Tuesday, June 15, 2004
FORGERS.14.14-15. In last Sunday's LA Times, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz argued that the U.S. courts should codify torture to differentiate acceptable coercive interrogation techniques from unacceptable ones. He began the essay this way:
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's recent testimony that President Bush had "made no direct order" authorizing any of the practices photographed at Abu Ghraib prison was calculated to cloak the president with deniability. But it raises the real question: What constitutes the kind of "torture" that, according to Ashcroft, "this administration opposes"? And what exactly are the information-gathering techniques that the Bush administration does approve of? We don't know because it refuses to be specific, opting instead for the wink-and-nod approach — publicly condemning torture in a general sort of way while discreetly demanding results by whatever means it takes.
Dershowitz goes on to cite the experience of the Israelis, who have used torture particularly in "ticking bomb" situations where a detainee has knowledge of hostage locations or other information that could be used to save imperiled citizens. Ultimately, Israeli courts did define permitted interrogation techniques, which turned out to be rather stringent and prohibited "shaking, stress positions, hooding, playing "powerfully loud music" and other physical pressures.
The nominal point of the essay is that Dershowitz thinks America should follow Israel's lead in this arena. The deeper point, however, seems to be the subtle redefinition of the abuses at Abu Ghraib as "torture." Hence this sentence in his concluding paragraph:
Broad generalizations like "this administration opposes torture" have not worked and will not work in the future.
Clearly, we are supposed to accept that "torture" has occurred under the American watch in Iraq. Elsewhere, our beloved media are doing their best, through a policy of omission, to achieve the same result. On May 21 of this year, Newsmax reported:
The U.S. backed Arab-language news network Al Hurra broadcast video on Wednesday depicting grisly acts of torture on Iraqi citizens ordered by Saddam Hussein. But so far at least, the shocking new video remains embargoed by U.S. media outlets.
The Washington Post admitted on Friday that it was in possession of some of the gruesome torture images - but did not publish them in a report on the video buried on Page A21. Instead, Post editors decided to front-page stale images of U.S. abuse of suspected terrorists held at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.
torture] video reached news outlets," the paper explained, "as senior
spokesmen for the Bush administration began to express frustration that
the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops had overshadowed
well-documented human rights horrors of the Hussein era."
I haven't seen these videos yet. Have you?
More recently, a media outlet calling itself Common Dreams NewsCenter, Breaking News
for the Progressive Community published an article
in which an el Sadr insurgent declared that he'd rather be tortured
by Saddam than humiliated by the Americans. Under the Hussein regime, he had been
...given electric shocks, beaten and hung
from the ceiling with his hands tied behind his back.
"But that's better than the humiliation of being stripped naked," he said. "Shoot me here," he added, pointing between his eyes, "but don't do this to us."
The Common Dreams piece doesn't ever get more specific about the young man's Saddam interrogations but includes this vivid description of his time in American captivity:
Shweiri, who was arrested by the Americans in October, said he was asked to take off his clothes only once and for about 15 minutes. "I thought they wanted me to change into the red prison uniform, so I took off my clothes, down to my underwear. Then he asked me to take off my underwear. I started arguing with him but in the end he made me take off my underwear," said Shweiri, who was too embarrassed to go into too much detail.
He said he and six other prisoners - all hooded - had to face the wall and bend over a little as they put their hands on the wall.
"They made us stand in a way that I am ashamed to describe. They came to look at us as we stood there. They knew this would humiliate us," he said, adding that he was not sodomized.
"They were trying to humiliate us, break our pride. We are men. It's OK if they beat me. Beatings don't hurt us, it's just a blow. But no one would want their manhood to be shattered," he said. "They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman."
Shweiri's account could not be
Observe the lovely nod in the direction of objectivity at the end;
the account couldn't be independently verified. But also note that the
"progressive" audience of Common Dreams is expected to feel Shweiri's
pain and humiliation at "the worst insult, to feel like a woman."
The only way that this propagandistic equation of humiliation with
torture can work is for Americans to remain in the dark about what
torture really is. Are we really so coddled and naive in this country
that we can't see the absurdity of declarations like Shweiri's?
