Monthly Archives: October 2007

Definitions, Patterns, Aspects Part 3

Both of the books I have cited so far have related in some detail the torture of 14 men by the U.K. government in 1971.  They experienced — that word doesn’t really work, but it’s all I’ve got right now — the ‘five applications,’ which were put together using CIA, ONR and psychological research done in the U.S. and Canada.  Once the fact that the torture had occurred became public, a commission was put together, comprised of three people.  One member of the commission made the effort to look into the source material for the ‘applications’ and issued a report condemning what had been done.  More interestingly, the two other members found ways to ‘explain’ what had been done.

The five are:

  • wall-standing
  • hooding
  • noise
  • sleep deprivation
  • food deprivation (meaning a reduced diet)

The last two were used before the subjects were interrogated.  The first three were constants.

The investigation, headed by Sir Edmund Compton, noted that the first three techniques were security measures for the detainee.  Compton in the majority (of two people) addressed each application separately even though there was ample research to show that it was the combination of the applications that damaged the detainees — some for years — others for life.  None of the men were charged with anything, despite the fact that even belonging to the IRA in any fashion was at the time illegal.

And so?  The U.K. survived its Irish troubles and eventually, with help, settled them.  The U.S. chose a different path.  This country has always looked for an enemy, either internal or external.  For now, the target is ‘terrorists’ and so most citizens can safely say that their government would never torture them (unless you are someone like Jose Padilla).  However, who is to say that, having crossed that line, it won’t happen to another citizen?  When does explaining away the reasons become absurd?


Definitions, Patterns, Aspects Part 2

Definitions of what constitutes torture have, of course, varied over time.  The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions cover the treatment of prisoners and civilians in times of war.  The U.N. defined torture in 1975; in 1988 it was redefined in the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  Reagan signed the convention in 1988, with reservations and in 1997, it was ratified by the U.S. Congress  under Clinton with its acceptance hinging upon the incorporation of “19 ‘reservations’, ‘understandings’ and ‘declarations’ created by the US Department of Justice.” (link; also from A Question of Torture by Alfred W. McCoy, p. 121, John Yoo)

In 2002, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and David Addington, among others, turned the concept of defining torture on its head.  Starting from the techniques they wanted to be able to use, these men sculpted a definition of torture (and to some extent what seems to be an elaborate exercise in cya) that seems to allow just about anything short of death.  Toss in the concept of ‘intention,’ and even the worst physical and psychological abuse could be excused, if the torturer only intended to gather information, not simply inflict pain for its own sake. (McCoy p.121-122; also info at Yoo link above)

The Military Commissions Act of 2006 also impacted the definition of what constitutes torture, while also basically ‘grandfathering’ in actions by the CIA and other U.S. official personnel from just about anything they may have done prior to its passage and signing.  From this (pdf) Human Rights Watch Q & A about the MCA (p. 9-10):

15. Are the CIA’s most abusive “enhanced” interrogation techniques
still criminal under this legislation?
According to the primary Senate authors of the legislation, the CIA’s most abusive “enhanced” interrogation techniques are still criminal under the MCA.  The MCA specifies nine offenses that it defines as “grave breaches” of Common Article 3 that can be prosecuted as war crimes. Besides torture, the list includes “cruel and inhuman treatment,” defined as conduct that causes serious or physical mental pain or suffering. The legislation unfortunately defines serious physical pain or suffering as existing only where there is “extreme” pain or other extreme injuries:  substantial risk of death, burn or serious physical disfigurement, or significant impairment of a body part, organ or mental faculty. The MCA improves upon previous U.S. law by specifying that the infliction of mental pain need not be prolonged to be unlawful, at least with regard to future conduct.

This definition of “cruel and inhuman treatment” responds to the administration’s claim that some of the “enhanced” interrogation techniques allegedly approved in the past – techniques like extended sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold, and waterboarding (mock drowning) were not cruel and inhuman because they did not cause “prolonged” suffering. While the administration may argue that such techniques are still allowed, Senators John McCain and John Warner, two of the MCA’s primary authors, have stated that the legislation is specifically designed to criminalize these and other abusive interrogation practices allegedly used by the United States.4 Such methods violate the international law prohibitions against cruel and inhuman treatment, and may amount to torture.

