Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Scar Tissue That I Wish You Saw

Jonathan Gitlin (via Rob Farley) discusses the results from a medical study designed to measure the psychological impact of various interrogation techniques - including ones that we readily recognize as torture, as well as others that have been shrouded in sanitizing euphemism such as "aggressive interrogation techniques."

[Interrogation] aim to break down subjects through psychological means that leave no visible scars, and as a result they are far more palatable with the general public. Sleep deprivation, stress positions, sensory deprivation and the like are dismissed by pundits and defense lawyers as nothing like torture.

But the aftereffects of such treatment are at least as damaging to those on the receiving end, such as having teeth pulled out, being burned, or being electrocuted. Those are the findings of a new report in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The study, carried out by Dr. Metin Basoglu and colleagues from King's College London and Clinical Hospital Zvezdara, Belgrade, Serbia, involved interviewing 279 torture survivors from the former Yugoslavia. Their experiences were cataloged, and they rated each event on a scale of zero to four for distress and for loss of control, and whether or not they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The researchers identified seven categories of torture: "sexual torture; physical torture; psychological manipulations, such as threats of rape or witnessing the torture of others; humiliating treatment, including mockery and verbal abuse; exposure to forced stress positions, such as bondage with rope or other restrictions of movement; loud music, cold showers and other sensory discomforts; and deprivation of food, water or other basic needs." Physical torture rated between 3.2 and 3.8, and this figure was matched by 16 other practices, such as sham executions, rape, threat of rape, isolation and fondling of genitals. There was no lesser incidence of PTSD in those who had not been physically tortured. Dr Basoglu concludes that the psychological practices which are in vogue right now " do not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the extent of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanisms of traumatic stress, and their long-term traumatic effects."

Which says nothing about the absolutely debilitating psychological effects of prolonged and extreme solitary confinement, the results of which were discussed here. Keep in mind, this type of cruelty is being inflicted on other people in our name to this day.

Adding to my sense of exasperation at the shameful ways that the Bush administration has tarnished this nation's reputation is the fact that the intelligence gleaned from these abusive interrogation methods isn't even reliable. Nor is it qualitatively better than what can be gained through attempts at simply building a rapport with detainees. The information gathered under the torture and abuse regime does come at a heavy cost, though, whereas the "quaint" approach does not. That is the biggest difference.

I'm sympathetic to arguments about American greatness because, well, as an American it's a comforting theory. I want to believe it - and in many respects I do. At the very least, I take pride in the fact that, at times, this nation was able to stand as an example of liberty, justice and freedom - if never an exact paragon of those virtues. Despite the flawed beginnings, we have come a long way, and there is much to marvel at.

In recent history, the Cold War may have softened the rough edges of our image to some extent, and led many onlookers to apply an overarching benefit of the doubt as they were forced to our side by the crushing bleakness of the Soviet machine. That helped us enormously in our 'long war' against the forces of Communism by glossing over our moral shortcomings. But our nation was also blessed with enlightened souls who took it upon themselves to strive for something better throughout it all.

That process is everything. American greatness - or better yet, America as a positive role model and influence in the world - to the extent we achieve this status, is not a birthright or a given. It doesn't come from geography, language or the colors of our flag. It is something that we have shown the ability to "do." As such, America will not be an exemplar if we assume that this ability exists whether our actions are right or wrong - or that otherwise morally reprehensible actions become purified when we engage in them.

Our ability to inspire, impress and endear is, and will always be, dependent on our living up to those values that others find...inspiring and endearing. When we adopt the tactics and moral compass of our enemies, we miss an enormous opportunity to seize the high ground - and push it higher. In the present context, these moral lapses are exacerbated by the absence of the Cold War paradigm and the slack that provided us.

State sponsored torture and abuse as implemented by the Bush administration is not a path to the moral high ground. Even the kind of torture and abuse that doesn't leave scars. The audience we're trying to impress will be able to tell the difference - and so will we. Yet while we are engaged in a battle against malignant and extremist ideologies - competing for hearts and minds - we cannot afford to alienate the citizens of the world by taking on the haughty air of entitlement, and the arrogant posture of a nation that believes that its moral superiority is some quality that exists regardless of its actions.

This chapter in our nation's history will leave a scar. It's time for our elected leaders to staunch the bleeding.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?