Pondering this question, I recalled -- and subsequently dug up -- an
essay I had read long ago in an Esquire
anthology of the most daring and controversial pieces published in that
magazine's first quarter century. The author was James Poling
in an internet listing of 20the century 'Civil Rights Writers') and the
date of original publication was November 1936. Poling's approach was
reminiscent of Swift's "Modest Proposal," facetious and shocking; he purported to be exposing
an American national deficiency. The article, titled "Brotherly
Love," opens thus:
The gentle art of torture is one of the
most venerable and least
recognized of mankind's accomplishments. Like sex, it has reared its
ugly head through all the pages of recorded history. The tortures of
the Spanish Inquisition, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution and
other notable eras are commonplaces accepted by everyone. But few
realize that torture is one of the essential, even if minor tools of
our present day boasted civilization.
Poling regards Americans in particular as being a bit backward in
the art of torture, and so he conducts a little seminar to bring us up
to speed, proceeding from the least to the most ingenious and
spectacular. Since he was writing in 1936, his knowledge of the Nazis
was fairly primitive, as was his assessment of their techniques:
Regrettably enough little artistry or
variety is displayed.
Solitary confinement and starvation, the ever present castor oil, and
beatings in various forms constitute the larger part of the program.
What a difference between the word "beating" and a description of
the reality. I'm sure that most of us, like Shweiri, would rather
experience what Wolfgang Langhof did than remove our clothes before
Poling is equally contemptuous of the Italian fascisti, with one
exception regarding their application of beatings:
The Italians are responsible for only one
notable advance in the
technic of pounding a man to pieces. They have evolved Bastonatura in
stile, a highly specialized school of bludgeoning. The weapon is a
specially made cudgel, weighted in the end and rather flexible. Those
who wield it are trained in barrack where they first practice on
It is at this point in his seminar that Poling begins getting
specific about Americans:
In turning to the land of the free I am
forced to admit,
unpatriotic though it may sound, that we in America have not taken
advantage of our opportunities. In the realm of torture we are a
backward nation, more notably for our vim and vigor than for our
He cites the grisly record of beatings, floggings, and
lynchings practiced by whites against "the American Negro" and also
acknowledges the contributions of prison authorities, gangsters,
strike-breakers, [and] chain-gang
supervisors," but he clearly assigns the leading role in contemporary
(1936, remember) American torture to the police.
Six policemen in Tampa were charged with thte first degree murder of a man they suspected of communistic activities; after flogging him they tarred and feathered him and as a result he "did languish and did die." The Supreme Court recently set aside the death sentences imposed on three Mississippi Negroes because "it would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners." The men were hanged from trees and stripped and lashed with belts, buckles attached, until their backs were laid bare and until they confessed. The idealistic judges in Washington asserted that "the rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand."We have all heard of the notorious "third-degree," but Poling is the only writer I have found who describes what it really consisted of:
We have made one contribution to the noble art of torture which the future historian must inevitably note with care and admiration. I give you, gentlemen, the Third Degree.
Would you like to get kicked in the groin? Have you an overpowering desire to be questioned, without having food, water or sleep, by relays of detectives for ninety-two hours on end? Would you like to be blinded by being forced to stare into a terrifically high powered light for hours on end? Have you a desire to be put in a dentist's chair and held there while the dentist grinds down a good molar with a rough burr? Or would you prefer to have your Adam's apple pounded by a blackjack until blood spurted from your mouth?
All the little pleasantries I've enumerated can probably be had at your nearest police station, provided you are suspected of a major crime and are reluctant to confess your guilt. If the crime is major enough you may be provided with even more varied entertainment.
"Taps" is a form of indoor sports particularly popular with the boys in the back room of the police station. In playing "Taps" the prisoner is first strapped to a chair. After he has been made comfortable he is pounded on the side of the head with a piece of rubber hose, or "goldfish." He must not be knocked unconscious but must be struck hard enough to experience jolting pain. If the game is to be played expertly the blows must be delivered with machine-like regularity.
