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, June 7, 2008

Framing for Containment

At a recent panel discussion at Stanford University, one of the panelists, answering a question about how the struggle was going for finding facts, defending prisoners, and getting rights at Guantanamo, said something at once surprising and depressing. Amant Raut, finishing up his response, suddenly said, "They're framing things before we can, they're inventing vocabulary so fast we can't keep up."

The Language of Frames

I'm not a stranger to the language of framing, of cognitive science with it's processes of recruitment and its interaction with language. But just to be sure, I went and took a look at George Lakoff, and read about why I shouldn't think of an elephant. The essential point is that if a situation is described well by a frame, that is, an empty prototype which is then filled with the specifics to become an interpretation. If the frame is well established, a word or two from the frame become a metaphor, and then becomes the symbol for the subject matter. This is powerful politically, if one side of a debate can adequately frame the issue and construct a powerful metaphor, every time the issue is discussed, the mere use of what has become the standard vocabulary by that point, draws up a frame that is advantageous to the party that framed it. We speak in metaphors most of the time, and we don't examine them usually (George Lakoff, Don't Think of an Elephant, see ch. 1).

So how has torture been framed recently? Say torture in the mainstream media right now, and they will talk about waterboarding within the paragraph. The words illegal enemy combatants, and probably enhanced interrogation methods, and Guantanamo Bay will show up soon after, perhaps the words high value detainee. The frame in public opinion is that some high value detainees were waterboarded soon after September 11, it was a different time, it was legal then because they were illegal enemy combatants, we were worried about another attack, the president approved enhanced interrogation methods, those to whom the methods have been applied are at Guantanamo Bay, they are being brought to trial in front of the Military Commissions. Right?

In this atmosphere, what ensues next is a discussion over whether or not detainees at Gitmo were tortured, and a discussion over whether waterboarding is drowning or simulated drowning, and inevitably a discussion over whether or not torture produces useful intelligence or only what the interrogator wants to hear. Here is the list of words, remember these, these are the frame:

torture = waterboarding
prisoner = detainee
detainee = illegal enemy combatant
imprisonment = Guantanamo
torture victim = high-value detainee
information = prevent another attack
back then = right after September 11
now = trials, laws have changed
court of law = Military commission

Dry Drowning and Torture

In the context of this frame, I got an email of the video of the CNN report on dry drowning from Jim White -- we should look at this, it shows that waterboarding can cause lasting harm, even death. I demurred, there are some things about that video. What happened is that a young boy in South Carolina had a near drowning incident at the pool, after which he walked home. His mother noticed he was acting tired while bathing him, he said he felt so, and he lay down for a nap. He stopped breathing, when he was noticed, and rushed to the hospital, he did not survive. The incident is being called dry drowning because he wasn't in the pool when he stopped breathing. The video is a little odd in places due to strange use of terminology and interpretations, the correspondent keeps saying ingest instead of aspirate, and she has a strange interpretation of the symptoms of hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain).

Actually, most drowning occurs with very little water in the lungs, until either deep unconsciousness or death relaxes the muscles and the water enters. A natural reaction is laryngeospasm, which closes the passage to the lungs keeping the water out, before that. The spasm can fail to release again, or it can occur when there is very little water present, all are called dry drowning. Further, water or salt water aspirated into the lungs can cause damage there, which leads to pulmonary edema and the alveoli ceasing to function, again resulting in asphyxia. The last is closer to what happened in this case.

And Jim White is right, the subject of dry drowning is apropos to the subject of torture and the debate on the government's use thereof. And it is related to waterboarding, and does show how you could die from it.

And according to Professor Lakoff, if that's what we do, we will reinforce the current frame. So we can instead use the sad dry drowning incident to create a different frame, and populate it with different views of torture, and perhaps not do that reinforcing that leads to protecting those in the administration and around it who have done things they should not have.

In one incarnation especially, waterboarding is dry drowning. The version with the saran wrap placed over the victims mouth, especially. When the water is poured on, the inability to breathe through the saran wrap, coupled with the water being poured on the victim, make the victim believe he is drowning, and trigger the reflex - the panic, and the laryngeospasm, which closes off the passage to the lungs. The victims frequently pass out, they are drowning. This is why it works without actually forcing aspiration of water into the lungs, a distinction that the administration has been using to split hairs and say that this is not the water torture of Torquemada, but rather that of Pol Pot. But as the sudden interest in dry drowning leads people to the triggered reaction being the direct antecedent to drowning, it becomes obvious that waterboarding is drowning, nothing simulated about it, as Malcolm Nance has frequently tried to get people to understand.

But what happened to the boy is actually closer to something that happened to someone else. The other kind of dry drowning occurs because the lungs become damaged, causing pulmonary edema (swelling in the lungs in which they fill with fluid), leading to the hypoxia and in this case to death. Do you remember the Ice Man, Manadel al Jamadi, whose body was photographed at Abu Ghraib so famously? He died because he asphyxiated due to being in a position called (in the doctor's report) "Palestinian Hanging". That kind of asphyxiation is often brought on by having previously sustained an injury that either because of shock or lung damage aggravates the effects of being in a position in which it is difficult to breathe. The MPs on the cell block learned that he was dead because they had been asked to tighten up his restraints because he'd gone loose. That would be the "high cuffing", the aforesaid Palestinian Hanging.

