Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Slippery Lid of Pandora's Box

Sebastian Holsclaw links to a truly chilling story at Radley Balko's site about the use of torture by local police in Tennessee against a suspected low level drug dealer. Apparently, the police were trying to get this man - who happens to be illiterate - to sign a confession despite the fact that they wouldn't describe the contents of the confession to him. When he refused, they began to torture him with sadistic gusto.

We only learn of this sordid business because the suspect's wife surreptitiously tape recorded the incident. The audio is now available online, though I would heed Holsclaw's admonition: "Don't listen to the audio unless you want to cry." Balko provides the lowlights:

They beat him, over and over, hook electrodes up to testicles and shock him, threaten to kill him, and threaten to go after his family. Early news accounts reported that the torture continued well beyond the end of the recording. After the tape ran out, the same deputies apparently repeatedly submerged the guy's head in a fish tank and a bath tub, threatening to drown him unless he confessed.

While it might be convenient and satisfying to conclude that these officers were directly inspired by policies implemented at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the associated legal/moral justifications for torture put forth by the Bush administration and its supporters, Holsclaw makes a good point when he notes that these types of abuses existed well before the Bush administration, and will unfortunately persist long after 2008. There is a distinctively human aspect to this behavior that should not be underestimated or casually placed at the doorstep of the White House.

Though I must admit that the last bit about inducing the fear of drowning sounds an awful lot like waterboarding - which the Bush administration deemed to fall short of "torture" in a controversial decision when such a tactic was authorized for use by the CIA. So direct inspiration can't be ruled out either. While Presidential approval of tactics for use by the CIA in limited settings is a different matter from local law enforcement's free use of the same, one can still imagine the defense attorneys for these officers offering up the fact that the Bush administration itself authorized the use of waterboarding as a way of normalizing the behavior of their clients. An awkward moment in the court house no doubt.

In either instance, the less controversial contention would be that since these violent impulses reside in the recesses of human consciousness across cultural and societal divides, and are prone to manifest periodically, shouldn't official policy and oversight be unequivocal and vigilant in setting and enforcing clearly defined boundaries?

In contravention of this precept, however, the efficacy, utility and morality of torturing prisoners has been a matter of open debate among this nation's top leaders over the past four-plus years, and elements of torture have been incorporated into official policy as opposed to being relegated to the ignominious, illegal and clandestine underbelly of law enforcement. That is a direct result of the Bush administration's actions on this matter, and the rush to defend such decisions on the part of the Republican Party's various media outlets/pundits/supporters.

The danger inherent in such ambiguity reminds me of an account of a conversation in George Packer's The Assassins' Gate that I cited before (p. 326, emphasis added):

One administration official who had served in Vietnam said, "There's no doubt in my mind as a soldier that part of the responsibility for Abu Ghraib and for Afghanistan belongs wit the secretary of defense and the president of the United States. There's an old aphorism: Keep it simple, stupid. KISS is the acronym. You always have personalities in uniform - I had them in Vietnam - who will take advantage of any ambiguity, any lack of clarification in the rules of engagement, and kill people, or whatever his particular psyche is liable to do. You don't have rules for your good people. You have rules for that five or six percent of your combat unit that are going to be weird. You need those people, because sometimes they're your best killers. But you need the rules. And when you make any kind of changes in them, any relaxation or even hint of it, you're opening Pandora's box. And I fault Gonzalez [sic], the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the chain of command, Myers, Abizaid, Sanchez, the whole bunch of them."

All of these men kept their jobs. One was even promoted.

Regardless of the ultimate, direct causal relationship between the Bush administration's muddying of the waters with respect to torture, and the incidents described in this story, Nell Lancaster makes a compelling argument on the thread over at Obsidian Wings about the destructive dynamic at play in the country at this time:

It's a two-way process:

Bottom-up, widespread abuse by police and guards (with averted eyes and impunity for most of it) ensures a ready supply of military torturers.

Top-down, a policy of torture sends the signal that being in a position of authority or power over others who can be depicted as "threats" permits torture.

Wouldn't it be a little better if we could limit such behavior to "one-way" status, or work toward eliminating it altogether? Should I even have to ask that question? This opened box needs a lid.

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