Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Short Course in Evil

Senator John McCain was a younger man once, and he fought in Vietnam. He was captured and tortured; he experienced pain. In the course of debate last year over his bill prohibiting torture, McCain said that if he was faced with being physically or psychologically tortured, he would rather be beaten.

Sleep deprivation can make a victim susceptible to confusion and manipulation. (Alleged assassin James Ray was coerced with sleep deprivation, and it didn’t produce a single mark on his body.) Physical torture may prompt a victim to speak, but it may also stimulate resistance and an urge for revenge. He might lie just to make you stop. Drugs may scramble the brain and render communication meaningless. If you really want to break a man to pieces, you must attack his mind and soul. Psychological torture leaves wounds that don’t heal.

What follows is a summary of the work of Professor Alfred McCoy, the author of A Question of Torture: C.I.A. Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. He was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, 2/17/2006.

ALFRED McCOY: Well, if you look at the most famous of photographs from Abu Ghraib, of the Iraqi standing on the box, arms extended with a hood over his head and the fake electrical wires from his arms, okay? In that photograph you can see the entire 50-year history of C.I.A. torture. It's very simple. He's hooded for sensory disorientation, and his arms are extended for self-inflicted pain. And those are the two very simple fundamental C.I.A. techniques, developed at enormous cost.

…Dr. Donald O. Hebb of McGill University, a brilliant psychologist, had a contract from the Canadian Defense Research Board, which was a partner with the C.I.A. in this research, and he found that he could induce a state of psychosis in an individual within 48 hours. It didn't take electroshock, truth serum, beating or pain. All he did was have student volunteers sit in a cubicle with goggles, gloves and headphones — earmuffs — so that they were cut off from their senses, and within 48 hours, denied sensory stimulation, they would suffer, first hallucinations, then ultimately breakdown.

…And if you look at many of those photographs, what do they show? They show people with bags over their heads. If you look at the photographs of the Guantanamo detainees even today, they look exactly like those student volunteers in Dr. Hebb’s original cubicle.

Now, then the second major breakthrough that the C.I.A. had came here in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the C.I.A. studied Soviet K.G.B. torture techniques; and they found that the most effective K.G.B. technique was self-inflicted pain. You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand — okay, you’re not beating them, they have no resentment — you tell them, “You’re doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down.” And so, as they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.

…[S]everal of those photos you just showed, one of them with a man with a bag on his head, his arms are straight in front of him, people are standing with their arms extended, that’s self-inflicted pain. And the combination of those two techniques — sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain — is the basis of the C.I.A.’s technique.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the many forms of physical torture employed in the Soviet prison system; but the purpose of such cruelty usually had little to do with acquiring real information, since the victims were going to be convicted no matter what they said. Torture was employed to make the victims implicate others and sign confessions — or to amuse the interrogators.

Torture twists the perpetrator as well as the victim. Specialist Charles Graner is now in prison because of his actions at abu Ghraib. But before the torture scandal erupted, when he was confronted by a colleague, Graner explained, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer [in me] says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss on himself.’”

Torture techniques were refined at Guantanamo with the addition of psychologists who would participate in interrogations and identify the fears and phobias of individual prisoners. Something very like that was described by George Orwell in his great, dystopian novel 1984. The protagonist, Winston Smith, had a fear of rats. He was finally broken when his head was confined in a small cage and his tormentor was about to release a rat into the cage.

When most people imagine torture, they envision fingernails ripped out, electrodes attached to genitals, or good old-fashioned beatings. They don’t really know how fine the line is between sanity and madness; they can’t conceive of prisoners so bent and crushed that they will inflict more pain on themselves than their captors will. But that happened at abu Ghraib. A newly disclosed video shows a victim confined in a canvas bag chained to a wall. His head alone is free as he rocks back and forth, smashing his forehead against the wall.