Timing, as in tennis and other games, is essential and the perfect stroke is one delivered at regular thirty second intervals. The one drawback to the game is its lack of variety. The prisoner in the chair is always "It." To compensate for this "Taps" has a distinct advantage over most station house games; the rubber hose causes no scar and the red welt it raises won't be visible on the witness stand the next morning. The joke of this is that the prisoner's head will be damned sensitive for weeks or even months.
Kicking a suspect in the abdomen, bouncing his head off a cement floor, the dental burr and Adam's apple treatments, baseball bats, pool cues, burning with cigarette ends and other divertissements all have their loyal adherents and any policeman who advocates a specific form of "exercise" can quote you many cases to prove its effectiveness. Fortunately, most policemen are open-minded and quite willing to listen to a fellow officer representing an opposing school of thought. This leads to a widespread knowledge of the art of torture as practised within the law and makes for versatility.
We'll be returning to the subject of American law enforcement practices later on, but Poling is at this point in his piece just warming up. He still regards his own countrymen as pikers:
Yes, everything considered, I think it is safe to say that the cop has been the most potent force in keeping the art of torture alive in modern American life. I appreciate the work he is doing in carrying on a long and honorable profession and I hope I won't sound hypercritical when I complain of 'his lack of finesse. As one who takes great pride in his country it pains me grievously to see other nations forge ahead of us in this field. This should not be.
I have a suggestion which, if followed, will remedy this distressing situation. I suggest we select from each metropolitan police force its most sadistic member. He shall then be sent to Russia to take a post-graduate course in torture. On his return he will take over the Chair of Torture in the local Police College. To make this plan as effective as possible gangsters, Southern gentlemen, strikebreakers, prison wardens, chain-gang supervisors, people with a race or color complex and all other interested parties will be admitted to the course free of charge.
My plan, I am sure, would bring new life, talent and artistry into American torture and it would only be a question of time until we assumed world leadership.
What was so great about the Russians? Poling gets very very specific:
It is easy to assign credit for the Soviet's exceptionally meritorious performance. In the beginning there was Lenin, who said, "Do you think we can remain in power without having recourse to the most brutal methods?" There was a man who clearly understood how to retain office.
Lenin's attitude led, indirectly, to the formation of "The Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, Sabotage, and the Dereliction of Duty," more commonly known as the Cheka and unquestionably the most murderous and bloodthirsty organization in the history of the modem world. With its informers, secret police, torturers, executioners, and charnel-houses located in every district of Russia the Cheka was a marvel of efficiency, as any organization which can torture and execute 1,761,065 people in the course of eight years must be. The Cheka never missed a bet. It had an executive known as the Director of Corpse Transportation and never threw away a body before making sure that the gold teeth had been extracted.
Such an organization must have a capable leader. The outstanding success of the Cheka in its chosen field was undeniably due to the genius of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the twentieth century Torquemada.
But Dzerzhinsky, no matter how willing, couldn't carry out the work of the Cheka singlehanded. He was supported by a huge organization, employing thousands of men. The Commissars of Death, as the official torturers and executioners were known, were the backbone of the Cheka. There were only a couple of hundred of these desirable and much sought after posts and some of the incumbents achieved their own especial brand of fame.
Peasant Pankratov, for example, with thousands of victims to his credit, was a punctual, quiet man who went about his work as meticulously as a bank clerk. He even kept a record of the number of bullets issued to him each day and the number used. Before killing his victims he used to flog them unmercifully, beat them' in the face with his revolver butt until they were unrecognizable and then, when the fun was over, shoot them. At the end of his day's work he would go quietly home to his mistress, a former prostitute. When he was promoted to a well-paid job in the government he left his whore behind for his successor.
Maga was one of the highest scoring of all the executioners, with 11,000 victims to his credit. His scoring ability was abruptly cut short on the day he went haywire and, pulling his gun, ordered some of his fellow executioners to the wall.
Zayenko, a mousy young man from Kharkov, disdained killing his victims with his own hands. He had a knack for artistic flogging and would end his part of the performance by skinning his victim's hands. The actual killing was left to his assistant, Eduard, who made it a point of honor never to shoot before telling the practically dead man a funny story.
