this program, it’s been fewer than 100 people. And so this, this is a program where we capture someone known to be a terrorist, we need information that they possess, and it has saved countless lives. Because, because they believe these techniques might involve torture and they don’t understand them, they tend to speak to us, talk to us in very—a very candid way.
MR. RUSSERT: Does this new executive order allow measures that if were used against a U.S. citizen who was apprehended by the enemy would be troubling to the American people?
Admiral McCONNELL: I can report to you that it’s not torture.
MR. RUSSERT: How do you fine—define torture?
Admiral McCONNELL: Well, torture is—an attempt to define torture in the, in the executive order, it gives examples: mutilation or murder or rape or physical pain, those kinds of things. Let me just leave it by saying the, the techniques work, it’s not torture. They’re not subjected to heat or cold, but it is effective. And it’s a psychological approach to causing someone to have uncertainty and in a situation where they will feel compelled to talk to you about what you’re asking about.
MR. RUSSERT: And we would find it acceptable if a U.S. citizen experienced the same kind of enhanced interrogation measures?
Admiral McCONNELL: Tim, it’s not torture. I would not want a U.S. citizen to go through the process, but it is not torture, and there would be no permanent damage to that citizen.
Now, take a look at some of the extraordinary assertions/admissions in the transcript.

  • What isn't said by McConnell is much more revealing than what is said. He can't discuss specific interrogatory techniques--he won't even deny, when asked pointblank, that waterboarding is one of them--but he asks viewers to accept on trust that the US government follows a "higher calling" and so doesn't torture. Enhanced interrogation, the going euphemism, doesn't include, per The Decider's newest Executive Order, murder (whoever said that murder was a torture technique, anyway?), mutilation, rape, or physical pain (this an benignly stretched version of the Executive Order's "cruel or inhuman treatment"), sexual degradation, or religious denigration. But McConnell knows, The Decider knows, and Jane and John Q. Citizen know, that there's a lot of space in between these categories for some down-and-dirty torture. So there's a unsettling coyness to McConnell's remarks. His claim of clean hands is transparently false, and he doesn't seem to care.
  • Perhaps he doesn't care in part because at least some US torture is terroristic, as he let slip. State-sponsored torture generally comes in two varieties: interrogatory and terroristic. The purpose of the first is, obviously, to gather intelligence. The purpose of the second is to terrorize potential dissenters or enemies with the threat of torture: If you cross us, this is what we'll do to you. That the US uses torture as a terroristic deterrent comes across clearly in McConnell's remarks: torture doesn't work unless not-yet-captured detainees are convinced that horrible things will be done to them unless they cooperate.
  • McConnell insists that whenever the US government appears to get caught torturing, it's really a few bad apples, like the ones at Abu Ghraib, who are responsible. Does anyone really believe this anymore? Yet apparently the US government works under the assumption that a lie told often enough becomes truth.
  • McConnell admits that the US practices "white torture," the brutal psychological malfiguration favored by nations like Iran, and speaks as if this is a humane alternative to old-fashioned physical torture. Something sinister seems to be going on with the administration's latest understanding of torture: if you don't physically touch 'em, it ain't torture. This isn't to say that there's not one helluva lot of physical touching going on--waterboarding, for example--but the denial that white torture techniques are real torture is alarming, bespeaking either egregious stupidity or equally egregious malevolence.
  • McConnell says on more than one occasion that torture is practiced under "medical supervision." Extraordinary! Medical doctors, who presumably have taken the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm," are overseeing the abuse of prisoners. When German doctors or Chilean doctors or Russian doctors similarly supervised torture, the US denounced them as monsters. Why isn't McConnell's admission front page headlines across the nation? Why has it gone almost unnoticed?
  • Finally, McConnell admits that even interrogatory torture is more often a fishing expedition than a focused intelligence-gathering. There's a big difference between the two. In the latter, the torturer goes after the answer to a specific question. Theoretically, at least, when the answer is gotten, the torture ends. But torture as a fishing expedition has no specific goal. The torturer inflicts pain just to see what might bob up to the surface. Since there's no focused goal, there's no anticipated end to the torture. Prisoners can be fished again and again and again. Detainees held at Gitmo are such fish.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Torturers as Dementors

While watching the opening scene of the latest Harry Potter film in which dementors attack Harry and his Muggle cousin Dudley, it occurred to me that J.K. Rowling's horrific dementors are a perfect literary metaphor for torturers.
Dementors are malevolent wraiths who specialize in "malfiguring" their victims by destroying minds and souls. They rob them of their good will, their virtue, their very identities, leaving them mindless and spiritless shells. Rowling herself says that Dementors suck out hope and leave in its place a "deadened feeling." Dementors are incapable of empathy, compassion, or warmth. Tormented by their own nothingness, they are nothing but voracious hungers incessantly driven to feed off of the vitality others.

They are torturers.

Torture in the News

Top Story

July 20. President Bush issues new Executive Order that continues the policy of allowing torture just so long as it's called something else in public (text); the White House issues a statement (text) that insists on the usefulness of torture, even though the White House also insists that al Qaida is growing; and a White House press conference on the EO follows (text) in which Senior Administration Officials demonstrate that it is indeed possible to speak for an entire half hour without actually saying anything. The civilized world recoils in horror. Two days later, National Intelligence czar Mike McConnell repeats the refrain on "Meet the Press": "I would not want a US citizen to go through [the approved interrogation techniques]. But it is not torture, and there would be no permanent damage to that citizen." A small percentage of the US public sputters in disheartened protest for approximately 98 seconds, after which business as usual resumes.

