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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Introduction and a Question: What's Actually Wrong with Torture?

Posted by Fatima Kola at 12:18 PM |

My name is Fatima Kola and I’m a new blogger here at American Torture, thanks to Mike. A short introduction is necessary before I get to the point of my post: I’m currently a doctoral candidate at the University College London Faculty of Laws, where I’m researching the international prohibition on torture and asking what flaws the law may have (especially when it comes into contact with terrorism) that allow governments to allegedly practice torture despite their international legal obligations not to do so. I’m using the US, the UK and Israel as case studies, and I’m particularly looking at structural flaws in the law (e.g., a weak definition, the ability for states to create exceptions, etc.), as well as deeper philosophical questions (e.g., is it really true that torture is never justified as a response to terrorism?). So I’m really happy to be contributing to this blog, and you can expect, I hope, quite a lot of posts from me on various aspects of torture – particularly its moral and philosophical dimensions and also on more explicitly legal issues, especially in regards to what governments and states legally may do to make space for torture, ‘coercive interrogation’, inhuman & degrading treatment, and so on.

But what I really want to write about today, and ask this blog's readers about, is a very basic question that I think is frequently overlooked in the current security versus rights debate on torture, and one that I am in the difficult process of trying to answer for myself. That is: what’s actually wrong with torture? What are its moral dimensions? Why should it earn the status as a crime against humanity; a war crime in some instances; and alongside genocide and slavery, an act that may never be committed under any circumstances? Why are we (and by ‘we’ I mean those who believe that torture is generally wrong, and I think that even includes its apologists) so troubled by it – either acting in shock or repugnance when its uncovered or going to great lengths to try and cover it up or make elaborate arguments allowing it? Why, when we think of older and more unsophisticated political and legal systems, do we immediately associate these with torture – with the rack, and the iron maiden, and other such grisly instruments that immediately signify cruelty and barbarism? What is it about torture that has such moral power?

This is an important question, especially for defenders of human rights, because if we can’t actually put our finger on what torture’s specific, special moral wrongness is, then it makes it very difficult to say exactly why it should not be practised, and when it should not be practised. An abstract argument of rights doesn’t quite cut it, I think, when faced with the often compelling (at least on the surface) security-based arguments that those who think torture is a necessary moral act bring up (e.g. the infamous ticking bomb scenario, which I hope to discuss in another post). We really need to understand the moral contours of torture if we can hope to convince anyone, and ourselves, that it’s the type of wrong that should never be committed.

At first the answer to what’s wrong with torture seem fairly obvious, but I think that actually there’s very little consensus on the issue. Most attempts to answer this question – particularly David Sussman’s recent and very valuable paper (aptly entitled ‘What’s Wrong With Torture?’) as well as various courts and international tribunals - have primarily focused on the pain that torture inflicts. Elaine Scarry wrote beautifully about this in The Body in Pain. She argued that torture is wrong because it inflicts such great pain that it is world-destroying: it destroys language, memory, thought, and that through pain ‘the torturer uses the prisoner’s sentience to obliterate the objects of the prisoner’s sentience… the torturer uses the prisoner’s aliveness to crush the things that he lives for.’ Courts such as the European Court of Human Rights have similarly focused on the severity of pain involved in acts alleged to be torture, and we all know of the attempt by the Bush administration to argue that torture that does not happen until the ‘pain inflicted… rises to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function.’

I think that Scarry and Sussman’s accounts of what’s wrong with torture are generally correct, but I suspect that too much emphasis is put on the role of pain. It seems to me that pain is a useful method of achieving torture’s real purpose, and what’s really wrong with it. That is the annihilation of individual agency and autonomy (both difficult terms to define, I know, but what I mean here is simply the ability to act for one’s self, to meaningfully control one’s actions) and the destruction of human dignity. The torturer, in interrogating his or her victim, brings the tortured to the point where he or she ‘breaks’, where he or she can’t do anything but comply with the torturer’s wishes. The victim has no choice in the matter because he or she is acting out of reflexive desire to survive, to put an end to the torment inflicted – and at this point, the victim has no agency or autonomy – they are merely an entity that is aware of nothing but torment and the desire to be released from it. The pain inflicted is really just the most effective and quickest method of achieving this state, but it’s that destruction of the self that constitutes torture's deep moral wrongness.

