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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Not When We Do It

Oh, here we go again. On Monday, Glenn Greenwald wrote about the new appointee to John McCain's campaign team, Michael Goldfarb. Among his other opinions, which were more the subject of that analysis, Mr. Greenwald cited a post that Mr. Goldfarb did on the Weekly Standard blog site, called, Trivializing Torture. Quoting at length,

And for what? The Times indicts the Bush administration for exposing terrorists captured abroad to "head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures." Boo hoo. And why does the Times consider this such a dangerous policy? The reporters end the story with this quote, from former Navy lawyer John Hutson, which they must believe to be compelling:

“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.

As Jules Crittenden notes in response:

[The] article neglects to mention we are fighting an enemy that considers powerdrills into kneecaps and videotaped beheading of captives business as usual. That in fact, we have yet to face an enemy in the modern era that observes anything approaching the standards we do. Germany, Japan, North Korea, North Vietnam, Iran, Iraq. Disorientation, isolation, beatings, starvation, summary executions, torture … of the bone-breaking, organ-smashing, electrocuting, bloody-drawing variety.

That is, real torture. And it trivializes the seriousness of it to apply the word to "head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures." It also trivializes the seriousness of real war crimes for someone to throw around the charge so promiscuously.

I see. Real torture. Apparently, Messrs. Goldfarb and Crittenden are experts on what constitutes real torture. Darius Rejali also worries about broadening the definition of torture. There are two ways he discusses that broaden it beyond its legal definition. One trivializes by asserting that many other indignities are torture. Oddly enough, for Mr. Goldfarb's argument, the other is by broadening it to include conduct of "insurgencies and rebel groups", by which Mr. Rejali means what are commonly referred to as non-state actors (Torture and Democracy, p.38) It's strange isn't it? These people deny prisoners status on a regular basis because they are not the military parts of a recognized state, and do not comply with the state requirements for a military. The same people completely gloss over the same distinction made about torture, when it suits them.

Personally, I'm all for granting the broadening of the legal definition to non-state actors. The behavior is abhorrent, it should be prosecuted and punished. But let's not have any illusions that the law does not put a higher burden on states, and therefore on our actions. Our founding documents put such a burden on us as well.

The Istanbul Protocol

As for what is, and what is not, real torture, the list these two authors subscribe to is quite interesting. They reject "head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures." They assert "[d]isorientation, isolation, beatings, starvation, summary executions." I will give them the benefit of the doubt that the last one was written in a burst of passion. Summary executions are summary executions, not torture. They have their own criminal category, both under U.S. and international law. And why is this list better? They are of the "bone-breaking, organ-smashing, electrocuting, bloody-drawing variety." This is an odd assertion of reality here. Unless torture looks like what you see in TV shows and movies, it isn't real. If it looks like what is described in, for example, The Istanbul Protocol, it trivializes torture.

Fortunately for the rest of us, the Istanbul Protocol isn't an international treaty that the people from the Weekly Standard can lobby against signing or ratifying. It's a medical protocol for examining victims of torture. It goes into necessary detail. It does not assert that there must be bone breaking, nor organ smashing, nor electrocution, nor drawing blood. It does detail examining for these things. It dwells a lot on neurological damage. That's when the beating has been specially designed to avoid the kinds of evidence Messrs. Goldfarb and Crittenden demand. Like Falanga, the beating of the feet (p. 37), which has been alleged to be practiced on people in Iraqi police custody.

It also dwells on sexual degradation, on stress positions, on skin damage, on PTSD and depression, on the effects of sensory deprivation or solitary confinement, and near asphyxiation, as may be due to submerging the head in water, or preventing air from entering the nose or mouth, e.g. with a plastic bag, ...(there is a list on p.28, asphyxiation is discussed on p.39), you get the picture. It's interesting that these two experts do believe disorientation, isolation, beatings and starvation to be tactics of their real torture. There are people in U.S. custody that have been in isolation for years. There are disorienting tactics that include sensory deprivation for extended periods of time. There have been beatings: common peroneal strikes, I believe they were called in Afghanistan, some of which did such damage to organs that the victims died. Does that qualify as organ-smashing?