It’s important to understand that splitting hairs, as the U.S. has done, and the U.K. as well, makes it easy for government officials to single out one or another ‘technique’ and then either explain how it might be cruel, but doesn’t constitute torture, or (as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have done) dismiss the techniques as nothing extraordinary (i.e. military personnel are subjected to the same treatment in the form of training, people stand up for hours a day, or it’s just a dunk in a bucket of water).

 Those arguments are disingenuous, at best. Interrogation techniques are never used in issolation — the CIA had its ‘two-phase method’ and the British used a five part “combined application” (McCoy p.55).  Psychiatric researches have long known that differences are produced when using voluntary vs. involuntary subjects.  Lastly, until one has actually had to stand on tip-toe leaning face-forward to a wall with all of his/her weight on the fingers,  has been denied any external stimulus save for monotonous noise for hours on end, or has been isolated in a room of extreme temperatures which is randomly intensified, and then been personally or sexually humiliated, then dismissing what has been done to people held in custody by the U.S. government is beyond stupid.  It’s insulting to anyone who has a conscience.

Definitions, Patterns, Aspects Part 1

In Chapter 4 “History and Method” of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People (2000), John Conroy lays out certain truths regarding torture:

  • The class of people whom society accepts as torturable has a tendency to expand (p. 27)
  • It is easy to condemn the torment when it is done to someone who is not your enemy, but it seems perfectly justifiable when you perceive a threat to your own well-being (p. 28)
  • In places where torture is common, the judiciary’s sympathies are usually with the perpetrators, not with the victims (p. 29)
  • Torture arouses little protest as long as the definition of the torturable class is confined to the lower orders; the closer it gets to one’s own door, the more objectionable it becomes (p. 31)

I’ll address each of these in turn.  The first one doesn’t seem to have happened quite yet, though the potential for expansion exists in the person of Jose Padilla (and Hamdi) and in the words of recently passed U.S. laws (and Bush’s signing statements).  Since Conroy wrote his book before 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan or the war in Iraq, the U.S. cases of torture he references predictably concern prisoners, and in one case, a juvenile detention center.    So, while torture is illegal in the U.S., it still occurs in secret and when found out and proven in court, punished.  In that respect, U.S. society doesn’t, as a majority, accept that prisoners are a ‘torturable’ class.  However, there are some in this country who think that torture is acceptable for a certain class of people, namely anyone with potential knowledge of a threat to the U.S.  Prominent people who actually voice that opinion include Alan Dershowitz, Bill Bennett, Seth Leibsohn.  Others prefer to play with what defines torture (that’ll come later).

The second point is more clearly evident today in the U.S.  I think that the talk of violence wrt perceived insults to the U.S. military (the caveat being who is being insulted — insulting anyone on “the left” with military experience is immune) illustrates this point.  For example, yesterday the person who is suspected of vandalizing the grave of a Marine in Liberty, Texas was arrested.  It turns out the man has a history of stealing the wire stands used for flowers and selling them for cash.  Here are just three examples of bloggers and their commenters automatically accusing “the left” etc.  To come at this from another angle, reports from Myanmar/Burma are filled with allegations of Buddhist priests being beaten and tortured.  The priests nor the people of Myanmar are the enemy of anyone in the U.S., so it is routine to condemn the junta’s actions.  However, those who are perceived to be a threat to the U.S. are seen as different — even if they are fellow Americans.

Guantanamo is what came to mind in relation to the third point.  The trials of the detainees there, if they ever happen, will by definition be less than fair.  The rules are stacked against detainees, but also the minds of those judging the detainees can’t help but be influenced by the culture and society of which they (the judges) are a part.  In other words, the judiciary will tend to side with the prosecution, not the defense.  (Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift points to this here.)

The last point, like the first, doesn’t seem to be a factor — yet — in the U.S., but if the debate about torture in this country turns (even more than it has already) in the Yoo/Rumsfeld/Giuliani direction, that very well may change.

