Something every American should read – about torture

Articles like this are why Slate deserves to be on everybody’s must-read favorites list, and demonstrates that journalism will survive the death of newspapers (in their current form).  This is IMO a must-read article for every American.  Unlike the usual practice on this site it is reprinted in full.  It deserves to be read in full.  Links to other articles about our use of torture are at the end (all also from Slate).

Ice Water and Sweatboxes – The long and sadistic history behind the CIA’s torture techniques“, By Darius Rejali, Slate, 17 March 2009

In the 20thcentury, there were two main traditions of clean torture—the kind that doesn’t leave marks, as modern torturers prefer. The first is French modern, a combination of water- and electro-torture. The second is Anglo-Saxon modern, a classic list of sleep deprivation, positional and restraint tortures, extremes of temperature, noise, and beatings.

All the techniques in the accounts of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross, as reported Monday, collected from 14 detainees held in CIA custody, fit a long historical pattern of Anglo-Saxon modern. The ICRC report apparently includes details of CIA practices unknown until now, details that point to practices with names, histories, and political influences. In torture, hell is always in the details.

The ice-water cure

“On a daily basis during the first two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets. … I would be kept wrapped inside the sheet with the cold water for several minutes. I would then be taken for interrogation,” detainee Walid bin Attash told the Red Cross.

In the 1920s, the Chicago police used to extract confessions from prisoners by chilling them in freezing water baths. This was called the “ice-water cure.” That’s not its first use. During World War I, American military prisons subjected conscientious objectors to ice-water showers and baths until they fainted. The technique appeared in some British penal colonies as well; occasionally in Soviet interrogation in the 1930s; and more commonly in fascist Spain, Vichy France, and Gestapo-occupied Belgium. The Allies also used it against people they regarded as war criminals and terrorists. Between 1940 and 1948, British interrogators used “cold-water showers” as part of a brutal interrogation regimen in a clandestine London prison for German POWs accused of war crimes. French Paras also used cold showers occasionally in Algeria in the 1950s. In the 1970s, Greek, Chilean, Israeli, and Syrian interrogators made prisoners stand under cold showers or in cold pools for long periods. And American soldiers in Vietnam called it the “old cold-water-hot-water treatment” in the 1960s.

Cold cell

Abu Zubaydah, another detainee, says, “I woke up, naked, strapped to a bed, in a very white room. … [T]he cell and room were air-conditioned and were very cold.” There, he was shackled to a chair for two to three weeks. “Cold cell” is one of six known authorized CIA interrogation techniques.

Since the 1960s, torturers have adapted air vents to put “the air in a state of war with me,” in the words of one prisoner. In the first recorded case in 1961, guards at Parchman, Mississippi’s state penitentiary, blasted civil rights detainees with a fire hose and then turned “the air-conditioning system on full blast” for three days. In 1965, detainees in Aden reported that British guards kept them “undressed in very cold cells with air conditioners and fans running at full speed.” In other countries, interrogators have forced prisoners to stand or squat for long periods in front of blasting air-conditioning units or fans, as in South Vietnam (1970s), Singapore (1970s), the Philippines (1976), Taiwan (1980), South Africa (1980s), and Israel (1991 to present).

In a scene eerily similar to the CIA interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, South Vietnamese torturers held Vhuen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Viet Cong officer captured, in a windowless white room outfitted with heavy-duty air conditioners for four years. Frank Snepp, a CIA interrogator who interviewed him in 1972 in the room regularly, described Tai as “thoroughly chilled.”


Abu Zubaydah says that after he was strapped to a bed, “[a] black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe.” If the contents of the mineral-water bottle were carbonated, this would be a well-known Mexican police technique (tehuancanzo), documented since the 1980s. The Mexican signature mark is to mix in a little chili pepper before forcing the water down the nasal passage.

Water-boardingis not a technical term in torture, and reports have described several different water tortures under this name. The ICRC report puts to rest which kind the CIA used. It turns out to be the traditional “water cure,” an antique Dutch technique invented in the East Indies in the 17th century. It migrated here after American troops returned from the Philippine insurgency in the early 20thcentury. By the 1930s, the water cure was favored by the Southern police. Interrogators tie or hold down a victim on his back. Then they pour water down his nostrils “so as to strangle him, thus causing pain and horror for the purpose of forcing a confession.” Sometimes torturers cover the face with a napkin, making it difficult for the prisoner to breathe, as the ICRC report describes.

Sweatboxes and coubarils

Abu Zubaydah says, “Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. … The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 feet 6 inches] in height.” The large box, which Abu Zubaydah says he was held in for up to two hours, is a classic sweatbox. Sweatboxes are old, and they came into modern torture from traditional Asian penal practices. If you’ve seen Bridge on the River Kwai, you know the Japanese used them in POW camps in World War II. They are still common in East Asia. The Chinese used them during the Korean War, and Chinese prisoners today relate accounts of squeeze cells (xiaohao, literally “small number”), dark cells (heiwu), and extremely hot or cold cells. In Vietnam, they are dubbed variously “dark cells,” “tiger cages,” or “connex boxes,” which are metal and heat up rapidly in the tropical sun.

Abu Zubaydah was also placed into the smaller box, in which he was forced to crouch for hours, until “the stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful.” This smaller type of box was once called a coubaril. Coubarils often bent the body in an uncomfortable position. They were standard in French penal colonies in New Guinea in the 19th century, where some prisoners were held in them for 16 days at a stretch.

