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 12, 2008


Some things are baffling: How Americans could learn of torture and not react to the news. How American soldiers and CIA could practice torture and not disobey or refuse. How could the news media decide almost en masse to play down coverage of such a thing?

I know, I know, the banality of evil and all that. I'm not belittling it, I certainly do believe in it, but it really doesn't account for it all in detail, just says it can happen. It isn't like no one has fought very hard against the practice. There are awareness and advocacy organizations. There have been media exposés. There are phalanxes of lawyers who have been trying to represent prisoners in various courts for years now. There is medical documentation. There are confidential appraisements by the ICRC, there are public appraisements by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. House Resolution 626 and Senate Resolution 303 specifically mention torture and cruel treatment. Letters from members of the House of Representatives have called for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate possible war crimes connected to torture at Guantanamo, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.

Then why, given that torture is shocking to human beings, is it so hard to arouse the public?

Accommodation and Sensitization

So this is a post about substrates. How the underlying conditions change what is seen to something else, in all of the minds that interact with it. There are actually two things the brain does with sensory input (or emotional or cognitive input at a higher level). One is accomodation: the brain accomodates to the ambient qualities of the input as a means of adjusting to the environment. It can do this locally, as when two colors are juxtaposed and the perception of one affects the perception of the other, or it can do it globally, like when the eye adjusts to the level of light or darkness. In essence, it will take the edge off of perception, make it the norm. The other is sensitization: the brain can be put into various states of alertness and heightened perception when the input is amplified in some way over what it would be otherwise. A situation of perceived danger, for instance, will cause more sensory information to be processed, and parts of the brain have different states of activity, depending on a whole host of neurotransmitters, hormones, levels of blood flow, and the like. So there is, in essence no 'objective' view of reality, only the currently operative one. The same set of wavelengths in the same relative strengths, can be perceived as red, green, blue, or anything in between, given differing ambient and local conditions. And both by similar mechanisms, and by analogy, a person can perceive a situation like abusive treatment in many ways depending on the local (current) circumstances, or the global ambient (standard procedures, traditions, customs) circumstances.

The Detainee Substrate

The first substrate is the the designation detainee. It would seem that for the past some odd years, there has been a growing gap between the rights of a prisoner and the rights of a detainee. In fact, in the case of those held in our military prisons, the term detainee seems to be used to avoid the use of the term prisoner, an analog and perhaps an alternate set of vocabulary to calling people either prisoners of war or illegal enemy combatants. It would seem that what distinguishes a detainee from a prisoner is whether there has been a judgment that would imply that the person was being incarcerated as a punishment, or whether they are being 'held' for some reason. In the realm of the burgeoning military detention system that the Bush administration has built up as part of its 'war on terror', it is both: the term detainee is applied to people who are both being held without charge 'for the duration of conflict', and it is applied to indicate that they are not thought to be entitled to the rights of someone designated as a prisoner of war.

But this double use has also apparently been used in the immigration detention system. The term detainee there carries no original diminution of rights, really. There is no 3rd Geneva Convention to be shortened from its full length of protections to the third of a page known as Common Article 3. The people there have never been judged to have relinquished their rights under some criterion like that they weren't wearing uniforms or something, because they never were prisoners of war. They are, rather, immigrants who are awaiting immigration hearings: illegal immigrants awaiting deportations, or just people who have requested asylum who are waiting for their hearings. The title detainee invokes the same substrate as with the military prisoners, though. They are not given the rights that a prisoner convicted of a crime in America is given. Remarkably, Justice Scalia, defending the '24' brand of torture, and perhaps mulling the lethal injections case before the court, opined that the Constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment applied only to prisoners: to people who had been charged and convicted of crimes, and not before. The 'detainee' substrate satisfies all those who believe that only citizens should have Constitutional rights (not true), it satisfies all those who believe that there should be some prisoners that are entitled to less. In the 4 part series Careless Detention, by Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein in the Washington Post, it is possible to see just how little our government apparently believes detainees are entitled to. In some cases, they appear not to be entitled to medical care when they will die without it.

