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.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Depriving A Child

A Busy Day?

Sometimes it's hard to know where to start. One hopes that this indicates that a national and even an international dialog on torture is gradually starting and gaining prominence. On Salon, Alex Koppelman notes an AP release that an Iraqi man, Emad al-Janabi, is suing two U.S. contractors for torture at Abu Ghraib in 2003. At least there will be some action that isn't being bottled up by military commissions, a reluctant Congress, or maybe just dull headed editorial boards. The Washington Post is attempting to come clean on their lack of torture reporting, they were among the major outlets that maintained a far less than noble silence on the NSC Principals story, in their case trying to claim that it had all been reported before.

In their editorial Coming Clean on Torture, they commend the Bush administration for announcing it will make documents available to select members of Congress. It's a little hard to understand how a major news organization with access to so much information could fall so flat on such an important issue. They want Congress to "communicate clearly to the administration their concerns..." and "vigorously press" the administration on its "long-running effort to circumvent the domestic anti-torture statute and the international Convention Against Torture." Weak tea for international crimes, no? Congress has both the right and the authority, and under the Convention Against Torture, the obligation, to investigate, prosecute, and punish those in the administration who have created systems for torture. Communicating concerns is not even close to being enough. But it appears, as well, that the Post has difficulties understanding the proscriptions against torture, somehow seeing circumstances that are "understandable, and at times even forgivable." For the record, the statutes the Washington Post cites do not posit any understandable or forgivable torture, and the editorial, perhaps an attempt to place the Post on the side of justice, falls instead as an apology for the indefensible.

More on Less

At the end of the last post, I spent a few paragraphs on sensory deprivation. I'd like to spend a few more, and consider the continuum that includes both cutting off the senses of sight and sound with goggles and earphones, and possibly in some cases the sense of touch with tubes around the arms or in isolation tanks, and the punishment known as solitary confinement, whether or not it is undertaken for long periods of time or short ones. I'd like to do that because of a particular prisoner. Democracy Now! is running an Amy Goodman interview with Michelle Shepard, called Guantanamo's Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr. The title is the title of a new book by Ms. Shepard on Omar Khadr, a Canadian of Egyptian-Canadian parents, who is both the youngest prisoner currently at Guantanamo, and will, apparently, become the youngest person to be tried before the Military Commissions, and the first person in modern history to be tried for war crimes committed as a child.

There's a lot that is wrong with the story. There are conflicting reports and testimony about whether or not Omar Khadr killed an American soldier in Afghanistan. Some of the attitudes are quite frankly surprising. Khadr gets no support from Canada, because his brother told Canadian press that "We are an al Qaeda family." His lawyers have argued that he should not be tried because the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Geneva Conventions Additional Protocols both ban such actions for minors. [Note: The U.S. did not ratify the Additional Protocols. Under the Vienna Conventions, which the U.S. also did not ratify, but which it cites as a codification of existing law of nations, a party that signs a protocol but does not ratify it is required to refrain from violations but not required to enforce it. Thus the U.S. should not violate the Additional Protocols.] And that doesn't get to the heart of it: A child, but one who was arguably acting as a combatant, is charged with the "war crime" of killing a soldier. The Khadr was in a building that was an obvious military target of U.S. forces (it was bombed), he was shot by soldiers there, and there is even a possibility that the soldier was in fact killed by friendly fire, clear indications that there was no concealment of a military role. In what sense is participating in a two sided firefight anything but an act of war? He is, instead, criminal because he is being considered not a combatant but a terrorist (also the argument as to why his minority status doesn't matter).

However, there is more. Omar Khadr was held in solitary confinement for periods of time, and was put in sensory deprivation during his transport from Bagram to Guantanamo. In 2003, he was put in solitary confinement for lengthy periods of time in 2003 and in 2004. He was examined several times by medical experts, and Rolling Stone documented in 2006 that Dr. Eric Turpin filed a report in November 2004 in which he stated, in part,

"The impact of these harsh interrogation techniques on an adolescent such as O.K., who also has been isolated for almost three years, is potentially catastrophic to his future development," Trupin stated in his report. "Long-term consequences of harsh interrogation techniques are both more pronounced for adolescents and more difficult to remediate or treat even after such interrogations are discontinued, particularly if the victim is uncertain as to whether they will resume. It is my opinion, to a reasonable scientific certainty, that O.K.'s continued subjection to the threat of physical and mental abuse places him at significant risk for future psychiatric deterioration, which may include irreversible psychiatric symptoms and disorders, such as a psychosis with treatment-resistant hallucinations, paranoid delusions and persistent self-harming attempts."

Indeed. The report cited in my previous post, on solitary confinement, by Stuart Grassian, notes a symptomology of solitary confinement that parallels, not surprisingly, that of full sensory deprivation, albeit a bit slower on onset. Not much, however. There were student experimental subjects experiencing the first effects of solitary confinement after periods of a day or two in the Stanford Prison Experiment (Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect). The effects he cites, include (p.13),

The restriction of environmental stimulation and social isolation associated with confinement in solitary are strikingly toxic to mental functioning, producing a stuporous condition associated with perceptual and cognitive impairment and affective disturbances. In more severe cases, in mates so confined have developed florid delirium - a confusional psychosis with intense agitation, fearfulness, and disorganization. But even those inmate who are more psychologically resilient inevitably suffer severe psychological pain as a result of such confinement, especially when the confinement is prolonged, and especially when the individual experiences this confinement as being the product of an arbitrary exercise of power and intimidation. Moreover, the harm caused by such confinement may result in prolonged or permanent psychiatric disability, including impairments which may seriously reduce the inmate's capacity to reintegrate into the broader community upon release from prison.

Dr. Grassian also notes that the symptoms are etiologically strikingly similar to organic brain dysfunction, particularly to delirium, and that the combination of symptoms associated with profound solitary confinement and sensory deprivation are rare otherwise (p. 5). He notes that the long term lasting effects, aside from social impairments (Anti-Social Personality Disorder), include PTSD.

But what about the fact that Khadr underwent these harsh treatments as a minor? Recently, there has been much talk about the adolescent brain not being as fully formed as an adult's, much later into adolescence than previously believed. Although there are disputes about this, there is some research to indicate that crucial wiring operations are going on into adolescence and are interrupted by sensory deprivation. So for someone who is not an adult, there is the potential for much more serious damage to brain function, as Dr. Turpin mentioned.

Consider this: A brain is a functioning organ of the human body that is necessary for life, sensation, locomotion, thought, and personality. If it's wiring is permanently impaired, if it is subjected to insult that creates symptoms consistent with neurological central nervous system dysfunction, if that is exacerbated when the victim is a child, then no matter what the restrictive definition of torture adopted by the Bush administration Office of Legal Council, even that written by John Yoo in 2002, what Omar Khadr underwent, even without the subjection to pain, humiliation and threats he endured, caused a quite likely permanent damage to an organ of his body. Is this the kind of pain consistent with "major organ failure"? Maybe we should ask Professor Yoo.

One Final Note

A commenter on the previous post noted that June 26 is the U.N. Day Against Torture. Specifically, it is the anniversary of the entering into force of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. There is a notice about activities for that day on the IRCT website. No one should lose site of the fact that all torture should end, that practiced by the U.S. and that practiced by others. But it would be nice if by that time, Congress had begun their investigations in earnest on the U.S. transgressions. Thank you, to the anonymous poster.

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