Other Stories

  • Torture in Uganda. Activists cite torture as the number one human rights abuse in Uganda. Report to be released next month. Majority of reported cases attributed to national security forces.
  • Tortured Confessions. The six medics, 5 Bulgarians and 1 Palestinian, released after a decade in Libyan prisons, reported that their "confessiona" of infecting Libyan children with HIV were made under torture. All six endured electric shock and beatings. There are also allegations of rape.
  • A World Without Torture. Yemen editor Yusra Al-Shathli opines that the "human soul is too precious and sensitive to be subjected to torture." A courageous stand, considering Yemen's torture record.
  • Madison, WI, Apparently Secedes from the US. The Madison Impeachment Coalition, obviously separating itself form the rest of the nation, protests state-sponsored torture.
  • Police Torture. Pakistan cops apparently tortured 5 boys to death. The lads, aged 7 to 15, had been picked up for petty theft. Most torture in the world is perpetrated against criminal suspects, not political prisoners.
  • Conservative Christians & Torture. Four months ago, the National Association of Evangelicals endorsed a statement calling for an end to torture. Religious columnist Peter Steinfels wonders why it's caused no buzz.
  • Force Feedings at Gitmo. Two Gitmo prisoners, Abdul Rahman Shalabi and Zaid Salim Zuhair Ahmed, continue their hunger strike, and are force-fed by US military.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Un-Long-term Effects of Un-Torture (which, according to Mr. McConnell, we STILL don't want to inflict on US citizens)

Yesterday I reported Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell's bizarre (and breathless) "Meet the Press" string of claims that the US (1) doesn't use torture on detainees, that (2) he wouldn't like to see the untorture the US inflicts on foreign detainees inflicted on US citizens, and (3) but if it were, there'd be no permanent or longterm effects anyway. (As a sidenote: presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who never met an enhanced interrogation technique he didn't like, thinks The Decider's newly-released Executive Order on torture, the immediate reason for McConnell's TV appearance, is just peachy.)

Anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that the first and third claims made by McConnell are falsehoods (see this, for example), suggesting that he either knows nothing about torture or is lying. I'll take him at his word on the second claim, although history clearly shows that states which torture gradually extend the circle of those who are considered torturable.
Physicians for Human Rights has just released an executive summary of a forthcoming "Report on Criminality of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," co-authored with Human Rights First. The entire summary is worth reading. One section in particular speaks to McConnell's idiotic claims:

"Medical literature clearly establishes that tactics such as the CIA’s reported “enhanced interrogation techniques cause the types of physical and mental anguish that are criminalized under the WCA and other laws. In a letter sent to Senator John McCain during the height of the MCA debate, several leading medical and psychological experts, including current and past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, conveyed this collective knowledge:

There must be no mistake about the brutality of the “enhanced interrogation methods” reportedly used by the CIA. Prolonged sleep deprivation, induced hypothermia, stress positions, shaking, sensory deprivation and overload, and water-boarding (which may still be authorized), among other reported techniques, can have a devastating impact on the victim’s physical and mental health.

The pain and suffering arising from the individual and combined use of water-boarding, hitting, induced hypothermia, prolonged bombardment with loud music and flashing lights, stress positions, total and long-term isolation, and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques is directly related to the purpose of these techniques: to “break” detainees, mentally and physically. The medical consequences of such abuse have been well-documented through years of research and treatment of survivors of violence and severe trauma.

Some of the enhanced techniques, particularly water-boarding, hitting, induced hypothermia, and stress positions are capable of causing “severe” or “serious” physical pain and suffering, the intentional infliction of which violates the “torture” and “cruel and inhuman treatment” provisions of the WCA. Each of the techniques can also cause significant psychological harm. According to one recent study, in fact, the significance of the harm caused by non-physical, psychological abuse is virtually identical to the significance of the harm caused by physical abuse.

This mental harm can take many different forms, including:

• Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), manifested in: prolonged, recurring flashbacks and nightmares; significant impairment and instability in life functions; suicidal ideation; and, weakened physical health, among other consequences. Rates of PTSD range from 45% to 92% of torture survivors, subjected to both physical and mental torture.

• Depressive disorder manifested in self-destructive and suicidal thoughts and behavior, and other characteristics.

• Psychosis, in the form of delusions, bizarre ideations and behaviors, perceptual distortions, and paranoia, among other manifestations.

These techniques, moreover, are generally used in combination – prolonged isolation, for example, combined with sleep deprivation, light and sound bombardment, and exposure to cold – compounding their devastating psychological impact."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Have You No Shame, Sir?

Mike McConnell, new Director of National Intelligence, gave his first big interview on today's Meet the Press. Tim Russert asked whether McConnell would be comfortable if a US citizen was subject to the enhanced interrogation techniques defended (but not specified) in The Decider's latest Executive Order. McConnell: "It's not 'torture,' Tim. I want to make that clear." But McConnell then said that he wouldn't want to see it used on US citizens. If it were, though, he hastily added, "there'd be no longterm damage."

