On torture-19: The long history of US involvement in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

There may be some who think that the revelations of torture that occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, and the various “black sites” operated by the CIA in countries around the world are aberrations that occurred just recently as a result of the misguided “war on terror” and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are wrong. Noam Chomsky describes America’s long history of engaging in torture. (See also his longer article, not online, in the June 2009 issue of Z Magazine.)

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “[H]is is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

Most people think of torture methods as involving direct physical ill treatment like pulling out fingernails or burning or beatings. Those are the methods of amateurs. Alfred W. McCoy says that the US government, working with psychologists, studied, developed, and refined torture techniques that did not require crude physical abuse. “During the 1950s as well, two eminent neurologists at Cornell Medical Center working for the CIA found that the KGB’s most devastating torture technique involved, not crude physical beatings, but simply forcing the victim to stand for days at time—while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, the kidneys shut down, hallucinations began.”

Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side describes what was written in the 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed detainees:

They described not just standing, but being kept up on their tiptoes with their arms extended out and up over their heads, attached by shackles on their wrists and ankles, for what they described as eight hours at a stretch. During the entire period, they said they were kept stark naked and often cold.

This was even done to a one legged detainee who was forced to stand without his prosthesis. They chained his arms to the ceiling so he could keep his balance.

Another well-known psychologist, Canadian Donald O. Hebb, found that he could produce a state similar to psychosis in people in just 48 hours, without using drugs, hypnosis, or electroshock. All it required was sensory deprivation, just having people continually wear goggles, earmuffs, and gloves. And the people who experienced this were not prisoners who were treated harshly or otherwise made to suffer or were fearful of being harmed. They were college student volunteers at McGill University in Canada, and they sat all the while in comfortable cubicles. And yet, even though they knew they were not in any danger, they quickly broke down mentally.

The CIA codified all these discoveries into a manual and beginning with the 1960s, these torture discoveries were then propagated by the CIA to its allies in all the repressive anti-communist regimes in Asia and Latin America as part of the Cold War, before coming back again to the US in its so-called ‘war on terror’.

Next: The case of Jose Padilla

POST SCRIPT: The new challenge of being white in America

Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show interviews a group of white children about the difficulties they now face as a newly underprivileged group. If the attitudes of these children are close to being representative of children in general, I am much more hopeful about the future.

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  1. says

    It is very interesting to find that “he could produce a state similar to psychosis in people in just 48 hours, without using drugs, hypnosis, or electroshock.” Deprivation can be considered a type of hypnosis, with the deprivation acting as a sensory repetition which controls the focus of the individual.

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