Both kinds of boxes entered American prison and military practice in the 19th century. They were a standard part of naval discipline, and the word sweatboxcomes from the Civil War era. In the 1970s, prisoners described sweatboxes in South Vietnam, Iran (tabout, or “coffin”), Israel, and Turkey (“tortoise cell”). In the last three decades, prisoners have reported the use of sweatboxes in Brazil (cofrinho), Honduras (cajones), and Paraguay (guardia). And after 2002, Iraqi prisoners held in U.S. detention centers describe “cells so small that they could neither stand nor lie down,” as well as a box known as “the coffin” at the U.S. detention center at Qaim near Syria.

Standing cells

Walid Bin Attash says, “I was put in a cell measuring approximately [3 feet 6 inches-by-6 feet 6 inches]. I was kept in a standing position, feet flat on the floor, but with my arms above my head and fixed with handcuffs and a chain to a metal bar running across the width of the cell.” Over the last century, many prisons had built-in, tall, narrow, coffin-size cells, in which prisoners were forced to stand for hours, their hands chained to the ceiling. In the early 20thcentury, the women’s prison in Gainesville, Texas, had a standing cell in the dining room so that prisoners could smell the food.


Detainees routinely describe having their hands cuffed high above their heads while they stand with their feet on the ground. This is less damaging than full suspension by the wrists, which causes permanent nerve damage in 15 minutes to an average-size man. High-cuffing increases the time prisoners may be suspended, elongates the pain, and delays permanent injury. It is a restraint torture, as opposed to a positional torture, which requires prisoners to assume a normal human position (standing or sitting), but for a prolonged period of time.

High-cuffing is an old slave punishment of the Americas, once called “hanging from the rafters.” John Brown, a free slave, said of it, “Some tie them up in a very uneasy posture, where they must stand all night, and they will then work them hard all day.” American military prisons adopted the practice in World War I. High-cuffing was the standard prescribed military punishment for desertion, insubordination, and conscientious objection. Prisoners were handcuffed to their cell door eight to nine hours a day, in one case for up to 50 days. They described high-cuffing as excruciatingly painful, and the American public, otherwise unsympathetic with these prisoners, found the practice appalling, sparking a newspaper debate over “manacling” in November 1918. A month later, the War Department rescinded high-cuffing as a mode of punishment.

Towels, collars, and plywood

Sometimes torturers come up with something entirely new. “Also,” says Abu Zubaydah, “on a daily basis during the first two weeks a collar was looped around my neck and then used to slam me against the walls of the interrogation room. It was also placed around my neck when being taken out of my cell for interrogation and was used to lead me along the corridor. It was also used to slam me against the walls of the corridor during such movements.”

This is a novel approach to beating someone in a way that leaves few marks. For 30 years, I’ve studied a long and remorseless two centuries of torture around the world, and I can find only one instance of an account resembling the collars and plywood technique described in the ICRC report. It’s American. During World War I, conscientious objectors in military prisons report that their guards dragged them like animals with a rope around the neck, across rough floors, slamming them into walls. This one, as far as I can tell, is entirely homegrown.

About the author

Darius Rejali is a professor of political science and the author of Torture and Democracy, the winner of the 2007 Human Rights Best Book Award of the American Political Science Association.

Other articles about torture by Americans

  1. Cancel Water-Boarding 101“, David J. Morris, Slate, 29 January 2009 — “The military should close its torture school. I know because I graduated from it.”
  2. Lincoln’s Laws of War“, John Fabian Witt, Slate, 11 February 2009 — “How he built the code that Bush attempted to destroy.”


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28 thoughts on “Something every American should read – about torture”

  1. This makes me profoundly angry on numerous levels. It’s not that effective, tarnishes everyone involved, ruins credibility and is time and energy better spent elsewhere.

  2. Robert Petersen

    I reckon that one of the strangest and worst legacies of the Bush presidency was torture. Ten years ago I couldn’t imagine the United States one day would be associated with torture sanctioned by the White House. Not only that but torture also would become some sort of entertainment in a show like “24”, where the hero Jack Bauer regularly tortured prisoners to prevent the “ticking bomb”-scenario. Compare this cultural attitude with the heroes in movies made during the Second World War who were tortured by the evil Nazis or Japs and yet withheld crucial information. To watch a show like “24” is a bit like imagining a German movie about the heroic Gestapo agents in France valiantly torturing members of the resistance to stop the evil invasion in Normandy and against all odds pull just enough finger nails out to get exactly that information so they keep ruling over Europe and send Jews and other terrorists to the gas chambers.

    When did the old-fashioned hero die and was replaced by a guy like Jack Bauer?

    I can’t say I understand what has happened. I guess some of it was a result of sheer panic after 911. But I also think that it was some sort of a demonstration: People like VP Dick Cheney wanted to show the world that no law or convention were going to stop them. What truly scares me was that the public reaction was nil. Unlike several other countries nobody can claim they didn’t know what was going on.

    The United States and indeed the world has been hit by several storms the last couple of years as a result of the Bush presidency: The war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the financial meltdown etc. But nothing is more disturbing than the American attitude towards torture for the last several years.

  3. Charles Estrada

    Gasp! You are talking about French and the Anglo-Saxon accomplishments without including the Teutons? All with the approval of European Court of Human Rights no less: “Aligning US-EU torture policy“, Arran Gold, posted at Aaron Strength, 12 December 2008.