This is a man who either knows nothing about torture or is a liar.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Let's Hear It for Torture! A Letter from a Christian Patriot Yahoo

There's a document making the rounds in cyberspace that pretends to be red-white-and-blue but in fact is as splenetic and hate-filled a piece as I've ever read. There are several accounts of its authorship. The version that was sent me credits it to "a housewife in New Jersey--one ticked-off lady!" Other versions of it claim that one Pam Foster from Atlanta is the author. TruthOrFiction insists that the document is largely based on a piece written by columnist Doug Patton back in 2005.

Personally, I don't care who wrote it. What interests--and frightens--me is that it's all over the place. Google lists over 30,000 references to it, and this doesn't include the hundreds of thousands of people who've received it over e-mail. Its popularity is a testiment to just how easily (and, for many, persuasively) rage legitimates torture.
Here it is, as I received it. The friend who forwarded it to me, an octogenarian Christian pacifist and activist, tells me that he thinks the final paragraph "about as close to blasphemy as anything I have ever seen." Not too mention stupid and pathetic.

---------- Forwarded message ---------->

Written by a housewife from New Jersey and sounds like it! This is one ticked off lady.

Are we fighting a war on terror or aren't we? Was it or was it not started by Islamic people who brought it to our shores on September 11, 2001?

Were people from all over the world, mostly Americans, not brutally murdered that day, in downtown Manhattan, across the Potomac from our nation's capitol and in a field in Pennsylvania ?

Did nearly three thousand men, women and children die a horrible, burning or crushing death that day, or didn't they?

And I'm supposed to care that a copy of the Koran was "desecrated" when an overworked American soldier kicked it or got it wet?...Well, I don't. I don't care at all.

I'll start caring when Osama bin Laden turns himself in and repents for incinerating all those innocent people on 9/11.

I'll care about the Koran when the fanatics in the Middle East start caring about the Holy Bible, the mere possession of which is a crime in Saudi Arabia .

I'll care when these thugs tell the world they are sorry for hacking off Nick Berg's head while Berg screamed through his gurgling slashed throat.

I'll care when the cowardly so-called "insurgents" in Iraq come out and fight like men instead of disrespecting their own religion by hiding in mosques.

I'll care when the mindless zealots who blow themselves up in search of nirvana care about the innocent children within range of their suicide bombs.

I'll care when the American media stops pretending that their First Amendment liberties are somehow derived from international law instead of the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights.

In the meantime, when I hear a story about a brave marine roughing up an Iraqi terrorist to obtain information, know this: I don't care.

When I see a fuzzy photo of a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners who have been humiliated in what amounts to a college-hazing incident, rest assured: I don't care.

When I see a wounded terrorist get shot in the head when he is told not to move because he might be booby-trapped, you can take it to the bank: I don't care.

When I hear that a prisoner, who was issued a Koran and a prayer mat, and fed "special" food that is paid for by my tax dollars, is complaining that his holy book is being "mishandled," you can absolutely believe in your heart of hearts: I don't care.

And oh, by the way, I've noticed that sometimes it's spelled "Koran" and other times "Quran." Well, Jimmy Crack Corn and-you guessed it-I don't care !!

If you agree with this viewpoint, pass this on to all your E-mail friends. Sooner or later, it'll get to the people responsible for this ridiculous behavior!

If you don't agree, then by all means hit the delete button. Should you choose the latter, then please don't complain when more atrocities committed by radical Muslims happen here in our great Country! And may I add:

"Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don't have that problem." -- Ronald Reagan

I have another quote that I would like to add AND.......I hope you forward all this. "If we ever forget that we're One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under." Also by.. Ronald Reagan

One last thought for the day: In case we find ourselves starting to believe all the Anti-American sentiment and negativity, we should remember England 's Prime Minister Tony Blair's words during a recent interview. When asked by one of his Parliament members why he believes so much in America , he said: "A simple way to take measure of a country is to look at how many want in... And how many want out."

Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you:

1. Jesus Christ
2. The American G. I.

One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.


New Bush Directive Forbids Torture (*wink-wink*)

Remember when Clinton said "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is..." when asked if he was schtupping Monica Lewinsky? It was pretty clear to the nation that he was playing word games to weasle out of a tough spot.

Well, The Decider is playing his own word games now. Under international pressure, he's just issued an Executive Order prohibiting the CIA from using "torture." The problem is that what he means by "torture" remains his and the CIA's little secret. We know from the public five-page EO that torture has something to do with "mutilation or cruel or inhuman treatment," and that "sexual humiliation" and acts denigrating religion are out. Short of that, though, we're given little idea of what the Bush team thinks the term means. Everything is vague--and deliberately so. As CIA Director Michael Hayden puts it, "the information developed by our program is irreplaceable," with the information developed by our program being bureauspeak for torture and irreplaceable meaning "we're not stopping."
We should also note that there's no significant difference between this EO and The Decider's long-standing insistence that he and he alone will be the one who decides how to define the word "torture."
So, does the US government torture? It depends on what the meaning of the word "torture" is. Rings just as false as Clinton's testimony, doesn't it? Except that this time, we're not talking about blowjobs. Wonder if the nation will go as ballistic over this transparent dishonesty about torture as it did over a lie about a bit of hanky-panky in the White House?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Guilt and Self-Loathing on the Torture Trail

One of the consistent claims of this blog is that torture is a moral (and spiritual, if one accepts such things) abomination because it aims to "malfigure" the torture victim's self: to break her will, erode her identity, and fragment her ability to relate normally with others even if she survives and returns to society.

