2014: Mainstreaming Torture, False Assumptions

In Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches, (Oxford University Press, 2014), Rebecca Gordon argues that the 9/11 attacks reopened a question that many Americans had assumed was a settled ethical question, which is: Is torture ever morally permissible? She notes that defenders of torture often defend a practice of purely vicious evil by reference to a single imaginary incident in which it would make sense to torture someone. But in the real world, there is no perfect single incident which poses a catastrophic risk to the community that only torture can reliably prevent. Torture is not an isolated incident’ it is a collective organized practice requiring planning and institutional support.

In a post on the Huffington Post, Professor Gordon states that mainstream media coverage of the torture story rests on three false assumptions:

  • Assumption #1 that the most important question is whether torture “works.”

The Senate Intelligence Executive Summary emphasizes the fact that torture proved “ineffective” in identifying the perpetrators of 9/11 and produced no actionable intelligence or prevented terrorist attacks. The president’s CIA director, John Brennan, issued his denunciation of the report while acknowledging that “the Agency made mistakes,” He insisted that torture “worked” but a few days later, after the Senate Intelligence report was released, he backtracked, suggesting instead (in an interview on National Public Radio) that it was actually “unknowable” if the CIA’s interrogation techniques …provided useful information.” He further acknowledged that the conclusions of the Senate report were “sound and consistent with our own findings.” (NPR, Dec. 11, 2014)

“In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the CIA’s methods — including waterboarding (which Sen. McCain calls “mock execution” and “an exquisite form of torture”); inflicting week-long sleep deprivation; repeated beatings; hanging people by their wrists for days, bombarding them with unbearable sound and light or keeping them in total darkness; threatening to sexually abuse their mothers or harm their children; or shoving a tube up someone’s rectum and filling it with water (supposedly for “rectal rehydration”) — were effective.”

  • False assumption #2: torture ended when Bush left office.

The following examples show that institutionalized state torture is not a thing of the past. It has continued under the Obama administration.

“At Guantánamo, prison guards forcibly remove hunger strikers from their cells, strap them to a chair, and “feed” them through a tube jammed up the nose and down into the stomach twice a day. Force-feeding is not a humanitarian act; it is a punishment for nonviolent resistance. It often begins with what officials call “cell extraction.” Here’s what happens, according to Yemini prisoner Moath al-Alwi, who has been at Guantánamo since 2002:

“When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction team: six guards in full riot gear. Those guards are deliberately brutal to punish me for my protest. They pile up on top of me to the point that I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.”

“A new twist to this routine involves the guards restraining me to the chair with my arms cuffed behind my back. The chest strap is then tightened, trapping my arms between my torso and the chair’s backrest. This is done despite the fact that the torture chair features built-in arm restraints. It is extremely painful to remain in this position.”

Another prisoner remembered the experience:

“I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

NPR reported that a male Navy nurse faces a potential dishonorable discharge from the military for refusing to continue administering forced-feedings at Guantanamo because the protocol that Guantanamo employs to determine when to force-feed is not consistent with nursing standards; it violates the professional ethics code of nursing. (Guantanamo Nurse Could Be Discharged for Not Force-Feeding Detainees, Nov. 19, 2014)

Why are detainees on hunger strike in the first place? They are using the only nonviolent means available to them to protest their indefinite and illegal detention.

Defenders of torture, a practice of purely vicious evil, often defend it by reference to a single imaginary incident in which it would make sense to torture someone. But in the real world, there is no perfect single incident upon which the community depends.

“President Obama’s 2009 executive order ending CIA torture still left open a little-discussed torture window.  It continued to allow for “extraordinary rendition,” the capture of terror suspects abroad and their shipping to other countries for detention and interrogation. The U.S. record on this practice since 9/11 has been a grim history of torture at one remove. True, the order says that no one should be sent to a country in which he or she is likely to be tortured, but the U.S. definition of “likely” differs significantly from that of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Article 3 of the Convention says no one may be sent to another country if there are “substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The United States insists on a more lenient standard: prohibiting rendition if it is “more likely than not” that torture will take place. In practice, this means relying on the word of the receiving country that no harm will be done (wink, wink).” (Beyond the Senate Torture Report, Dec. 12, 2014)

Obama used the tactic that President Bush used when he issued the Executive Decree (2002) denying Al Qaeda detainees the humane protection afforded by the Geneva Conventions: he disingenuously stated that “as a matter of policy, the U.S. shall treat detainees “humanely” in accordance with the Geneva Conventions…

“It wasn’t until this December 10th that the U.S. military finally released its last detainees from the notorious Detention Facility in Parwan on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In September 2014, the United States “quietly released” 14 Pakistanis it had held there for some years — none of whom was ever accused of any crime. We know nothing about the treatment of those who remained at Bagram, but we do know that, like the detainees at Guantánamo, the men being held there used hunger strikes as their only nonviolent means of resisting their indefinite detention and solitary confinement.”

False assumption #3: Torture only counts when it happens in foreign wars.

Prof. Gordon, who teaches philosophy at the University of San Francisco, points out that that’s not true:

“Sometimes, torture happens right here in the United States in police stations, immigrant detention centers, and the American jails and prisons that hold 2.3 million people . The Senate report pointed to the extensive use of solitary confinement for long periods of time leading people to exhibit psychosis symptoms including hallucinations, hearing voices, and becoming paranoid.  In California there are people who have been kept from all human contact for more than 15 years.”

“We are beginning to recognize that the 50,000 to 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in this country are actually being tortured every day. Furthermore, as the U.N. report emphasizes, some of these people haven’t even been convicted of a crime; they’re either being held in pre-trial detention or in immigrant detention centers.”

More than 200 inmates at Pelican Bay, California’s toughest prison, have spent over a decade locked in windowless 8-foot-by-12-foot cells for 22 hours or more a day. Dozens more have been in solitary confinement for 15 years — or even longer. (The New York Times, June 2014)

On March 30, 2015, In These Times reported about a 28-year pursuit of Chicago’s notorious racist Police Commander, Jon Burge who for decades had built a career torturing African American prisoners. The methods he and his accomplices used included suffocation with a bag, burns from a cigarette, beatings, and repeated electric shocks from a black shock box to the genitals, ears and fingers that caused prisoners to be badly burned while being handcuffed to a steam radiator. The article, written by attorney Flint Taylor, who represented several of Burge’s torture victims, provides details of the decades long cover up:

“the systemic and racist nature of Burge’s torture is now well established by a mountain of evidence that has been assembled over nearly three decades in the teeth of an unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley, first as the State’s Attorney of Cook County, then as Chicago’s long-serving Mayor, in a police torture scandal that had spanned the more than 40 years that I had been a lawyer at the People’s Law Office.” (To Catch a Torturer: One Attorney’s 28-year Pursuit of Racist Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, March 30, 2015)