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.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Taking a Break From Euphemisms

This morning I saw Marty Lederman's reference on Balkinization to an essay, Euphemism and American Violence, by David Bromwich in The New York Review of Books. An important warning about how it is that a society can become inured to horrible practices, and to how our society is being purposely led to believe that the horrible is something else entirely.

On the subject of the purposeful euphemizing of torture, and the use of endless discussions and excuses, and tough phrases that never really get down to what torture is, Bromwich writes,

It would be hard to find a precedent for the sophistical juggle of these explanations. The secret in plain view was not a judgment about present or future policy, but an imposed acceptance of something past. President Bush, in 2002 and later, sought and obtained legal justifications for ordering the torture of terrorism suspects, and it is known that American interrogators used methods on some suspects that constitute torture under international law. If these acts had been admitted by the attorney general to meet the definition of torture, those who conducted the interrogations and those who ordered them, including the President, would be liable to prosecution for war crimes. Because the legacy of the Nuremberg Trials remains vivid today, the very idea of a war crime has been treated as a thing worth steering clear of, no matter what the cost in overstretched ingenuity. Thought of a war crime does not lend itself to euphemistic reduction.

Yet "waterboarding" itself is a euphemism for a torture that the Japanese in World War II, the French in Indochina, and the Khmer Rouge, who learned it from the French, knew simply as the drowning torture. Our American explanations have been as misleading as the word....
Would harsh language, devoid of euphemism, be closer to the truth? In point of fact, euphemism, as a form of metaphor, is a mechanism for understanding the world. Internally, our mind insulates itself from pain by digesting it, by finding comparisons and analogies that help to put the painful situation into a context of less painful experiences. Were this never to happen, or were our experiences to be so painfully different from all that we have as experience elsewise, we'd all be walking around with PTSD.

But it is quite another thing to insulate ourselves from painful experiences that are not our own, and still another to insulate the public from painful experiences that one is delegating to others to commit on those whom the public shall never see. Had pictures not surfaced from Abu Ghraib, the occasional photograph of a prisoner, called detainee in the language of euphemism, could be explained away as the face of evil, as pictures of a post torture Abu Zubaydah frequently are.

Torture is not supposed to exist. Its victims can never be insulated from its effects, torture victims have been studied who are still in physical and emotional pain 40 years after the event. And because it is not supposed to exist, euphemisms for it, expressions like enhanced interrogation, meant to dull the public sensibilities, are not supposed to exist, either. And maybe that's what the news blackout is all about. In our heart of hearts, we do know that there is a cruelty that is done to people, that ancient horror, that inquisitional practice, and we do know it is very wrong. And people who are supposed to be respectable, like cabinet officers and presidents, couldn't possibly do that.

So in honor of David Bromwich's argument that euphemism allows violence, a brief respite from
euphemism in the discussion of torture. More complete descriptions can be had at the Physicians for Human Rights site, in their report, Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality or many of the informative articles in the journal Torture.

Stress positions. These are either painful positions in their own right, or positions that become intensely painful after they are forced to be held for many hours. Even standing still becomes painful, as Leave No Marks quotes, “the ankles and feet of the prisoner to swell to twice their circumference,” “the skin to becomes tense and intensely painful,” and “large blisters develop which break and exude watery serum”, and usually the prisoner develops, “a delirious state … delusions and visual hallucinations." Donald Rumsfeld famously talked about standing at his desk for 9 or 10 hours a day, deprecating this as a form of torture. Donald Rumsfeld wasn't constrained not to move. Worse can happen. In cases reported of extraordinary rendition, people are kept in cells too small to move or change position, often for extended periods stretching into weeks.

Mind Altering Substances. These are, quite frankly, drugs. 'Truth sera' used to lower inhibitions and induce talkativeness, mind altering substances to enhance other techniques and increase disorientation, or maybe scopolamine: "Normally it is introduced into the body by a transdermal patch or intravenously in the arm. However, if you inject it into the spine (amount classified), it causes absolutely incredible pain, accompanied by violent convulsions and seizures," bragged one 'interrogation expert' from Guantanamo.