Odessa was honored by the presence of a gargantuan Negro by the name of Johnson who had been one of the better Parisian pimps before he became "Comrade"-conscious. Johnson had a way with a knife and, with a few adroit strokes, could cut away the flesh and lay bare the sinews, which he ripped out by hand — to the extreme discomfiture of his living victim. He was noted for the broad smile that played over his features during the course of this operation and reckoned to be a man with a devilish sense of humor.
The girls of Russia weren't ones to shirk their duty and some of them, too, rose'to the front ranks. The blonde Vera Grebenniukova was probably the most famous. This young lady got her early training under Johnson but soon developed her own technic, which consisted of literally shredding her victims. With a feminine eye to the preservation of her clothes she frequently worked in the nude; bloodstains being notably difficult to remove. Vera may have been lacking in modesty, but not in energy. During one period of six weeks she accounted for seven hundred people at the rate of about fifteen a day.
Rosa Schwartz, of Kiev, also was a disciple of nudism. She always visited her victim's cell in the raw, smoking a cigarette and carrying a gun. After a chat and a smoke she would extinguish the cigarette in her victim's eyes and then start shooting. Essad-Bey, who has written the best account in English of the work of the Cheka, encountered another young lady in Moscow who loved dearly to go visiting the infirmaries, where the sick prisoners were, with a stout whip in her hand.
But for really thorough workmanship the Pole Achikine, of Simforopol, was the most noteworthy executioner of them all. He had a romantic preference for women prisoners. After stripping them he would first emulate the goat, and then, taking up a sword, cut off their ears, hands and breasts. Having warmed up to his work he would burn or pierce the eyes out and, in the end, cut off the head.
With such talented boys and girls in his employment it is easy to understand why Dzerzhinsky had little trouble in making the Cheka a household word in all Russia.
Nor were the operatives of the Cheka completely lacking in finesse and subtlety. A good many prisoners of the Cheka came out of prison with whole bodies. These fortunate ones had only to spend an unlimited number of weeks in solitary confinement in extremely hot or freezing cold dungeons. I shouldn't have said "solitary" confinement since they could enjoy the company of the large rats who dwelt with them. Others were shut up for extended periods of time in cells with raving maniacs or sexual lunatics. Some were prevented from sleeping for days on end and some fed nothing but salt herring while a water tap flowed constantly outside their cell door. And a few were left to philosophize for weeks, in brightly lighted cells, the walls, ceilings and floors of which were constructed of distortion mirrors~ These were the fortunate ones that came out of jail, as I said, with whole bodies. Whether, after the loss of their minds, their bodies were of much use to them during the remainder of their days in the insane asylums of Russia is something I leave you to judge.
Some of you may have felt that in assigning supremacy in torture to Russia I was overstating the case. I trust that the following quotations, as recorded by Maitre Aubert and Essad-Bey, will convince you that I was speaking the simple truth:
"In the city of Taganrog, in southern Russia, fifty young officers were bound hand and foot and flung alive into red hot blast furnaces. In Blagoveshchensk, corpses of officers and soldiers were found with gramophone needles under their nails, with their nails torn from their fingers, and with shoulder straps nailed to their flesh. In the Ussuri district Czech prisoners were found whose skulls had been smashed in, their genitalia amputated, their eyes put out and their tongues torn out.
"At Kharkov the butcher Saenko was celebrated for his skill in skinning heads and hands. He plunged the hands of the accused into boiling water, then tore off the skin to make human gloves. His abattoir was known as the Glove Factory.
"At Odessa officers were taken on board the steamer Sinope, fastened to beams with chains, put in front of the oven and slowly roasted. Others were cooked in boilers, then plunged into the icy sea, and thrown again into the oven. Still others were burnt alive, fastened to planks which were slowly pushed into ovens bit by bit, a few inches at a time." If you still refuse to recognize, with me, the supreme genius of the Russian people I can only make one last, despairing gesture and quote to you, from Nilostonski's Der BIutraush des Bolschewismus, this official description of the condition of the abattoirs on the day of the evacuation of Kiev.