The longterm physical consequences of torture are horrendous enough: chronic and frequently severe pain caused by nerve damage, broken bones, permanently damaged tissue. But the psychological effects are even worse: a sense of lost identity, chronic anxiety and panic disorder, sleep disturbances and nightmares, depression, suicidal ideation, uncontrollable anger and aggression, decreased memory or outright amnesia, lack of concentration, and PTSD-related flashbacks.
There's also one more common psychological symptom suffered by torture victims, and it's the focus of today's post: guilt and self-loathing. It's one of the true tragedies of torture that people who survive it frequently come away thinking that they're no better than their torturers, and consequently fear and loath themselves as much as they do their tormenters.
To those of us who have never experienced abuse, it may seem strange and even slightly perverse that torture victims would feel guilt. But it makes sense if one keeps in mind that the fruit of torture is malfiguration. The torture victim is subjected to violations that, if "successful," result in deep humilitation. The victim is trespassed upon in every imaginable way: orifices are violated with penises, fingers, and objects; bodies are violated with pain-causing instruments and techniques; psyches are invaded with terror and agony; resolve is broken with each and every blow; taboos are thrown to the winds as victims are forced to do unthinkable things such as eating excrement.
Under these circumstances, it's surprising if a torture victim doesn't develop a negative self-image. She loathes herself for being so weak, so cowardly, so pliable. She feels dirty, filthy, disgusting, because of the sexual invasions she's endured. She comes to hate her very body because of the pain and humilitation it's brought her, her very mind because it couldn't block the agony, her will power because it shattered under pressure. Every virtue she once thought she possessed has failed the test. How could she not despise herself?
Once the self-loathing sets in, the guilt isn't far behind. The torture victim may experience survivor-guilt, for example: she's survived only because she wasn't as strong as her comrades. They resisted to the death. She broke. It's they who deserved to live, not she. The torture victim may also feel guilt because she's been so traumatized that she's unable to experience appropriate emotions such as compassion or pity for other victims or rage against their tormenters. Some victims report that after a certain point they witnessed the torture and even execution of their friends dispassionately.
Other victims feel guilt because they've been forced by their torturers to perform horrible acts. Sister Dianna Ortiz, kidnapped by Guatemalan security forces in 1989, reports that one of her captors forced a machete into her hand, closed his fist around hers, and forced her to chop a fellow female prisoner to death. Raped repeatedly, Sister Dianna was impregnated and, after her release, obtained a medical abortion. Both of these acts haunted her as much as the actual abuse she herself endured. "You're no better than we, your torturers, are! You're just like us!" For years after her torture, Sister Dianna heard these words echoing inside her.
Horribly, most torture victims are psychically impregnated by their tormenters. Victim after victim reports that their torturers continue to "live inside" them. They associate their torturers with filth, agony, brutality, and hatred. But because these powerful emotions have been internalized and self-directed, the torturers remain with the victims. How unspeakably awful it must be to fancy that you've become what you most fear and loathe.
As I've said in earlier posts: torture doesn't end in the torture chamber, and anyone who seriously thinks that the ethics of torture is up for debate doesn't know the first thing about torture.
Photo credit: "The Guilt" by resquin, for the Emotions 6 contest

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Is Torture Banal?

Hannah Arendt's banality of evil thesis stirred up a good amount of hot disagreement when first introduced in her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem, but it's since acquired the status of conventional wisdom. Arendt argues that people like Adolf Eichmann who perform evil actions aren't necessarily moral monsters with a will to destruction. Instead, they might just be ordinary people who have so internalized their state's everyday normative assumptions that they uncritically accept them as part of the moral landscape. What characterizes them isn't a malevolent will so much as an absence of critical thinking, empathic imagination, and moral judgment. For them, acts which any reasonable intelligent and empathic person would consider heinous are normalized by being given official sanction.

