Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, July 31, 2009

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

(Photo from Abu Ghraib.)

The title of Harlan Ellison's horror sci-fi story came to mind when I read about this story from Iran:

Mowj Camp reports that a deaf and mute man was tortured in Evin prison for several days before he was released. “A detainee, who was suspected of pretending to be deaf and mute, was severely tortured for several days to make him speak until finally he was released after a doctor confirmed that he was really deaf and mute.”

It's a short item, but stop to imagine the horrible reality behind it and what this man must have endured. This comes via Eric Martin's post "Mute Witness," which deserves a full read. In it, he quotes from an older post reviewing a book by A.J. Rosmiller of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which includes a portrait of American mistreatment of Iraqi civilians in custody:

It actually gets worse. Throughout the grueling and time consuming processing, as several of the detainees try in vain to ascertain the charges against them, some begin to ask, out of concern, about another detainee (the brother of some, cousin of others) who is mentally handicapped and/or deaf and mute. Later in the evening, Rossmiller sees some soldiers attempting to interrogate a detainee who stands mute, confused and otherwise fits the description of the mentally challenged detainee. Rossmiller tries to intervene and explain the situation, to no avail. "Naw, he's fuckin' faking. I'm sending him to Abu G," is the only response he gets. Perfect.

Toward the end of the night, one of the detainees asked for permission to speak, and was eventually granted that right. What he said left an indelible mark on Rossmiller:

"When you came to our country, we hoped law would return. We still have that hope."

From a USA Today article quoted by Digby:

Police in Mobile, Ala., used pepper spray and a Taser on a deaf, mentally disabled man who they said wouldn't leave a store's bathroom.

The family of 37-year-old Antonio Love has filed a formal complaint over the incident on Friday.

Police tell the Press-Register of Mobile that officers shot pepper spray under the bathroom door after knocking several times. After forcing the door open, they used the stun gun on Love.

Police spokesman Christopher Levy says police didn't realize Love had a hearing impairment until after he was out of the bathroom. The officers' conduct is under investigation.

The newspaper says the officers attempted to book Love on charges including disorderly conduct, but a magistrate on duty wouldn't accept the charges.

There are different levels of abuse in these three accounts, of course, but they are all abuse. And in each case, the abusers are convinced they are correct, justified and perhaps even righteous. And they are all completely wrong.

John McCain's told a story of explaining Easter to one of his captors in Vietnam, that the man finds the idea of resurrection incredible, and eventually becomes angry and accuses McCain of lying. I don't know how true or accurate McCain's tale is, but especially given the power dynamics, there's a big difference between calling someone's religious beliefs wrong or silly and calling the person a liar. Former SERE instructor Malcolm Nance describes meeting a Cambodian torture victim who explains how, "in torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia." In Orwell's 1984, O'Brien doesn't even want Winston to say this or that, despite Winston's desperate attempts to say the right thing; O'Brien wants Winston to submit completely to his will (see the last video here). There are many, many more stories like this throughout the history of torture. A May post, "Torture Versus Freedom" (and its many links) goes through the dynamics of torture, how torturers sometimes force the victims to confess things the torturers know are not true, how they sometimes get carried away and forget to ask questions, and how they often can't look their victims in the eye afterwards. Most of all, it covers what should be common knowledge - how torture is cruel, one of the greatest violations of a human being imaginable, and that "telling the truth" - or even being innocent - often doesn't matter. It will not save the prisoner. What matters is what the torturer thinks is true, and/or what he or she wants to hear.

As decorated interrogator Matthew Alexander's explained, in interrogation lingo "breaking" a prisoner means getting accurate information and establishing a rapport. Meanwhile, for authoritarians (and 24 fanatics), "breaking" means getting a prisoner to submit to their power. Some torture apologists disingenuously conflate the two, but I think some of them honestly mistake one for the other. They think "learned helplessness" produces the truth, as opposed to the dynamics of Winston with O'Brien, or the Cambodian torture victim, and many others throughout history. But as Alexander and others have repeatedly explained, rapport-building techniques are much more effective than anything abusive. If an interrogator enters into the power dynamic over a prisoner with any vengeance, bigotry or need to assert dominance or humiliate, it's counterproductive, but also dangerous. Entering in with certainty about the truth – say, an non-existent Iraq-9/11 connection – can be even more lethal. As John Kerry said of Bush in one of their debates, it's possible to be certain - and wrong.

