Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

The Five Techniques

May 13th, 2009 · 12 Comments

I’ve been reading John Conroy’s excellent study of torture in democracies, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People. It’s really required reading for understanding the current dispute over torture in historical context, but I want to pull out a few passages for brief comment. Here’s a description of a prolonged series of interrogations carried out in Ireland in the 70s; many of the subjects were wrongly identified as members of paramilitary groups.

The hood over his head was meant to contribute to his sense of isolation and to mask the identity of the torturers. The noise increased in intensity; various survivors described it as the sound of an airplane engine, the sound of compressed air escaping, and the sound of helicopter blades whirring. For a solid week, the noise was absolute and unceasing, an assault of such ferocity that many of the men now recall it as the worst part of the ordeal. The men were also deprived of food and water and were not allowed to sleep. [....] The combination of tortures—the hooding, the noise bombardment, the food deprivation, the sleep deprivation, and the forced standing at the wall—later cae t be known as the “five techniques.” In combination, they induced a state of psychosis, a temporary madness with long-lasting aftereffects.

When Conroy reports that some of the survivors describe the constant noise as the “worst part” of the ordeal, bear in mind that this ordeal included regular beatings of such savagery that, upon release, the family members who came to pick them up did not recognize their faces. And it is no exaggeration to say that many of these men were, quite literally, tortured out of their minds. Many prayed for death, and at least one attempted suicide, hoping to crack his skull by leaping headfirst at an exposed pipe. One forgot who he was, and began to believe he was a farmer from Eniskillen he had once met. Another hallucinated the son who had died of spina bifida as an infant. The mental scars of the experience were apparent to Conroy when he interviewed the men decades later.

I point this out because considered individually, it’s easy to make particular torture methods sound trivial: Oh, a little dunk in the water. Oh, a cheeleading pyramid. Oh, a little diet. Don’t college students pull all-nighters?  While pundits and OLC attorneys may find it counterintuitive, though, there’s ample evidence that over time, and in the right combination, these techniques can cause as much or more suffering than “obvious” tortures that cause simple physical pain. Indeed, such techniques often break men who’ve held up under more direct methods of inflicting suffering. Without wanting to excuse the lawyers at Justice who signed off on this, I suspect that they didn’t fully understand—any better than the TV talking heads who make light of any tortue that doesn’t leave a visible scar—what exactly they were defending. Mostly, I think, because we all have a point of reference for physical pain and can at least try to imagine it magnified manyfold. We don’t really have a point of reference for what the people subjected to these techniques experience, though we may mistakenly think we do because we try to apply the same imaginative method—oh, it’s like being really tired, but, like, really really tired.  Except it’s not.

One other thing that jumped out at me:

[Former Uruguayan torturer Hugo] Garcia said that the men from the compania had not descended to the level that the Argentines had. The Argentines, he said, “were very sadistic. All we did was torture to get infomation. We never tortued to punish anyone.” [....] Torturers who feel some pangs of guilt also seem to take some refuge in the idea that someone else has done or is doing something much worse. Bruce Moore-King told me that when he administered electical torture he never attacked the genitals, as tortuers elsewhere are wont to do, and that the tortures he administered were mild compared to what was done to people who were sent to Rhodesia’s Special Branch.

Sound familiar? Keep this in mind the next time some torture apologist rattles off a list of all the really obscene things they did in Saddam’s dungeons and bristles indignantly at the “moral equivalence” implied by using the word “torture” to describe techniques we’ve employed.

Tags: War


       

 

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anderson // May 13, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Julian, since you use the term “torture apologist” without saying who or what you mean by it, perhaps you could clearly state your own position on the ethics and law of torture so we may know where you’re coming from.

    Are you what I would call an anti-torture absolutist? That is, do you believe that torture is always and everywhere wrong, without exception? Or do you believe that torture may sometimes be morally justified, but that it should nevertheless be prohibited by law in all cases, without exception? And if you support a no-exceptions statutory ban on torture, what do you think about the use of mechanisms to obviate or get around the law in exceptional cases – prosecutorial discretion, jury nullification, presidential pardon, etc.?

  • 2 Consumatopia // May 13, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Judging by the context, it would seem that “torture apologist” refers to one who tries to distinguish our own “harsh interrogation” from our enemy’s “torture”.

    Since you seem okay with just calling torture torture, and your “this is nothing compared to Hiroshima” argument would apply just as much to rape and thumbscrews as it does to waterboarding and sleep deprivation (wouldn’t it?), I think you’re actually off the hook today.

    That said, since you seem perfectly willing to embrace the t-word, why would you balk at being called a “torture apologist”?

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // May 14, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I actually find this whole aspect of the current debate profoundly unhealthy—you can construct all sorts of wacky hypothetical circumstances under which I might agree that it’s justifiable to torture, or rape nuns, or crush children’s testicles, or whatever. There is something wrong with a society that devotes considerable time and effort to public contemplation of the conditions under which nun-raping is morally laudable, the means by which we might enable nun-rapists to escape prosecution. In a truly exceptional scenario, judges and juries will consider the specific mitigating circumstances of the case as they always do. But put it this way, any fact pattern under which I’d be prepared to seriously consider committing torture would have to require such overwhelming stakes and such confidence in the course of action that I’d be equally prepared to accept a prison sentence afterward.