The Substrate of Violence

The next substrate is desensitization of the public and of public officials. Whether this is due to violence in life, or violence in the media, or violence in the movies or video games or whether it is just due to a growing insensitivity towards mistreatment, it is hard to tell. It is important, as a matter of the ambient level of abuse which leaves one disturbed. How many people can watch crime shows, movies, or thrillers, and react to a person of authority beating a suspect, or beating a prisoner, without much emotion? It is argued, I think reasonably, that the average person can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but the stories in the news are media, not everyday life, and they may blend more easily into the backdrop of fictional acceptability than the same scene would if it were unfolding before a person in real life. In order for the public to get upset over images of torture on the TV, they have to shock when seen on TV not in real life. And that makes such desensitization more relevant.

Desensitization goes on very quickly when it appears that some abusive behavior is the norm. In the movie Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris subjects the audience to constant pictures of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, almost always naked, frequently restrained in stress positions, handcuffed to bed posts, to the bars of a cell, and intersperses these with what frequently sounds like reasonable explanations from the military police and the interrogators, who complain that things weren't right, but that they were told that that was the way things were done, and not to question. By the time people working for the prosecution begin tagging pictures as criminal or standard operating procedure, the viewer perhaps doesn't question the first S.O.P. designation, until one wrenches one's head out of the film context and says, "Wait a minute!" In point of fact, what is so characterized is not normal, and the viewer has had only an hour and a half of exposure to it to accommodate.

Desensitization to very powerful punishment techniques has gone on in our society for a long time. How many people would react with much surprise to the knowledge that a prisoner was being held in solitary confinement? We hear, or read, the term 'supermax' with reference to a prison, referring to something that is beyond maximum security confinement, but never think that it is a reference to solitary confinement, and probably would have little reaction if we knew that. But, as I have cited before, Stuart Grassian's testimony shows that solitary confinement is a deprivation that drives prisoners insane, and can permanently damage personalities and social interaction abilities. Desensitization to sleep deprivation is similar: All of us know the feeling of missing a night's sleep, either for work, for study, perhaps taking care of an infant or a sick child, perhaps on a wild night in one's past, or doing shelter ops during a disaster. It is hard to feel the fact that deprivation like that over a longer period, with sleep purposely interrupted, could disorganize the personality, and was so apparently cruel that people would do virtually anything to get sleep.

The Deprivation Substrate

Which brings us to the substrate that makes torture seem not that bad. This is the substrate of cruel, but passive, techniques that bring the prisoner's psyche to the breaking point, or beyond, without blood, or bruises, or scars. In Errol Morris' movie, a soldier sums up with the notion that what they were doing was just humiliation, what the OGAs (Other Government Agencies, usually CIA) were doing was the torture. At the point at which he says that, the viewer knows that prisoners have been beaten to death by the others, so one finds oneself nodding in agreement. Slapping inmates, humiliating them, playing loud music at them, it all seems so tame, and we are told it is -- what about those guys who pull fingernails out, or behead people, and so forth.

And that is the final triumph of substrates over reason. First there was the substrate that said, "This is a detainee, they don't deserve the rights we Americans do." Then there was the substrate that said, "I've seen the detective do worse on my favorite TV show." Then there was the substrate that said, "Solitary is legal punishment," and said, "Losing sleep, I lose sleep, it isn't that bad."

From the prisoner's point of view, the substrate is not an accomodation though, it's a sensitization. The lack of sleep, the solitary confinement, the constant humiliation, the fear. That's a substrate that has the prisoner's personality tipping constantly over the edge into madness and horror. And with that as a substrate, one slap, one barking dog, one session hooded standing on a box with wires attached to ones hands, is a huge shock to the mind. Peel away the substrate of the American onlooker, the accommodating one. Substitute the substrate that sensitizes, that makes everything a struggle to maintain one's sanity. That peeling away is what the American public needs to do. Without the accommodation, the plain light of day is too bright and hurts the eye. Without the sanity of the armchair view, sensitivity to physical or emotional pain robs the mind of its faculties. Arrange the substrates to dull the onlooker and sensitize the victim, and then those slaps become the worst possible evil: Torture that fails to shock the public conscience.

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