So what is 'American Torture'? Ok, it's a book to be released next year by Melbourne University Publishing and Pluto Press about the US government's use of torture from 1945 onward. But is there such a thing as American torture?-- namely, a style of interrogation amounting to torture that is uniquely American? The answer is yes.*
*-- why the asterisk? Let me explain, starting at the beginning. Today, the Pentagon and CIA use a range of techniques that can only be described as torture. Here are two examples of torture inflicted by the US government on US nationals.
1> Donald Vance, a private American contractor, was held for three months at Camp Cropper. (I wont delve into the kafka-esque grounds for his detention here, which in itself could/will likely be the subject of an entire book or film). This contractor was tortured. According to the New York Times:
'The fluorescent lights in his cell were never turned off, he said. At most hours, heavy metal or country music blared in the corridor. He said he was rousted at random times without explanation and made to stand in his cell. Even lying down, he said, he was kept from covering his face to block out the light, noise and cold. And when he was released after 97 days he was exhausted, depressed and scared. [...] “It’s really hard,” he says [about his treatment at Cropper]. “I don’t really talk about this stuff with my family. I feel ashamed, depressed, still have nightmares, and I’d even say I suffer from some paranoia."' (link)
2> Jose Padilla is a US citizen arrested in May 2002 then declared an enemy combatant. After his arrest, then US Attorney General John Ashcroft claimed Padilla planned to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb'-- a charge that has been quietly retracted by the government. NPR reported:
"According to court papers filed by Padilla's lawyers, for the first two years of his confinement, Padilla was held in total isolation. He heard no voice except his interrogator's. His 9-by-7 foot cell had nothing in it: no window even to the corridor, no clock or watch to orient him in time. Padilla's meals were delivered through a slot in the door. He was either in bright light for days on end or in total darkness. He had no mattress or pillow on his steel pallet; loud noises interrupted his attempts to sleep. Sometimes it was very cold, sometimes hot. He had nothing to read or to look at. Even a mirror was taken away. When he was transported, he was blindfolded and his ears were covered with headphones to screen out all sound. In short, Padilla experienced total sensory deprivation. During length interrogations, his lawyers allege, Padilla was forced to sit or stand for long periods in stress positions. They say he was hooded and threatened with death. The isolation was so extreme that, according to court papers, even military personnel at the prison expressed great concern about Padilla's mental status." (link)
At the very least, both Padilla and Vance endured sleep deprivation, sound bombardment, forced standing, cold temperatures and extreme sensory deprivation. Result: Lasting depression, humiliation, nightmares, paranoia.
Torture? Yes. Torture has many definitions-- including:
'the infliction of intense pain to body or mind to extract a confession or
information, or for sadistic pleasure’. US Army Field Manual, Intelligence Interrogation 1992
'any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession...' UN Convention Against Torture
'the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions...' Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
The common thread between these definitions-- plus all standard definitions of the term-- is the notion of intentional infliction of severe or intense mental and/or physical pain. The techniques listed above achieved just that. Each delivered severe mental-physical pain resulting in serious physiological complications. (disagree?-- I will revisit this issue in later posts. I will say for now though that the US State Dept and UN classify this treatment as torture).
Today, these are the standard techniques used in American detention centers around the globe. The same techniques have been described/pictured at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, CIA black sites in Thailand, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa. These are American techniques, American tortures.
So, still, why the asterisk? Well, while these methods are used by Americans-- upon fellow Americans and non US citizens-- they were not invented by American interrogators. As my book points out, these were the techniques used by Soviets and Chinese Communists to secure confessions for propaganda purposes. Here's an example from the book.
In 1948, Joseph E. Evans, the Wall Street Journal’s
Berlin correspondent, discussed the use of these tortures in Bulgaria:
'[A technique] for securing information or cooperation is to stand a man in water up to his waist and leave him there for twenty-four or more hours. More subtle psychological tortures include simulating terrifying sounds outside an already exhausted man’s cell in the middle of the night, and the endless interrogations themselves—calling the victim in from his cell at any hour of the day or night, repeatedly, day after day, never allowing him to get enough sleep to think clearly or finally, to care. It is this sort of thing which reduces human beings to dithering idiots, which produces those amazing confessions …'
Studies found that these methods were developed by Soviet secret police starting from the reign of Ivan the Terrible. Today, forced standing, isolation, and humiliation, are American tortures used across the globe in US detention facilities. Fifty years ago, they were Soviet tortures. We've adopted them, and sharpened them, but they are not of our own creation.