  • 4 The Other Anderson // May 14, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks for the post — I was wondering what to blow my Amazon gift card on, and Conroy is it.

    … “Torture apologist.” An “apologist” is one who defends a person or belief by argument (Shorter OED). So a torture apologist is one who defends torture by argument.

    Anderson is, therefore, a torture apologist, on the strength of his previous writings. Of course, if he wishes to deny that, I would be very happy to be corrected.

  • 5 Anderson // May 15, 2009 at 1:31 am

    I actually find this whole aspect of the current debate profoundly unhealthy—you can construct all sorts of wacky hypothetical circumstances under which I might agree that it’s justifiable to torture, or rape nuns, or crush children’s testicles, or whatever.

    So, putting aside your evasive phrasing (“I might agree that it’s justifiable”), you are in fact a “torture apologist” yourself. You just have a more restrictive view than other people of the circumstances under which torture is justified.

    There is something wrong with a society that devotes considerable time and effort to public contemplation of the conditions under which nun-raping is morally laudable, the means by which we might enable nun-rapists to escape prosecution.

    Perhaps you could identify some of these people who you think have suggested that raping nuns is morally laudable. I haven’t seen any serious “torture apologist” argue that torture is “laudable” rather than, under certain circumstances, a necessary evil.

    But put it this way, any fact pattern under which I’d be prepared to seriously consider committing torture would have to require such overwhelming stakes and such confidence in the course of action that I’d be equally prepared to accept a prison sentence afterward.

    This argument makes no sense to me, either. Why should the use of torture turn on the willingness of a particular interrogator to risk imprisonment? It’s like saying that we should eliminate the system of court-ordered warrants for wiretaps and searches of private homes, and pass a no-exceptions criminal ban on those activities. Any law enforcement agent who conducted a wiretap or private search would thereby always be presumptively guilty of a crime, and would have to cross his fingers and take his chances that prosecutors or jurors would ignore or obviate the law in his particular case. Or that the governor or president would pardon him after the fact. That’s no way to run law enforcement. And it’s no way to accommodate the use of torture by government agents either.

  • 6 Consumatopia // May 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I haven’t seen any serious “torture apologist” argue that torture is “laudable” rather than, under certain circumstances, a necessary evil.

    So why aren’t you talking about nun rape as often as you talk about torture, if the cases are really as symmetric as you think they are?

    Why should the use of torture turn on the willingness of a particular interrogator to risk imprisonment?

    If it’s worth torturing for, it’s worth going to jail for. Surely you can see how this would be the case for nun rape, right?

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // May 15, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    This sort of bullshit is precisely what I’m talking about — “agree to my insane hypothetical and now we’re just haggling price.” I’m not wasting any more time on you.

  • 8 ben a // May 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Julian,

    “agree to my insane hypothetical and now we’re just haggling price.” I’m not wasting any more time on you.

    I fear this is evasive, to use Andersen’s term, and it’s an evasiveness that makes the debate on torture frustrating.

    Here are two points at the level of what’s moral:

    1) There are something that one can under no circumstances do in the course of an interrogation (barring some crazy hypothetical)
    2) There are some things which are very unpleasant, which one should never make a practice of interrogation for criminal subjects or for soldiers in an enemy army, that might be morally permissible for high ranking terrorists.

    Almost everyone in this debate agrees to 1. Most of the “torture apologists” agree with 1. The principled issue at stake is 2. The fine grained debate is what types of actions fall into #1 (never do) and which fall into #2 (OK to do to KSM, not OK to do to random Taliban militant). I quite agree that defenders of the Bush policy have been distastefully glib about sleep deprivation and waterboarding. I further agree that there’s every risk that in practice fashioning a policy for #2 might not be worth the costs — it might encourage impermissible actions against KSM, or the expansion of extreme procedures to prisoners where it isn’t justified.

    But that said, if we concede the moral point of #2 then at some point we *are* haggling about price.

  • 9 Leo // May 21, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Am I the only person who keeps wondering why the book wasn’t titled “Ordinary People, Unspeakable Acts”?

  • 10 Leo // May 21, 2009 at 1:21 am

    Also, Anderson, what’s so hard to understand about wanting people who torture for what they consider good reasons to be willing to face possible prison sentences? That’s just asking our Jack Bauers to internalize the costs of what they’re considering. Could anything really be worth raping a nun but not worth maybe going to prison for?

  • 11 Nancy Pelosi's "wag the finger" moment - Page 2 - Volconvo Debate Forums // May 24, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    [...] their right mind would know it for what it is…torture. Please, take a look at this brief piece: The Five Techniques All I see when I look down, something jumpin’ on the ground, Scratchin’ dirt, cluckin’ in the [...]

  • 12 Alba Etie // May 26, 2009 at 5:36 am

    I came to this posting from fdl. I am not an expert on torture -but as an interested civilan -I find the whole discussion of torture ugly , alien , and soul shattering for our Country & our Morals . Tortured individuals do not give actionable intelligence , tortured individuals do act as great recruiting tools for the wahabees and other Islamic extremeist.
    The chain of command – both in the government & in the military that ordered torture to be commented in our collective names are War Criminals -no more , no less and need to be held accountable for their actions.

Leave a Comment