'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, January 07, 2011

The American Way of Torture 


. . . the Bush administration may have misused science to justify such enhanced interrogation, Iacopino and his colleagues note in Science. A memo from the Department of Justice in 2005 explicitly authorized such techniques, noting that CIA doctors observed no long-lasting ill effects in detainees or intent to torture in interrogators during the application of such techniques to 25 detainees.

The actual observations themselves have not been released publicly and may have constituted illegal and immoral scientific research, Iacopino and his colleagues charge. It is also possible that CIA doctors may have neglected and/or concealed medical evidence of intentional harm among detainees held after the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to a separate report from Physicians for Human Rights.

The CIA has denied that any such research took place, though the agency's guidelines did call for medical personnel to monitor waterboarding, confinement in a box and other techniques when used. Iacopino and his colleagues assert that such monitoring constitutes a breach of both basic medical ethics—do no harm—and research norms—an international ban on research conducted on non-consenting human beings.

INITIAL POST: An excellent article by Alexander Cockburn, placing the current practices of torture and indefinite detention in a broader historical context. An excerpt:

Covertly, there was always plenty of torture, just as there were assassinations, high and low. After World War Two the CIA’s predecessor, OSS, imported Nazi experts in interrogation techniques. But this was the era of Cold War competition: Uncle Sam the Good against the dirty Russians and Chinese. The US government would go to desperate lengths to counter accusations that its agents in the CIA or USAID practiced torture.

One famous case was that of Dan Mitrione, working for the US Agency for International Development, teaching refinements in torture techniques to Brazilian and Uruguayan interrogators. Mitrione was ultimately kidnapped by the Tupamaro guerillas and executed, becoming the subject of Costa Gavras’ movie State of Siege. The CIA mounted major cover-up operations to try to discredit the accusations against Mitrione, quoted as having said to his students: The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect.

The liberal conscience began to make its accommodation with torture in June, 1977, which was the month the London Sunday Times published a major expose of torture of Palestinians by the Israeli armed forces and the security agency, Shin Bet. Suddenly American supporters of Israel were arguing that certain techniques – sensory deprivation, prolonged stress positions while hooded, incarceration in cells the size of packing crates, etc – somehow weren’t really torture, or were morally justifiable torture under ticking time bomb theory.

Back in my youth, I read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Beyond the horrors of the Holocaust, I was especially appalled at the German use of Jews and Russian prisoners of war in so-called scientific experiments centered primarily around testing the human tolerance for pain and the limits of the human ability to survive intolerable conditions. For example, Shirer describes one such experiment where the Germans placed two Russian POWs in a vat of icy cold water, and kept them there until they died of hypothermia. Meanwhile, the Japanese engaged in similar activities with Chinese victims in Manchuria, with an emphasis upon the development of weapons for chemical and biological warfare.

At the time that he wrote the book, Shirer presented such atrocities as aberrational, but, with the benefit of hindsight, we can now recognize that the Germans and the Japanese were initiating a specific aspect of the modernist project that so characterized much of the 20th Century. Just as the Russians, and later, the Tanzanians and the Chinese, sought to collectivize agricultural production along lines that reduced peasants to fungibility, as examined by James Scott in Seeing Like a State, the Germans and the Japanese were pioneering research into the resiliency of the human body for the purpose of finding ways to overcome it. Given the tenor of the times, both focused upon the creation of weapons that would kill or immobilize thousands of people, but there remained a great utility in terms of individual applications.

In effect, the Germans and the Japanese established the acceptability of the belief that the human body, in all of its individual manifestations, should be addressed objectively in order to facilitate the objectives of the state. Hence, the subsequent proliferation of measures such as sensory deprivation, starvation and prolonged stress positions, many of which are primarily psychological in nature, as a means of shattering the will of those who insist upon resisting state control. Paradoxically, the physical brutalities of the German and Japanese efforts lead the way towards the development of practices that increasingly emphasized psychological cruelty, a form of torture that, according to Alfred McCoy, results in more enduring, damaging consequences for the victim than the physical kind.

And, this is what has been institutionalized within the US prison system and secret detention facilities around the world. The fact that many of the practices currently utilized at places like Guantanamo and Bagram originated from within the US, and were specifically implemented to crush political dissent, is one of the best kept secrets of the so-called war on terror. Consider, for example, the treatment of people incarcerated for crimes in furtherance of the Puerto Rican independence movement:

The captured Puerto Rican independentistas have been singled out for extreme punishments within the U.S. prison system. Exactly because they are prisoners held for political reasons–the system has tried to make an example of them to intimidate others. The authorities have applied cruel tactics in an attempt to break their spirits and make them renounce the struggle.

From the day of their capture, many of these Puerto Rican independentistas were kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Oscar Lïpez has now spent the last 12 years under almost constant solitary confinement–including two years of cruel sleep deprivation experiments at ADX Florence prison in Colorado. This abuse has had acute effects on his health.

Special restrictions have been applied at times to keep the prisoners from being heard on the outside. And prison authorities have often been afraid of allowing these radical activists contact with the general prison population.

Often, these prisoners have been prevented from seeing their families–either because visitations or phone access have been restricted. Adolfo Matos, for example, was moved ten different times without warning–from prison to prison in the Illinois state system–often without anyone on the outside being told where he was or where he was going.

Mail has been censored, and for years, these prisoners were forbidden to communicate with each other and prevented from reading any political literature. There have been cases where these prisoners were denied ordinary library access and prevented from participating in social or education programs in prison.

Over and over again, those with serious health conditions have been denied medical care.

The women prisoners have been subjected to special harassments. During her early days of imprisonment, Alejandrina Torres was subjected to rape-like cavity searches conducted by teams of guards that included males. She suffered a dislocated shoulder and a heart attack from the mistreatment.

Several of the prisoners of war have been confined in special prisons designed for extreme security and torture. In 1986, the Lexington Control Unit was opened in Kentucky to break women political prisoners. Alejandrina Torres was one of the first three women sent there–the other two being the political prisoners Susan Rosenberg and Silvia Baraldini. Prisoners there were under 24-hour surveillance, even while bathing. They were subjected to sensory deprivation–prevented from seeing the outside, and subjected to constant lighting. In 1988 the U.S. and Bureau of Prisons were forced to shut down the Lexington Control Unit, after a judge conceded that these women had been sent there for their political beliefs.

After that, the Marion Control Unit in Illinois and then ADX Florence in Colorado have been used as special punishment centers–where prisoners are confined to their cells 23 hours a day, and kept in extreme isolation. Ralph Arons, former warden at Marion, admitted: The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.

There are many people incarcerated in the prison system for violent crimes, but, as Arons acknowledged, the brutal conditions of confinement at Marion exist to deter political dissent, not violence. The authorities exploit the loss of control over one's body, as so ruthlessly imposed by the Germans and the Japanese, to achieve that end.

Of course, this is not to say that the Germans and the Japanese were the only ones engaged in the practice, after all, the US prison system, as just one example, has subjected inmates to solitary confinement since 1829, but merely that they pushed it to heretofore unprecedented extremes by reference to the legitimacy of modernist scientific investigation. No doubt, readers who are familiar with Foucault can provide a more nuanced presentation of this historical process. In any event, one can only recall Shirer's righteous indignation about the brutalities of German experimentation upon humans with sadness, as their underlying objectives are now considered not only acceptable, but necessary.

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