Friday, February 23, 2007

Abu Ghraib

HBO premiered a documentary last night about the torture of prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib in 2003. The administration and its fellow travelers dispute the word “torture”, something they have tried to define as causing organ failure or death, not “mere” psychological torture or pain inflicted without persistent damage. Quibbling about words sounds like the tactic of someone with something to hide. Of course at Abu Ghraib there was indeed torture leading to death. No one was punished for such murders, only for embarrassing the Army by taking pictures. The na├»ve soldiers actually believed the story that a prisoner who died from torture had suffered a routine heart attack. They didn’t realize they were photographing a murder. Without pictures, no one except the Army and the prisoners would have known how bad it was. Even with these pictures, only the Army and prisoners know how much worse the actual interrogations were. Strange how perfect crimes go wrong.

I don’t know how important it is that from the President on down, no one has taken responsibility for the systematic brutality that was captured by the pictures at Abu Ghraib, and for what? I’m sure it’s wrong, as opposed to some other issues about the war in Iraq and fighting terrorism that aren’t as clear to me, yet so many accept this and fight over things that make me shrug. I do know that there was systematic brutality. This documentary establishes that for anyone who hasn’t gotten that from newspapers and other TV already.

Will any politician ever be willing to get to the bottom of this or the top if that’s the more appropriate finding? Many people have been more loyal to the Army or to President Bush at this point than to the principle that it’s wrong to torture people, pretending that with this one exception of approved stress positions gotten carried away at Abu Ghraib, everyone is sticking to the regulations about acceptable torture. Right, I find the sight of Army officers and administration officials staring into the camera saying everything’s fine, our soldiers are stopping just short of real torture, to be more chilling than any of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. And think of all who called CBS traitors for airing these pictures in the first place.

There were plenty of prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were there by mistake, no matter how evil some of them were. I was once taught that America stands for the principle that it’s better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to be imprisoned. The reality of American justice hasn’t often been that careful, but when did we go to the idea that 10 men would be tortured, innocent, guilty, who cares, so that maybe one man would say a little bit more about something, truth, desperate lie, who cares? Many Republicans have signed on to this shift in what America means. That shouldn’t be forgotten. If Americans want this, their votes will signal that. I for one don’t want America to stand for torture. That’s my vote.


Tim said...

One of the most disturbing aspects of torture in the modern day is that there should be no need for it - I'm not really up on medical science, but I'm sure there are any number of 'truth serums', or related drugs, whereby if you absolutely need to get information from someone, say in a war situation, these can be administered, rather than bullying someone half to death, for what often comes across as the enjoyment or entertainment of the perpetrators. To me, physical or mental torture is just another form of unjustifed terrorism, and, in agreement with you, one to which we should not subscribe. But I guess torture will be around for a long time to come.

I might be wrong about 'truth' drugs etc, but with the advances that medicine etc has made, there must be more humane ways of 'extracting intelligence', or whatever the correct euphemism would be.

DavidD said...

A fast-acting barbiturate called thiopental or pentothal used to be called truth serum on old movies, Three Stooges, McHale's Navy, shows like that. It's actually just another barbiturate, so it makes people sleepy. Apparently current interrogators go the other way and keep prisoners up, stressing them with loud music and such things to break down their will to keep secrets. I'm sure there isn't a double-blind controlled trial to show which works the best on prisoners who want to keep a secret.

As it is with the police it is always an option to violate someone's humanity under extraordinary circumstances and take responsibility for doing that. I understand that. But to do that everyday takes a lot better justification than I've heard.

Neuroscience knows nothing about the biology or chemistry of will. Maybe the genetics revolution will shed some light on why some children are so much more willful than others and that will help us manipulate people better, but that's no time soon.

Tim said...

It seems to have become, in some situations, a way of passing the time for bored prison guards, and I get the impression, looking back through history, that torture has more or less become engrained as a widespread practice.