Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Defining down torture....

There's been a lot of emphasis lately on waterboarding as torture--as it surely is--but in doing so, it seems there's a concerted effort on the part of both politicians and media alike to dumb down what we are supposed to define as torture, and thereby, to arbitrarily restrict the notion of the U.S. employment of torture to a very small set of the "worst of the worst," Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydeh and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (recently said to have committed suicide in a Libyan prison).

By inference, we're subtly led to the conclusion that, while reprehensible, torture was used sparingly and judiciously, on a very limited number of people. The remaining thousands who were regularly beaten, subjected to extremes of heat and cold, denied sleep for days at a time, chained in painful postures for long periods, blasted with disorienting sound and/or were sensorially deprived, were forced to endure the terror of being buried alive, were religiously and sexually humiliated, all those many were, by this conceit, not tortured. They were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques." We are led to believe that only the "worst of the worst," those who resisted these techniques and did not offer false confessions, were then made to endure actual torture through repeated episodes of near-drowning.

It's quite clear that this focus on water torture is necessary, but, at the same time, is far too microscopic. It's meant to exclude from one's field of view all the other techniques employed that, taken individually and collectively, are torture of a more general kind and are part of a generic whole, in both kind and quantity. The most dangerous threat to U.S. self-esteem is that we weren't the good guys in this, that the use of torture might be perceived by U.S. citizens as widespread in both the military and the intelligence services, that it was normalized and that it was not accidental nor the result of a few "bad apples," but, rather, was a structured policy created and ordered by the upper reaches of the Pentagon and the civilian leaders of the country.

Two matters suggest the need for a larger view of torture. First, nearly a hundred people have died in U.S. custody, and nearly a third of those have been ruled by military medical examiners as possible homicides. Torture of the broadest definition will be implicated in those deaths, if ever there are serious inquiries.

Second, one must revisit the case of Jose Padilla. Most of the focus on his detention centered on the arbitrary legal authority assumed by George W. Bush, as commander-in-chief of the military to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens under military control without access to counsel, and on the Bush administration's determination to evade a court ruling on that assumed power by transferring Padilla to civilian courts before the Supreme Court could rule on his case, and in the process dropping the central charge against him of planning to build a radioactive 'dirty' bomb, the charge on which he was originally detained.

There was only brief mention at the time of his transfer of some odd features of his detention, including the blackout goggles he was forced to wear any time he was removed from his cell, and there was virtually no follow-up in the press. His lawyers, however, gave some indication that he had been subjected to mental torture, and that the goggles were only a part of a larger program to break him mentally. They lamented that Padilla was no longer able to assist his own defense, and they offered as evidence his seemingly contradictory beliefs that his legal counsel were part of a plot against him, and that in their attempts to prepare his defense, Padilla expressed, in various ways, that defending him would make George W. Bush look bad and would undermine Bush's "war on terror." Those beliefs effectively denied him a competent defense, and, moreover, strongly suggest that torture had been employed during his three years of detention for the specific purpose of forcing him to emotionally and psychologically identify with his captors, a goal in common with Chinese communist interrogation methods during the Korean War, and is a condition making false confessions more likely.

There's a strong element of denial in all this torture business, from the average citizen to both current and past presidents. That tendency toward denial is at once understandable, but, if institutionalized in society, is also, ultimately, corrupting.


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