Travels In Old Europe : When The Ghosts Returned To Barcelona

I happened to be traveling in Europe in 1975 when, as luck or fate or sheer coincidence would have it, I found myself in Barcelona, Spain, in the last week of the year.  Generalissimo Francisco Franco had died just the month before and already the cobwebs were being shaken free at great speed.  Franco’s designated heir, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, had been blown sky-high by an assassination squad of ETA in 1973, and no interim replacement had been named.  Therefore, Prince Juan Carlos was set to take over the reins with no Falangist presence behind the throne.  The Prince, or so conventional wisdom indicated, was little more than a playboy/puppet.  He was soon to be revealed as a man of unguessed-at depths, with more than just a beginner’s knack at diplomacy, as well as being unusually adept at juggling extremist pressure-groups from both ends of the spectrum. 

Shortly before crossing the border from France I had picked up a newspaper in Perpignan and read with disbelief the rumor that the 38-year old edict outlawing the Spanish Communist Party might be rescinded.  At any rate, members of the Party were going to be allowed back into the country unmolested.  Feelings were clearly and not surprisingly running high in Spain and I had time to glance at another article which quoted a city official in Valencia, historically a hotbed of fascist sentiment, as acknowledging that any old Communists who made their presence known in his town would certainly not be arrested.  His remarks seemed to indicate that Party-members would be dealt with in some other more sinister and extrajudicial manner.

But now it was time to get on board the train to the border and the tedium and exhaustion involved made short work of my curiosity as to what lay ahead in Barcelona.  While the rest of Europe (up to the Warsaw Pact borders, of course) had long ago regularized their railway lines, the isolation that Spain had largely brought on itself during the Fascist years of quarantine meant that the rail gauges were ancient and unsuitable for anything built since say, the late 1940s.  The French train stopped within sight of the border crossings and the wait to get off was an eternity.  Then came the further wait (eternity squared) while we formed up into lines and shuffled across the border on foot, luggage in one hand, passports and other identifying papers in the other, each blast of dusty wind threatening to scatter the platform with our legal “selves”.  At last we tumbled aboard, packed from tip to caboose.  The train set off at a slow, torpor-inducing pace which never did pick up (at one point a young girl pointed to a group of butterflies just outside the window, a swirl of orange and white which was clearly traveling faster than we were).  It was midday when we slid into the city’s northernmost station, a beautiful structure of rusted metal forming the overarching skeleton, the transparent flesh between the iron ribs formed of bottle-green glass that threw everything into strange shadows, as though we were all underwater.

Barcelona, like Venice or Marseilles, hits any first-time visitor with a double-whammy.  Visually stunning and smelling to high heaven.  I’d smelled worse, however, and the excitement of at last being in the birthplace of the anarchist movement more than made up for any Yanqui squeamishness.  As with every other city I visited on that trip, I managed to get lost within minutes of leaving the train station (on a few occasions I even got lost in the train station itself!)  The natives however, proved incredibly helpful, and having just come from a fair period in France (which I love, despite Herself), the friendliness and lack of linguistic snobbery was a joy to be relished.

I spent the rest of the day doing the usual touristy walkabout, turning down any streets that looked interesting, trying to puzzle out the plaques on statues in the various parks that appeared at regular intervals, avoiding fellow Americans (or, to be fair, perhaps we were avoiding each other, although it seemed to be the Italians and Germans who went in for camera-necklaces and Bermuda shorts) and stopping each hour for a cup of coffee or one of those so-tiny-they’re-almost-an-insult glasses of beer the Catalonians seem to love.  At one of these stops I was the only customer and so decided to inflict my New World Spanish on the thumb-twiddling waiters.  Mostly the ping-pong chit-chat of: your city is very beautiful / why thank you, and where did you learn Spanish, my friend? / and so on.  Eventually I decided to ask a political question, hoping my dense but harmless foreigner’s face would provide me relative cover should I cause offense.  I asked about the Communist Party.  Was it true they were coming back from exile?  I knew there were still a large number of aging expats just over the border in France, not to mention the thousands scattered throughout Latin America.  One of the waiters laughed and said: coming back? They’re already here! If you want to see a real live Communist then go to Las Ramblas tonight and watch the parade.

And so I did.  Not for the thrill of seeing a real live Communist, as I’d already had that privilege many times over.  But these particular Communists, the men and women who had battled for their lives and their class against the Fascists, who had risked everything and lost it all so long ago, who had earned the euphemistic title of “premature anti-fascists” to spare the feelings and the pride of those who’d found it more expedient to stand by while Europe tottered on the edge of hell.  What possible word or sign could any bystander convey to measure out the debt, the respect, and the honor they had earned?

Las Ramblas is best described as a narrower, more domesticated version of Les Champs d’Elysee in Paris or La Reforma in Mexico City.  To stroll it is to be floating in the bloodstream of the city, the sound of its traffic on either side the central esplanade the sound of a heart beating.  I’d seen it in daylight and it was alternately loud, cozy, dirty, beautiful, sordid, delicate, and thoroughly alive.  If it was possible, it seemed even more so at night, with the fairy lights, red, white, blue, and green, blinking on and off of the kiosks which presented themselves every dozen yards or so, these lights in turn reflected off the storefront windows on either side.  I walked around for a little bit, turning over postcards and magazines, bought a small paper cup of ice and a violet-colored soda of some sort (a cross between a Big Red and grape juice) and then came the tap on the shoulder.  I turned around to find myself facing a steel-helmeted young man, wearing the uniform of the provincial police.  “Por favor, senor, si puede pasar al otro lado de la calle?” I nodded, and did as I was invited to do, leaving the esplanade and joining the gathering crowds on the sidewalk.  A couple of students near me whispered and gestured behind us. In an alley a few feet away one could see the hood of a military jeep, and could just make out the shapes of soldiers, the gleam of light on rifles.  I stood on tiptoe and strained to see across the way to the other side.  Soldiers in every alley, silently shifting in loose formation.  No one in the crowd around me seemed terribly concerned and this being Barcelona, perhaps times had changed enough that even the military was eager to see some change, any kind of change.  A man in a business suit, with a girlfriend half my age came and stood beside me and offered me a comradely cigarette.  A few more minutes passed, the street noises audibly died down and the central esplanade was now entirely empty.  And then we heard it, two, three blocks away.  The workers’ anthem, La Internacional.  As though we were at church or some place equally sacred, the business man dropped his cigarette and stubbed it out on the sidewalk and I followed suit.  The singing grew louder as it neared and here and there, individuals on the sidewalks on either side began to sing as well.  I’ve heard the anthem sung in various places and at various times but the words themselves, in any of their many versions, failed me.  By now most of the crowd was singing, loud enough certainly but with a stateliness, a sad sincerity that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  I did my bit and hummed along and then, turning with the crowd towards the left, I saw them.  A crowd of hundreds, many with their fists raised in the workers’ salute, saluted back by the crowd as they came level with us.  And in the front ranks, twenty old men and three old women.  Twenty little old men and women.  None of them looked over five feet tall, and they could have been brothers and sisters with their windbreakers and pullovers and sturdy walking shoes and berets.  And man, did they look tough.  And beautiful.  Linked arm in arm, staring straight ahead, a lifetime of struggle behind them, the fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers of the future.  Their legacy was us.  I joined the others and showed my respect with a clenched fist.  Venceremos. 

Two Cheers For The Culture Wars

This past Friday I got in from work in time to catch the tail-end of a Newshour segment of Jim Lehrer interviewing John McCain. McCain was spurring along on one of his various hobby-horses, in this case earmarks appended to otherwise “legitimate” bills. He was clearly going for an easy laugh and noted an item which would set aside funds for a memorial of some kind to the Woodstock music festival. He sarcastically referred to it as an event which was dear to many Americans.

If he was attempting to fish up some item which was as egregiously laughable and outrageous as the “bridge to nowhere”, then he came up empty. The Woodstock festival, now closing in on its 40th anniversary IS, in fact, dear to many Americans, apart from being a significant cultural and social date in this country’s history. The easy dismissal of it by McCain may have had a purely 2007 presidential campaign twist to it, of course. Woodstock is in New York and mockery directed at anything to do with New York (with a lifetime exemption for Ground Zero, obviously)  is to take aim at Hillary C. (with the added benefit of a possible ricochet grazing Rudy G.).    

