Torture Should Be Accounted For

Torture is among the most heinous crimes known to humankind. It should never be excused, it should never go unpunished. It is not about who the tortured are, or what the tortured know. It is not about what they have done, what they believe, or whether they would do the same. It is about who we are, and how human beings should be treated. It is about our humanity, that is all.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Meta - beyond, transcending.

When the Geneva conventions and the subsequent 1977 Protocols were written there was torture. When the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CATCIDT) was enacted, there was torture and the "act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture."

When the Rome Statute, which underlies the International Criminal Court (ICC) was enacted, they codified a distinction which had long been in practice in international humanitarian law and international human rights law: between war crimes and crimes against humanity. For torture, the commission of torture as an individual is a war crime, the widespread use of torture by government officials, or the systematic use of torture by those officials (including the acts that constitute complicity or participation), are crimes against humanity.

Perhaps we need a new statute, or amendments to all the old ones, to deal with a set of new practices, which I will call metatorture, since they are beyond, and transcend 'traditional torture'. This is my own private vocabulary, note that some have called some of what I will describe, mass torture, and some have called some types of it administrative torture. But I like metatorture, as a word, because it implies more torture, and because what is done can cause someone who is already aware of the horrendous nature of torture to catch their breath, and to recoil in horror.

Creating Mass Torture

The mass torture form of metatorture is created by accessing the results of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. There are credible allegations that this is what really happened at Abu Ghraib, and that it is widespread in American military prisons right now, which are holding around 27,000 detainees: 250+ in Guantanamo, 13,000 in Afghanistan, principally at Bagram, and 14,000 distibuted among prisons in Iraq, principally at Abu Ghraib.

The principle of mass torture is that it is done primarily not for interrogation purposes but as a form of mass intimidation. The metatorture form is created as follows: recreate the conditions of the Stanford Prison Experiment, giving orders only to those who will pose as the 'wardens' and 'superintendents'. If the conditions are primed correctly, and the encouragements are given properly, the only other requisite is that the conditions be allowed to run their course. Descent into abuse and torture are virtually inevitable.

The conditions that need to be recreated are surprisingly simple: The prisoner population must be dehumanized by reducing them with numbers instead of names, or clothing or the lack of it that makes them always visible as less than the guard population. This can easily be done in an occupation as language barriers also interrupt the communication of any empathy between the guards and the prisoners.

The guard population is likewise dehumanized by the use of uniforms or the adherence to ideology. They are performing as they are because of duty, they are not able to interact with the prisoners as human to human.

The warden role is to encourage the guard population to treat the prisoner population sternly, or in the case of Abu Ghraib, they were told to 'soften the prisoners up for interrogation'. When the guard population innovates harsh or inhumane treatments, the warden role gives positive feedback for this treatment.

The superintendent reviews the progress the warden is making and signs off on it with encouragement. If the warden is getting the desired result, then the warden is encouraged to continue. The desired result could be intelligence, it could be orderliness and discipline, it could be a compliant prison population, or it could be subservience of the population at large, in the case of mass torture.

Obviously, depending on the size of the system you set up, you may need many wardens and many superintendents. But notice that the superintendents are ordered only to encourage or demand that the warden get the desired results, and the wardens are ordered only to encourage the behavior that is "working". No orders to treat anyone inhumanely are given, no orders to torture are given, although in the case of the current administration, they did need to amend, in such a way as to vitiate, the codes of conduct that would prohibit the system from working. The lack of explicit orders are useful as deniability for the superiors, and are an intentional part of the system.

Abuse and torture are the end results almost surely (as they say in statistics). So why is this metatorture? Why is this more than a systematic torture regime?