The Spanish Inquisition Again

While waterboarding has grabbed all the attention, and is without a doubt cruel treatment amounting to torture, this "high cuffing" or "Palestinian Hanging" has plenty of documentation, and no one has claimed that it has been performed on only 3 "high-valued detainees". There is picture after picture of this position at Abu Ghraib. It is uniformly referred to in administration documents as a stress posture.

It is a modification of an Inquisitional technique called strappado. Strappado, and its more brutal cousin squassation, were the most used of torture techniques by the Spanish Inquisition because they were cheap and easy to do: throw a rope over a rafter, tie the prisoner's wrists behind his/her back, and hoist them into the air by their wrists. It becomes squassation when the prisoner is then dropped by slackening the rope and then caught by tightening it. This causes dislocation of the shoulders, and the Inquisitors found that it generally caused death in about 3 to 4 drops. Strappado, without the drops, causes nerve damage in about 15 minutes. Darius Rejali notes that, "The strappado can easily dislocate the shoulders and maim victims permanently. However, the same approximate condition can be achieved, without overall damage and for a longer period of time, by raising the handcuffed hands behind the back until the prisoner is standing on his toes; his hands are then attached to a hook." (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, p. 296). Or maybe a bed frame, or a bar in a prison window.

Can this form of torture kill, in it's milder form of high cuffing, the stress position? It killed the Ice Man. He died of dry drowning in a way, lung damage causing pulmonary edema plus a difficulty breathing due to his position.

That calls into question the frame above. Obviously torture is not equivalent to waterboarding. Instead, waterboarding is one possible means of torture, out of many that have been used. On this site, we have detailed the privation tortures: extreme solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, being deprived of food, extremes in temperature. There are pictures of many more than 3 cases of strappado, there is documentation of a lot of solitary confinement, and sleep deprivation. Jane Mayer documented sensory deprivation done at black sites. Prisoners have lesions due to frostbite in outdoor pens in Afghanistan. Homicides were documented at Bagram due to damage caused by pounding muscle tissue.

Framing to Reduce the Issue

And what of the other parts of the frame? If torture = waterboarding is not true, are any of the others? A detainee is normally one being detained for a short period of time, prisoner is what people who inhabit prisons are called. The excuse for not using such plain language is to avoid a term that might be confused with prisoner of war, which the people held in U.S. military prisoners are not, supposedly. This is the handiwork originally of Douglas Feith, who as far back as the Reagan administration sought to carve out a special place in the Geneva Conventions where the law did not apply, to put anyone who could be designated as a terrorist, a strange term in its use that implies someone who can be fought with a military, but treated like a criminal, but need not be charged like a prisoner of war, but need not be treated well, like a person from a country that hasn't signed the Geneva Conventions. If there is ambiguity there, it is also Feith's work, the Additional Protocols of 1977 were intended to fix it, and it was because of this man they were not ratified by the U.S.

From there, just a memo or two by John Yoo creates a new status for these people, illegal enemy combatant. Notice that this title requires two legal findings: that they are combatants, and that they are illegal, but they are called that in advance of either finding. These people are not in their greatest numbers, confined at Guantanamo Bay, which houses only 275 inmates. There are well upwards of 34,000 of these prisoners, but if the frame says Guantanamo, then the problem is much smaller. The title high-value detainee also requires determination. It implies that these people are guilty of a crime, which requires a legal determination, and it implies that they have information of value. The assumption of this status in even a single case in which the person is innocent will result in endless, brutal, interrogation. Never mind whether or not torture will produce reliable intelligence, it certainly will not if the person knows nothing, and there is no method we have heard of for determining that in advance.

Information can only prevent an attack if two things are there: it must be new information, and it must enable someone to prevent the attack by taking specific actions (that presumes that an attack was imminent). The record of the FBI statements given to the Department of Justice Inspector General, and interviews by Philippe Sands (The Torture Team, ch. 14) is one of information being given to interrogators on paper, from other forensics and sources, and, at best, they believe they have got intelligence out of a prisoner when the prisoner confirms these data. That isn't new information, it's a confession. The record also shows interrogations spanning weeks and months, before these confessions are reached. Not a record of prevention of imminent attacks at all.

Finally, we have the supposedly changed legal climate. The evil deeds were all performed back then, in the aftermath of September 11, when we were desperate to prevent an attack. The laws have changed. No, what has changed is the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act and the Military Commissions Act, plus some Supreme Court rulings. The last do not represent a change in the laws. The Court ruled that the treatment, at least as far as access to a properly constituted court and habeas corpus, was not legal. It is a very strange interpretation of a court ruling to assert that this means it was legal until the court pronounced it illegal. And treatment in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture is still being reported. Those prisoners in the Afghani pens? Still going on. Solitary confinement to the point of madness, that one is still going on even at Guantanamo. And the prisoners being arraigned are not appearing in court, they are appearing in front of Military Commissions, procedures so flawed that they have seen numerous defections from the ranks of their prosecutors, numerous suspension of the proceedings, and are now widely rumored to be moving swiftly in response to political pressure in an election year.

In the end, none of that frame is accurate. But focussing on only one part, waterboarding and Guantanamo, the purpose of repeating these two, that the torture we are opposing is waterboarding and the detainees that need to be freed are in Guantanamo, reduces the whole mess to a manageable one for the administration. It can be written by the papers in their sleep at this point. It's containment. And it's anything but the whole truth.

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