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.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Active Denial of the Torture Industrial Complex

The other day on Glenn Greenwald's blog, bystander cited Digby who remarked about a nasty crowd control device that has been documented by the BBC recently. That led to track down more about the two systems referred to in the article, the Active Denial System, and the Silent Guardian. It turns out that the relationship between these two is that Active Denial System is the U.S. military's requested, and largely implemented weapon for something in between crowd control and counterinsurgency, and that Silent Guardian is Raytheon's implementation of the main weapon, a collimated 1 millimeter (95GHz) beam 45 inches square, and has a range of 250 meters.

A Device for Crowd Control?

I posted a longish set of quotes about this device and plan, and Reilly referred me to the complete shebang, a mobile device that has gone under the rubric of Project Sheriff. This mobile unit includes both weaponry for shooting and killing enemies after they are flushed out of crowds, but for the crowd flushing operation itself, the vehicle has brilliant laser driven lights to disorient, painfully loud noises, and, of course the Silent Guardian. The rationale is that you point these devices, whose specific purpose is to create disorientation and pain, and an overwhelming reflex to run away, and anyone who doesn't run away must be enemy and can be shot.

Comparisons on military discussion sites and sites for weapons afficianados are to the Taser, a device that shoots two straightened fishhooks on wires at the target, and then delivers specially "shaped" electrical charges of between 0.75 and 1.5 joules, causing the target to collapse in involuntary reflex. That device is common already among police departments, where it was originally introduced as a substitute for firing a gun at someone, but has been much more widely used than guns ever would be, in no small part because each use, unlike a police revolver, does not have to be accounted for in detail.

Raytheon describes this new device, the Silent Guardian, as a pain gun, they dislike the use of the term ray gun. Their interviews with the BBC, with Michael Hanlon (who has tried the demonstration, and posted the pictures), allude to a highly sophisticated manipulation of nocioceptive pain, to create a weapon that causes pain, but no lasting physical or psychological damage. Many of the commentators cited above have made the connection with torture, one would be remiss to fail to do so. But before delving into that, some care should be used examining that claim, which would, if true, amount to an achievement of something of a 'Holy Grail' of what Darius Rejali calls 'clean torture' (Rejali, Torture and Democracy), and what Physicians for Human Rights refer to as "Leave No Marks". Not that that is anything to celebrate, anyone who shares goals with the worst of the French Gestapo has nothing to be proud of.

But, to Raytheon's claim: The device is not a transmitter of signals directly to sensory or nocireceptor nerve endings at all. Most devices that do such things in the most direct way would be electrical, would require contact, and would have to be exquisitely precise to only affect the nerve endings in the dermis, as most electrical devices affect nerves considerably deeper and in a larger area (for instance, the Taser). The device causes burning pain over most of the body facing the beam, even through light clothing, this is supposed to cause a reflexive desire to flee, as when your hand accidentally encounters boiling water. It does this, however, by actually heating the first 1/64th of an inch of skin to 50° C, in three seconds, the one-millimeter wave does not penetrate any deeper into the skin, and herein is the claim of no physical damage.

Newton's law of cooling provides a simple approximation for what happens if the time increases beyond three seconds, or even for what really transpires within that time. If the surface of the skin is at 50° C, and the deep layers of flesh, or perhaps the bone and organs, are at 37° C (normal body temperature), there is a linear gradient between the two temperatures, and heat flows from the higher temperature to the lower one. So as time goes by, giving Raytheon the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the statistics after 3 seconds are maintained (they aren't), the heat flows into the body at a rate somewhat higher than that of the sun on a day at the beach. In time, that body will lose it's ability to maintain its temperature with so much heat being added, failing progressively through heat exhaustion to heat stroke, at which point the maintenance fails and the core temperature rises. Since 50° C is higher than 41° C, the temperature at which body chemicals begin to break down or denature, the body literally starts to come apart chemically and a person will die if not treated. However, long before this happens, the level of heat will continue to rise and the result will be burns. Even Raytheon admits that these have been observed after 250 seconds.

