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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Waiting Won't Do

This post is about advocacy. Because regardless of whether or not we plumb the depths of why the American public does not rally to end the torture and abuse committed against prisoners in their name, in our name, unless they do, this country will continue to do what it should not, and apparently in increasing, not decreasing amounts, with increasing, and not decreasing secrecy, in increasing, and not decreasing torture "cleanliness".

I am not an advocate by nature. My posts are an attempt to research and divulge facts that I find it hard to collect together, thinking maybe that by putting them together I make it easier for those who read them to try to get a picture of what has been going on. I am not a lawyer, I don't go argue cases for these people, I have never met them. Even so, I don't find the laws involved, the international treaties that everybody knows about, to be so abstruse that one needs any special training to understand their point. I don't know whether the prisoners are good or bad people, I don't seem to care. Do I care that they may have meant harm to me? It shouldn't matter when the concern is how we treat people, and something so basic as human dignity. I believe we are losing the battle against those who want to create a permanent, off the shelf, covert entity that operates beyond the law, beyond the branches of American government. People have said that a balanced attitude is to believe that they want nothing but the most patriotic of things for America, they just have gone about it in the wrong way. I find that hard to believe. Almost from the start, the efforts have been to change what was right and wrong, to change how the very most basic functions of government work, and finally, with the subject at hand, change the most basic ways in which we tell right from wrong.

If one focuses on what is easy to grasp, one gets a certain vocabulary, a mental space, populated with frames of violent torture, with concepts like alien illegal combatant detainee. The place is Guantanamo, the time frame is 2002 to 2004, the words are things like waterboarding, enhanced interrogation. There may or may not be something wrong with this mental space. It blends easily with others that allow, if not numbness, then containment. No one would be suggesting that we could put off investigating and prosecuting the wrongs committed in the name of this country if that weren't possible. We can wait to prosecute because we are believing that we are investigating a committed crime, then there is ample time to wait for the correct moment, the proper advantage, the right number of people on our side in Congress, the right president, the right moment, the right combination of factors that will maximize our advantage and allow us to win. Or to declare that we will change the way the country works, move forward instead of dwelling on the past. We have important things to do. We contain things in space and time because it makes them bearable. Politicians contain them in space and time because they fit better under the rug.

Do you remember the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? When you confine something in space, make the photograph sharp, make it so you can see every detail, then it expands in time. When you confine it in time, be sure of when it happened, how fast it is evolving, when it started, then it blurs indefinitely in space, and the picture isn't sharp. There is a limit to how much something with rest mass, defined by Einstein's famous formula, may be confined. You can take that principle to the bank, it's used in your cell phone, its used in the computer that you access the internet and read blogs on. It's very, very real.

In the case of torture by Americans or for Americans, perhaps there is an uncertainty principle at work as well. You can confine it, and the problem seems manageable. On this date, they began the torture of Abu Zubaydah, on the other, they started the sensory deprivation of Mohammed al Qahtani, this is when John Yoo wrote his memo, that is who was present in the Situation Room at the White House, we use saran wrap to do our waterboarding, it comes from Pol Pot not Torquemada, there are 14 prisoners that arrived from the Black Sites to Guantanamo, the Geneva Conventions says that an accused civilian may not be deported from the country of occupation. December 2001, January 2002, April 2004, October 2006 confine it in time. Confine it in place. The less energy it has, the tighter it may be confined, after all, a body of evidence with no momentum creates no change when it impacts your mind.

None of that is true if confinement doesn't exist. The only question that determines whether or not the whole question of American torture is something that can conveniently wait till the next president, the next session of Congress, Deng Xiaoping's four M's (ming tien, ming yueh, ming nien, ming bei, as the joke goes, tomorrow, next month, next year, next life), or whatever is this one. Is it confined? And that means, just like the uncertainty principle, do we see it clearly and where is it going?

First, do we see it clearly?

I was released from "solitary confinement" after being held therein for 37 months. A silent system was imposed on me and to even "whisper" to the man in the next cell resulted in being beaten by guards, sprayed with chemical mace, black-jacked, stomped, and thrown into a 'strip-cell' naked to sleep on a concrete floor without bedding, covering, wash basin, or even a toilet. The floor served as toilet and bed, and even there the "silent system" was enforced. To let a "moan" escape your lips because of the pain and discomfort resulted in another beating. I spent not days, but months there during my 37 months in solitary.

That was not from Guantanamo. It was from Ohio state prison (quoted in Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, pp. 249-250). Waterboarding is easy to understand as torture. The prisoner gasps for life, the implements look medieval, the scene in the movie Rendition is gut wrenching to watch. Privation is silent, it doesn't look gut wrenching at any given time, no sirens or red flags go up to mark the disintegration of a personality due to sleep or sensory deprivation and solitary confinement, no marks or bruises mark the organ damage from hypo- or hyperthermia. By the time someone gets to interrogation, just shouting at them may be all that's needed to inflict this sort of torture, maybe all that causes the mind to shred is a touch that makes them to unclean to pray, their only hope of being saved from the torment they are in removed in front of any camera that will fail to show the sharp edges of what has happened. In 2006, Barbara Olshansky writes,

While the full population of the CIA's web of secret detention facilities has not yet been definitely ascertained, media reports, along with reports of several leading human rights groups, indicate that the government may be holding in excess of fourteen thousand people at more than three dozen detention centers around the world, at least half of which operate in secret (Democracy Detained, p. 219).

