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 21, 2008

There's Something Worse Than Banal

It's been a big week. Senate Committee hearings, Human Rights Watch published a report on solitary confinement at Guantanamo. McClatchy News published a five-part series on multiple aspects of the life as prisoners in the U.S. military prisons. A report was issued by the Physicians for Human Rights detailing data from examinations of former detainees done under the Istanbul Protocol. Next week is the International Day Against Torture. It seems like the heat is finally on the U.S. to do something, like the Congress is finally beginning the investigations it needs to do to end this sorry chapter in U.S. history.

Wouldn't that be nice?

A Picture Does What Words Cannot

It was a lot to absorb, and to watch, and to worry about for a week. Retired Military Patriot recommended The Bill Moyers Journal, on which he interviewed Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal about his book Slavery By Another Name, documenting the use of detention and work camps from the late 1800's to around World War II, as a source of forced labor, an effective re-enslavement of blacks in the United States. Pictures of cruelty in the work camps, and the statement by Blackmon that the pictures exist because the wardens had no problem with journalists and photographers coming and going as they pleased, since they didn't think there was anything wrong with selling forced labor to manufacturers.

And you start to wonder: It is said by many that the reason the Civil Rights Movement occurred the way it did was that the brand new medium of TV allowed people living in parts of the country that had never seen a black person, for whom the Civil War and slavery were something only studied in text books in high school, to see what was being done in America to people, and those people, whose vision of America was of a country much better than that, began to say what was happening was wrong. Today, people see everything. The medium of the internet, if it can reasonably be called a medium and not a bundle of media, allows a person to learn things far outside their specialized training, about places far away from their daily life, about people they will never meet but can come to feel they know. Where formerly only stars had a permanent persona that could be called up and examined, now average people leave permanent marks, and can be seen by anyone and everyone.

And this began to worry me. This is not the 1960's, and there is not a great motherlode of people somewhere out there who have no access to what is happening, on whom to dawn a growing feeling that our society is doing something wrong. There is no one out there who will suddenly feel a great revulsion and demand that their government stop what it is doing in their name, because it is all out there, all accessible to the 150 million people in this country with access to the internet, and yet it continues to happen.

But Thousands of Words Create A Picture

But that is not true. The Senate hearings were many hours long. The McClatchy series is 5 days at one article per day, about 20 minutes per day to read. The Human Rights Watch report is 57 pages. The PHR report is 125 pages, and is densely written. One section of the PHR report and all of the HRW report are written legal style, with copious footnotes taking up a third of a page in some cases, in fine print. If one was not familiar with the process involved in either, they might take forever to read. And there are very few pictures of what is happening. HRW provides pictures of the cells, and of the recreation space at Guantanamo, the rest is up to the imagination at best.

Anyone who didn't read Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein's four part series on Careless Detention can be forgiven when they get to page 64-66 of the PHR report, and don't recognize the use of Haldol as a restraint, don't take it back to the immigrant detention complaints (they administered it on the plane rides as they were deporting people), and can't remember that it's been ruled illegal as a drug to be used on a prisoner in the United States, unless specifically beneficial to the prisoner's psychological condition, because it has so many incapacitating side effects. The prisoner in question, "Rasheed", was given neuroleptics with frequent and major side effects after he became agitated because he was going insane from too much isolation (p.67). But with no picture, no Rasheed on the TV screen, will anyone know about it? How many people will be reading the PHR report in its entirety? The major news outlets read the executive summary, and the preface by retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. For a day, or so, at least people were treated to the headline that general Taguba had accused the administration of systematic torture and war crimes. The Pentagon dismissed the report as being about events long ago, based on much later data.

And so the public forms an opinion. Shall we go with people who say our country has committed major international crimes, or with those who say they've visited Guantanamo, and the prisoners are living like they are in a hotel, gee the food is good! If you were juggling a million things in your daily life, and along come two opposing views, and one fits your view of yourself and your country, and the other is damnably black and dark, which will you choose?

Human Rights Watch, in their report, also mention that the food is good:

The US government points to the fact that detainees are housed in cells that contain an arrow pointing to Mecca and provided regular, high-calorie meals that all meet the halal dietary requirements as evidence that the detainees are treated with sensitivity and care. It also claims that they pray under the guidance of a detainee chosen to lead prayers.

