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.