It may seem a subtle shift, but I think if emphasis is put on dignity, to which pain is really secondary and which is the most useful mechanism by which to destroy dignity – we are getting closer to what is really wrong here, and what really repels us. It may also mean that we have to change our ideas about how to legally define when an act is torture – rather than how much pain is involved or its severity, we may need to focus instead of the loss of control in the victim, and their individual and subjective response to what was inflicted upon them. After all, if someone is deprived of sleep, hooded and beaten, and it drives them out of their mind and they falsely confess – why should this not be torture? Hasn’t it had the same affect as say, waterboarding them might? If we force someone to take a drug that acts painlessly but compels them to comply with whatever the interrogator would like against their own interests and wishes – hasn’t this destroyed their dignity and their agency meaningfully? Surely the destruction of dignity and agency in torture can’t be secondary to pain. After all, human dignity is the seat of our humanity and the place around which our human rights are centred, and what they seek to respect – so there can be no greater crime than to destroy individual dignity. There are any number of acts quite capable of doing this which may not employ objectively severe levels of pain – if it’s even possible to assess that.

I’m aware that there are great difficulties here philosophically. There are, clearly, examples of acts that destroy agency (e.g. lawful killing in self defence) that we do not think of as torture, it brings up issues of intention, and it would also be difficult to say the least to construct a meaningful legal definition around the destruction of human dignity, agency and autonomy. Pain is also clearly important, and it shouldn’t be dismissed. But while the difference between a conception of torture’s moral wrongness that places its emphasis in the destruction of dignity and agency with pain as secondary, and one that places it emphasis on the infliction of pain with the destruction of dignity and agency as the result of it might be a subtle one, I think this is an important question to answer. When we write about torture, or catalogue its practice, or inspect a government’s attempts to secretly use it, it’s often easy to forget the real nature of the act itself or to become detached from it, and a question like this is important if we want to understand what it actually is that we’re concerned with.

As I said, I haven’t come to any definite conclusions on this yet, so I’d be interested to see what readers think – and so I’d love to hear any thoughts that you may have. (Admittedly, there is much thought and detail that's been left out of what I've written here, but this is the general idea, and if a discussion does begin and people are interested, perhaps we can look at certain elements more closely.)

Update: Edwin, thanks for your comment. Your point about justice is a good one - I was extremely negligent and failed to say that I was writing about torture's wrongness just in terms of the act itself - so the elements of the act alone and not any states of affairs it might bring about - but of course when we look at the whole picture, including what torture is used for, the injustice of it becomes a primary concern. In terms of human rights, torture may often actually result in a double violation of human rights - firstly the torture itself, but secondly the tortured evidence/confession being used to deny someone a fair trial or resulting in some other deep miscarriage of justice. And Joni, thanks for reading!

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Forgotten Men: New UC Report on "Guantanamo and its Aftermath"

Posted by Valtin at 12:06 AM |

Last summer, Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First released Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the U.S. The study looked at medical and psychological evidence of the costs of torture by eleven men who endured such abuse by US personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay.

Now, University of California, Berkeley's Human Rights Center, in conjunction with the International Human Rights Law Clinic and Center for Constitutional Rights, has released a report on the medical and psychological condition of 62 detainees released over the years from Guantanamo. According to a press release by the university:
The report, "Guantanamo and Its Aftermath: U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices and Their Impact on Detainees," based on a two-year study, reveals in graphic detail the cumulative effect of Bush Administration policies on the lives of 62 released detainees. Many of the prisoners were sold into captivity and subjected to brutal treatment in U.S. prison camps in Afghanistan. Once in Guantanamo, prisoners were denied access to civilian courts to challenge the legality of their detention. Almost two-thirds of the former detainees interviewed reported having psychological problems since leaving Guantanamo....

