Thursday, May 14, 2009

No laughing matter

Torture is not usually funny (unless we're talking about ants, Mr. Bill or Britney Spears). But the political discussion since president Obama released the so called "torture" memos from the Bush administration has evolved from the normal political double-speak to the truly absurd, thereby qualifying it for a post on this blog. In this case the absurdity is not funny, just sad. All the more so because it actually happened.

Torture, according to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, is: "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..."

The legal opinion from the Bush justice department on the subject stated that an interrogation "technique" was not torture unless it inflicted pain equivalent to “major organ failure” or death.

I would like to demonstrate the absurdity of that definition by listing several "techniques" that do not meet the Bush criteria of torture yet are commonly acknowledged as such:

  • pulling out fingernails with pliers

  • stripping off ribbons of skin with razor blades

  • beating the soles of the feet with bamboo staffs

  • applying electric shock to the genitals

The other equally absurd claim being made by the likes of Dick Cheney and the Republican Senate leardership is that authorizing and employing these "techniques" was effective in disrupting planned terrorist plots.

This actually seems credible on the surface (after all it's the premise of all plot elements on the TV show 24). However, this argument quickly loses any credibility when one considers the effect of any of the approved interrogation "techniques" that were perpetrated on the suspects in custody. Following is a list reported in the New York Times:
  • Inflicting the pain and sensations of drowning by restraining a detainee in a reclined postion, covering their mouth and nose with a cloth and saturating it with water (i.e. water-boarding)

  • Shackling a detainee in a standing position for 2 or 3 days

  • Stripping a detainee naked and lowering the tempurature of the cell to 55 degrees for periods of days

  • Confining a detainee to a black box the size of a coffin for periods of days

  • Using a collar around the neck to repeatedly slam a handcuffed detainee into a plywood covered wall

  • Disrupting or completely preventing sleep by means of bright lights, loud music or one or more of the above for periods of 2 to 3 weeks

After enduring any or all of these interrogation "techniques", any person would be a very bad source of reliable information because they would have a hard time descerning the difference between reality (enduring the effects of torture) and fantasy (where they can escape). As a result they may suffer hallucinations, recall events that never happened or generally speak incoherently (in Arabic for most of the detainees identified). The only thing this kind of torture is good for is false confessions and brain washing. In fact, this is exactly what water-boarding has been used for in the past. So it is beyond absurd for anyone to claim that reliable and actionable intelligence can be gather by torturing anyone like this.

The fact that our government did it anyway is a testament to how misguided, misinformed or just plain ignorant the Bush administration really was. And that really is sad.