    “On Oct 1, 2002 in Frankfurt, Germany Deputy Police Chief Wolfgang Daschner contemplated the fate of Magnus Gäfgen, a 27-year-old law student who was suspected of having kidnapped 11-year-old Jakob von Metzler, son of the banker Friedrich von Metzler. In a memorandum, Daschner wrote: “We need to ascertain without delay where the boy is being held. While respecting the principle of proportionality, the police have an obligation to take all measures in their power to save the child’s life.” He dispatched police inspector Ortwin Ennigkeit with the assignment to make Gäfgen talk — if necessary by threat of torture and to carry out the threat if Gäfgen was not otherwise forthcoming. After shaking Gäfgen so violently that his head banged against the wall and hitting him in the chest hard enough to leave a bruise over his collarbone the information was obtained.”

  4. The Geneva conventions were primarily aimed at correcting some bugs in the previous rules of combat created by technical innovation. It so happened that by hitting the enemy with a solid steel, or steel jacketed rifle round, the resulting wound would be clean and non-lethal. So, with one bullet you take out three to five combatants who are preoccupied with caring for the one that is wounded. The solution, codified in the Geneva Conventions is a variation on the theme of “DumDum” bullets, or hollow points. These kill with a flesh hit, rather than maim, nice and civilized like.

    War is dirty business. This doesn’t justify torture, but it keeps it in perspective.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t understand your point, and — guessing at its meaning — don’t believe that it is accurate. From Wikipedia:

    Hollow-point bullet: “The Hague Convention of 1899, Declaration III, prohibits the use in warfare of bullets that easily expand or flatten in the body.[4] This is often incorrectly believed to be prohibited in the Geneva Conventions, but it significantly predates those conventions, and is in fact a continuance of the St. Petersburg Declaration of 1868, which banned exploding projectiles of less than 400 grams, as well as weapons designed to aggravate injured soldiers or make their death inevitable. NATO members do not use small arms ammunition that is prohibited by the Hague Convention.”

    The Geneva Conventions consist of four treaties formulated in Geneva, Switzerland, that set the standards for international law for humanitarian concerns. They chiefly concern the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war. They do not affect the use of weapons in war, which are covered by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the Geneva Protocol on the use of gas and biological weapons of 1925.

  5. electrophoresis

    You might also find these links illuminating: water-boarding torture used by American soldiers against Phillipine insurectos and later investigated in congressional hearings in 1901.

    Conditions in the Georgia confederate prison camp Andersonville during the Civil War from 1863 to 1865.

    Prisoners now routinely isolated up to 23 hours a day for years on end in America’s “supermax” prisons, which appear to break down into induced psychosis, catatonia, and compulsive suicide attempts.

    For the people who erupt with outrage at the idea of Americans committing torture, folks, it’s been going on for a long time — well over a century. Let’s get some perspective here. The army officers and U.S. politicians who ordered torture in the Phillipines weren’t brought to justice, they never even stood trial…so it’s highly unlikely that the army officers and white house officials who ordered torture over the last 8 years will ever be brought to justice. This should make us cynical or despairing. We have to recall that we’re human, thus imperfect, and while America aspires to high ideals we often fall short of ’em. The big question is whether we repudiate the practice of torture — and not just in warfare and in secret CIA prisons like Bagram airbase (which continue to operate), but also in American prisons.

    Americans have tortured before and we’ll torture again. Unlike other countries, though, we lapse into this practice intermittantly, and so far, we haven’t made it a standard official part of our justice system. As long as we can repudiate the practice of torture and stop doing it, we’ll have accomplished something important. Obviously it would be better if the white house officials and army officers who authorized torture over the last 8 years were tried for war crimes at The Hague, but realistically speaking, that isn’t going to happen. The next best thing we can do is to end the practice both abroad in secret “black” prisons and at home in U.S. prisons.

    Unfortunately we can’t blame America’s recent love affair with torture on the bogeyman in the previous administration, though it would certainly prove convenient to shove all the blame on them and off the pure-as-driven-snow American people. But the hard cold fact remains that the American people as a whole have been drifting toward a sick fascination with torture for at least 20 years now. “Torture porn” started in the 1980s with films like Hellraiser (1987) and Hellraiser II (1990) and later Hellraiser 3: Bloodline (1996), upped the ante with even more lurid films like The Silence of the Lambs (1990), and then torture porn broke out into mainstream media including episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992), films like Boxing Helena (1993) and the first season of the Fox Network’s hit show 24, which premiered in November 2001, barely 2 months after the twin towers fell. After that, the floodgates opened wide, giving us a veritable torrent of torture porn, from Saw (2004) to Hostel (2005) to Captivity (2007).

    Will America develop an ever more insatiable appetite for ever more luridly graphic torture in our movies and TV shows, leading to more torture overseas and at home in our prisons? Will torture become so commonplace in America that the U.S. army uses it routinely for crowd control and police use it every day on bystanders on American streets? Or will we renounce this pathology and reclaim our souls?

    Only time will tell.

  6. An eye-opening article, one that should concern those of us who care about human rights. I will be sure to read the article and the book upon which it is based. Wasn’t the CIA supposed to be an intelligence-gathering agency, not an operational one?

    Next point…

    Looking at Professor Rejali’s website, his CV and scholarly works, he appears to be a well-regarded scholar in his field. However, I confess to a certain degree of concern over his biases because his latest book is entitled “Democracy and Torture.” It apparently examines torture in the democratic nations of the world only, which would seem to indicate an emphasis on Europe and the United States. This is important work, but what about the rest of the world? Does he plan to simply excuse the non-democratic regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Amin, Castro, Hitler, and Hussein, not to mention the numerous tortuters operating in the Arabic and Islamic worlds today?

    His CV says he was cited often by such admittedly liberal-left newspapers as the NY Times in the wake of abu Ghraib scandel. The Times ran – by one independent count – some 300 stories on the Abu Ghraib affair, but routinely relegated horrific abuses of captured civlians (beheadings, mutilation of bodies, etc.) by jihadists to the back pages, if they were covered at all. Rejali is not responsible for the editorial content of the NYT, but that he is so favored by them casts doubt on his agenda and impartiality.

    According to captured operations manuals, Al-Qaeda operatives are routinely taught to accuse their captors of torture, regardless of their actual treatment while in U.S. military, CIA, or other captivity. Many so-called authorities condemn Guantanimo Bay Naval Base out-of-hand as a haven for torturers. However, former Green Beret LTC and journalist Gordon Cucullu discovered that it was the guards, and not the detainees being abused; the details are in his book “Inside Gitmo.” (2008).

    The point here is that many, not all but many writers on this subject, have an explicitly anti-American or anti-western bias in their scholarship, and do not examine the subject fully or with any degree of impartiality.

    I will read Dr. Rejali’s book, and report back in this space.
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, the CIA was descended from the OSS — which was far more of an operational agency than an intelligence-gathering one. Histories of the Agency, such as Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes” (2007), emphasize that the stress from these two largely incompatative fuctions has plagued the CIA since its inception.

    Second, everybody has biases. This attempt to refute an author’s findings by peeking into his work is IMO absurd. Life is short, all research has boundaries. Showing what he did not research means zip, it’s just chaff lofted into the discussion to distract us from the content of his work. Also, on what basis do you find Gordon Cucullu (Green Beret LTC) to be less biased than Professor Rejali? US special forces has quite a rep when it comes to interrogation methods.

    As for your annoucement that bad guys use torture, everybody over 12 already knows that. I doubt that folks drafting the Geneva Conventions would have done it differently had somebody told them.

  7. Robert, in answer to your question about what happened to the old-fashioned heroes of WWII era films, to give rise to the Jack Bauers of “24” fame…

    Have you ever seen “The Battle of Algiers,” the Pontecorvo film about the Algerian insurgency of the 1950s? Thought fictional, many of the crew were Italian parttisans in WWII, and the film is so life life in its depiction of the moral dilemmas of the crisis, that many organzations (including some within the U.S. government) use it for training purposes. It is a very even-handed look at the crisis, encompassing both Algerian and French perspectives. The film considers many of the questions raised on this forum.

  8. Setting aside the question of morality raised by the use of torture. Comment #3 raised the point of why torture is used. A fast and easy way of gaining information. But is it “fast and easy”. How reliable is the information gained by torture? On what research (case studies etc) does the CIA and other organizations/groups justify the use of torture as an effectiv methode of intelligence gathering?

    Or is the use of torture based on a belief of its effectiveness, but not on evidence? How does torture compare to normal Western police interogation technics? Better, worse, faster, slower. And does results differ between individuals and how does culture play into torture. Ect, ect.

    Have there been some research into this?
    Fabius Maximus replies: There are rumors of extensive US investigation into these questions. Probably others, such as the USSR, also investigated these — and their results might have leaked.

    The best source of information about torture I’ve found is “EDUCING INFORMATION, Interrogation: Science and Art, Foundations for the Future“, Intelligence Science Board, National Defense Intelligence College, December 2006 — 372 pages. The authors are skeptical.

  9. I’ve read the article and these comments. It appears to me that it has drawn out those who were critical of the Bush administration. Therefore, I am a bit skeptical about these comments and criticisms. I suspect it has some political motivation.

    When it comes to how these people are being treated, you have to consider what you are dealing with. These terrorists don’t play the game by our rules, or by any rules of civilized conduct. To treat them as if they were just any John Doe in America who has been accused of a crime just plays into their hands, in my opinion. I really have no sympathy whatever for their complaints. Frankly I don’t understand all the sympathy these terrorists seem to be getting from some. Rather odd considering who these people are and what they are trying to do to innocent people.

    To put it succinctly, these terrorists are the enemy. They should be treated as such. When they make up their minds that they want to play by the rules again and resume normal relations amongst the peoples of the world, then we can talk. Until then, we have to fight them until they are defeated. The methods described appear to me to be very mild. If anything, we are too damned nice to them.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What is the point of your efforts to determine motivation of the authors? It’s data, the same no matter if discovered by saints or devils. Should we shut our eyes to this information if the authors do not pass some litmus test you’ve developed?

  10. Robert Petersen

    Dear G. Meadows
    Your attitude is very characteristic for the Bush presidency and without doubt shared by many. To some degree I can understand why, since I myself vividly remember 911. The are – however – many problems with this attitude. Just for one thing: The United States is build on law and order. Unlike many other countries it was actually born as a democracy. How can you then say that some people deserve protection from law and others don’t?

    Second: What will you do with people you torture only to discover that they are innocent? How many Arab-speaking translators do you think even work for the CIA or the American army in a place like Iraq? It is no secret that at least some of the Iraqis captured are innocent. How do you apologize to them?