When a prisoner is subjected to "frigid temperatures" to the point of hypothermia, for instance Mohammed al Qahtani, who had to be hospitalized for bradycardia and low core temperature after such exposure, or people kept in outdoor pens in Afghanistan, some of whom have had water poured on them, resulting in frostbite injuries to their integumentary organ (I'm sure the two experts are aware of this organ, here's a hint, it's the largest organ in the human body), when hypothermia causes decreased level of consciousness, when it threatens to kill the prisoner due to the possibility of ventricular fibrillation, I would guess that the only reason these people do not believe that is torture is because no bones are broken or blood is spilt.

Note: For those interested in a more readable source on the types of tortures and their medical consequences, there are two excellent documents on the Physicians for Human Rights site. Go to here, and scroll down, the links are on the right.

The Real Definition of Real Torture

Simulated drowning, what is widely referred to as waterboarding, isn't torture, it doesn't break bones or spill blood, apparently. But if our enemies do it, then disorientation, isolation, beatings and starvation are torture, and we have never done anything that approaches what they do. We have a prisoner in captivity, Ali Saleh Kahlah al Marri, who is losing his sanity from isolation. That was in the list of tortures when the enemy does them that Jules Crittenden gave. We already had a few that did so, Philippe Sands details Mohammed al Qahtani (The Torture Team), we've FBI documentation on prisoners tearing their own hair out as a result of positioning and isolation. We've regularly used sleep and sensory deprivation on prisoners, not to mention that the frigid temperatures that Messrs. Goldfarb and Crittenden are so derisive of prevent sleep when they aren't causing hypothermia and frostbite. We've subjected prisoners to high temperatures and to extreme positioning, one man, the so-called Ice Man of Abu Ghraib died as a result of being stepped on and then positioned in a Palestinian Hanging (hung from his wrists from behind and above).

Positioning that allows no or almost no motion for long periods of time can cause rhabdomyolysis, when core temperatures above 106 degrees Fahrenheit cause the body's chemicals to denature. Either one causes poisons to be dumped into the blood stream, poisons which cause the kidneys to self-destruct. Would that count as organ smashing? How about being caged in the desert then?

These two experts belittle the statement of the Navy lawyer, John Hutson, about the treatment of our troops. It is obvious from the list, equating the disorientation, isolation, beatings and starvation that our enemies in the modern era have done with their preferred definition of bone breaking, organ smashing, and blood letting, that if these techniques are performed on our troops, they are torture. It is similarly obvious from the ridicule of head slapping, simulated drowning, or frigid temperatures, that if the same tactics are performed by our troops, or our CIA, or maybe directed from the White House or the OLC or the Pentagon, that it is simply not in the same ballpark with torture.

Which brings us to the operative version of torture that the Weekly Standard appears to employ: It's torture if done by evil people we designate, and it's not torture if done by the United States government. When the army of the righteous smashes organs, it's reasonable defense against an existential threat, when the axis of evil does it, it's torture. It is reinforced by a definition of torture based on Hollywood, or perhaps on Jack Bauer. Those are reality, what is done in U.S. military prisons is not. That bears repeating once more: What you see in the movies is more real than what is really done. Since we don't do what they do in the movies, We Don't Torture.

To me, that may not be trivial, but it's the most childish definition of torture I've yet seen.

A correction to previous posts:

I had used the figure 27,000 for the number of people in U.S. custody abroad, taken from the estimated 13,000 in Afghanistan and adding an estimated 14,000 in Iraq, although there are people elsewhere making up at least 500-1000. The Pentagon released figures about Iraq indicating that there are 21,000 prisoners there that they wish to disclose. So I will correct my total estimate to around 35,000 for now. But I would caution that if the rate of disappearance of prisoners in Iraq is anywhere near that in Afghanistan or elsewhere, then this number needs to be 40,000 or more. Apparently the war on terror is won just like all the other war ons. By imprisoning as many people as possible.


Jim White said...

Let us not forget that the post in the McCain campaign to be occupied by this beacon of clear thinking and brilliant exposition is Deputy Communications Director. To me, that someone who comes from a publication that has been so consistently at the forefront of Neocon cheerleading for one war crime after another would be chosen to assist in delivering the communications from McCain's campaign tells us that McCain is far from the independent "maverick" he would have us believe and is nothing more than another pawn of the right wing authoritarians who have hijacked our democracy.

The Voice of Reason. said...

It should be noted that our modern forms of psychological torture bear more permanent results than the violent types of torture. John McCain was beaten by his captors, today he pushes on. Jose Padilla was psychologically tortured, and will most likely be permanently damaged by the experience. If there is a pecking order, breaking a prisoner's mental health is harsher than drilling his kneecap.