Monday, November 05, 2007

What torture is for

Fascinating quote from an article by Jane Smiley of Huffingtonpost.com (http://www.alternet.org/rights/66831/?page=entire), quoting Jonah Black, lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The quote discusses the similiarities of American techniques of torture ... I'm sorry, of "enhanced interrogation techniques" ... that we learned from places like North Korea, the Soviet Union, and the Khymer Rouge.

In addition to the obvious answer of "we don't want to be like the Khymer Rouge," Black suggests yet another reason why torturing isn't a good idea for getting intelligence. All these techniques we are using - waterboarding, stress positions, water torture, etc. - were not used by the Soviets or the Khymer Rouge to get intelligence. The purpose of these techniques was to extract a confession from their victim. Such confession had propaganda value for a totalitarian state, because it didn't matter if it was true or not.

Even the Soviets knew better than to torture people trying to get useful intelligence. But here we are, with the current President further soaking the American flag in blood in an attempt to protect his own "legacy."

------

The crux of the issue before Congress can be boiled down to a simple question: Is waterboarding torture? Anybody who considers this practice to be "torture lite" or merely a "tough technique" might want to take a trip to Phnom Penh. The Khymer Rouge were adept at torture, and there was nothing "lite" about their methods. Incidentally, the waterboard in these photo wasn't merely one among many torture devices highlighted at the prison museum. It was one of only two devices singled out for highlighting (the other was another form of water-torture -- a tank that could be filled with water or other liquids; I have photos of that too.) There was an outdoor device as well, one the Khymer Rouge didn't have to construct: chin-up bars. (The prison where the museum is located had been a school before the Khymer Rouge took over).

These bars were used for "stress positions"-- another practice employed under current US guidelines. At the Khymer Rouge prison, there is a tank of water next to the bars. It was used to revive prisoners for more torture when they passed out after being placed in stress positions.

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn't a coincidence. As has been amply documented ("The New Yorker" had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the "enhanced techniques" came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they're taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies--the states where US military personnel might have faced torture -- were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That's what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Bottom line: Not only do waterboarding and the other types of torture currently being debated put us in company with the most vile regimes of the past half-century; they're also designed specifically to generate a (usually false) confession, not to obtain genuinely actionable intel. This isn't a matter of sacrificing moral values to keep us safe; it's sacrificing moral values for no purpose whatsoever.

These photos are important because most of us have never seen an actual, real-life waterboard. The press typically describes it in the most anodyne ways: a device meant to "simulate drowning" or to "make the prisoner believe he might drown." But the Khymer Rouge were no jokesters, and they didn't tailor their abuse to the dictates of the Geneva Convention. They -- like so many brutal regimes -- made waterboarding one of their primary tools for a simple reason: it is one of the most viciously effective forms of torture ever devised.

No comments: