Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Breaking Jose: Psychological Torture Not so Bad?

A new study indicates that psychological torture--sleep deprivation, threatening to harm friends or family, or threats of rape--tends to result in comparable levels of mental anguish in victims as physical torture. In a study of 300 torture victims from the former Yugoslavia, those that had experienced psychological torture, but not physical, tended to develop post traumatic stress disorders at about the same rates as those that had been physically abused.

Of course, as a result of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, U.S. intelligence officials may be sactioned to engage in various forms of "torture lite" in order to extract information from detainees. International law prevents physical torture, and the U.S. military advises its personnel not to engage in psychological torture. But there do not seem to be such restrictions on the CIA.

These methods have come under scrutiny in the Jose "Dirty Bomber" Padilla case. As Naomi Klein reports, Padilla's lawyers are saying that he has been rendered mentally incompetent through the interrogation methods he has had to undergo, perhaps, including psychological torture.

Of course, enemy combantant detainees in military prisons have apparently lost the right to have their cases reviewed in U.S. courts because of the Military Commissions Act, based on a Federal appeals court ruling last February.

Should this study raise cause us to reassess whether the United States is sanctioning human rights violations in the" war on terror"?

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At 8:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should this study raise cause us to reassess whether the United States is sanctioning human rights violations in the" war on terror"?

Not really.

Human rights violations in the form of torture were going on well before the Military Commissions Act with the explicit approval of at least the executive branch and some of Congress (not to mention the tacit approval of the rest of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a whole slew of journalists and pundits who declined to really investigate). That was clear. What this Act changed was how bold ol' G.W. and friends were willing to be about the 'necessity' and 'legality' of torture, not whether or not they were sanctioned.

I also want to claim the Military Commissions Act - and the publicity and politics that surrounded it - did change the average person's moral culpability regarding torture. "I didn't know" isn't much of defense, but isn't it better than "I knew and did nothing?"

Both, however, pale in comparison to "I don't care," which is where I suspect most people are really at, deep down - unable to summon the empathy to lift a finger or speak a word in the defense of a stranger. Maybe I don't remember how to care would be a better description...

- Dennis

At 12:33 PM , Blogger Parisa said...

Ouch, Dennis!

Your words have the sting of truth. I was just about to weigh in that as you say, it has been known for a long time that the US is sanctioning human rights violations, even before the 'war on terror.'

Our moral culpability is definitely high, and growing higher by the minute. "I don't remember how to care" is a frightening place for a whole nation to be, and I pray there are enough folks who are not there yet to turn the ship around. Or at least slow things down enough to see what is happening.

We need a national dialogue about what builds compassion, and what it means to act from it rather than fear, or a lust for power (which are so often identical in their outward appearance). How do we lift up a sense of wonder and humility, and begin to tell the truth of how deeply we're connected to one another?

At 4:50 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

There is a difference, however, between legally sanctioning torture and having it be something that goes on "unofficially" by the executive branch. When torture is laid into the edifice of the law, then all other branches of government must comply with the law and it makes it a lot harder to point to the practices of the executive and call foul. When you can point to the inconsistency of practice with protocols and laws, you can have a powerful basis for critique. But when the law says you can torture, then you have a much more difficult route to take in pointing out what might be questionable about the practice.

As to the question of culpability and whether Americans care that the government tortures in their name, check out this new study at NYU--it seems very clear that human beings can convince themselves that no harm is being done to others through very sophisticated coping mechanisms. In other words, perhaps education and information about the issues is not always enough to change people's minds.: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-02/nyu-nss022807.php

At 6:20 PM , Blogger Comrade O'Brien said...

Hello, you may be interested to learn about our Orwellian protest of the Military Commissions Act of 2006. We are sending copies of 1984 to everyone who voted for it. For more information, please visit http://ministryoflove.wordpress.com

At 8:01 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm sort of amused at your point regarding the difference between "unofficial" and "legal" torture as practiced by the current administration given the classes you teach (especially MLK) and the department you teach them in. It strikes me that a powerful critique based on morality, not legality - or an even higher law, to borrow from MLK - can be leveled here at either position on the issue of torture. I think that's why I didn't see much of a difference. In my book, torture is still immoral even when it's legal.

I bring this up because most of the arguments against the current round of torture don't rely much on its supposed legality under US law; instead, they skip straight to either international law or to pragmatic arguments ("if we torture others, our soldiers will be tortured"), or straight to moral arguments.

I also want to minimize the "is it legal?" sort of criticism because I don't think the current administration cares much for the law anyway (this is probably why most critiques don't bother with this line of attack in the first place). Then again, I suppose it's not Bush or Cheney I should be worried about convincing, is it?

Which brings me to the article you linked to. It strikes me as both very commonsense - how else would be people make it through the day? - but also pretty terrifying. Of course, I would also suggest that this perspective is not as dangerous or as troubling as one in which people don't have moral outrage because they don't care about others, instead taking a "me-first" approach. Convincing others the world is not in fact fair seems easier than convincing folks that other people are fully human.

- Dennis

At 12:58 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

O'Brien--What an ingenious political statement!

At 1:05 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...


You are absolutely right to raise a distinction between what is legal and what is moral. They are not the same.

But Martin Luther King didn't rely purely on moralistic criticism. He often pointed out how segregation law was in contradiction with other semi-legal documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. He often spoke up to the U.S. powers that be and said "Be true to what you say". So he would frequently appeal to Christian ethics, secular, deontological ethics, and American political/tradition to point out how segegration and institutional racism were wrong. It was a powerful combination. I doubt he could have been as effective if he were purely an ethical critique. So what the law says does matter, I think.

The other thing to say is that King often lobbied for specific kinds of laws and his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" seems to suggest that we should strive to make our laws as moral as possible.

Do I think the field of law is the best place to enact widespread social change? No. But it is one field of contestation, one among many, that would include the churches, the schools, and the streets. We ought not to forget that what the law says can often impact how we engage in those arenas.


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