But while these measures are positive accommodations to detainees’ needs, they cannot themselves equate to “humane” treatment in view of the isolation imposed. The reality is that these men live in extreme social isolation, with little outside stimuli, and little to do all day but stare at the walls. (p.18)

So maybe the message can't get out, and it can't get out because it is a lot to absorb, it is very frightening, and it does not fit with the image we have of ourselves, or the image we have been taught about terrorists. And where one picture of a black man, shackled to a pick handle, in Bill Moyers' presentation strikes deep into our sense of injustice, one can see it in an instant. In that one instant, all the revulsion at the practices of slavery, forced labor, racism, and subjugation of black Americans comes up, a coherent frame, as George Lakoff would call it, that adds this new information to a long list of obvious wrongs.

Forming a Frame

Would that that might happen when someone mentioned a torture technique. I suppose it may be that I've been writing on this blog for a while, but the words "stress position" float up in my mind when I see that picture too. They don't for most people, most people don't know what the famous Rumsfeld/Haynes memo was talking about, stress position. When Senator McCaskill belabored the lack of constraints in that memo on removal of clothing, after Jim Haynes asserted, rather ridiculously, that that did not imply nudity. Nudity bothers us Americans. Stress positions? Hey, I stand for 9-10 hours a day at my desk. But they should conjure up a distinct revulsion. Remember strappado and squassation? I wrote about them once before. In not one, but two accounts of the treatment of individual detainees interviewed by PHR doctors and psychologists, they show up:

He stated, “After that they hanged me. There was some kind of machine — a winch — that pulled me up after each question…and because of this torture, I lost consciousness two times… and when I [lost consciousness] they pour[ed] cold water on me and [went] on questioning me.” He noted that his shoulder was dislocated as a result of being suspended. He also reported losing feeling in his arms while being suspended, and the numbness persisted for approximately three months afterward. (p. 21, "Hafez")

[O]ne time they took me to be questioned and there was a chain coming from the ceiling. It was a winch. They pulled me [by my wrists, from behind] and they left me for about four hours. Only my toes were touching [the floor]. I started saying to them, “It is very painful — I have a very severe headache,” and after that I passed out. (p. 18, "Kamal")


In both cases, medical examination found that nerve injury had occurred, and in one case problems with range of motion of the shoulder, consistent with the use of this technique, a favorite of the Inquisition. A third detainee was suspended, it isn't clear from his statement that it was necessarily this method, but he did pass out from the pain. Keep in mind that leaving the toes on the ground is also a well studied torture technique: It's used to slow the inevitable dislocation of the shoulders. Stress positions. Oh, and in the case of Hafez, a "doctor" attempted to reduce the dislocation, and then, once satisfied that the shoulder had been put back in place, told the interrogators to "continue" (p.21).

Does a frame start to develop? This is medieval, screams and crunches torture. Does it sound wrong? Or does the fact that the person may have been a terrorist mean it's okay? All of the people in the PHR study were released. They were interviewed after they had been let go. None of them had been told what they had been detained for, few of them had actually been interrogated in any meaningful way. These are not accounts of people who knew where the ticking bomb in Los Angeles was. They are accounts of people who were swept from their homes in the middle of the night. In some cases, it seems dubious to call them enemy combatants at all, since they don't appear to have ever fought, they weren't in a military, and they were arrested in their pajamas. That would make the Iraqis in question civilians. And that would make them eligible to the full protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention, no playing any games and reducing it to common Article 3. The Convention Against Torture applies regardless of whether or not there is a war going on, although the administration is seriously trying to claim that it is superceded by the Geneva Conventions in that case, an argument the rest of the world finds ludicrous.

The Human Rights Watch study is of inmates at Guantanamo. Many of those are also slated for release. In the case of the Uighurs, they also don't know why they were detained. They are being held in solitary confinement. The military says it isn't solitary confinement because they can shout to each other when their meal slots are open. But the confinement is more isolating than any supermax prison in the U.S. (p.20-21), and it is hard to see how some of the cases can be realistically claimed to not be solitary confinement of the most extreme sort. Do these prisoners deserve it? Aren't they the worst of the worst?