Beatings. This is a broad category, and includes some of the 'techniques' that were discussed at the Principals' Torture Council meetings at the White House. John Kiriakou mentions belly slapping on Abu Zubaydah, there were some famous homicides at Bagram due to a tactic called common peroneal strike of kicking hard downward on the prisoner's thighs, causing blunt force injuries to the soft tissue there. As the PHR report stresses, even titles like belly slap are euphemisms of a sort: accurate descriptions that fail to mention how hard or how often the slapping is done. Bellies are filled with vital organs after all, injury to any one of them is a serious threat to health. Both stress positions and beatings can cause rhabodomyolysis, a breakdown of the muscles that releases poisons into the blood stream, leading to kidney failure.

Extreme Heat and Cold. Once again, the title is often accompanied by a euphemistic description of turning an air conditioner down and up. It's a little more variable than your average comfort unit. In some cases, extreme cold means being wet with water, then exposed to the out of doors in the winter time with little or no clothing. Initially the body compensates with elevated blood pressure and pulse, shivering activity. As the body begins to decompensate, the mind begins to shut off, the circulation becomes sluggish, the heart is under stress and is cooled. The damage includes damage to insulin use, excess strain on the cardiovascular system, and clotting which can lead to pulmonary embolism. Heat goes the other way, with extremes causing strain from water and electrolyte loss, syncope, and as the body begins to decompensate and the core temperature rises, the chemicals that the body is made of begin to denature, that is, they come apart, and the body starts to poison itself. As muscle cells come apart, they release chemicals into the blood stream that poison the kidneys, similar to the effects of beatings. Brain chemicals which come apart can cause seizure. At that point, called heatstroke, many people do not survive even if given immediate medical care.

Sleep deprivation. This lovely technique is essentially interruption of sleep. Or it can take the form of forcing the prisoner to stay awake for periods of two days or more. The brain needs sleep or it will become imbalanced. Lack of sleep leads to hallucinations, and interruption of normal cognition and memory. Severe lack of sleep can aggravate depression, and cause suicidal anxieties. In addition, any such extreme psychological stress interrupts processes that rejuvenate the brain and allow for complex memory and thought formation. It has lasting side effects: the PRH document lists changes in glucose processing and insulin tolerance, as well as high blood pressure and heart disease as side effects.

Sensory Deprivation. Sensory deprivation causes hallucination and psychosis. Jane Mayer described some of the effects in her article The Black Sites . In days, the prisoner's psyche collapses, and the prisoner becomes dependent on the interrogator as a child would be upon a parent. It seems innocuous. No one is beaten, no water is poured on a person's face. But in experiments, the majority of the subjects elected not to continue with the experiment, even though forfeiting rewards (Leave No Marks, p. 42). It is not a pleasant experience to lose one's mind, even if it might be hard to articulate that while it is happening. And that's for days.
The Department of Defense authorized the use of sensory deprivation — in the form of deprivation of light and auditory stimuli and isolation extended beyond 30 days — for use by the military in Guantánamo in 2002. The ICRC reported that detainees in Iraq frequently alleged that they were subjected to isolation — often combined with other aggravating circumstances — during interrogation (Leave No Marks, p.42).
There are many other tactics used, the Defense Department authorized 14 in all in 2003, it is unknown how many were authorized for the CIA, or how many the Torture Council presided over. This is only meant as a sampling, and a defense. A defense against the euphemism that David Bromwich speaks. It is useful to remember that these techniques cause a lifetime of pain some physical, some mental, and sometimes cause early organ failures. Where rhabdomyolysis is involved, kidney dialysis is needed in most of the former victims. Mental effects start with clinical depression, and range through all the varieties of PTSD. Physical damage can lead to permanent pain in the hands and feet.

But that doesn't mean we should hide behind a news blackout, it doesn't mean we should hide behind euphemisms like 'enhanced interrogations'. We should, instead, insist that the full horror be there, and if it is too much for the governing class to handle so much pain, then perhaps they should not order it, or make it possible. If you are talking about earphones and blackout goggles, you should be willing to talk about breaking a man's mind, and leaving him screaming silently inside as his personality and psyche falls apart. Or better still, you should be talking about banning it.


Karen M said...

This was pretty hard to read, ondelette, and I know you were going easy on us...

bamage02 said...

'lette, wanted to let you know I'm here reading/learning. Miss you @ UT.

ondelette said...

Thanks bamage. I hope you'll hold me to a high standard.