Torturers In Common
Andrew Sullivan has often brought up the case of Richard Wilhelm Hermann Bruns, a Nazi war crimes prosecution over the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and revisits it today. The comparison with the Bush administration torture regime is shockingly apt.
Laboring under the constraints of Godwin's Law in the blogosphere, I've not felt entirely comfortable making those arguments (although I have from time to time.) I've tended to argue the same point from a slightly different perspective.
Here's my first post doing that from 2004. This was before we knew about the waterboarding:
In case anyone's wondering about the specific torture methods that are considered legal in the various gulags we now have around the world, there has been some work done on this by Human Rights Watch, even before Abu Ghraib. They found that at the "detention centers" in Afghanistan, torture as it was defined under the Geneva Convention was used routinely, often against innocent civilians.
According to the two men, bright lights were set up outside their cells, shining in, and U.S. military personnel took shifts, keeping the detainees awake by banging on the metal walls of their cells with batons. The detainees said they were terrified and disoriented by sleep deprivation, which they said lasted for several weeks. During interrogations, they said, they were made to stand upright for lengthy periods of time with a bright spotlight shining directly into their eyes. They were told that they would not be questioned until they remained motionless for one hour, and that they were not entitled even to turn their heads. If they did move, the interrogators said the "clock was reset." U.S. personnel, through interpreters, yelled at the detainees from behind the light, asking questions.
Two more detainees held at Bagram in late 2002 told a New York Times reporter of being painfully shackled in standing positions, naked, for weeks at a time, forcibly deprived of sleep and occasionally beaten.
A reporter with the Associated Press interviewed two detainees who were held in Bagram in late 2002 and early 2003: Saif-ur Rahman and Abdul Qayyum.86 Qayyum was arrested in August 2002; Rahman in December 2002. Both were held for more than two months. Interviewed separately, they described similar experiences in detention: sleep deprivation, being forced to stand for long periods of time, and humiliating taunts from women soldiers. Rahman said that on his first night of detention he was kept in a freezing cell for part of his detention, stripped naked, and doused with cold water. He believes he was at a military base in Jalalabad at this point. Later, at Bagram, he said U.S. troops made him lie on the ground at one point, naked, and pinned him down with a chair. He also said he was shackled continuously, even when sleeping, and forbidden from talking with other detainees. Qayyum and Rahman were linked with a local commander in Kunar province, Rohullah Wakil, a local and national leader who was elected to the 2002 loya jirga in Kabul, and who was arrested in August 2002 and remains in custody.
According to detainees who have been released, U.S. personnel punish detainees at Bagram when they break rules for instance, talking to another prisoner or yelling at guards. Detainees are taken, in shackles, and made to hold their arms over their heads; their shackles are then draped over the top of a door, so that they can not lower their arms. They are ordered to stand with their hands up, in this manner, for two-hour intervals. According to one detainee interviewed who was punished in this manner, the punishment caused pain in the arms.
In March 2003, Roger King, a U.S. military spokesman at Bagram, denied that mistreatment had occurred, but admitted the following:
"We do force people to stand for an extended period of time. . . . Disruption of sleep has been reported as an effective way of reducing people’s inhibition about talking or their resistance to questioning. . . . They are not allowed to speak to each other. If they do, they can plan together or rely on the comfort of one another. If they’re caught speaking out of turn, they can be forced to do things, like stand for a period of time -- as payment for speaking out."
King also said that a "common technique" for disrupting sleep was to keep the lights on constantly or to wake detainees every fifteen minutes to disorient them.
Several U.S. officials, speaking anonymously to the media, have admitted that U.S. military and CIA interrogators use sleep deprivation as a technique, and that detainees are sometimes kept standing or kneeling for hours in black hoods or spray-painted goggles, and held in awkward, painful positions.
Here is some direct testimony of men who have been interrogated under rules that allow torture short of the pain accompanying "organ failure or death"
Many men were handcuffed or tied to a stool as a means of slow torture. The [detainee] sat in one position, day and night. Each time he would fall over, the guards would sit him upright. He was not allowed to sleep or rest. Exhaustion and pain take their toll. When the [detainee] agreed to cooperate with his captors and acquiesced to their demands, he would be removed. Here, I have pictured a guard named "Mouse," who liked to throw buckets of cold water on a man on cold winter nights.
You're always sitting either on the floor or on a stool or concrete block or something low. The interrogator is always behind a table that's covered with cloth of some kind, white or blue or something. And he sits above you and he's always looking down at you asking you questions and they want to know what the targets are for tomorrow, next week, next month. You don't know. You really don't know. But he doesn't -- he's going to have to have an answer of some kind. Now the back of the room comes the -- the torture. And he's a -- he's a big guy that knows what he's doing. And he starts locking your elbows up with ropes and tying your wrists together and bending you.