"The whole of the concrete floor of the huge garage was covered with blood which, owing to the heat, had already coagulated; it was mixed with bits of brain, cranial bones, wisps of hair and other human remains, the whole resulting in a horrible mess several inches deep. Close by this gruesome scene, in the garden of the same house, there lay a hundred and twenty-seven bodies. The heads of all the corpses were battered in, some of the skulls being quite flat. They had probably been killed by having their heads flattened out by some sort of block. Others had no heads at all, but the latter had not been cut off; they had been torn away. In a far corner of the garden we discovered another common grave containing about eighty bodies. No one can have any idea of the wounds and mutilations we found upon them. Some had their bellies slit open, some had no limbs, some had been cut to pieces, some had their eyes put out and many had no tongues. We discovered a number of bodies which showed no signs of having met with violent death. But when they were examined by the doctors, the trachea and aesophagus of each victim was found to be full of earth. The wretched creatures had evidently been buried alive and had swallowed the earth as they tried to breathe. Among them were old men, young men, women and children. One woman was bound by a rope to her daughter, a child apparently of about eight years of age."
Torture. How do you feel about panties on your head now? Of course, Poling was writing back in 1936, and his essay can tell us nothing about how much Saddam Hussein and his minions knew of the "gentle art of torture." We have to turn to other sources for that. Modern squeamishness (assuming that's what it is) has deprived us of the vivid imagery we have just encountered, but there are some terse lists of Saddam's torture techniques. The following is a page posted at TheSmokingGun.com:where you can the same gif file larger and also download a pdf file containing the full report of which this is an excerpt.
When we review this list -- and also recall that one or both of Saddam's sons conducted Cheka-like mass executions inside quonset hut/charnel houses after the failed 1992 uprising -- it appears that the Iraqis under Hussein did all the homework Poling commended Americans to do, including extra credit for innovations like rape rooms and murder by brush chipper. Can we begin to imagine the condition of the 300,000 bodies buried in mass graves throughout Iraq? No? Can't envision it? If we were to look hard, we might just find additional evidence of the kind the American media have exploited to such great effect in the Abu Ghraib scandal: photographs. For example, we keep hearing about the beating of feet. Sound funny or odd or somehow mild to you? How about this?
You can't believe the part about injuring or gouging eyes? Behold:
The worst is to be made to feel like a woman? How do you suppose this Iraqi woman feels?
These are the stories that CNN refused to report during the Hussein regime for fear of being kicked out of the country. These are the stories that the International Red Cross is overlooking in its sudden concern for the human rights of Saddam Hussein. After all, if the IRC doesn't intervene immediately, Saddam could be forced to put a pair of women's panties on his head, and we all know how revolting that prospect is to civilized Arabs. (For more about how civilized Islamic Arabs are, see Osama Bin Laden's Terror Manual.)
And so, finally, to the point of all this background discussion: Double standards. The topic is awash with them. To call Abu Ghraib by the name of torture is a falsehood that can only be justified by the notion that it's somehow more egregious and intolerable because Americans have done it. That's the subtext of the ludicrous claims by Shweiri that he'd rather be a victim of Hussein than the Americans. He's simply playing on the nonsensical self-flagellations of the western media. Put him back in Abu Ghraib with a choice between an American noncom armed with a woman's thong and a Baathist interrogator armed with an icepick and see who he picks. (Just in passing, we'd also like to note the double standard of western "progressives" who throw a fit if a male in the workplace compliments a woman's appearance but have no qualms about cozying up to a terrorist who despises women across the board.)
Worse than the double standard of the western media and the Arab insurgents, though, is the double standard of the American people who insist on whining apologies every time they mention Abu Ghraib in any context. I think the time for any apologies is done, and I'm happy to explain why.
