Torture - The Monstrous Deception
C R Sridhar
Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself. - James Anthony Froude. (English Historian)
The barbaric ritual of torture is clinically precise. The interrogators lead the suspect to a cold dank room, which is euphemistically called the detention facility. Here the suspect is subjected to the extreme psychological stress of a long wait, allowing him to wallow in his own fear of the uncertain fate that awaits him at the hand of his captors. Then he is asked questions. If the suspect does not crack or if he does not disclose the information required by his interrogators, he experiences sudden and excruciating pain. There is no God for the damned in this room. The walls of the room echo with the shrill and irregular screams of the tortured and the pain never stops unless the suspect breaks down and confesses.
The mode of torture varies. Even in Western liberal democracies known to espouse humane treatment of prisoners, human rights groups have documented instances of gross abuse of prisoner’s rights under detention. In Northern Ireland a particularly vicious campaign was unleashed against IRA suspects by the British army with the help of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Catholics suspected of being IRA sympathizers were rounded up by the army and subjected to the five techniques. This meant that the suspect would be hooded, made to stand against the wall and assume stressful positions. In addition the suspect would be subject to random loud noises and not allowed to sleep. He was also fed on bread and water. Though the five techniques avoid intense beating of suspects and are believed not to leave physical marks on the body, it was described as a unique and terrifying experience by the victims, which left psychological scars on them for a long time to come.
The US, which is known to aggressively promote human right issues from International forums, has been accused of using torture against Iraqis and Al Qaeda in the notorious Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Bagram and Khandar facilities in Afghanistan. The method of interrogation was simple brutal and terrifying: The suspects were stripped naked in front of their captors and their personal belonging removed heightening the shock of capture, humiliation and fear. ‘ The point is,’ explains the CIA’s KUBARK interrogation manual, ‘that man’s sense of identity depends upon a continuity in his surroundings, habits, appearance…etc. Detention permits the interrogator to cut through these links and throw the interrogatee back upon his own unaided resources.’1 The tactic was to wear down the suspect by keeping him tired and despondent, which was achieved by sensory deprivation (hooding), sleep deprivation and noise (shouting). On many occasions the prisoners were kneed and fisted.
A bizarre and sexually explicit form of humiliation was devised for the inmates of Abu Ghraib prison, where the male prisoners stripped naked were made to crawl on all fours before female guards who held them on leash. Sometimes the inmates were asked to assume degrading sexual positions before the female guards. The aim of this treatment was consistent: to shame and heighten the stress levels of the suspects to break them in interrogations to follow. Other controversial methods included water boarding which Amy Zalman notes as a ‘form of torture in which a bound, gagged prisoner is forced to breathe in water. There are several techniques: a prisoner is strapped to a board, or submerged, or held down and forced to breathe through a water-soaked cloth held over his mouth. All water boarding produces the physical sensation of drowning and a psychological sensation of panic, fear and loss of control.’2
In other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka - to name a few countries - the use of torture is endemic. Egypt was reported by the US State department to hang prisoners from the ceiling and beat them with whips and metal rods. Jordan was accused of beating the prisoners on the soles of their feet and hanging the prisoners in contorted positions. In Saudi Arabia the suspects had their teeth removed without anesthesia. In Bangladesh a nine-year-old boy had his thumb crushed with pliers by the police who were investigating a case of theft of a mobile handset. Notes Jessica Williams with alarm ‘more than 150 countries allowed torture to be carried out in their countries. That’s two-thirds of the countries of the world.’3
Though the methods of torture vary from physical beating, administration of electric shocks and use of psychotropic and other chemicals to induce pain and suffering in the victims of torture, there appears to be consensus that the aim of torture is ‘(a) the intentional infliction of extreme physical suffering on some non-consenting, defenseless person; (b) the intentional, substantial curtailment of the exercise of the person's autonomy (achieved by means of (a)); (c) in general, undertaken for the purpose of breaking the victim's will.’4
No wonder torture is called as the rape of the mind.
An enduring legacy
Viewed from a historical perspective torture is rooted in the chronicles of the past. As George Ryley Scott says ‘Torture, an enduring and seemingly not declining aspect of man's relationship to his fellow man, is an enduring thread through human history.’ ‘Whether it be practiced by primitive people,’ writes Scott ‘ the ancient Greeks or the Catholic Church, whether it be ancient China, Japan, 1930's Germany, or Northern Ireland today, torture is alarmingly systematic and consistent in its methods. Impaling, burning, rack or wheel, mutilation, drawing and quartering, burning or hanging alive in chains.’5 This is historically true. For instance, the techniques involving sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, and isolation are not freshly invented barbarisms of the Americans or Russians in recent times as they date back to the barbarism practiced by the church in the thirteenth century.
The earliest handbook on torture titled Directorium Inquisitorum recorded by the Grand Inquisitor Nicolas of Eymeric in the fourteenth-century and another treatise Malleus Malleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, 1486) written by Sprenger and Kramer became standard textbooks of torture used on witches and heretics in order to obtain confessions from them for the next two hundred years. In these texts all the stress techniques later employed by the Americans after nearly seven hundred years on Al Qaeda suspects featured. A sixteenth-century lawyer Hippolytus de Marsiliis is credited with the invention of sleep deprivation as interrogation technique. He suggested that as soon the prisoner fell asleep out of exhaustion he should be awakened with violent pricks of the needle.6 Tormentum Insomniae became standard technique used in interrogating the Al Qaeda prisoners by American personnel in the war against terror.