But even if there was nothing of that intended in McCain’s comment it was still a miss. I do understand how something like what happened at Woodstock might stir up bitter feelings in McCain, given where he was, how he got there, and what he was enduring in 1969. I remember reading somewhere that the Pentagon had published a small illustrated pamphlet specifically designed to help reacclimate returning POWs to a country and society that had changed in many ways during their imprisonment. Thus, there were individual sections on politics, in which the assassinations of both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were described, as well as sections on subjects as diverse as clothing fashions, the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a rundown on the most popular movies and bestsellers, and a very large section on sports events and the moon landing. It was decided however, that any mention of the counterculture (including Woodstock) ought to be censored, to be handled in gentle stages at a later date. This is perfectly understandable and in some ways surprisingly sensitive to the actual things that constitute culture shock.

The most frequently mentioned factoids regarding Woodstock are the size of the crowd, that there were no deaths during the 3 days involved, and that traffic coming and going sucked big time. The movie couldn’t help but emphasize the more potentially shocking aspects. Public Nudity! Public Drugs! Acres Of Mud! Tons Of Trash!

The peaceful nature of Woodstock would be eclipsed (partially) with the violence attending the free concert at Altamont, California, less than a year later. But Altamont was in itself a culture clash, given the Grateful Dead’s bright idea of hiring the Hell’s Angels as security, with payment in alcohol (much of it obviously consumed in advance).

For me the social significance of Woodstock can largely be framed in the singular performance of Jimi Hendrix. The first live performance of his version of “The Star Spangled Banner”, a version which carried the bare bones of that recognizable melody through a landscape of American violence and pain and was a far more astute and accurate reading of America in that moment in its history than anything offered up as a mirror to its citizens by artists of any political affiliation. Despite Hendrix’s repeated insistence on living for music and not giving a hoot about politics, I’ve always argued that by the very fact of his being an accomplished blues guitarist he was already a political figure. The blues reflects the life of the margins of America, the runaway desperation along with the mind-blowing joyfulness. It’s a sorrow that goes along a dark path, softly pursued by it’s companion hope, although hope is always a few yards further back down the track.

Because of what he suffered in Vietnam, John McCain is almost reflexively regarded as a hero. Which is fine, and maybe even true. But as a transcendent musician whose range was wide and deep enough to allow him to fuse a very personal vision into an artistic ethic that innumerable others have drawn from for inspiration and sustenance, Jimi Hendrix will always be a great American Hero.

And, incidentally, not only was he the man who singlehandedly took rock and blues music into the 23rd century, he had been a paratrooper in the U.S. Army until he was honorably discharged following a jump-related injury. All that imagery of flying and floating on his 2nd and 3rd albums may have had less to do with dope than critics might suppose.      

I’m going to take a break

I don’t know how long.  I know only a couple of people care.  But I’ve got some reading to do.


I will be writing about torture and Africa for as long as I can.

There has been talk and posts (I’d like to see the Capitan take one day of isolation) and what I think is complete nonsense about torture written in blogs and talked about, mostly in D.C.  It’s all crap.   This country has used people for decades (Canada, too and the UK) to experiment on diffenent types of torture.

What I write will be based on three books — at the very least:  A Question of Torture by Alfred W. McCoy, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, by John Conroy and The Shadow of the Sunby Ryszard Kapuscinski.

The brutality of torture has been with us for a long time.  I sometimes think that others have not pulled themselves into the century, but that is not the correct way to think about it. 

There will always be torturers, as long as it produces results for some regime.  There will always be a way to put those who brutalize others back into society. 

This is so hard. 

But think about this: most of the volunteers in the early isolation experiments gave up — they couldn’t take it.  They hallucinated.  They couldn’t function.  And that was after just a couple of days.  Think of the intellectual fortitude it would take to withstand it for years.


Today was the last day of regular classes (YaY!) and I had a little handout for my Intermediate level reading class about science.  It’s from a book that is a little on the old side (published in 1996), but the point was to keep them interested even though it was the last day.