Researchers conducted interviews with released detainees in nine countries. The comprehensive study also includes in-depth interviews with key government officials, military experts, former guards, interrogators and other camp personnel.
As the Bush Administration winds down into it ignominious end, President-elect Obama has made clear -- most recently in a 60 Minutes interview last night -- he will very early on use his executive power to close Guantanamo and put an end to torture. It's not clear yet what will happen to the over 200 detainees still held prisoner at Guantanamo, or whether other prisons will be closed, or even whether any executive order will pertain to CIA activities. When Laurence Tribe, an Obama legal advisor and his former law professor argued the other day that perhaps a new federal judiciary system was needed to deal with the Guantanamo prisoners, the idea was quickly scotched (at least for now) by Obama's spokepeople.

"I've Lost My Will"

Almost 800 prisoners have been dragged through the torture chambers of Guantanamo. Reams of words have been written, and scores of legal cases filed in an effort to either end or excuse the mistreatment wrought there. Reporting in today's San Francisco Chronicle, Bob Egelko, describes some of the stories from the HRC report:
"I've lost my property. I've lost my job. I've lost my will," said an Afghan man, one of 62 former inmates in nine countries interviewed anonymously by UC Berkeley researchers for a newly released report.

Another man, jobless and destitute, said his family kicked him out after he returned, and his wife went to live with her relatives. "I have a plastic bag holding my belongings that I carry with me all the time," he said. "And I sleep every night in a different mosque."
UC Berkeley's press release quotes the HRC study as documenting the use at Guantanamo of "being subjected to short shackling, stress positions, prolonged solitary confinement, and exposure to extreme temperatures, loud music, and strobe lights for extended periods -- often simultaneously." Some detainees reported even worse abuse at the U.S. detention center at Baghram, Afghanistan, where prisoners were threatened with dogs, regularly beaten, and suspended by their arms for hours on end.

And yet:
Most detainees interviewed for the study were not vengeful toward America, but simply expressed a desire for justice and an opportunity to clear their names.
The suffering of these detainees is heart-breaking. Their wish to recover a normal life should be at the top of the list for a country with so many broken promises and difficult crises dropped into its lap in the wake of one of the most sinister and criminal administrations to ever rule this or any other ostensibly democratic country.

A Terrible Moral Failure

The role of doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists at these torture centers is not left unmentioned. As the report describes it:
... since late 2002, military psychologists and psychiatrists serving on Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) have played an active role in developing and implementing interrogation strategies at Guantánamo....

Interrogation policies and standards at Guantánamo changed over time, but the data demonstrate that some practices remained consistent throughout the period when the study respondents were held there (January 2002 to January 2007). While more needs to be revealed about the specific interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo, it appears that many of the methods which detainees complained about most bitterly -- cold rooms and short shackling, in conjunction with prolonged isolation -- were permitted under the U.S. military’s interrogation guidelines in force from April 2003 to September 2006... These practices contravene the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which the United States ratified in 1955....

To date, no independent, comprehensive investigation has been conducted to determine the role that camp personnel as well as officials farther up the civilian and military chains of command played in the design and implementation of interrogation
techniques at Guantánamo. No broad investigation has yet addressed whether or not these officials should be held accountable for any crimes they or their subordinates may have committed.
Elsewhere in the report, the authors describe the function of the BSCT teams:
A principal BSCT function was to engineer the camp experiences of “priority” detainees to make interrogation more productive. BSCT personnel coached interrogators on how to stress, coerce, and offer incentives to secure information from detainees. BSCT personnel “prepared psychological profiles [of detainees] for use by interrogators; they also sat in on some interrogations, observed others from behind one-way mirrors, and offered feedback to interrogators"... Army medical personnel also provided medical information to interrogators... In a confidential report, the International Committee for the Red Cross called the participation of doctors in designing interrogation plans a “flagrant violation of medical ethics"... In 2006, in response to publicity about the clinical participation in coercive interrogations at Guantánamo, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association endorsed more stringent guidelines for military doctors and psychiatrists who are asked to participate in interrogations... In 2008, after several years of often acrimonious debate, members of the American Psychological Association voted to prohibit consultation by its members in the interrogations of detainees held at Guantánamo or so-called “black sites” operated by the CIA overseas.
A Call for Justice

