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The United States of Torture – posted 8/9/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/14/2014

August 10, 2014 1 comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on August 14,2014 under the title “The United States of Torture”. Jon

President Obama has now acknowledged America’s use of torture. “We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.” Obama went on to try and place the use of torture in context. Recalling the desperation of law enforcement to prevent further attacks post-9/11, Obama said, ” …it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had.”

Although I am glad Obama acknowledged the fact of torture and did not try and call it a phony euphemism, I am disappointed in his response. Torture is a crime. It is not a public relations embarrassment that needs to be managed.

So much is left out in Obama’s weak response. You might think a former constitutional law professor would provide a better answer. I find what he did not say more objectionable than what he did say. Clearly, in this instance, politics is his foremost concern as he was trying to appease his right flank.

The United States is far more implicated in the systemic use of torture than Obama lets on. As outlined in Alfred McCoy’s book, “A Question of Torture”, the roots of the American use of torture date back to the Cold War. McCoy writes:

“From 1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually – a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shock, and sensory deprivation, this work then produced a new approach to torture that was more psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as “no-touch torture”. ”

Contrary to Obama’s recent statement that made it sound like torture was an aberration, examples from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect long-standing practice. They are consistent with the Kubark Counterintelligence manual produced long ago in 1963, which is a handbook on how to torture effectively. That manual, widely used and disseminated by the CIA,, details torture techniques that rely on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. The techniques were used in Vietnam as well as in counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Central and South America in the 1970’s and 1980’s

Explanations of torture blaming a few rogue sadistic soldiers or undisciplined overstretched troops are simply wrong. Authorization for the use of torture came from the highest levels. During the George W. Bush years, the torturers hid behind lawyer apologists who crafted new crackpot doctrine to defend the indefensible. Former Vice President Cheney remains a torture cheerleader to this day. Unfortunately, Obama has hardly distinguished himself.

At the same time as the United States has systematically used torture, we also have been a party to the Convention Against Torture, a multi-lateral treaty that America helped to draft, sign, and ratify. The United States is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and other torture conventions that absolutely prohibit torture and cruel treatment of wartime detainees.

I would submit that this hypocritical contradiction does not make us that different from most other nation-states. As the late, great reporter I.F. Stone used to say, “All governments lie.” Highminded principles take a back seat to perceived pragmatic needs. Even without evidence that torture works, states want to maintain the perogative to torture.

Torture is not some peripheral legal issue. It is a watershed issue that delineates medievalism from modernity. For almost 2000 years, torture has been associated with tyrants and empires. I think it is fair to say torture has been a central issue in European law for over 1000 years.

The history of torture and European law is fascinating and quite checkered. Pope Nicholas I banned the practice in 866. On its face it seems antithetical to Christian doctrine. However, ecclesiastical courts evolved to sanction torture. During the Inquisition, Church interrogators relied on torture as a means to extract confessions. Pope Innocent IV officially sanctioned the use of torture in 1252.

European civil courts, influenced by Roman law, also used torture as a means to extract confessions. The practice was common and went on for over 500 years. It was not until 1790 that the British Parliament forbid burning women at the stake.

Until the 18th century, the medieval torture mentality reigned. As mentioned, judges routinely sentenced those convicted to the whipping post, stocks, dismemberment, breaking on the wheel, and burning at the stake. Torturers also used a technique called the strappado. Victims were suspended from the ceiling with their hands tied behind their back. Weights could get tied to the victim’s ankles with a series of lifts and drops which could cause dislocations.

It was not until the Enlightenment that the modernist idea of evaluation of evidence on its merits superseded confession by torture. Lawyers started to question the accuracy of evidence extracted by torture.

In the 1760’s, Voltaire denounced judicial torture and argued that a civilized nation could no longer follow “atrocious old customs”. The 19th century saw a further evolution toward a more rationalist and scientific approach to crime.

The American Constitution reflected Enlightenment influences, particularly the 8th amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Founding Fathers opposed unusual cruelty in the methods of punishment as well as disproportionate or excessive punishment.

How we got to indefinite holding, torturing and killing prisoners at secret prisons is a long and complicated story. Obama’s weak admission must be seen in the context of this long history. As a nation we have been backsliding for some time now. Instead of seeing torture as a moral and legal abomination, we glorify its dark power on television. If we cannot honestly confront it and recognize it is an anachronism, how will we ever be able to do anything about it? Obama’s unwillingness to look back at the crimes that have been committed very much increases the likelihood that torture will recur in our future.