Movement conservatives' public support for torture has contradicted even their own cherished mythology. The only constant has been their unyielding conviction in their own righteousness. Consider – they love to invoke WWII, if simplistically and inaccurately, yelling that every new threat is a new Hitler and anything less than belligerence is "appeasement." Yet they ignore that during WWII, we prosecuted the same torture and abuses they've defended under Bush. The Cult of Saint Ronnie still worships the poor policy and cartoonish morality of Reagan denouncing the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." (In his recent Reagan book, Will Bunch relates that Reagan himself regretted using the phrase, and later the far right accused Reagan of being Chamberlain for dealing with the Soviets.) Yet the torture program instituted under Bush borrowed directly from the hated Soviets. The key reason given for invading Iraq was that it had WMD and was an imminent threat, but Saddam Hussein was also depicted (fantastically) as the next Hitler and (accurately) as a dictator and torturer. The Hussein regime's victims were invoked more often after the invasion as a way to browbeat Iraq critics. So how is it that what made Hussein evil became good when done by the United States? When Iraqi Muntadar al-Zaidi threw a shoe at Bush, several far-right conservatives approved of the broken hand and ribs he received in prison. As Roy Edroso quipped, “I always suspected that when they were denouncing Saddam’s torture chambers, they were just angry that they didn’t get to say who got tortured.”

The disconnect from professed Christians on the torture "debate" is particularly astounding. Given how central the crucifixion story is to Christianity, and that it depicts Jesus tortured and then executed in one of the most cruel methods ever devised, it's mind-boggling to see anyone claim that supporting torture and Christianity are compatible - or that Jesus would support waterboarding. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus' suffering redeemed him and the world - but it's not the Romans who Christians are supposed to emulate in the story! "Turn the other cheek," "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" and "As you have done to the least of my brethren, so have you done unto me" are hardly pro-torture slogans. But in the hearts and minds of movement conservatives, not even Churchill, Saint Ronnie or Jesus himself can compete with the comforting violence of Jack Bauer.

As it is, all of this is being charitable, assuming that the torturers know not what they do, and aren't deliberately seeking the false confessions torture has always been infamous for producing, or that they're not so callous and evil they simply don't care if a confession is true or not if it serves their purposes. Waterboarding, also known as "the water cure" and "water torture" throughout the ages, will eventually make anyone "break" – in terms of submitting to power. But it's notoriously unreliable for producing accurate intel. In addition to a commitment to human dignity, the strong laws against torture were in put in place because the dynamics and "efficacy" of torture have been known for millennia. The law is in place to protect us all from people in power whose certainty, vengeance or political need drives them to abuse others.

Whatever one's feelings about how to treat actual terrorists, we have imprisoned, tortured and murdered innocent people. Prisoners were tortured when there was no ticking time bomb. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo were not the result of "bad apples" but instead deliberate policies of abuse dictated from the very top. And the Bush administration received plenty of warnings before, during and after those decisions that they ignored, squelched or even punished.

We can debate the motivations of the torture proponents in the Bush administration, and the precise dynamics of panic, authoritarianism, callousness, ignorance, zealotry and evil. Some of that's come out, although plenty more can. As I've written before, it was impossible for them to arrive at that dark place without monumental arrogance, dehumanization of all potential victims, and a deep and utter contempt for democracy. The Cheney plan to violate Posse Comitatus and deploy military personnel domestically, the warrantless surveillance systems, indefinite detention, torture and abuse – all of these radical measures are all on a continuum. (And seriously, if you haven't read Angler by Barton Gellman yet, do so.)

However, the crucial thing is to keep nailing down the facts, and bringing up what is known in public. Bush defenders almost always try to change the subject, ignore major reports and the timeline, or make unsubstantiated claims about how they saved the nation from sure destruction. The evidence known already forms an utterly damning narrative, and obliterates a "good faith" defense, no matter how much torture apologists - and blissfully uninformed commentators such as Chuck Todd - assert otherwise. However, plenty of details remain to be revealed. Legally, credible allegations of torture must be investigated. Logically, such an investigation would exonerate the torturers if they were telling the truth. Realistically, such unchecked power will be abused again if there are no consequences this time. Morally, the truth must come out and justice must be done.

Like the abused Iraqi Rossmiller describes, we still have hope the law will return – but as Americans, we have much greater ability and responsibility to make that a reality.

There's a great line in Arthur Miller's The Crucible from Justice Danforth, who's in Salem to preside over the witch trials. John Proctor has brought his servant Mary Warren to confess that she, Abigail and the other girls have been faking their demonic torments. Danforth, who has sentenced people to prison and death, is flabbergasted at this challenge to everything he's believed. How could anyone doubt that dangerous witches have been working to topple the land, and that these girls acting so tormented are telling the truth? Certain in his righteousness, clear perception and fair judgment, he tells Proctor that "the pure in heart need no lawyers." The line often draws sardonic chuckles and head shakes from audiences. It's a very tense scene as Danforth questions Mary. And under the threats and powerful weight of authority unjustly wielded by Danforth, and the social pressure of Abby and the other girls' relentless lies, Mary forsakes her conscience and succumbs once again to a madness spun of fear, ambition and intimidation.