And, as usual when people are trying to create clean pain, tests are run on volunteers, who are carefully screened and protected from adverse consequences. Were someone to pass out or become unable to walk in front of the device (perhaps trampled by the crowd as they reflexively ran), they would be an injured party sustaining an injury they could not avoid, and if conscious, they would be experiencing an intolerable pain that they could not stop, from a hostile source, that provoked flight reactions to avoid death that could not be acted upon. In other words, there isn't much difference between the device used on anyone who cannot run, and, say, waterboarding. The potential for abuse is quite clear, as is the attempt to preempt concern for it. By specifically referencing no lasting physical or psychological damage, promoters are referencing only one set of documents: The Convention Against Torture, or its implementing laws.

A Torture Industrial Complex?

What is truly disturbing about this is the collection of tools on the Project Sheriff Active Denial System machine, and the insistence that this is a pain gun. Further is the military's lengthy planning for the device, and the apparent belief that the device will civilize war the way the Taser is supposedly civilizing police use of force. The military is already set to deploy more than a dozen of these. But if you throw in the Taser, the list of "less than lethal" weaponry has an eerie ring: Bombardment with intense light, bombardment with intense sounds, application of burning heat, and application of electric shocks, all heralded as a good thing, and all in production and deployment. To be sure, there are a couple of other methods of delivering "clean torture", stress positions and prolonged solitary confinement, but otherwise, the list is fairly complete, compared against the cleaner techniques of the Gestapo, or of the Soviet NKVD, as precursor to the Chinese techniques that gave rise to all the consternation about brainwashing, the experiments on sensory deprivation, and the development of the now notorious SERE program, the KUBARK manual, and all the other toxic brew that went into the U.S. torture program of the past few years.

Tasers are big business, and were carefully constructed to avoid laws requiring accounting of each application of force for deadly weapons like guns, among the police. The company that makes them, and their advocates, of which there are many, insist that they are used for a gun substitute and not control or punishment, and try to counter each instance of a death from Taser use with alternative explanations.

Now there are companies or corporate divisions which specialize in the application of intense light, or intense sound. There is this new collimated beam weapon, which appears to perfect the "electric bench" of the Vichy Gestapo (Rejali, Torture and Democracy, p. 113). These are, for the time being, military contractors, members of the Military Industrial Complex, if you will. Sensory and sleep deprivation is practiced at Guantanamo, documented by Human Rights Watch, in 2008. Solitary confinement is practiced at U.S. supermax prisons by what is now even commonly known as the Prison Industrial Complex (also documented in the HRW document).

We are now creating, or amalgamating from other "Industrial Complexes" an industry that supplies the government of the United States with clean pain. Clean pain for crowd control, clean pain for counterinsurgency, clean pain for punishment, for interrogation, for confession. All of it ludicrously justified as legal and even humane because it supposedly does no lasting damage (the current very narrow definition, which somehow fails to take into account the severity of the pain). But none of it is tested on real subjects -- that is to say people who are hostile, who are captive, who do not volunteer for a test that will soon end. Those tests will come in the form of lawsuits under the Torture Victims Protection Act, or perhaps in the Hague. Because clean pain isn't really clean. And the psychological damage, and probably the physical damage once the device becomes routinely used (as in the Taser), are real. And no amount of lobbying from any Torture Industrial Complex will change that.


Jim White said...

Thanks for documenting this, ondelette. These weapons, and the practices underlying them, need to be banned when our country awakes from its long nightmare and rejoins the civilized world by actively rejecting torture and turning over for prosecution those who have committed torture and especially those who have established torture as government policy.

dr. sheltie said...

"Clean pain" is yet another Orwellian term that public policy makers have adopted. It's similar to our "war on terror," which by definition, as in the novel 1984, is an unending war.

José M. López Sierra said...

Dear Partner,

Since the United Nations determined in 1960 that colonialism is a crime against humanity, there is no longer a need for plebiscites. The solution is to give Puerto Rico her sovereignty.

But being the United States government does not want to, it continues to advocate the use of plebiscites to find out what Puerto Ricans want. Even if 100% of Puerto Ricans would want to continue being a US colony, Puerto Rico would still be obligated to accept her sovereignty to then decide what she wants to do.

The only thing these plebiscites are good for is to divide Puerto Ricans. A Puerto Rican didn’t invade us to make us a colony. When will we understand that we need to unite?

This is why we must peacefully protest at least 3 times a year until Puerto Rico is decolonized!

José M López Sierra