I think stories like the redacted senate intelligence report on torture and the fact the CIA searched senate computers are mostly indicative of how far we are from honestly engaging the larger issue: when are we going to start treating torture like the crime it is?

On Torture, A Bi-Partisan Lack of Indignation – published in the Concord Monitor 5/6/2013

May 6, 2013 2 comments

Buried under the avalanche of news stories about the Boston Marathon bombings was the release of an important new report about the use of torture by the George W. Bush administration. The timing for the release of this report could not have been worse. It vanished because the Boston Marathon bombings news stories were so dominating.

The Constitution Project, a legal research and advocacy group devoted to the rule of law, authored a 577 page report concluding that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture”.

While no doubt there are some who will see this report or any report as partisan, the Constitution Project attempted a bi-partisan, consensus-building approach to the torture question. Two former members of Congress, Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James R. Jones, led their taskforce on detainee treatment.

The report determined that torture had and has no justification. It found that there was no firm or persuasive evidence that torture provided valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. The report concluded that the use of torture damaged American standing around the world and potentially endangered our military.

I would like to suggest that much of the media discussion around the subject of torture has been superficial. There is much information in the public domain which sheds a deeper light on this darkest of subjects.

I think the most acute and far-seeing perspective on the use of torture by our government has been offered by University of Wisconsin Professor Alfred McCoy. McCoy argues that the roots of torture run far deeper than has generally been perceived. He traces a continuous government research effort going back to the 1940’s to study psychological torture and mind control.

In his book, “Torture and Impunity”, McCoy shows how U.S. intelligence agencies evolved new forms of torture that rely on psychological rather than physical pain. The modern torture paradigm features sensory deprivation, isolation, and the utilization of stress positions. Instead of externally inflicted pain, the emphasis is the use of self-inflicted pain, a much harder type of torture to detect but exceedingly lethal. The goal is to induce psychological regression, complete disorientation of the tortured individual and destruction of the will to resist.

McCoy argues there is a continuity of American experience with torture whether the setting was the Vietnam war, Latin America in the 70’s and 80’s or the Middle East over the last decade. There is a straight line from the tiger cages of South Vietnam to the Latin American disappeared to black sites.

McCoy’s picture of torture is quite at odds with popular understanding. Apologists for torture typically blame a few bad apples. Cynical adherents of realpolitick see torture as nasty but necessary to gain useful intelligence to prevent terrorist attacks and to protect national security.

There is an intellectual dishonesty about not acknowledging our investment and continuing engagement with torture. Now we are more likely to outsource the torture to our allies. McCoy argues there has been a desire to bury the subject and forget. Certainly this has been the unfortunate position taken by the Obama Administration. “Don’t look back – look forward.” That head-in-the-sand approach is almost guaranteed to promote torture in the future since it is based on failing to reckon with the past.

To appreciate the historical context of modern torture, we need to situate American experience within the larger international experience since the time of the Enlightenment. Torture is a bedrock issue in distinguishing between the Dark Ages and modernity. For almost 300 years, anti-torture advocates have made their case for banning the practice although torture remains an utterly contemporary issue around the world.

I would argue that torture is antithetical to American values and it is a relic of a medieval time the Founders wanted to put behind us. I think the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment almost certainly would have been understood by the Founders to have included a prohibition against torture. The Fifth Amendment also speaks to torture since the protection against self-incrimination is contrary to torture’s goal, obtaining a confession. The Founding Fathers were part of the Enlightenment generation that despised torture as a form of barbarism and uncivilized behavior.

Since World War II, an international body of law has developed to prohibit torture. We have the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. Both treaties have been ratified by the United States. The United States ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1955 during the Eisenhower presidency. Congress ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994. President Reagan had consistently urged adoption of this treaty. It also should be mentioned that the United States voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Article 5 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” This Universal Declaration was adopted by the United Nations.

The squirrelly efforts of the George W. Bush Administration to evade legal obligations and to create bogus legal justifications have been well-documented. While Bush and Dick Cheney acted disgracefully and illegally, the actions of the Obama Administration around torture have also been very disappointing. Moving on is a form of silence. Silence is a form of acquiesence and implicit accommodation with our torture history.

Torture is not a partisan issue. We suffer from a bi-partisan lack of indignation as well as a willful lack of awareness. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont had suggested a Truth Commission to explore this dark side but neither Congress nor the White House were interested. Forgetting is a guaranteed way to allow this disgusting and inhuman practice to continue.