Almost every argument from Dick Cheney, John Yoo and the Jack Bauer Junior Wannabes boils down to, "investigate us, dare to prosecute us, and you'll all die horribly in a terrorist attack." Contrary to their dissembling and claims of super-powers and secret decoder rings, justice cannot be used "against" us, and due process should be absolutely non-negotiable (something the Obama administration also must be made to remember). The entire modern conservative movement really amounts to little more than a massive protection racket, with some parties played against each other. This gang has little left to offer other than threats and lies, and little to protect themselves except omertà and a compliant media. There's great irony in the torture crew calling any investigation into their very real wrongdoing a "witch hunt" when they bullied Bush critics as unpatriotic, and effectively ordered that heretics be put on the rack to confess – all for their unnecessary war, and monarchial powers. But then, they're not a reflective lot, and those that do have self-awareness have never been known for feeling the twinges of conscience, let alone shame. In their own minds, torturers and their apologists may not be Orwellian villains or ancient Romans; like many a crusader, they are Certain and they are Righteous - and like Jesus, they can make the mute speak.

(A snap from an Amnesty International video on torture.)

Update: I reworked the Matthew Alexander paragraph for clarity.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Excellent post, holmes! It is mind-boggling to me that piece-of-shit excuses for "journalists" like Todd continue to paint TORTURE as some kind of political gamesmanship horse-race "some say..., while others claim..." bullshit no different from what's on the menu in the Senate dining room. IT'S MOTHERFUCKING TORTURE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT!

Cirze said...

And now I am unable to speak.



Anonymous said...

Once again, I have to point out that over 100 detainees in U.S. custody were tortured to DEATH! Not just waterboarded, not just deprived of sleep. These people (many of the innocent of any crimes), were tortured until they died. Anyone who thinks that is just O.K. is an accomplice to murder.

Sam Simple

B8ovin said...

Wonderful piece. I have one question, and I don't mean it to impugn the quality of the article. My question concerns the bloody picture at the top of the article. In Erroll Morris' documentary, "Standard Operating Procedure" they tell the story of a prisoner who procures a gun, shoots one guard, and is then shot. The picture that opens your story seems to be from that incident. I don't know of anyone disputing these events, so isn't the use of this photo a bit disingenuous (and I don't mean by you in particular, but every article using it that wishes to add the visceral impact of blood)?
I wish to make clear that I agree with everything you write and I am vehemently opposed to torture of any kind, I would just hope that our (the anti-tortureists) don't adopt the visual propaganda we abhor in the opposing side.

Anonymous said...

When the Democrats took over Washington and promptly decided not to do anything about this, I lost all hope in America.

I live in America now, but I'm no longer an American. Because the America I believed in became dangerously ill in the 60s, was hooked up to life support in the 80s, and died sometime in the last eight years. Without most Americans noticing.


Batocchio said...

B8ovin, fair question, and I hadn't heard that. I'm familiar with some of Morris' posts on the film - about that smile, for instance - but still haven't seen the film itself (although I admire his work in general). I'll try to catch it, and if you have any more definitive word, please pass it on. I used that Abu Ghraib photo because I find it striking, but less graphic than some of the other photos. The Sydney Morning Herald, which published them and that I linked, didn't give any background.

In addition to the questions you raise, there's the issue of releasing other Abu Ghraib photos, and better informing the public about what went on there, and why. Let's have it all come out.

Comrade Kevin said...

I think we just want to see people suffer for their crimes. We want that vindictive satisfaction and it's one of the more unfortunate impulses of human impulse.

It's tough. Jesus himself said, "Love your enemies. Do good to those who harm you." These people who use scripture to justify their own lunacy and perpetuate some kind of self-fulfilling End of Times seem to forget this.

B8ovin said...


After a VERY cursory search around the internet, I couldn't find anything definitive, so I can't offer much help, other than to give you the anecdotal opinion that this photo is not literally of torture, though it does originate in Abu Grahib, and was included as a "torture" photo. And it is evocative.

Though I risk usurping your comments with an off-topic aside, I'd just like to offer my opinion that with "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Why We Fight" I highly recommend "Standard Operating Procedure". By allowing the participants in the pictures from Abu Grahib to express their guilt, and for some, their greater innocence, Morris exposes the unpunished crimes of their superiors. This approach is particularly useful for those who ask, "What kind of people do these things, and why?" Every one who is interested in the injustice of torture and the Iraq war in general should see, at least, these three films.