McCOY: Look, at the start of the war on terror, the Bush administration ordered torture. President Bush said right on September 11, 2001, when he addressed the nation, “I don't care what the international lawyers say. We’re going to kick some ass.” Those were his words, and then it was up to his legal advisors in the White House and the Justice Department to translate his otherwise unlawful orders into legal directives…

They dithered with the definition of “severe” pain, deciding that severe meant “just short of death.” They insisted that torture was bound up with the intent of the perpetrator. If the torturer is seeking information, then he is not committing torture. They inserted a provision in the McCain anti-torture legislation permitting a long-discredited line of defense — if the torturer believes he is following a lawful order, he is not culpable. He’s just following orders.

Finally, in an amendment to the McCain bill, the administration declared that for the purposes of the act, Guantanamo is not part of the United States.

And that, dear reader, is how evil becomes law in a “democracy.” McCain’s bill to prohibit torture became a law to protect torturers. George Bush, Junior can declare anyone a suspect. The suspect can be held indefinitely without charges at a military facility outside the country. We can do anything we want to him. The suspect can be tried by a secret, military court and summarily executed.

You say that doesn’t sound right? Why do you hate America so much?


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Strange Notions from Disturbed Individuals

After two invasions, we are occupying Iraq. The current administration has taken the position that in time of war, certain presidential decisions are unreviewable by Congress or the courts. Two new judges sit on the Supreme Court. The drive to privatize Social Security has stalled temporarily, but its proponents understand that individual battles do not a war make.

General Dwight David Eisenhower, the Allied Commander in the Atlantic Theater in World War II, certainly knew that. He was later elected President, and he probably still knew that.

On the left side of the accompanying photo, Arthur Eisenhower is holding Roy. On the right side, Edgar is standing behind Dwight. In later years, Dwight corresponded with Edgar; and they discussed many issues. Below are excerpts from a letter to Edgar dated November 8, 1954. For some reason, it sounds disturbingly familiar today. What is the system of checks and balances in government? What are the powers and responsibilities of government in a democracy?

Dear Ed,

I think that such answer as I can give to your letter of November first will be arranged in reverse order — at least I shall comment first on your final paragraph.

You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land…

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this — in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything — even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

…A year ago last January we were in imminent danger of losing Iran, and sixty percent of the known oil reserves of the world. You may have forgotten this. Lots of people have. But there has been no greater threat that has in recent years overhung the free world.

…You also talk about "bad political advice" I am getting. I always assumed that lawyers attempted accuracy in their statements. How do you know that I am getting any political advice?…[W]hy don’t you just assume I am stupid, trying to wreck the nation, and leave our Constitution in tatters?

That’s quite a letter, isn’t it? Dwight still held quaint beliefs that the people play some role in a democracy and the Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of laws. What was he thinking? Recent events have convincingly demonstrated that if you simply keep controversial activities out of the legal system entirely, courts cannot review them!

Besides, Republicans don’t believe in Eisenhower anymore. His Farewell Address to the nation warned of the growing military-industrial complex; in early drafts of the speech, he called it the military-industrial-Congressional complex — a formulation which more directly pointed at federal corruption. But right-wing historian Paul Johnson, the author of Modern Times, declared the complex “largely mythic.” And even if it wasn’t mythic, it evidently didn’t prevail since, as President Ronald Reagan explained:

You have to remember, we don’t have the military industrial complex that we once had, when President Eisenhower spoke about it. (1/5/1983)

Which leads me to Theodor Seuss Geisel. In the 1920s and 30s, he produced advertising artwork for Ford, General Electric, N.B.C., and other companies. Then he began drawing editorial cartoons — hundreds of them. In World War II, he worked on propaganda for the Army, which found animated movies to be an effective means of indoctrinating enlisted men.

Yes, Dr. Seuss wrote childrens’s books — Horton Hears a Who (an allegory about occupied Japan) and Yertle the Turtle (about Hitler). He also penned The Cat in the Hat (freedom and responsibility) and The Lorax (protecting the environment). Geisel was a complex man. Along with buck-toothed images of slanty-eyed Japs squinting through thick glasses, he created cartoons against racism and anti-Semitism. And in 1942, he drew this:

Reactionaries in Congress swinging a wrecking ball at the social structure of America? Ridiculous, isn’t it?


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