The Human Rights Center and their partners are insistent that the crimes committed by the United States around torture cannot and should not go without further investigation. Hundreds of detainees remains incarcerated without ever being accused of any crime. Evidence of torture and abuse is overwhelming, the deleterious personal, medical and psychological consequences for those caught in this torture web and then released is also strongly convincing. Per Egelko's article:
"We cannot sweep this dark chapter in our nation's history under the rug by simply closing the Guantanamo prison camp," said Eric Stover, director of UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center. "The new administration must investigate what went wrong and who should be held accountable."
The news is so dark every day, with thousands thrown out of their jobs seemingly every day, and millions more fearing they will lose theirs. The wreck that is American society has so many vital issues facing it, that it seems easy to let the sufferings of "only" a few hundred or thousand go unanswered. The latest leaks around Obama's plans to investigate or prosecute Bush officials for war crimes indicate an Obama administration will lean towards some investigation, and steer away from prosecutions. (See recent stories by Mark Benjamin at Salon, and Lara Jakes Jordan at Associate Press.) Meanwhile, Bush is said to be considering a massive blanket pardon for those involved in his interrogation policies. Some argue that such a pardon could facilitate a "truth and reconciliation" investigation.

In the end, no one knows yet what Obama will do, or what Bush will do (although I'm betting he will issue the pardons). What is clear is that among all the other crucial issues facing the U.S. at this point in time, we must solve a huge moral dilemma: what do we do when the government blatantly and recklessly disregards human rights or lives, when it kills or tortures? Do we stand back and let it pass, in the name of political expediency? What shame and moral rot will we have to endure? How can we rise from the muck of this terrible period in our history if we do not both witness and pay out with justice the ineffable suffering of the innocent made in our name, and now forever etched with acid on the soul of the country?

Update: Interested readers will want to read Scott Horton's latest piece at Harper's (subscription required) on the rationale and possibilities around prosecuting Bush Administration figures for torture and war crimes. A nice summary of Horton's article was also made by Compound F at Docudharma (no subscription required).

Also posted at Invictus

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Big Victory: APA Informs Bush -- No Psychologists at Military Interrogations

Posted by Valtin at 12:59 AM |

Readers of this blog know that dissident psychologists, along with human rights and anti-torture organizations and individuals have been working for years now to get the American Psychological Association to change its policy of supporting the use of psychologists in interrogations at Guantanamo, CIA black-site prisons, and other governmental sites involved in Bush's Global War on Terror.

Last month, a referendum that called for banning such participation was passed by a large majority of voting APA members. At first, APA bureaucrats mumbled something about instituting this new policy come August 2009! But large scale protest by the membership seems to have caused them to back down, and today, APA has released a letter to George W. Bush informing the head of the U.S. executive branch and commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces of the new change in APA policy.

The letter was drafted collaboratively between APA staff and the primary authors of the referendum petition that led to the change in policy. Similar letters reportedly will be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and to key congressional committees, including the Armed Services, Judiciary, and Intelligence committees.

What follows is the press release by APA on the change, and announcing the letter to Bush. The actual text of the letter can be found here.

The announcement by APA represents a major turnaround in their long-standing policy of backing the presence of psychologists at interrogations, and a victory for all who have fought to change that policy and fight back against U.S. torture.

Prohibits psychologist participation in interrogations at unlawful detention sites

WASHINGTON—The American Psychological Association sent a letter today to President Bush, informing him of a significant change in the association's policy that limits the roles of psychologists in certain unlawful detention settings where the human rights of detainees are violated, such as has occurred at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at so-called CIA black sites around the world.