The above description of the Third Degree is probably reasonably accurate. If not, the Miranda decision handed down by the Warren Court in the 1950s wouldn't have been nearly as controversial and it wouldn''t have led to the extreme increases in violent crime we experienced in this country during the 1960s and 1970s. Were Americans barbarians in the pre-Miranda United States? No more than they are today, and by some measures less so. (Remember the claims that people used to leave their houses and cars unlocked? True.) What has changed between then and now is the social contract, specifically what tradeoffs seem acceptable between individual rights and the need for civil order. America probably reached its zenith of safety from crime in the 1950s, which made it appropriate to reconsider how much latitude should be given to those responsible for maintaining public safety. Over time, a consensus decided that more crime was an acceptable price to pay for more restraint of authority. Yet that is a consensus that is continually renegotiated in small increments all the time. When violent crime spikes upward, the public demands more police protection, more powerful police weapons, and less judicial toleration of purely technical defenses in criminal prosecutions. The balance between rights and the public safety is a moving target.
Now let us consider the twe broad themes that have dominated the public debate -- and public displeasure -- about the war in Iraq over the last few months. First, according to the pundits and pollsters, Americans are withdrawing their support for the war because of the military's failure to achieve adequate security in occupied Iraq. They see too many American soldiers and civilians getting killed in terrorist incidents. They fault the government and the military for not correcting this situation. Second, Americans are shocked and repelled by the abuses at Abu Ghraib and what those abuses say about the leadership of our military and government.
Remember that the 1930s America Poling was describing wanted security so much that it was willing to tolerate the Third Degree. Americans today demand that Iraq be entirely safe, but they blanch at the thought of anything even remotely akin to the police tactics which promoted that security in this nation a couple generations ago. In other words, the constantly renegotiated tradeoff between rights and the public safety that we depend on in the United States is not permissible in a foreign war zone where the chief victims of violence are the very people who are enforcing the law. We condemn them both for getting killed and for getting rough with the Baathist/terrorist/insurgents who are working the hardest to kill them.
But they're the military, we say. They're supposed to have restraint. That's what we pay them for. They embarrass us when they go over the line (wherever we're arbitrarily drawing the line these days).
I propose that the American military is showing enormous restraint, Abu Ghraib included. Consider these elementary facts of arithmetic. There are 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Since the end of formal hostilities, more than 500 of them have been killed by terroristic acts: that is, 500 peacekeeping troops have been ambushed, car-bombed, and assassinated by outlaws. Apply this rate of death by terror to a nation of 260 million people. If we had experienced proportionally what our military has over the past year, one million Americans would be dead.
Try to imagine the "restraint" of the American people if a million had died in a calendar year at the hands of Arab fanatics. How many would give it a second thought if the police interrogated terror suspects by stripping and humiliating them? How would you feel? How far would you be willing to go if you were responsible for interrogation? Yes, you.
All of which brings us to the greatest double standard of all. We want to be safe from terrorism. Yet we pretend that we have zero tolerance for torture. This is a lie. All of us must ask ourselves this question: If we knew that a terror suspect had information about an imminent nuclear attack in our nearest city, how far would we go to get information that could save a quarter- or half-million souls, including friends, relatives, and countless innocents? There is only one honest answer, one moral answer, to that question. We would go as far as necessary. However far that might be.
It's easy to be moral in the absence of immediate hard choices. It's easy to condemn those who are responsible for protecting us when we do not share their dangers, their stresses, and their friendships with the victims slain by an unscrupulous enemy. It's easy for Dershowitz to think that he can head off hard choices and murky real world decisions with a pristine paper written by a judge. The truth is, he is spectacularly wrong about his central premise: so far, the generalization that the American government is opposed to torture has worked extremely well. The real question is just how opposed to torture we should be as the stakes keep going up and up. But that's not a matter that will be decided by courts. It will be decided in the hearts and minds of all of us. The law will then follow.
Our troops are surrounded by killers. If they need to break an arm now and then, I understand. And I'll bet that if the crybabies in the mainstream media were kidnapped by Shweiri, they'd not only understand a broken arm, they'd be praying for it.
Does anyone have a better picture in his head now of what torture is? And what it isn't? Well, keep studying. Believe me, a test is coming. A BIG test. We'd all better be ready when it does.