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.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Right To Know

There's a lot of movement in recent days, here are some of the promising developments:

The ACLU has set up a new blog, and is currently devoting it to a week long symposium on torture. They are running at the rate of 3 or 4 articles a day by invited authors. Topics range from extraordinary rendition, to the new disclosures by the Office of the Inspector General at the Justice Department on the FBI response to detainee abuses, to some descriptive materials and discussion of the legal responses. It is well worth the time to go have a look at While you're there, please remember that for every blog post you read here, or you read elsewhere, and for every opinion, for every book or documentary film you've used to stay informed on torture and violations of international or American or other laws, there were probably ten or maybe 100 documents painstakingly tracked down by filing Freedom of Information Act briefs, filing lawsuits, or supporting detainees with counsel or with court cases, that were all done on very limited budgets, by groups like the ACLU. So when you visit a site from any of these groups, if you are in a position to be generous, you should consider contributing.

Scott Horton and others are starting a campaign No Torture No Exceptions. You can read about the initiative in this piece by Scott at Harper's. h/t to George Hunsinger of NRCAT. And you should mark your calendar, as I have mentioned once before, for June 26th. Now there are two reasons to do so: It is the International Day Against Torture, celebrating the entrance into force of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment, a treaty that became active on that day in 1987. The treaty was the codification of some of the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which brings us to the second reason, because it was an American, Eleanor Roosevelt, who first spearheaded that declaration.

June 26th is also the day the House Judiciary Committee will reconvene to hear testimony from John Yoo, John Ashcroft, David Addington, and should hear testimony from Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales as well, on the policies and events that have lead to the torture and abuse of prisoners in American custody. It is the saddest of ironies that we will have to celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt's hopes with hearings to determine the extent to which the United States has become a state that sanctions torture.

So perhaps the best way that any American, and maybe anyone else who is concerned that these hearings lead to justice, can celebrate is to write. Write to the members of Congress, and tell them the questions that need to be answered. If you've ever watched a committee hearing, you know that each member has just a limited time to try to get information on the subject at hand. The more heads are involved at coming up with the best and most incisive questions to ask, the better the questions will be, and the more truth will be revealed. It's time for the people to interrogate the interrogators. Even if you cannot think of something to ask, you should let them know you care about this issue, you can send an email easily here.

Knowing Not Knowing

It's a take off on a Taoist expression, 'wei wu wei', 為無為, usually translated as 'doing not doing'. Perhaps it should be written zhi bu zhi, 知不知, 'knowing doesn't know'.

It's a good description of where we are with many of the leads of evidence on the involvement of the American government, and indeed, to some extent, American society, in the business of torture. At this point, we know that we do not know everything that we should. We do not know exactly when the torture started after September 11th. Philippe Sands, in The Torture Team, documents when the memos sanctioning torture got to Guantanamo Bay, and resulted in the torture of Mohammed al Qahtani. He certainly wasn't the first, Abu Zubaydah had been tortured before, Ibn al Shaykh al Libi before that. At best, detainee 063, as Mr. Sands calls him, would be the first under explicit written sanction by the U.S. military.

We think. The new document prepared by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice about FBI conduct and reporting of abuse and torture, talks of FBI agents documenting and asking for guidance about military interrogation tactics in the early autumn of 2002. The memo Philippe Sands is working with didn't arrive at Guantanamo until early November. At any rate Abu Zubaydah was interrogated much earlier, and the CIA got their memo in August. al Libi had already been interrogated, reports are that the Egyptians did the dirty work on that interrogation at CIA insistence.

Before that, things are hazy. During the invasion of Afghanistan was when detainee 001, John Walker Lindh was captured at Mazar-e-Sharif. He was mistreated, kept in a shipping container strapped to a board, without clothing, shortly after his apprehension. The practice of containering, or shooting at a container full of detainees, was supposedly occuring around that time as well. And we know that the CIA interrogated prisoners at Kohat prison in Pakistan as the Taliban and foreign fighters were fleeing there during the invasion.

Knowing Not Knowing

'Knowing not knowing' would also describe the attitude towards much that has been done to detainees. We citizens of America are vaguely aware of how they have been treated. Accounts vary. When only parts of the treatment are related, the sum total is lost, and possibly with it, the empathy. It is hard to picture belly slapping as what it is, a hard open handed blow to the abdomen, and picture all that it is doing to a prisoner. The circumstances are not appreciated. There are contexts and substrates, factors that multiply the pain.

We can't relate to some of the treatment the way we should. Prolonged extreme isolation is listed as a tactic that the FBI agents found to be torture -- they were applying the criterion that Americans believe it is torture if it is done by another country to our soldiers. It's a good call, it causes profound changes in psychology including dissociations that become psychotic. But we routinely subject prisoners to extended isolation in our nation's prisons, and we have been 'not knowing' that as torture. Extreme isolation is worse than isolation, but even so, perhaps we are not as nice a people as we would imagine, if a profound torture doesn't sound like it to our ears.

We find beatings to be horrible. But the "Palestinian hanging" that killed Manadel al Jamadi, we don't recognize. We see it over and over again in the Abu Ghraib pictures. We see something like it on cop shows on TV. We see hog tying by police in some arrests. To someone with an injury or shock, or lung damage like al Jamadi had sustained, these techniques lead to positional asphyxia (suffocation due to a position in which a person cannot breathe). Emergency medical workers are forbidden from transporting patients in some of these positions for that reason. This manner of death was one of the ways people died by crucifixion. But it doesn't look that bad. We don't know it as torture until we're told.

Knowing Not Knowing

'Knowing not knowing' is profoundly the means by which the mind itself shreds under the 'clean' tortures. Sensory deprivation teaches the mind to know not knowing. No sensory input should mean no consciousness. It is natural in a state of sleep. It isn't natural in a wakeful state. There are religious and meditational practices that strive for such states. But this isn't one of them. No one sits in a zendo -- eyes fixed on the wall, legs crossed on the cushions, hands carefully folded with thumbs touching -- fearing imminent death, in a state of total captivity, with shackles and a total uncertainty of the future.

We who observe cannot know what we do not know, but we can know that not knowing can be painful. The Convention Against Torture bans threats of death both to the prisoner or to those the prisoner knows or cares for. But there is more: The constant pain of not knowing is considered torture by the U.N. Committee that oversees the adherence to the Torture Convention. Completely disappearing a prisoner is a form of torture. Consider the effect on the relatives of the prisoner: They do not know if this person is alive or dead, for years on end. They may not be able to subsist with that not knowing -- should they continue to search or abandon the prisoner? Is the prisoner the wage earner? What are the social customs for a widow, for example, if a widow is even what a person is, whose spouse has simply disappeared. The prisoner, in the dark night of prolonged extreme isolation, or even just in the isolation of no communication to the outside for years on end, always has the time to ponder this. And knowing this not knowing causes extreme pain.

June 26th, we must know what we do not know. Knowing not knowing could drive America mad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Container-ing" isn't shooting prisoner's in a's shipping them or leaving them in a container without food, water, or fresh air in a watertight, airtight metal container.....baking in the sun. If you ship them a few hundred miles you simply empty the container with the now dead occupants into a deep trench and bury them in a mass grave.