Where? She further reports a whole constellation of sites in Afghanistan. Bagram Air Base and Kandahar are familiar from the papers. Other facilities are not. Reports have been in our papers of prisoners in Afghanistan that were killed using "peroneal strikes". Comfortable, when there is violence, because we understand. That is torture, that is what we mean by it. Even Darius Rejali has trouble talking about torture that has no physical component, no beatings, no use of force. So we shudder, as we should, over descriptions like, "He was purportedly stripped, chained to the floor, assaulted, and left overnight without covering. He died from exposure." (Democracy Detained, p. 225).

Well then, if it wasn't contained in place, was it contained in time? Surely we now have those laws in place. We have people who sit in front of our congress and testify that the law has changed, or the situation has changed, or something has changed (Condoleezza Rice has used those words at least within the last two weeks if not the last few days). We have the Detainee Treatment Act, we have explicit bans against torture, we have Supreme Court decisions. We have revelations coming faster and more furious, we have testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, we have publication of hundreds of pages of reports about the FBI complaints, we have this under control? We are still talking about something in the past, something that will withstand the slow march of justice, the slow but inexorable wheels of congressional debate and testimony and an election that will bring to power a new government, elected by a people who want change, who want to move forward and not dwell on the divisiveness of the past, a new government, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle...

No. When a cancerous tumor is excised, there is remission and the patient believes they have turned the corner, it has been contained, the threat has passed, and the moments that seemed special when they were all one had left are now to become the normal moments of boredom and liveliness of a life with future. To find out at that point that the cancer has metastasized is devastating. Amnesty International is reporting, in Afghanistan, under the title, Abuse by International Forces, the subsection, Torture and other ill treatment,

ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces continued to transfer detainees to the NDS [Afghani National Directorate of Security], despite allegations of torture and other ill-treatment by the NDS. Attempts by international forces to monitor transferred detainees were inconsistently applied.

In addition, forces involved in the US-led OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] continued to transfer people to the NDS and to US-run detention facilities, including at Bagram airbase near Kabul. US authorities transferred more than 100 detainees from Bagram and Guantánamo to the newly refurbished D-Block of the high security Pol-e Charkhi prison outside Kabul. It was not clear who had oversight of the D-Block. About 600 detainees were believed to remain in Bagram at the end of the year (Amnesty International Report 2008, Afghanistan).

So it is still going on? Perhaps this is just more of the same, after all, the Guardian reported on the United States' use of Afghanistan as a giant prison colony in 2005. So perhaps this should not be seen as something new. And besides, we hear from our government that prisoners are being released. There were many hundreds of prisoners at Guantanamo, there are now 275, the rest have been sent home. What does that mean? In April, the New York Times reported that they faced secret trials with little justice, back in Afghanistan. A fuller report, complete with numbers, and details about corruption and bribery, the name of the cellblock in question, the name of the Afghani agency that got them is available from RAWA, the Afghani women's civil rights organization. They are held by the National Security Directorate, the organization mentioned in the Amnesty document above. And the numbers? Perhaps since 2006 something has changed? If there are 13,000 prisoners in Afghanistan, then an awful lot are disappeared. After all, the ICRC reports 10,100 prisoners in 2008, and has registered 435 for the first time. Almost twice as many new prisoners that the Red Cross knows about, this year, than there are at Guantanamo. Easily ten times as many that the Red Cross does not know about as there are in Guantanamo. And fifty times as many in all. There are 14,000 more in Iraq.

So while we are blithely believing that hearings that might just produce David Addington (if he deigns to honor a subpoena from his perch in the fourth branch of government) are real progress, while we feel good about demanding from each of the remaining presidential candidates that they promise to close Guantanamo, while we feel righteous about asking Michael Mukasey to denounce waterboarding, or John McCain to vote on torture legislation, the number of new prisoners is as many as it took years to build up at Guantanamo Bay, the torture is still close confinement and passive subjection to harsh changes in heat and cold, there are still plenty of new prisoners that are prevented from sleeping night after night.

In short, we aren't winning yet.

June 26th is the International Day Against Torture. Before that day, can we do anything that will make the country arouse from its slumber on this one? By then can each candidate be forced to answer the question of whether or not they know what the other branch of government is doing in Afghanistan? By then can enough people write their congressional delegation to tell them that solitary confinement to the point of madness is torture too, even if no water lands on a prisoner's face? By June 26th we must raise a voice in this country. We must make it impossible to confine our country's misdeeds to a small enough place and time that it will fit between the shuffle of more comfortable legislation. We must make it uncomfortable for every politician from every part of the spectrum to appear in public without these questions answered. There are a few towns in America in which it is illegal for these torturers to set foot. They should be persona non grata in every major metropolis, and every mayor should know that as far away as Washington is, there is moral rot in most prisons in the land and that is unacceptable too. It should not be comfortable to put the immigrants slated for deportation out of mind while they endure different standards of care that kill or abuse them in transport or detention. All that makes it too easy to endure what is happening in our military prisons abroad.

Please. We need to start changing this country now, not wait for November.

Before June 26th, every American should be confronted with a new reality: They don't hate us for our freedoms, they hate us for our prisons. We should too, not a few of them hold Americans at home, in conditions that make the tortures we commit abroad more palatable because we've grown used to widespread abuse. Prisons and torture are our cancer, and we are not in remission. We cannot wait for some bringer of change, some mandate from heaven. Not while we continue this mandate from hell.

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