The pre-reading part of the handout included a survey of U.S. and British citizens regarding their knowledge of basic science.   One of the questions was, “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or the Sun around the Earth?”  The survey results?  72.5 and 62.8 of U.S. and British citizens respectively responded that the Earth goes around the Sun.  As a class, we discussed what could have made the other 28 to 38% respond the other way.  One explanation was that some religious people have different ideas about Earth, the solar system ad the universe.  It was an enjoyable class.

When I got home there was a flyer in my mailbox from The Geocentric Bible Foundation, Inc. out of Hugoton, Kansas.  (They have a website —  The flyer asks, “Have scientists been wrong?  For 400 years?”  I can also get a free book that will tell me about ancient accounts that once there was “an unusually lang span of daylight or night” and that “scientists cannot explain why this event did not cause massive earthquakes or costal flooding”  among other things (including “experimental results of the 1870s and 1880s that showed the earth to be standing still”).  The argument appears to be that if the Earth is not the center of the universe (or at least the solar system), then human life is meaningless.   Oh, and the earth is at rest.


Preview for Frontline’s ‘Cheney’s Law’

 The LATimes has the preview here.  I actually just wanted to find a way to work this in, Mrs. Cheney on some cable teevee show:

 “Do you think America’s ready for a woman president?”

“I think that we’ll choose our president on the basis of qualifications and I think when I vote it’s going to be about national security.   So far as I can see, the Republicans are stronger along those lines.  But I have to admit to a certain bias here.  To get back to my book for a minute, in my book there’s a lot of geneological research, you know going back, Dick’s family, my family, these heroic and amazing tales of people who went west.  But one of the things I discovered was that Dick and Obama are eigth cousins.  Is that an amazing thing?  Yes, if you go back eight generations they (we?) have a common ancestor. ”

“So, you’re for Barack Obama?”

“No, but I just, I thought I should admit this fact as evidence that maybe I’m not completely objective about Mrs. Clinton.” 

 Say what?  Mrs. Cheney — things to do:  dodge question? check; hawk book? check; toss out a nonrelevant fact just to say Dick and Barack Obama in the same breath? check; end up sounding utterly ridiculous?  mission accomplished. 

Rumsfeld, the Statesman

Or so says The Claremont Institute.   Get your tickets now!  Buy your way to a “Churchill Table” for only $10K.  For $25K, I think you get dipped in liquid gold or get to sit next to Rummy.

Odd, I was looking up links for a post about Somalia when I found this.  Imagine that — there are people in this country who think someone will pay $25K to have dinner with Donald Rumsfeld.  And those people are correct.  What will The Claremont Institute do with all that money?  Whatever they damn well please, I suspect, and given that Bill Bennett is part of it, I would also guess that it will fund ways to make patriotism part of the November 2008 election.

Personally, I think questioning a fellow American’s patriotism is passe at this point.  Once you arrive at the conclusion that the only patriots are those who agree with you, you’ve pretty much run out of territory.  By drawing the lines closer and smaller, you define yourself as a minority.  Honestly I’ve never thought of calling any of my blogosphere foes nor people I interact with on a regular basis un-American.  I’ve never thought they were.  It’s such a reactionary thing to do.  When you have no argument, that’s where you go.  Bennett has often said that he believes the next election will be about patriotism.  It may well be for his side of the aisle, but for me, I’ll choose the person I vote for based on their policies.

Seriously, it’s like voting on the basis of who is a dog.  Dora is a dog.  Tammy is a dog.  They are different.  Dora has done some stereotypical dog-dog things in her life — and most are nasty.  Tammy, not so much.  Is Tammy not a dog?  That’s where the patriotism argument is at this point.  It’s as if in dog-world you don’t sniff butt.  Or lick up your own vomit (or try to).  Or bury things in the yard.  Or kill some creature you hate.  (Dora does; Tam doesn’t.)  What makes one a dog?  What makes one a patriotic American?  Wearing a flag lapel pin?  Wearing a flag shirt?  Wearing flag speedos?  Signing your autograph on an American flag?  Buying a red, white and blue or yellow ribbon-shapped magnet from China?  Representing (to international students) your country, state and city 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, year after year,  by your actions?

Dora and Tammy are alike in one fundemental way — they both love their chewies.   Watching them tear up those beef puffs truly gives me pleasure.