[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Host Stephen Soldz:
The Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” program brought the issue of torture to the forefront of American thought and attention over the last decade. As the Global War on Terror unfolded, a long-standing public consensus that “torture” is bad was destroyed as the definitional boundaries of torture were pushed back by clever government lawyers and polished pundits. Meanwhile, psychologists and other behavioral scientists designed and implemented torture techniques that, while horrifying in terms of their effect on the tortured, nonetheless had the important characteristic of being deniable as they left no visible scars.
This torture program was not created out of whole cloth. In fact, despite the public consensus that torture is bad, it could be said, to paraphrase J. Rap Brown, that torture is as American as cherry pie. Marjorie Cohn, Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and past president of the National Lawyers Guild, has put together this collection of 14 essays to explore facets of our country’s recent experiences with torture while placing those experiences in broader contexts – historical, legal, and moral.
Chapters explore the history of US torture, with Alfred McCoy summarizing his seminal work on the development from the 1950s of the CIA’s particular style of psychological torture. McCoy argues here that this torture style survived because it possessed five attributes. It was Elusive, Resilient, Adaptable, Seductive, and Destructive. In my chapter, I build upon McCoy’s argument by describing the role of psychologists in designing, implementing, and justifying the “enhanced interrogation” torture program. I also describe the struggle against the complicity in torture of the American Psychological Association, the largest mental health organization in the world.
Continuing the exploration of historical context, other chapters describe the propagation of torture in Latin America through the US Army’s School of the Americas (renamed WHINSEC), as well as a case study of US involvement in the civil war in El Salvador, carefully maintaining plausible deniability for the US of the nature and extent of these abuses. We have seen similar plausible deniability in the last decade’s torture, with frequent assertions by leaders who authorized torture that “the US does not torture.” This plausible deniability is also seen in the US program of rendition to torture described by Jane Mayer, accompanied as it was by “assurances” that the person being delivered for torture would not be “tortured.”
One chapter by a habeas corpus attorney describes the routine, yet deeply disturbing, bureaucratic abuse of a deeply disturbed and likely innocent Guantánamo detainee. This chapter ends with a statement that summarizes in one pithy phrase the horrors of Guantánamo : “As I prepare to leave, Adnan has one last thing to say. ‘Death,’ he tells me, ‘would be more merciful than life here.’”
Among those of us who have devoted significant time and resources to combating torture in the national security context, there has, at times, been a nagging concern. Was the tremendous amount of time and energy devoted to the abusive treatment of a relatively small number of individuals at Guantánamo and the CIA’s black site torture centers disproportionate when we have hundreds of thousands of prisoners held in extremely harsh and abusive conditions in our immense domestic prison system? Should we rather focus our energy upon changing the torturous brutality of all too much of the US penal system? Thus I was pleased to see this book contains a chapter, “Mass Torture in America: Notes from the Supermax Prisons,” reminding us that prolonged solitary confinement is brutal and soul-destroying, whatever the rationale provided for its use.
Not surprisingly for a book edited by a lawyer, half of the included authors are lawyers. The majority of the chapters written by these authors discuss the urgent need for accountability for those who authorized, provided the legal justifications for, and implemented torture. While acknowledging the uphill struggle, these authors make the case that torture unpunished will become torture repeated and routinized. Alas, the possibility of accountability today is even bleaker than it appeared two years ago when these chapters were being completed. Perhaps in today’s discussion we can discuss how, and if, this climate can be changed.