    Third: After you have done torturing them – then what? Will you put them on trial? Like I mentioned the United States is build on law and order and you can’t create a legal system for one group of people and a second for another group of people. In other words: Any decent judge would be forced to release prisoners, where the evidence is acquired by torture. Which is insane, because the United States actually has several evildoers in custody, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They are guilty and should be punished. I strongly suspect the reluctance to put them on trial has a lot to do with fear of revealing the methods behind their confessions. So they will remain in a legal limbo for perhaps several years.

    Fourth: If torture is necessary – why did the United States fight the First and Second World War without putting torture in system by the US government? Is the War on terror somehow worse than the slaughter sixty-five years ago? What is so special about the war on terror that makes torture necessary?

  11. We’re using 21st Century, Western morality while fighting a 5th Century Islamic morality. Given the choice between losing half of Philly to a dirty bomb or being accused of having descended to the practices of our enemies then I’ll grant the latter. Turn on the AC.

    In our lifetimes some nitwit in Washington is going to feel too morally elevated to approve the waterboarding of an important captive. That decision will cost innocent Americans their lives and we’ll all be more vulnerable afterwards.

    I abhor the notion of torture. But, if my child were held by some demented masochist I’d be the first one pulling up the fingernails.
    Fabius Maximus replies: (1) Did you read the article? This point is discussed at some length. Also, the justification of actual acts by some theoretical scenario (“If my child were held by some demented…”) suggests IMO that you watch far too much TV. It’s sophomore bull session debating at its worst.

    (2) As experts have explained at great length, there is no evidence that we’re fighting “a 5th Century Islamic morality.” We’ve gone around this a dozen times; this is nuts on many levels.

    Also, masochists seek to harm themselves. You probably mean sadist.

  12. We all acknowledge that AQ instructs its members to allege torture should they be captured. This article presents a very nice summary of what an AQ member should alledge when asked. Since these methods leave no physical marks then government always loses. It can’t prove a negative. So the likely result is the US won’t keep suspects. They will be handed over to allies or the troops will conclude its not worth the trouble to detain the suspect.

    I will wait for the follow-up study of AQ’s interrogation methods and adherence to the Geneva Convention but that is one the media won’t.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The media reports news, not things that everybody already knows. No need to wait, just ask someone on the street, like a taxi driver. They will adequately brief you on this.

  13. Morality aside, all of this points to a failure of the western world to devise an international legal framework to deal with alleged terrorists scooped up in the GWOT. We know they’re wily and they are trained to lie, etc. Still, we’re not smart enough to systematically deal with these issues at some agreed-upon level? The simple answer is we tried, but the Euros were too soft, we were too hard, so no agreement could be reached.

    This is a shame. Because we no longer know what our values are, and couldn’t defend them if we did, we’ve left ourselves vulnerable to basic moral and legal jujitsu.

  14. Re Comment #4. I stand corrected. However, from Wikipedia: “Tumbling and frangible FMJ bullets {SNIP. I’ll put this back if you can show any relevance of it to the post. As noted in every post, comments must pertain to the topic of the post.}

  15. To Torture is Human

    Torture is as old as prostitution, as ancient as tribes competing for the same hunting grounds and drylands spring. Your outrage is as useful as shaking a fist at a supernova or gamma ray burst. You don’t understand my point? There are many things you seem not to understand. Existence and survival are beyond your outrage, beyond your congealed sense of ethics.

    Torture is an entire world’s hopes for the future being dashed because an outraged mob of losers forgot about the neverending Darwinian struggle. You lost.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This guy’s tin foil hat must have slipped, as seen in the tone of certainty with which he writes. I very much doubt our existence depends on using torture. Also, I doubt an “outraged mob of losers” pose any substantial threat to western civililzation.

  16. Torture is a nasty business and it is good that it is reported about. But so also is war in general, and especially death, dismemberment, maiming, injury, trauma and loss delivered to innocent civilians by overhead bombardment. The West’s main contribution to modern war.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As many military historians have shown, wars often have rules. This is neither a 20th century nor western concept. The “war is bad, so everything is allowed” viewpoint has not been compelling to many peoples in the past. Its current popularity in America, as seen on this thread, can be seen as a regression in our moral character.

    As for our contribution to modern war, bombardment from above is only an incremental improvement on the traditional solution of “burn the city to the ground — kill them all.” Assad did so quite effectively at Hama with artillery. More cost-effective (hence more common) is “kill the men — enslave the women and children.”

  17. electrophoresis

    Robert asked an excellent question: When did the old-fashioned hero die and was replaced by a guy like Jack Bauer?

    When old-fashioned warfare (storming the beaches of Normandy under machine gun fire) died and was replaced by 4GW (suicide bombs, car bombs, IEDs).

    That occurred shortly after the end of WW II. The first and most epic of 4GW conflicts was Mao’s “Long March,” and at the end of it Mao Tse-Tung wound up ruling over a billion people. So 4GW does work, and can bring immense rewards.

    Many scholars of warfare have noted that, Desert Storm excepted, the days of pitched tank battles and massed battalions clashing on flat level plains away from civilian areas are now over. Desert storm represented a bizarre outlier for the same reason Saddam Hussein’s regime was really the last of the aggressive stalinoid dictatorships: Saddam was a relic. All the other stalinoid dictatorships (North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Egypt, the kingdom of Saud, et al.) are non-aggressive toward their neighbors, though they make lots of scary-sounding noises. The era of pitched battles really ended with the Falklands war in the early 80s, which proved so expensive that it nearly bankrupted both countries, leaving very little to show for the effort.