There's a good deal of merit to the banality of evil thesis, and it certainly does a better job of explaining an anonymous little apparatchik like Eichmann than its malevolent monster alternative. But like many good ideas, Arendt's thesis has been overused. Not all evil is banal. Some evil actions, as William James observed in Varieties of Religious Experience, are "so extreme as to enter into no good system [i.e., explanatory model] whatsoever." Some evil-doers (yeah, I know; the word has unfortunate connotations since being shanghaied by the President, but it's not inappropriate here) aren't thoughtless followers who swallow whatever normative pill their power structure tells them to swallow. Some enjoy hurting other people. They get a kick out of it. They dig on it. Their evil, welling up from some deep and horrible brokenness in them, is extraordinary, not banal.
I'd suggest that proximity is a decisive (although probably not the only) factor in distinguishing banal from malevolent evil. People who personally brutalize others "up close and personal"--torturers, concentration camp guards, death camp executioners--are more likely to be operating out of the malevolent than the banal mode. If you read interviews with these kinds of people, you'll discover that they enjoy it, even if they're also wracked by guilt. They recognize full well that their actions don't reflect the normative, either in the moral or the quotidian sense of the word. They recognize that they're doing something quite out of the ordinary, totally off the beaten path, and this is part of what excites them about it. They may insist that they're simply "following orders," but this is little more than a lie to escape justice.
Bottom line: the actual act of inflicting intense physical and psychological pain on another human being can never be "normalized." People who do it regularly aren't banal. They're malevolent. Torturers aren't ordinary people. Ordinary people, recruited into torture squads, may participate once or twice. But they'll soon crack from the sheer nonordinary horror of what they're doing.
But the distant acceptance of torture--well, that's a different matter. Those of us who believe (reluctantly, of course; after all, we're good, decent, moral people, aren't we?) that sometimes torture--or, rather, "enhanced interrogation"--is necessary for our security are indulging in evil of the banal kind. Our moral landscape legitimates actions such as "soft" and "ticking bomb" torture. They're acceptable--but only because we never really get too close to them. They're abstractions for us. We never see bleeding flesh or hear screams, much less directly cause them. We don't even run across too many walking zombies who've been crushed by torture. The general public which allows its leaders to sanction torture; the apparatchiks, from the President on down, who sign abstract orders allowing it; the legislators, who pass abstract resolutions legalizing it; the attorneys who crunch precedents to defend the laws: we are all the perpetrators of torture as a banal form of evil.
But banal evil is evil nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bush delendus est

(Hat tip to Latinist Joe! Thanks!)

Over on reidblog, Joy Reid outlines the case for impeaching The Decider. One of her articles of impeachment charges that the President has violated Article VI, paragraph 2 of the US Constitution, and it relates directly to torture. Here's the pertinent section from Reid's post. After you read it, scoot over to reidblog to read the whole thing.

Count II: Engaging the United States in violations of international law:

Article VI, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution states that:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under theAuthority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding.

And according to Amnesty International:

The past five years have seen the USA engage in systematic violations of international law, with a distressing impact on thousands of detainees and their families. Human rights violations have included:

Secret detention

Enforced disappearance

Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

Outrages upon personal dignity, including humiliating treatment

Denial and restriction of habeas corpus

Indefinite detention without charge or trial

Prolonged incommunicado detention

Arbitrary detention

Unfair trial procedures

The specific violations here, are of the United Nations Charter, and of the Geneva Conventions, something this administration and its attorney general have characterized as "quaint," but both of which constitute the "supreme law of the land" under the Constitution. In addition, the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody both in Guantanamo Bay, and at secret CIA prisons around the world, may have violated U.S. anti-torture laws.

Torture in the News

Top Story

From the "Right. Let's see how utterly banal we can make torture" Department.
Tristar, an Australian car parts manufacturer, is in hot water. Seems that Tristar is scaling back operations, and has reduced its number of workers from 350 to 35. These 35 are long-standing employees, and their severance and redundancy packages run into the millions. So Tristar has kept them on the payroll to save itself a bundle until their contract expires. Only problem is that there's no work left for the guys to do. So they show up at the Tristar factory each day, punch in, and sit around playing cards or reading newspapers until it's time to knock off.
The 35 are suing Tristar, claiming that the boredom they're enduring on the job is "mental torture" and "their version of Guantanamo Bay." A representative of the 35 notes that they're left "essentially undirected and idle" and "left to amuse themselves," and concludes that this is "harsh treatment."
Tristar is obviously trying to screw the employees out of their rightful severance packages. It's also obvious that meaningless, degrading, and uncreative work--the kind most workers endure, unfortunately--is psychologically and morally bad. But to compare getting paid for sitting around and playing cards with torture is an outrageous trivialization of what torture is and does to its victims. It's worse than just plain stupid (not to mention mawkishly self-pitying). It's downright dangerous.
Likening the unpleasantries in our lives to torture has become popular in the last three or four years. But such comparisons normalize torture by trivializing it, and they condition us to suppose that tortured prisoners around the world are really only enduring inconvenient but and minor and transitory psychological and physical pain. And once we think of torture in this way, it's very easy for us to allow it as an "interrogatory technique." The Maiden's hunch is that most people who condone torture don't do so because they're thugs or idiots. They do so because they misunderstand what torture really is.

Other News

Hamas & Torture. The "Popular Committee," a Fatah organization formerly known as the "Popular Resistance Committee," has accused Hamas of abducting and torturing Fatah supporters in the Gaza Strip. In the meantime, the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights alleges that Hamas brutally tortured to death 45 -year old Waleed Abu Dalfa. Khalil Salman Abu Dalfa, Waleed's 41-year old brother, was also tortured. The torture was allegedly perfomed by the Izziddin al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas infamous for its willingness to torture detainees.

Blinded & Muted. In July 2003, Shahin Portofeh sewed shut his lips and eyes to protest the plans of the UK to deport him back to his native Iran. Portofeh, a gay man, feared what awaited him if returned to Iran. But returned he was, and this BBC story is the first of a three-part series recounting his torture at the hands of Iranian jailers. Caution: not for the squeamish.

