Torture DenialHeather Macdonald has written a piece denying that Americans have really been sullying their hand with much of anything like real torture. Her article relies(thanks to Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy for the pointer) among other things on trivializing the nature of the tortures that have been used. Take for example her description of forced standing in Afghanistan:
Many of the interrogators argued for a calibrated use of “stress techniques”—long interrogations that would cut into the detainees’ sleep schedules, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand, or aggressive questioning that would put a detainee on edge.
Gee it sounds so nice doesn’t it? Well it might set them "on edge" a bit, but other than that it sound harmless right? Compare that to a description from a former professor of mine, and leading expert on torture of forced standing:
In 1956, the CIA commissioned two experts, Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle, who described the effects of forced standing. The ankles and feet swell to twice their normal size within 24 hours. Moving becomes agony. Large blisters develop. The heart rate increases, and some faint. The kidneys eventually shut down.
In the mid-20th century, torturers learned how to use the swelling and blistering to cause more pain. The South African and Brazilian police made prisoners stand on cans or bricks, the edges causing excruciating pain to the sensitive feet. In 1999, the South African Truth Commission determined that forced standing was the third-most-common torture during apartheid, after beating and applying electricity.
Forced standing is something that doesn’t sound terrible—at first. Yet the actual effects are horrifying. And it has one advantage over more commonly thought of torture methods, it leaves few marks and so consequently is hard to prove.
This is important, because MacDonald’s purpose is to extricate the administration from culpability for Abu Gharib largely via a reading of official administrative directives:
This [the idea of Abu Gharib as illustrative of larger problems] story’s success depends on the reader’s remaining ignorant of the actual interrogation techniques promulgated in the war on terror. Not only were they light years from real torture and hedged around with bureaucratic safeguards, but they had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib anarchy.
Forced standing is a torture technique, and a very effective one. It was used in Abu Gharib, and it’s not an obvious torture method. Additionally the implements used like wires, were added at specific historical moment to make the torture more effective. So, where did these soldiers learn this technique of torture and why were they taught it? (Rejali article)
If you train people how to torture, and how to do it without being detected, and then you give those people access to prisoners, abuse will occur. And you are culpable for the results no matter how many memos you send out telling them to be good boys and girls and not do what you taught them how to do.
What’s more, are we really to believe these people were trained how to torture in the hopes that they would never torture? Isn’t it more likely that this “stress and duress” interrogation is really just a nice term for good old-fashioned brutality?