    More recently, the American invasion of Iraq has bankrupted us, and left nothing to show for all that expenditure of blood and treasure. In this modern post-maneuever-warfare era, 4GW rules, and thus we can expect 4GW warriors to dominate warfare.

    The big problem is that while the people fictional Jack Bauer fights are 4GW warriors, Bauer himself is not. In fact, if you study the TV show 24 closely from van Creveld’s and Lind’s and Boyd’s perspective, the TV show 24 really offers a detailed treatise on “how a major power should not fight 4GW.” Torturing suspects who often wind up to be innocent is the best possible way to create resentment and recruit new 4GW fighters — recall that Ayman al Zawahiri, the former 2nd in command of al Qaeda, was converted into a radical Islamic jihadist precisely because the Egyptian government tortured him. This is typical: somebody gets picked up for non-violent political dissidence, gets tortured viciously, and presto! Change-o! Suddenly the government has an ultra-violent suicide bomber on their hands.

    Even worse, many of the commenters make the foolish mistake of presuming that all, or even most of, the people picked up as “suspected terrorists” are actually terrorists. But the reverse is true. The overhwlmeing majority of “suspects” picked up for allegedly supporting terrorism are actually innocent, and the evidence proves it. The evidence now compellingly suggests that 80% of the people incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay were innocent bystanders sold to the Americans by corrupt Afghan warlords to cash in on millions in rewards for “suspected terrorists.” The reason the government has shown such reluctance to try these people in open court is that there is no credible evidence against them. The only “evidence” is typically a “confession” tortured out of the accused, or out of someone else in the same torture prison. That’s not evidence. Many people will say anything under torture, while others will simply die without saying a word. Either way, torture produces no usable intelligence. Commenters here mention a “dirty bomb” apparently without realizing that the case against Jose Padilla on allegations of building a dirty bomb collapsed because the case was complete nonsense, a fabrication by the government.

    In fact, every single terrorism trial over the 8 years has collapsed due to lack of evidence. Not one single terrorist over the last 8 years has been convicted on the original charges. Not one. All the convictions (and there are only a handful; most of the terrorism charges were dismissed by the judges because the evidence was garbage, hearsay, fantasy, and lies spewed out by people tortured out of their minds) were pleas to vague unspecified charges in order to stop the torture.

    And even if you ignore the long string of failed terrorism trials that fell apart because the evidence was garbage, fantasy, and delusion elicited by torture, it’s not just my opinion that torture doesn’t work. All U.S. military intelligence experts agree: torture is worthless is as source of information. These bogus “confessions” under torture clog up G2 section with a flood of useless bogus info from prisoners who decided to say anything just to stop the torture. Our own armed forces are unanimous: torture is worthless and counterproductive, because torture creates terrorists out of innocent bystanders or non-violent political dissidents or the relatives of those we torture to death, and it endangers U.S. soldiers when they’re captured because the enemy feel no compunctions about treating our people as savagely as we’ve treated theirs.

    As many military intelligence experts have pointed out, the big question facing America is not whether torture works, but why so many American want to believe it does in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

  18. Since your search engine / memory is so good, FM , you’d be the perfect entity to ask How many people died in 9/11 from the crash, fire and in floors above; how many, below crash, died as a result of the buildings imploding. What subsequently happened to the architects , contractors , fire and building inspectors ?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Is there some point to this? I have no idea. Since collison with airliners was not in the building specifications, why should anything have happened to the architects, contractors, and inspectors? The exception might be those involved in operating and inspecting WTC 7, so loaded with fuel oil so that it oddly burned and imploded.

  19. “All U.S. military intelligence experts agree: torture is worthless is as source of information.” 100%, really? Or is that 100% of those who wish to be interviewed?

    A plausible explanation for the failure of trials to date night be that US intelligence agencies are unwilling to provide sensitive sources. Because even taxi drivers understand that AQ doesn’t abide by rules.

    And newsflash for Electrophoresis – US military captured since the GC signed have never enjoyed protections with one exception (WWII in ETO). Not fighting in Korea, against Japan, Viet Nam, or any of Gulf Wars. AT some point one would suppose that the idea that our abiding the GC somehow improves our captured personnel’s lot would be laid to rest.

  20. Re #4/15. I was making the minor point that the powers that be have already determined that having lots of wounded is bad for the war business. You want bullets that kill, not bullets that maim. The conventions for civilized warfare prohibit bullets that rip apart soft tissue. They explicitly forbid DumDum type bullets as you pointed out. The work around is bullets that tumble sideways inside you, ripping you apart that way. If people are going to cite these “Conventions” as moral high ground, they should study the history of how they were/are used even today. The prohibitions against hollow point ammo are laughable, given the weapons we actually use. Why take proscriptions against Torture so seriously, citing the same documents, the same authority?
    Fabius Maximus replies: The attempts to limit the horror of war through rules is part of humanity’s effort to find order and meaning in a pointless and uncaring universe. The project is irrational, but an aspect of an important part of humanity. From Martin van Creveld’s great new book “Culture and War”, chapter 7 The Rules of War:

    … war is an organized activity; whereas an organization without rules is a contradiction in terms. … Many scholars believe that one thing war does, or can do, is to provide an outlet for social tensions that may lead to chaos if they are not relieved. … In all societies at all times and places, some kinds of behavior, under some kinds of circumstances, for some kinds of reasons, with some kinds of goals, toward some kinds of people are considered part of war, whereas others are not.