The international law against the use of torture is contained in Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN on 10th December 1948. Article 5 of the declaration states ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’ Since then two important international treaties have been adopted to prohibit the use of torture. These are the United Nations Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions III & IV.
Post 9/11, in the war on terror the United States administration under George Bush resorted to semantic quibbling on the issue of torture. The US government took the position that water boarding was not torture and other stress techniques used by US military personnel were defended as Torture lite and not amounting to torture. Some commentators, notably, Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law Professor, ‘have argued that legalised torture could be justified, if the torture in question was restricted to extreme emergency situations and subjected to appropriate accountability mechanisms. Specifically, he has argued for torture warrants of the kind introduced for a time in Israel.’8 As Dershowitz says, "I would talk about non-lethal torture, say, a sterilized needle underneath the nail, which would violate the Geneva accords, but you know that countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords. They do it secretly…if we ever came close to doing it, I think we would want to do it with accountability and openly and not adopt the way of the hypocrite."
Taking a cue from Dershowitz's justification of the use of torture in one off emergency situations, security experts have put forth a ticking bomb theory seeking to drive home the point that the use of torture is morally justified as it prevents the greater evil of the terrorists from taking innocent lives. Should we not use force to extract valuable information quickly from the terrorist as to where the bomb is located? Should precious time be lost in legally sectioned interrogation methods?
The ticking bomb theory seems reasonable on the face of it but a deeper examination shows that it is mere sophistry.
Firstly, it is by no means certain that information extracted by torture is reliable. In 1764, the Italian philosopher Ceasare Beccaria warned that under extreme torture the detainee would be compelled to tell lies in order to stop the pain and confess to crimes that the captors wanted to hear. Experienced and trained interrogators have challenged the efficacy of brutal tortures to obtain intelligence information. Maj. Gen. Geoffery D Miller, the American commander in charge of detentions and interrogations, stated "a rapport-based interrogation that recognizes respect and dignity, and having very well-trained interrogators, is the basis by which you develop intelligence rapidly and increase the validity of that intelligence.’ Others point out that despite administration claims that water boarding has "disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks", no one has come up with a single documented example of lives saved thanks to torture.’ The failure of justice in the case of Birmingham six calls into question whether confessions obtained under duress are reliable. In this case the suspects were beaten by the police and made to confess for crimes they did not commit. After years of imprisonment the suspects were cleared of any wrong doing when fresh evidence appeared that they were innocent.
Secondly, it is by no means certain that a committed terrorist would confess within a short period of time for the police to diffuse the ticking bomb. A case in point is that of a bomb maker Abdul Hakim Murad who was arrested by the police in Manila and subjected to brutal treatment: his ribs were broken, the police burned him with cigarettes and forced water down his throat. Murad broke after sixty-seven days. It raises doubts about the ticking bomb theory that assumes torture is a sure fire method to extract information in the shortest possible time.
Thirdly, most trained intelligence operatives rarely use violent methods of interrogations to elicit information from the suspect. One of the most successful interrogators in Nazi Germany was Hanns Joachim Scharff Master Interrogator of the Luftwaffe. As Maj. Anthony F. Milavic, USMC (Ret) says ‘This German interrogator purportedly gleaned information from every one of the American and British fighter pilots he interrogated without ever resorting to violence. This is not surprising when you consider… that direct questioning 'works 90 to 95 percent of the time.'
Lastly, the legalization of torture under emergency situations opens the Pandora’s box and raises ethical concerns whether torture would then become institutionalised and self-perpetuating over time and that what was once used for emergency purposes finds more reason to justify its wider use. This has real implication for citizens whose freedom could be endangered by the repressive apparatus of the state.
At the heart of the monstrous deception is the belief that the end justifies the means. That a little torture is good as it saves lives and promotes the greater good of the society. But time and again history has shown that violence and repression is often counter productive. The Romans put the early Christian martyrs to the sword and inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the followers of Christianity. The Romans thought that the preservation of the Roman Empire constituted the greater good. Thousands of persecuted Christians chose death and died true to their beliefs. Finally, Rome retreated and Christianity triumphed.
By a sad fate of history, Christianity repeated the same mistakes as Rome and cruelly persecuted the heretics and tortured the witches in a despicable manner. The justification of the Church was that a little burning was good as it saved the soul from eternal damnation. Thousands were senselessly slaughtered. The same madness continues in the present war on terror engaged by the most powerful Christian nation in the world against Islam. The moral justification for torture is again based on the monstrous deception that the best interests of liberal democracies are served by causing a little pain. History, it is said, has a strange way of preserving the ignoble ingenuity of human kind in perpetually deluding itself. Nowhere is this more evident than in the enduring and shameful history of humankind breaking its own on the wheel of pain.
1 Brainwash, Dominic Streatfield page 371.
2 Amy Zalman, Terrorism Issues.
3 50 facts that should change the world, Jessica Williams
4 Torture, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy-7th Feb 2006.
5 The History of Torture throughout the Ages, George Ryley Scott.
6 Brainwash, Dominic Streatfield page-373-374.
Torture - The Monstrous Deception
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