Nepal & Torture. The Collective Campaign for Peace is lobbying the Nepalese government to sign on to the International Criminal Court charter. The ICC defines torture as a crime against humanity. Torture is on the rise in Nepal, with 1,300 new cases reported since last April, when democracy was supposedly restored there.

Friday, July 13, 2007

In the Grasp of the Whiteness

Hattie of Hattie's Web reminds me of a torture technique that requires no high-tech gadgetry, is user-friendly, leaves no tell-tale bruises or cuts on torture victims, and is extremely effective in malfiguring healthy, vibrant human beings into broken-willed shells. It's generally called "white torture."

White torture is radical sensory deprivation. We know from Harry Harlow's primate isolation experiments and various sensory deprivation experiments conducted around the world--not to mention testimony of prisoners in solitary confinement and our own everyday experiences of boredom and loneliness--that systematic isolation and minimization of sensory stimulation can cause extreme anxiety, hallucinations, ideation, and depression. When experienced too long, they can lead to permanent psychosis. If you're a torturer, you want your victim to become as malleable as possible. White torture gives you what you want, without the hassle of having to beat the stuffing out of him or her.
Hooding is, of course, a poor man's version of white torture, as is sleep deprivation, noise-bombardment, or wall-standing (being forced to stand, usually in a leaning stress position, looking at nothing but a bare wall). But it takes but a little effort to do white torture up right. Small cells, preferably with whitewashed walls, ceiling, and floor; no furniture--not even a cot; brilliant 24/7 lighting; a white noise machine to drown out background noise: and voila! a perfect torture chamber. Insert prisoner, bake for a week or two, and out comes a zombie.*
Apparently Iran is an expert in white torture (in Persian, "white torture" is Shekanjeh-e Sefid, "in the grasp of the whiteness." An incredibly poetic name for an incredibly barbaric torture). One survivor of Shekanjeh-e Sefid describes its long-term consequences:
I have not been able to sleep without sleeping pills. It is terrible. The loneliness never leaves you, long after you are “free.” Every door that is closed on you, it affects you. This is why we call it “white torture.” They get what they want without having to hit you. They know enough about you to control the information that you get: they can make you believe that the president has resigned, that they have your wife, that someone you trust has told them lies about you. You begin to break. And once you break, they have control. And then you begin to confess. Ebrihim Nabavi, Iranian journalist
Although Iran has perfected white torture, the technique is used worldwide and is becoming a favorite way of disciplining "unruly" inmates in prisons, especially in privately-run supermax ones. Some of the techniques associated with white torture--isolation, sleep deprivation, noise bombardment--are reportedly used at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.
* German artist Gregor Schneider chillingly captures something of the experience of white torture in his exhibit Weisse Folter in Dusseldorf's K21 Museum. Hattie--many thanks for the link!
Photo: one of Harry Harlow's primate subjects reduced to psychosis after a few weeks of isolation and sensory deprivation. Harlow's experiments, needlessly duplicated over a period of years, are shameful.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Fuck 'em!

From Alberto Gonzales' Memorandum to the President, 25 January 2002, entitled "Decision re Application of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War to the Conflict with Al Qaeda and the Taliban"

...the war against terrorism is a new kind of war...In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners...[A] determination that GPW [Geneva Convention III on the Treatment of Prisoners of War] does not apply to al Qaeda and the Taliban elminates any argument regarding the need for case-by-case determinations of POW status." Two advantages to denying POW status to al Qaeda and Taliban detainees: "some of the language of the GPW is undefined (it prohibits, for example, 'outrages upon personal dignity' and 'inhuman treatment'), and it is difficult to predict with confidence what actions might be deemed to constitute violations of the relevant provisions of GPW." And: "...it is difficult to predict the needs and circumstances that could arise in the course of the war on terrorism.

The Torture Trade

It's common knowledge that torture takes place throughout the world. What may not be as well known is that there's a thriving international market in torture instruments. Moreover, the production and merchandising of these devices is perfectly legal in many countries, including the US. For years now, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have called on governments to shut down or at least regulate the torture trade. By and large, though, it still flourishes.

Some examples:

Legcuffs, shackles, and handcuffs, all legally sold in and exported by the US. One of the major buyers is Saudi Arabia.

Leg irons. One of the world's major manufacturers is the Spanish Larranaga y Elorza, which exports leg irons to the US and elsewhere under a code which refers to them as "padlocks." By the way, the photo of leg irons is an actual ad used by Florida-based Kejo, Ltd.

Thumbcuffs, often with serrated edges. Offered for sale in China, France, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Taiwan, the UK, and the US.

Restraint chairs. These chairs secure prisoners at four points: ankles, wrists, shoulders, and chest. The restraints can be progressively tightened. They're used to subdue "unruly" prisoners, but also to interrogate them. In the US, at least one death of a prisoner (Scott Norberg, Madison Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona, 1996) is attributed to them. The UN Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about their use. The chairs are manufactured by Oregon-based AEDEC International, whose CEO told Amnesty International "We're kind of ticklish about selling them to third world countries that don't have human rights because then there is a possibility that they might be abused." But he declined to specify any clients other than the United Arab Emirates (which has a long history of prisoner torture).

