Monday, August 6, 2007

"Every country has its own way of torturing people..."

When we were kids, my sister and I went through a (thankfully) short period of fighting like cats and dogs. Its physical expression never got beyond the occasional slap or pinch, because my parents quickly laid down the law: no physical contact. None. Period. Use words. Be nice.
ut my sister and I soon figured out a second-best alternative. We went through a spell of psychologically slapping each other. We deliberately bugged the hell out of one another by tauntingly getting in each other's face (but scrupulously avoiding physical touch), playing music too loudly, hiding cherished items, defacing homework, reading each other's diary, and so on. Pretty childish stuff, in the grand scheme of things, but significant for this reason: it was a premeditated assault, a deliberate infliction of pain that scrupulously stayed within the letter of the law (no physical contact!) while ruthlessly violating its spirit (be nice).

I suppose we expect this kind of behavior from kids. But we oughtn't to tolerate it from adults, and we certainly oughtn't to let our governments get away with it. Yet this is what's going on in the US today when it comes to torture. Our officials point to the genuinely horrific physical torture practiced by repressive regimes--Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe--and innocently insist that because we don't chop off fingers or gouge out eyes, we don't torture.
But this is innocence in the technical letter-of-the-law sense, because we do use techniques that are the grown-up analog to the juvenile psych ops my sister and I tried out on each other. The method of torture preferred by the US is one that minimizes physical contact and focuses instead on psychological abuse--a beating, as it were, that leaves no telltale bruises. As Rustam Akhmiarov, a Russian detainee who spent some time as a Guantanamo detainee said, "Every country has its own way of torturing people. In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straight away. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse."
I've discussed torture US-style several times in previous posts (for example, here, here, here, here, and here). There's absolutely no doubt that detainees are being subjected to psychological abuse--sleep deprivation, auditory overload, isolation, anxiety-inducing threats, and so on--in addition to "mild" physical abuse such as waterboarding and hooding (not to mention the out-sourcing of physical torture to governments that do lop off fingers and gouge eyes). President Bush admitted as much last month in his Executive Order concerning acceptable interrogation techniques; the admission was repeated by his Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell; and the practice was infamously defended by The Decider in his September 2006 White House speech announcing the formation of military commissions to try detainees.* So more verification of the US practice of psychological torture isn't necessary.
What's intriguing is how the government--and, apparently, many US citizens as well--is able to rationalize this abuse of prisoners as "nontorturous." In any other context, we'd readily acknowledge that the deliberate attempt to inflict psychological pain on another human being is cruel and outside the law. But when it comes to the "interrogation" of detainees, we insist otherwise. If we're not actually smacking them around, we're not torturing them. Our hands are clean, our consciences are clear, our motives are righteous.
If our blows are invisible, they're not really blows: this is the logic of torture US-style. It's a strategy adopted by children on the one hand or people with uneasy consciences on the other.
*From The Decider's September 2006 White House speech: "We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures. These procedures were designed to be safe, to comply with our laws, our Constitution, and our treaty obligations. The Department of Justice reviewed the authorized methods extensively and determined them to be lawful. I cannot describe the specific methods used -- I think you understand why -- if I did, it would help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country. But I can say the procedures were tough, and they were safe, and lawful, and necessary."