“The effect of this new policy is to prohibit psychologists from any involvement in interrogations or any other operational procedures at detention sites that are in violation of the U.S. Constitution or international law (e.g., the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture),” says the letter, from APA President Alan E. Kazdin, PhD. “In such unlawful detention settings, persons are deprived of basic human rights and legal protections, including the right to independent judicial review of their detention.”

The roles of psychologists at such sites would now be limited to working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights, or to providing treatment to military personnel. The new policy was voted on by APA members and is in the process of being implemented.

For the past 20 years, APA policy has unequivocally condemned torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which can arise from interrogation procedures or conditions of confinement. APA's previous policies had expressed grave concerns about settings where people are deprived of human rights and had offered support to psychologists who refused to work in such settings.

Noting that there have been credible reports of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees during Bush's presidency, APA called on the administration to investigate these alleged abuses. “We further call on you to establish policies and procedures to ensure the independent judicial review of these detentions and to afford the persons being detained all rights guaranteed to them under the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture,” Kazdin wrote.

A copy of the full letter may be viewed at: http://www.apa.org/releases/kazdin-to-bush1008.pdf
Whither APA
While this is a big victory, it doesn't mean torture will end at Guantanamo, CIA prisons, or elsewhere. Most psychologists working at such facilities, similarly to doctors, nurses, interrogators, etc., work under the chain of command and answer to the leadership of the military and the executive branch. But the new policy does explode a central pillar of the government's rationale for such abuse, i.e., that psychologists are present at such sites as "safety officers" to stop "behavioral drift" or abuse from taking place.

Now the APA has rejected this premise, and is lending its prestige to the withdrawal of behavioral health professionals from the CIA and the Pentagon's program of coercive interrogation.

Yet, the APA still widely collaborates with the national security apparatus. Their work on "deception", which I've written about here, is only one aspect of this far-reaching connectivity between U.S. behavioral science and the military. Nor should we believe that the APA apparatus, staffed by the same people who tried for years to make psychologists hand-servants for the worst aspects of military abuse, is suddenly composed of pacifists and anti-militarists. For instance, APA has not, to date, seen fit as an organization to call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay Naval prison.

It's clear that struggles around the interactions of the health professions, academia, and major scientific institutions with the organs of national security and the program of a militarist state, remain ahead of us. Furthermore, the cynic in me wonders if this turnaround by APA isn't too convenient, as it potentially cuts the ground out from under anti-torture activist Steven Reisner's campaign for APA president, with the election coming later this month.

One prominent APA activist noted on a listserv earlier today that Kazdin's letter fails to call for an immediate removal of psychologists from interrogations at Guantanamo (for instance). The policy wherein Behavioral Science Consulting Teams, including psychologists, assist in interrogation planning and procedures is supposedly about due for review. It is time to ratchet up the pressure on the government to shut down Guantanamo, to decommission (if that is the word) the BSCTs.

A big question remains around the use of torture and the participation of same at CIA sites. CIA "enhanced interrogation" techniques remain supposedly approved by the President. No one knows exactly how the CIA's prisons work, who is there, or what goes on. APA should call for an immediate withdrawal of all psychologists from such secret prisons. While they are at it, to show they are serious, they could stop taking advertisements for CIA employment in their journals and publications.

[Update: I want to add here some important comments from the CEO of Physicians for Human Rights, Frank Donaghue on APA's letter:
"While today is a proud day for the APA and its membership, the APA must now act to permanently prohibit direct participation by psychologists in interrogations and to ensure those psychologists who engaged in abuse and torture are held to account," said Donaghue. "The APA has taken a tremendous step forward but has not yet reached the ethical standards of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, organizations which have banned direct participation by physicians in all interrogations. Also, the APA has not yet specified what rights abuses would render a detention facility illegal under its new policy."]
Despite all caveats, it is time to savor the victory, and spread the word. Congratulations to everyone who worked to win this battle. Tops among them must be the folks who pushed the referendum, when it looked like a long-shot, and the hard working members of Psychologists for an Ethical APA, withholdapadues.com, etc.

Bravo, my friends and colleagues. Good work!

Also posted at Invictus and Never in Our Names

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