High voltage electro-shock stun batons. These are quickly becoming torture instruments of choice. Electric baton and stun gun technology was initially developed in the US, but has now spread across the world. Stun belts, which can deliver an eight-second shock of 50,000 volts, have recently been added to the arsenal. Their jolt pales in comparison to state-of-the-art stun guns, which can hammer out up to 200,000 volts. Stun belts have run across some legal hurtles in the US, but the sale of stun guns are virtually unrestricted in the US, China, Israel, South Africa, and Taiwan. They're sold under misleading codes or labels in European Union nations that have otherwise outlawed them such as the UK and Sweden. The US remains the largest supplier of electro-shock technology to the world. At least 86 US companies manufacture and market these torture devices, selling them legally to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, the United Arab Emirates, and Croatia.
Good work if you can get it. And, given slack or nonexistent laws on the manufacture and sale of torture instruments, you can get it if you try.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why Jack Bauer (and Judge Scalia) Aren't Canadian

Ten days ago I reported on Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Antonin Scalia's impromptu defense of fictional torturer Jack Bauer before an Ottawa gathering of judges. Yesterday's Globe and Mail editorializes about the bizarre and embarrassing outburst. In response to Scalia's passionate "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer for using torture to save Los Angeles?!", the G&M responds: "Uh, yes."

O Canada!
Photo credit: courtesy of the mass entertainment idiots who glamorize violence and make heroes out of thuggish torturers.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Torture and the That's Nothin'! Fallacy

Remember when you were a kid and swapped stories with your mates about horrible things that had happened to you? The competition typically went something like this. Kid A would tell about getting stung by a bee. Then Kid B would counter with a "That's nothin'! I got stung by two bees once!" Then Kid C would top them both: "Ahhh, that's nothin'! One time, a whole hive of bees came after me!" And so on.

I want to introduce a fallacy in reasoning called the "That's nothin'!" Fallacy (TNF) The TNF is committed when the presumption is made that event A is no longer horrific simply because it's topped in brutality by horrific event B. Getting stung by two bees doesn't mean that getting stung by one isn't bad. But TNF falsely concludes otherwise.
This is such an obvious fallacy that it scarcely needs pointing out--except for the fact that too many people invoke it when it comes to torture. A perfect example of this is in a recent post over at the blog GraniteGrok. The author pooh-poohs claims that stress positions, sexual humiliation, psych ops, and intense heat or cold are forms of torture. Why? Because other techniques are harsher:

"Beatings make my list of torture techniques. So does the chopping off of fingers, limbs and other body parts, gouging of eyes, rape, electric shocks, poisons, medical experimentation, and the like."

When compared to finger-chopping, what's a little sexual humiliation? That's nothin'!
The author then goes on to show that what al-Qaeda does is even worse than this, citing a story about an Iraqi family being forced to eat their own roasted son. "THIS," he concludes, "is true evil. This is true torture." Compared to this, what's a little electric shock or eye-gouging? Nothin'!
One has to ask: what happens to forced cannibalism when something comes along on the horror scale to top it? Eatin' your own kid? That's nothin'!...
The point is that torture ought not to be defined in terms of particular techniques--stress positions aren't torture, but eye-gouging is--because this way of classifying what counts and what doesn't is always susceptible to the TNF slippery slope. Torture is better defined in terms of function--what it does to the victim and what the torturer intends it to do--than in terms of specific ways of torturing. If stress positioning functions as torture, it's torture. Period. This doesn't deny, of course, that the technique of eye-gouging is horrific, much less the forced eating of a child. But it does ensure that some actions aren't disqualified as torturous violations of human rights simply because they're less horrific than others.

Torture in the News

Lead Story

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. James Taranto warns that granting constitutional protections to Gitmo detainees will actually trample on constitutional rights. (Honest to God, I'm not making this up.) (Hat tip to Comments from Left Field.)

Other News

"Today, you will learn how to torture." Zimbabwean graduate of Robert Mugabe's torture academy recounts his training.

Disappeared. The Kenya-based Muslim Human Rights Forum reports that nearly 80 refugees from the Somalian war are being secretly held in Ethiopia and subject to torture. For a series of films on CIA rendition in the Horn of Africa, click here. (Hat tip to Dear Kitty. Some blog.)

Torture in your own back yard. Human rights coalition in Chicago calls for an end to torture by city cops. Chicago Reader reporter John Conroy chronicles the infliction of torture on criminal suspects here as well as in his book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. It's a sordid, sorry story. Kudos to Conroy for tracking it for almost two decades.

Ugandan blight. The Gulu African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims reports that it treated nearly 1,200 torture survivors during the past year (May 2006-June 2007). Many of them suffer from PTSD.

A chip off the old ax-block. Torture charges against Charles McArthur Emmanuel, son of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, have been upheld by a US federal judge. Emmanuel is accused of torturing a political detainee in 2002. In the meantime, Papa Charles is on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Justice delayed. Christian von Wernich, Roman Catholic priest and one-time chaplain to Argentine cops, went on trial late last week on charges of "primary complicity" in seven murders and dozens of tortures and abductions during Argentina's "time of trouble" (1976-83).