I've had a pretty grotesque week. Wading through chapter 3 of the Physicians for Human Rights report is sickening. Story after story of people having their testicles stepped on, or a screwdriver punched through their cheek, or being beaten into unconsciousness, or sodomized with objects or guns, or being put on leashes or soaked with water and put in the cold, or being told their sisters and daughters were being raped. Those people were all released because they hadn't done anything. They can't live their lives, they visit their families rather than living with them because their PTSD is so profound that they're sure their families recoil from them.

Où sont les pals, les grils, les entonnoirs de cuir?

And then you get to the end of the Human Rights Watch report. More stories, this time of prisoners driven insane by solitary confinement. Of lawyers pleading that their clients are no longer sane enough to stand trial because they can't communicate anymore. These prisoners have names and histories (the PHR study protected the identities of the participants since they could be endangered). But still, the devil is in the details: A footnote on page 42 takes you to the report of the U.N. Committee Against Torture in 2006. If you follow it, you come to the conclusions of the committee relative to the United States. There you will find that the committee which has the same status with respect to the treaty that the ICRC has with respect to Geneva, believes that the U.S. violates the treaty in our prisons, some of our law enforcement, and our use of tasers, quite apart from our recent detention of "unlawful enemy combatants." Our supermax prisons are already listed as inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. As is our failure as a nation to stop prison rape. And our use of electric shocks as restraints.

And then the coup de grace to the arguments that we've heard since early 2002, on why we need to engage in torture and inhumane treatment. In a cell at Guantanamo Camp Echo and then at Camp 3, there is a Bosnian-Algerian prisoner named Sabar Lahmar (HRW report at p. 29). He was picked up in October 2001 in Bosnia because the U.S. said he was part of a bomb plot. Maybe he was. The Bosnian courts didn't think so, the Bosnian Supreme Court ordered him released for lack of evidence. Instead of being released he was handed over to the Americans, and wound up at Guantanamo. Been there since January 17, 2002, so about the entire time the facility has been open. Emily Bazelon wrote about him in Slate after the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act in 2006.

Only he isn't anymore as she described him.

Since 2006 Lahmar has been housed in extreme isolation, with virtually no human contact other than with the prison guards and occasional medical staff or interrogators. From June 2006 to November 2007 he was housed in an 8-by-6-feet cell in Camp Echo, with the only window in his cell painted black so that he would not be exposed to any natural light. His lawyers report that he was denied paper and pen, allowed no reading material other than the Koran, rarely allowed out of his cell, and given only a sheet to sleep with at night, which was taken away in the morning.

Sometime around November 2007 Lahmar was moved to Camp 3, where he continues to be housed 22 hours a day in a single cell, with nothing to occupy his time other than his Koran. He cannot speak to other detainees over the noise of machines that many detainees believe is designed to prevent them from communicating with each other. Even his recreation time is totally solitary. (HRW, p. 31)

The report states that a year ago -- a year ago -- his lawyers wrote to the Justice Department seeking relief for his state. He was losing, perhaps now permanently, the use of his legs from atrophy and nerve damage consistent with his lack of movement and never got the therapy a doctor had prescribed for it (p.48-49). His mind is also going, he lies in his cell and stares at the wall. He seems beyond reach of his lawyers, he refused to leave the cell to meet with them, due to his deteriorating mental condition, a condition caused by his solitary confinement. Part of what is exacerbating his condition is that when solitary confinement is arbitrary and without purpose it causes profound psychopathology.

If you need a strut for that frame in your head, if you need a reason to doubt that it is all in the name of national security, if you need a reason to complain as an American, on June 26th about what is done in your name, if you never follow another link from this blog site, go to the report, and read the appendix (pp. 47-54), the letter the lawyers wrote, on behalf of Mr. Lahmar, and have waited over a year for a reply. He was put in solitary because someone misread an instruction from a general, who wanted him put in better conditions as a reward for his behavior. And he is still there. Is this clear enough to suffice, since we don't have a picture? Does it shock the American conscience yet?

Tout cela, je devais le dire pour les Français qui voudront bien me lire. Il faut qu'ils sachent que les Algériens ne confondent pas leurs tortionnaires avec le grand peuple de France, auprès duquel ils ont tant appris et dont l'amitié leur est si chère.

Il faut qu'ils sachent pourtant ce qui se fait ici EN LEUR NOM.

Henri Alleg, La Question, November 1957.

1 comment:

karrsic said...

goddamnit