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On Torture

From Scott Horton’s interview with Darius Rejali, author of Democracy and Torture:

In the United States, the debate seems to be increasingly focused on waterboarding, which I suspect you’ll agree doesn’t really present any serious questions on the definitional front. Obviously it is torture. But there are other techniques which are much more problematic. One is the sensory-deprivation/sensory-overload technique associated with Kubark. Waterboarding has not been used frequently, at least according to General Hayden, but the sensory-deprivation technique seems to have developed into something close to standard operating procedure, and was even used on a U.S. citizen, Jose Padilla. A psychologist who evaluated him says he was essentially destroyed as a self-actuated human being, capable of independent thought and direction. Is the Bush Administration accomplishing a sort of victory by keeping the debate focused on waterboarding while avoiding discussion of the techniques more commonly employed?

Yes, that’s right. The historical record is clear. Waterboarding is torture, and yes focusing on just waterboarding is a distraction. Waterboarding is serious, but only the tip of the iceberg. There have only been three documented cases of waterboarding, but the CIA has subjected at least 30 others to “enhanced interrogation” as Director Hayden says, so there are other kinds of techniques as well. And there are unaccounted prisoners last seen in US custody as well as secret prisons out there where these things continue to happen.

One day we’ll know more, but the historical record now shows that American interrogators and soldiers, whether authorized or not, have used forced standing, forced kneeling, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, beatings on the soles of the feet, sexual humiliation, and psychological coercion, as well as some cases, electrotorture. So it would be a mistake then to confuse the forest from the three tallest trees in it. Waterboarding highlights the huge dangers of torture, but it is only the beginning of political literacy not the end of it.

And the same applies to domestic policing. I’m less worried about our police learning how to waterboard criminals than I am with the use of stun guns and tasers. Any inspector would wonder what straps and a bucket of water would be doing in an interrogation room, and investigate for torture. But they can’t prohibit police from using stun guns and tasers, which have authorized police uses, and it is very hard for them to tell when these devices have been used illegally to torture, as they leave few marks.

Lastly, I think we need to understand that torture just doesn’t hide in a vault in the CIA. It hides in all the dark pockets of society—military barracks, schools, frat houses, our supermax prisons and immigration lockups. When torture happens, the top authorizes, and the people at the bottom come running with the techniques. Vigilance has to extend far beyond our intelligence agencies to all these other areas.

Most dangerously, I think we need to pay attention to our new culture of irresponsibility. We live now in an age where something is or is not torture depending on when and who it is done to. Zapping an angry businessman on an airplane cabin will be called torture, but zapping a foreigner might just be good security and completely excusable. This is bad. All my students at Reed have good intentions, but they don’t all deserve A’s because what they do matters regardless of their intention. Yet police and intelligence officers, not to mention politicians, want to get As just because they had good intentions. They want to be exonerated for having done no torture at all; it’s only torture if they had bad intentions. And that is very dangerous and irresponsible because judging people solely on their intentions, as William Blake said, is the road to hell.

The entire interview is good. It ends with an ominous discussion of the ways that torture, once begun, permeates a society. It will happen here, too, Rejali argues. “Torture always comes home,” he says. “And the techniques of this war are likely to show up in a neighborhood near you.”

 

Comments

Oh joy! I can’t wait for the horrors of this illegal and unethical war to return to US neighborhoods!