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Debating the Ethics of Torture Is Like Debating the Ethics of Rape

There are certain acts which, once one understands their heinous nature, fall outside the boundaries of ethical debate. One can contrive classroom discussions about whether rape, say, or genocide, are always morally wrong--a madman kidnaps you and a woman you've never met. "Rape her!" he orders. "Or I'll kill her!" Or: aliens have landed on earth and given the planet a choice: voluntarily destroy every human being in Rhode Island, or the entire human species will be slaughtered--but these artificial ticking bomb scenarios have little philosophical merit and even less realworld significance. If we play around with them, we do so at our own peril, because even pretending that acts like rape or genocide are sometimes morally acceptable does damage to our deep intuitions that nothing whatsoever can make them so.
Once one understands what torture is, one clearly sees that debates as to whether it can ever be morally defended are stupid or worse. As I've argued in earlier posts,* torture is an act whose aim is to malfigure the self of the victim in the service of the power authorizing the torture. Torture isn't really about intelligence-gathering, although the latter is often a pretense. Torture is about crushing the will of an opponent, destroying her identity, stripping away who and what she is, layer by layer, until what comes out at the end of the process is either a dead corpse or a living one. If dead, no great loss. If living, the torture "survivor" serves the power structure by returning to society as a ghostly warning to all other potential dissenters. And since the living corpse never really leaves the torture chamber, there's very little danger that she'll be anything but compliant. Even after her "release," she'll remain in the hands of torturers: PTSD memories, stress-induced physical ailments, amnesia, panic disorder, and so on. The whole world, as Elaine Scarry points out, will become her torture chamber. Everything, even the simplest, most innocent event--the lighting of a cigarette, eye contact with a stranger, the sound of someone dropping a coffee cup at a bistro--can jumpstart the reliving of torture.
This destruction of the self, this disintegration of the soul, this willful disappearing of the very essence of an individual's personhood, is immoral. Debating the ethics of torture is, therefore, just as irrelevant as debating the ethics of rape or genocide. To not get this is either to misunderstand what torture is all about (stupidity), or to understand but be indifferent or cynically willing to defend torture out of self-interest (moral bankruptcy).
Some ethicists, notably Michael Walzer, Alan Dershowitz, Sam Harris, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, agree that torture is heinous but nonetheless morally justify it by appealing to what's come to be called the "dirty hands" defense. This position argues that the moral obligations of a national leader to protect her citizens may oblige her to authorize actions that are ethically wrong. She oughtn't to rationalize away their immorality. She must recognize that her hands are dirty, confess that her orders were necessary but immoral, and accept responsibility for them. This is what a good leader does: she steps up and takes care of business, even at the expense of her conscience.
But surely this is a pernicious sophistry. On the surface, it concurs with our deep moral repugnance to torture. But in actuality what it does is transform torture into something noble--a distasteful act done for the commonweal--and torturers into heroes who "sacrifice" their good conscience in order to save the rest of us. The dirtier the hands, the louder the confession of guilt, the nobler the sacrifice seems. And, as a bonus, the public confession of the torture-authorizing leader absolves the rest of us from complicity in the torture. We can know that our government is torturing without suffering from any inconvenient twinges of guilt. The President/the Prime Minister/the Generalissimo ordered it, not I! MY hands are clean...
Torture doesn't harvest reliable intelligence. There are other, better ways to gather information. Ticking bomb scenarios, almost always invoked to justify torture, are fictional, not realworld. The use of torture erodes the moral authority of the government that sanctions it, and unnecessarily creates enemies. The only purpose of torture is to destroy selves and demolish wills so that the power structure authorizing torture can maintain itself. And under what possible circumstances can this be morally defended?
Debating the ethics of torture is irrelevant, or worse.
*For example, Torture & Identity Malfiguration;
The Soul Is the Prison of the Body;
We Are the Priests of Power;
and The First Blow Changes Everything.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Torture Perverts Even Hope


By Ariel Dorfman

What I am asking is
how can it be
that a father's
a mother's
is knowing
that they
that they are still
their son?
Which means
that he was alive
five months later
and our greatest
will be to find out
next year
that they're still torturing him
eight months later
From Last Waltz in Santiago, p. 8.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Eine Vernehmung By Any Other Name...

Americans who defend their President's embrace of "enhanced interrogation" either take a hard-ass approach--"hang the bastards by their balls" (an actual quote, by the way, taken from a comment by one PShannon, March 20, 2007, on the vile blog NewsBusters)--or a more sly doublespeak approach that righteously protests the identification of "enhanced interrogation techniques" with "torture." The bad guys torture, this line goes. Al Qaeda tortures. Saddam Hussein tortured. The Nazis tortured. We Americans--we don't torture. We use enhanced interrogation techniques.

A recent column in Andrew Sullivan's "The Daily Dish" puts the lie to this bit of sophistry. Sullivan notes that just before WWII erupted, the Nazis dreamed up a kind of interrogation they called Vershaefte Vernehmung. It was designed to leave no visible marks on the bodies of its victims, and included techniques such as starvation, sleep deprivation, stress positions and exhaustion exercises, isolation, and dunking in frigid water. If these interrogatory techniques sound familiar, they should. Vershaefte Vernehmung, after all, translates as "enhanced," "intensified," or "sharpened" interrogation.
The next time you hear somebody claim that US-approved "enhanced interrogation" isn't torture, tell them about Vershaefte Vernehmung and ask them if they're really comfortable endorsing techniques used by Nazis.