  21. Here is the only thing you can do to make an impact on torture: discover a method of causing persons to disclose information they would rather keep to themselves, a method that does not involve mental, physical, or existential cruelty or deprivation. Everything else you say on this topic is a waste of your reader’s time.

    You are wasting your time. Perhaps you have nothing important to do, so your time is inconsequential.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Much the same was said about slavery and rights for women. You can enjoy your lethargy and cynicism. The rest of us will continue working to sustain and improve America. Future generations will look back and judge us.

  22. mark12ministries

    Suggestions for the terrorists, oops, I mean the illegal combatants, oops…the poor unfortunate victims of American aggression currently being brutally held in the sunny port of Guantanamo Cuba:
    1)Remove them and place in a prison in America…the Aleutian Islands comes to mind.
    2)Remove them and give them a good old fashioned “parole” on their honor so that they will not return to combat. We used to do that in the Civil War, and even with Germans in WW2 according to my dad, a veteran of the Battle of Leipzig.
    3) When paroled, I would suggest dropping them off in the City of San Francisco, they are very welcoming of homeless folks, the campuses of Berkely, Harvard, Yale,Princeton, etc., the Washington DC area should be welcoming of them, perhaps Aspen Colorado, and a few of them should be released in Hollywood proper, I know a lot of actors and actresses have been appalled at their treatment in GITMO and would gladly open their homes to house the poor souls. Oh yeah, John Murtha’s district in PA is asking for some detainees as well.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You assume that all of the folks we pick up are terrorists. There is considerable evidence that this is not the case. Perhaps as a test, you might be picked up by a sweep — being in the wrong place at the wrong time — and put through your recommended procedure. No recourse to prove your innocence. After a few years of that your new recommendations might be of interest.

  23. re: “As for our contribution to modern war, bombardment from above is only an incremental improvement on the traditional solution of “burn the city to the ground — kill them all.”

    Well, that was the point. For a while we had minimized the sacking of cities by mutual agreement to settle differences in the field and then come to terms. 1919 was a major divergence during which we imposed blockade and starvation on the German population after their military had agreed to suspend military operations.

    But then when we got into bombing cities (I believe Churchill in Iraq was the first time in the 1930’s) we crossed the line yet again. And of course in WWII the Allies did extensive civilian bombing campaigns perfecting the ‘fire storm’ technique which climaxed with the Dresden and Tokyo bombardments. This goes way beyond using artillery in military ops and back to the sacking of cities approach.

    As you say above: this “can be seen as a regression in our moral character”, which was also my point.
    Fabius Maximus replies: During what period did “we minimized the sacking of cities by mutual agreement to settle differences in the field and then come to terms”? There have always been ebbs and flows in the regional intensity of war.
    * From 1648 to Napoleon the intensity of war was low in Europe, as we vented our aggression on the rest of the world. Lots of cities were sacked.
    * Ditto from 1815 – 1914.
    * During WWI the fixing of the front limited damage to cities, and our efforts at bombardment from the air were limited by the primative technology of the time — both of which factors were reversed big-time in WWII.

    That said, I do agree with your primary point!

  24. Re comment 19, about 9/11 — The people died in the Twin Towers because of the planes; on the Titanic, because of the iceberg. In each case , fewer would have died if design/evacuation procedures had been better. How many have to die to trigger retaliation on the scale of Iraq, Afgh , torture? Altho’ the word torture does suggest something rather more horrendous than is reported here – if this is torture, so are some hospital visits?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Both the Twin Towers and Titantic were adequately designed by the standards of the their time (the Titanic disaster resulted from a long series of operational errors). For fun, let’s get your friends and relatives together and judge your actions by the “100% hindsight” rule! As punishment perhaps they can apply some of the techniques described in this article, that you consider “just like hospital visits”.

    I have no idea what you mean by “retailiation”. The people who executed 9/11 died. Those who assisted might have been caught, but by most accounts our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were diversions from that effort. The deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were overwhelmingly of people unrelated to 9/11. We might as well have bombed NYC.

  25. I am reminded of a book I read back in the nineties by Judge Robert Bork: Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996). Bork appears to have been right, we are descending into a hellish state of existence. One of his observations was this idea of radical egalitarianism. I think it appropriate to mention this in light of my previous comment. Why treat terrorists the same as ordinary people? They are not, by any means, ordinary. The capacity to kill thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent people is an uncommon trait, I think. These people aren’t even common criminals. They are extraordinarily dangerous and they should be treated differently. But this idea of radical egalitarianism could lead us into thinking they are just like the rest of us.

    Why didn’t Clinton arrest Bin Laden when he had the chance? He could have, but he didn’t because to put him on trial would have subjected American jurisprudence to the risk of clearing an extremely dangerous man. If this were to be allowed, the entire credibility of our system of justice could have been shown to be a farce. (If he had been acquitted.) No way Clinton could risk this, so he didn’t arrest him.

    He tried killing him instead. By his own actions, Clinton demonstrated the futility of applying common criminal law to a man like Bin Laden.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I doubt Bork described our future as a “hellish state of existence.” The book contains no clear forecasts or vision of America if the trends he describes continues. The closest he comes to such is in the conclusion:

    “Analysis demonstrates that we continue slouching towards Gomorrah. We are well along the road to the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism. … But for the immediate future, what we probably face is an increasingly vulgar, violent, chaotic, and politicized culture.”

    Sad. This would an America far less than we could be. But it is not hellish. The NAZI regime, the worst of the regimes of Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot — those were hellish.