Because it causes harm to two captive populations, not one. The prison guards are not volunteers, and they are not informed of the psychology of the system. They are, as surely as the system works, forced to degrade, and essentially forced into the role of torturers. They are essentially being forced to commit war crimes. In Geneva, and in CATCIDT, those that participate at this level are willing participants, as are those in the metatorture scenario. But in the latter, a psychological technique, a perfection of a known psychological effect, the isolation, purification, and distillation of a unique sociological drug, if you will, has been the prologue to their behavior, and that drug was administered to them and they reacted as those who receive it always react. Without their knowledge or consent.

The Nazis implementing the final solution did this to ordinary citizens, too. But they did not scientifically formulate and perfect a system to corrupt, they just corrupted. Somehow, the Nazis committed a 'second degree' form of this corruption, the psychological data necessary to premeditate the most efficient conditions for it did not exist yet. If it had, perhaps they would have. What they did was monstrous enough without the technology, one shudders to think of what would have happened had they had it.

Does that excuse the guards of the crimes they commit? In the current legal system, no, and it is arguable that it should not. The argument comes as well from the SPE, and most explicitly, from Nuremberg. It is still a crime to fail to disobey an order to commit a war crime. Even the SPE admits the possibility of heroes: people for whom the situation does not cause a descent into hell, but rather rallies the human spirit against what is happening to stop it. People who have been in the guards' situation typically are divorced from their actions. They tend not to feel remorse. And it would be difficult to know what damage has been done to their psyches and what future effects it would have on society: psychologists do not treat torturers, only torture victims.

Creating the Torture which is not Torture

The second form of metatorture is created by applying psychological perfecting techniques to traditional forms of torture in order to claim that they fail to qualify. The new techniques that emerge, distilled and perfected, have devastating impact.

One of the debates on the line between torture and 'interrogation' concentrates on pain, the others on what is a threat of death, and on lasting damage. If you wanted to subvert the bans on torture, you would come up with techniques where the pain and the damage and whether or not death was a possibility could be debated. Sound familiar?

So you modify water torture such that you have greater control. You use saran wrap and techniques to make sure the feeling of drowning is more immediate, and the reaction inevitable, and the control over the outcome is complete: the subject will not drown. Now you obtain results in less than a minute, so you can argue there is no lasting pain. No one drowns so you can argue that there has been no threat of death. As for the lasting psychological damage, the American public has been far too well primed by constantly complaining about emotional trauma lawsuits and the like, they will believe a derision of lasting psychological damage, and this last requirement can be dealt with as politics.

With the most insidious torture method yet devised, the advanced sensory deprivation techniques, this mantra has been chanted and perfected well beyond the more sensational waterboarding. The subject is cut off from their sense of sight by goggles, sound by earphones, and sometimes touch as well by being suspended in warm water. Usually within a matter of hours, such a person begins to hallucinate, and a pyschotic collapse is imminent in less than a few days. The subject becomes dependent by a process similar to infant bonding on the person who represents the end to, or opposite from, this insensate state.

Such techniques have been practiced on detainees for periods exceeding a month. No one dies, and in this case, the person's personality and psyche are destroyed but there is not a lot of literature that can definitively assess how much pain ever occured as it was going on. Such techniques are explicitly banned by the CATCIDT, and were by the Torture Act, but current definitions derive from the U.S. comments on CATCIDT, which were put in largely to distinguish between acceptable prison punishment and torture, but are being used to create the perception that the U.S. has never accepted as torture anything that doesn't cause extreme, prolonged pain.

So metatorture then. In the first form, a system that creates systematic torture. In the second, a form of torture that destroys the mind without crossing an artificial line. Both are the products of technology newer than the laws against torture. They should be punished more harshly than their predecessors.

1 comment:

C. Mosby said...


Metatorture as a planned and disciplined procedure surely based on awareness of the lessons of the Stanford experiment and a commitment to lawless pursuit of their agenda.

Alex Koppelman has an article on Salon today that speaks to their own awareness of the illegality they were instituting:

Metatorture is the right word for the practices of these criminals. Unfortunately, it seems they may now only be subject to a yet to be defined system of metajustice.

C. Mosby