Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Chuck Kleinhans, John Hess and Julia Lesage: Torture and the National Imagination

Torture and the national imagination
by Chuck Kleinhans, John Hess and
Julia Lesage
Jump Cut


How efficient is torture as a policy and practice? It has at least four functions:

1) to gain information,
2) to obtain a confession of guilt,
3) to function as punishment for the victim, and
4) to gratify the torturer.

It does work to extract confessions of guilt, since eventually the victim will usually confess anything to make the pain stop. We could call this the Spanish Inquisition model after one of the most famous torture regimes. But we also know that some US police departments have used (or tolerated) torture to attain confessions.

Some facts of torture can be established as incontrovertibly true:

1. Who tortures? Basic social psychological research, notably by Dr. Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, concluded that about 70% of ordinary people would torture (administer high levels of pain to a complaining subject) if directed by persons they don’t know who seem to have legitimate authority. Milgram concluded that it would probably be much higher if the authority of the government sanctioned it. Thus it is the exceptional person who refuses to torture, especially under the conditions of military organization.

In 1971 the Stanford prison experiments studied the psychological results of incarceration on both guards and prisoners. The ethically controversial group event was ended when the role-playing subjects quickly exceeded expected behaviors in the mock prison. Many “guards” became actively sadistic; many “prisoners” were traumatized. The results have been used to argue that situation rather than pre-existing disposition shapes behavior. The lead researcher, Phillip Zimbardo, in response to the Abu Ghraib events argued against the “few bad apples” characterization of what happened.

2. It’s simply not true for the United States that “we don’t torture.” The United States has a long history of using torture against some enemy combatants and force, including torture and murder, against civilian populations in a war zone. The history of Native Americans, U.S. intervention and occupation in Central America and the Caribbean, and the colonization of the Philippines provide many examples. Indeed, waterboarding was first developed as a standard interrogation technique against the Philippines resistance to U.S. colonization.[4] In addition, the United States has offered substantial support to regimes and movements that did and do routinely practice torture. The U.S. military School of the Americas brought Latin American military officers to the U.S. for advanced training that included torture techniques. In fact, with the CIA rendition program, the United States outsources torture to other governments.

3. Techniques endorsed by the Bush administration and commonly used which they claim are not torture, are in fact, torture. Sensory deprivation, reducing sound, sight, feeling (gloves) and sleep deprivation leads to a loss of personal control of self for the individual subjected to it. These techniques leave no identifiable scars or evidence of having been used. Another technique, forced standing, leads to physical breakdown including ulcers on legs, kidney failure, etc. All of these are torture, as commonly defined. In the extraordinarily narrow legal definition developed by the administration, it is not torture if it doesn’t cause organ failure. The key thing here is that the administration separated out each of the individual techniques or elements of torture, stressing those that left no physical evidence, including waterboarding, and then said that no one of them constituted torture. However, the techniques were choreographed, that is, used in concert, simultaneously, and serially, which behavioral and medical experiments prove to be vastly potentiating. That is, they are torture.

4. As it developed in prisons like Bagram in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Guantanamo on the island of Cuba, the actual practice of interrogation was two-staged. First there was a physical and psychological “roughing up” which was intended to “prepare” the prisoners to be ready to talk. Then, a second stage of traditional interrogation began. For the most part, as at Abu Graib, the military guards were routinely assigned to the first stage, and then the interrogators took over. So behind the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib lies the fact that those (often untrained) MPs arrived at a prison with a systematic regime already in place.

5. Torture is not a useful method for intelligence gathering. Experienced interrogators such as senior FBI agents, military investigation services such as the Navy Criminal Investigation Service, and other intelligence operations such as the Defense Intelligence Agency overwhelmingly conclude that it doesn’t work. The preferred practice for interrogators is to establish a relation with the prisoner, pointing out that the detained have no good options, and that if they cooperate by providing information the questioner can help them: protecting and providing for their family, giving them better prison conditions, etc. During WW2 the German Gestapo quickly found that “revenge” and “collective punishment” for underground resistance activity to military occupation was immensely counterproductive. They found that simply offering rewards produced informants. But using collective punishment and targeted torture immediately functions to shut down local sources of information. This finding is upheld as well by the large database on intelligence and interrogation from the Vietnam War.

The most obvious question is if it is known rationally, historically, scientifically, and in the embodied experience of successful professional interrogators that torture is ineffective, why would it become policy and practice? Why would you have the smartest people in the Bush administration sitting around dress rehearsing specific tortures to be used on specific prisoners? The answer can’t be that it gets meaningful results. Rather, we have to look at what torture has been demonstrated to do. First, it is effective at intimidation: of the specific prisoner, and of their community. And it has the downside of closing down communication or cooperation with the occupied population. Second, it is effective as punishment. It makes the victim pay a price for whatever was done. But of course this is rough justice, nonjudicial punishment, pain inflicted not after the social/political formality of a trial and as an affirmation of reasoned state interests and power, but just as revenge, meted out by the will of the powerful against the helpless, the hapless, and — without a prior determination of guilt or innocence — against some who are innocent.

So why the Principals Group virtual torture meetings? For the interrogator/torturer, for the Grand Inquisitor, and significantly for the person ordering the torture, it makes them feel they are in control: “torture makes the man.” They can impose their power on the prisoner. The initial goal is psychological and coercive — to reduce the prisoner’s sense of control. But it quickly becomes “I have power and none of you have power.” The very mechanism of torture says to the prisoner that he has no control and to the torturer that they have all the power. It is, then, achieving this psychological state that is important.

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