  26. FM: “From 1648 to Napoleon the intensity of war was low in Europe, as we vented our aggression on the rest of the world. Lots of cities were sacked. Ditto from 1815 – 1914.”

    I had the impression – not sure where from come to think of it – that most of the time armies met in the field and then the leaders came to terms without full bore occupation of the cities and capitals, i.e. if cities/countries refused to surrender, then they were attacked (Paris 1871?), but if the nation surrendered they weren’t. If your description above is generally accurate, then this impression is mistaken.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps you should talk with some native Americans. Chief Joseph’s history might be enlighening (Wikpedia). Or the Battle of Wounded Knee, for which 20 Medals of Honor were awarded — the most from a single action (Wikipedia).

    I mention these because they are from American history — our history. These are child’s play — in size and intensity — compared to what happened elsewhere during the western colonial expasion around the world. Apparently the “laws of war” did not apply outside Europe.

  27. Update: Astonishing blindness by Americans about torture by our government. But the Brits are stronger.

    (1) Metropolitan police investigation fails to quell independent inquiry calls“, The Guardian, 27 March 2009 — Excerpt:

    The attorney general’s decision to call in police to investigate the role allegedly played by British intelligence officers in Binyam Mohamed’s unlawful detention and torture follows a series of battles fought on his behalf in the courts in the UK and US for almost four years.

    After the government’s lawyers in one case referred evidence of possible criminal conduct by MI5 officers to home secretary Jacqui Smith, and she passed it on to the attorney general, yesterday’s decision was probably inevitable.

    Mohamed’s lawyers suspect Lady Scotland called in the Metropolitan police because she had little choice, rather than because ministers were keen to find out more about the involvement of officials serving with a government agency in the alleged mistreatment of a British resident. The first sign that the police response may not be swift came with Scotland Yard’s statement that a decision about how to proceed would be taken “in due course”.

    Whatever action the police eventually take, the attorney general’s announcement will do little to silence the growing clamour for an independent inquiry into the post-9/11 government policy that is now known to have been devised, in secret, to enable British intelligence officers to interrogate detainees being held by known torturers.

    Mohamed was detained and tortured in Pakistan in 2002, and questioned by MI5 before being “rendered” to Morocco, where he says he suffered worse torture. At one point he claims his genitals were slashed with a scalpel.

    During one case brought to the high court in London on Mohamed’s behalf last year, it emerged that some of the questions put to him by the Moroccan torturers were based on information that was passed to the CIA during a meeting at MI5’s headquarters, Thames House. Mohamed was subsequently flown to Afghanistan, where he claims he was tortured by Americans, and then moved to Guantánamo. It was from there that he was finally freed last month, and returned to the UK.

    The MI5 officer who interrogated Mohamed in Pakistan told the court that he was operating in line with a policy that had been “discussed at length by security service management legal advisers and government”.

    Since that interrogation, British citizens have been held in Pakistan at the request of MI5, and allegedly tortured before and after questioning by British intelligence officers. Lawyers for these men suspect the policy that allowed British officials to interrogate men such as Mohamed, who claim they were tortured after being detained at the request of Americans, led to the facilitation of torture during British counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

    (2) “Torture victim Binyam Mohamed: don’t scapegoat MI5 officer”, The Guardian, 27 March 2009 — Excerpt:

    Binyam Mohamed spoke to the Guardian after the attorney general called in the Metropolitan police to investigate claims that MI5 had colluded in his interrogation.

    … The attorney general, Lady Scotland, announced the unprecedented move in light of damning evidence that Britain’s security and intelligence agencies colluded with the CIA in Mohamed’s inhuman treatment and secret rendition. She said the police inquiry would look into “possible criminal wrongdoing” in what the high court described as Mohamed’s unlawful questioning.

    After being arrested at Karachi airport in April 2002, while travelling on a false passport, Ethiopian-born Mohamed was held incommunicado in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan, before being flown to Guantánamo Bay in 2004.

    He was released last month after the US dropped all charges against him, including claims that he was trying to make a “dirty bomb”.

    … Scotland said that after reviewing a “substantial body of material, much of it highly sensitive”, and after consulting the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, she concluded that the evidence should be passed to the police.

    … The evidence includes open and secret high court hearings where Officer B was questioned about his interrogation of Mohamed when he was being held in Pakistan in 2002. The court heard that MI5 provided the CIA with material to interrogate Mohamed, even though it said it had no idea at the time where he was being held and in what condition he was in.

    In a case Lord Justice Thomas described as “deeply disturbing”, involving “many and very troublesome issues”, the high court concluded: “The conduct of the security service facilitated interviews by or on behalf of the United States when [Mohamed] was being detained by the United States incommunicado and without access to a lawyer.” They court added: “Under the law of Pakistan, that detention was unlawful .”

    Much of the evidence is still being suppressed following gagging orders demanded by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and the US authorities. Leading politicians and campaigners yesterday said that the issue went far beyond the particular case of Officer B, and that a broader inquiry was needed.

    The Conservative leader, David Cameron, called for a “targeted and clear review … to get to the bottom of whether Britain was knowingly or unknowingly complicit in torture”.

    The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, said: “It is not enough for Gordon Brown to say the government does not endorse torture. There remain serious questions concerning how far senior political figures were implicated in these alleged practices.”

    Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Commons all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, referred to the high court’s description of UK involvement in Mohamed’s interrogation as going “far beyond that of a bystander or witness to the alleged wrongdoing”, and called for a wider investigation.

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