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.