Our normal diet consisted of either rice or bread and a bowl of soup. The soup was usually made from a boiled seasonal vegetable such as cabbage, kohlrabi, pumpkin, turnips, or greens, which we very appropriately called, "sewer greens, swamp grass and weeds.
Some men were tied to their beds, sometimes for weeks at a time. Here, I have drawn a picture showing the handcuffs being worn in front, but the usual position was with the wrists handcuffed behind the back. A man would live this way day and night, without sleep or rest.
The guards come around the middle of the night just rattling the lock on your door. That's a terrifying thing because they may be taking you out for a torture session. You don't know.
"... obviously this is an emotional thing to me, was listening to the screams of other ... prisoners while they were being tortured. And being locked in a cell myself sometimes uh, in handcuffs or tied up and not able to do anything about it. And that's the way I've got to spend the night."
The ten months that I spent in the blacked out cell I went into panic. The only thing I could do was exercise. As long as I could move, I felt like I was going to -- well, it was so bad I would put a rag in my mouth and hold another one over it so I could scream. That seemed to help. It's not that I was scared, more scared than another other time or anything. It was happening to my nerves and my mind. And uh, I had to move or die. I'd wake up at two o'clock in the morning or midnight or three or whatever and I would jump up immediately and start running in place. Side straddle hops. Maybe four hours of sit ups. But I had to exercise. And of course I prayed a lot
Oh, sorry. My mistake. Those illustrations and some of the comments are by former POW Mike Mcgrath about his time in the Hanoi Hilton. Other comments are from the transcript of Return With Honor, a documentary about the POW's during the Vietnam War. How silly of me to compare the US torture scheme with North Vietnam's.
It's very interesting that all these guys survived, in their estimation, mostly because of their own code of honor requiring them to say as little as possible, fight back as they could and cling to the idea that they were not helping this heartless enemy any more than they had to.
As I read the vivid descriptions of these interrogation techniques of sleep deprivation, sensory manipulation, isolation, stress positions and dietary manipulation I had to wonder whether they would be any more likely to work on committed Islamic jihadists than they were on committed American patriots.
The American POWs admitted that they broke under torture and told the interrogators what they knew. And they told a lot of them what they didn't know. And over time, they told them things they couldn't possibly know. The torture continued. Many of them, just like the reports from Gitmo, attempted suicide. They remained imprisoned never knowing when or if they would ever be set free.
We began to talk about the war. How long are we going to be there and everything and I -- I was thinking well I'm only going to be there about six months or so. And then uh, Charlie says oh, we're probably going to be here about two years. Two years? And when I -- I finally came to that realization, my God, that's going to be a long time. And when I - it just kind of hit me all at once. And I just took my blanket and kind of balled it up and I just buried my head uh, in this -- in this blanket and just literally screamed with -- with this anguish that it's going to be that long. Two years. And then when I was finished, I felt oh, okay. I -- I -- I can do that. I can do two years. Of course, as it turned out, it was two years, and it was two years after that, and two years after that. Uh, until it was about seven years in my case. You know? But who was to know at that time.
I would imagine that our torture regime is much more hygienic than the North Vietnamese. Surely it is more bureaucratic with lots of reports and directives and findings and "exit interrogations." We are, after all, a first world torturer. But at the end of the day it's not much different.
And he announced to me, a major policy statement. Some officers and some guards had become so angry at what the Americans were doing to their country that they had far exceeded the limits which the government had wished they would uh, observe in treatment of prisoners. That they had um, brutally tortured us. That was the first time they ever acknowledged that it was torture not punishment.
Same excuses, too.
The good news is that the mental torture that was used in North Vietnam, the isolation, the sleep deprivation etc. did not seem to create a lot of "long term" damage in the men who lived through it. Most have done well since. Therefore, all the mental torture they inflicted on our POWs is now considered perfectly legal and above board by the Bush torture regime. So that's nice.
"When word of torture and mistreatment began to slip out to the American press in the summer of 1969, our public-relations-minded captors began to treat us better. I'm certain we would have been a lot worse off if there had not been the Geneva Conventions around." John McCain
It's not nice to compare the Bush torture regime to Nazis and the North Vietnamese. Or the Spanish Inquisition, for that matter. But the revolting truth is that we are not particularly "exceptional" in this way at all. I'm sorry that's inconvenient and unpleasant to contemplate, but it doesn't change the fact that torture has been around forever and everyone knows that those who engage in it are not, by definition, the good guys. There are no good excuses for it. Ever.