Culture > June 28, 2005

Torture Fatigue

By Silja J.A. Talvi

"The Christian in me says it's wrong," Army Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. said of torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "But the corrections officer in me says I love to make a grown man piss himself."

Photos taken of him demeaning captives at Abu Ghraib exposed Graner as the sadist that his surroundings allowed him to be. But are the differences between brutal correctional officers like Graner and other Americans as stark as we would like to think?

An acquaintance of mine recently admitted how much he enjoyed watching the torture scenes in the new blockbuster, Sin City. "I know it's strange," he said, "but there's something I get out of seeing torture and violence like that on the screen. It's like it's some kind of release."

He is not alone. Slate's David Edelstein enthused that the film boasted "the most relentless display of torture and sadism I've encountered in a mainstream movie. My reaction to Sin City is easily stated. I loved it. Or, to put it another way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it. ... It seems pointless to tut-tut over the depravity. Sin City is like a must-have coffee-table book for your interior torture chamber."

That interior torture chamber is more visible in popular culture than ever before. One of the nation's most popular network television shows, "24," opened its season finale with an over-the-top torture scene of a man, forcibly strapped down to a chair, being shocked repeatedly with volts of electricity, screaming and crying out in sheer agony. The scene was so attention-grabbing that it ended up being featured as one of the week's top events on VH1's "Best Week Ever." Torture pops up everywhere these days, even on the latest T-Mobile commercial, which features a young, black man tied down to a chair, screaming in an interrogation-style room as he's tortured by having his phone bill run up. At the end of the commercial, a smiling Catherine Zeta-Jones delivers her pitch as he stumbles around the store, still bound to the chair.

What accounts for the prevalence and popularity of these scenes of torture and misery? Could these media images be serving as a form of misplaced cathartic release to ease our social conscience, a bizarre way of processing and desensitizing ourselves to real life torture?

Consider that only one-third of Americans questioned in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last May defined what happened at Abu Ghraib as "torture." Half of those polled believed that such acts of brutality were taking place as a matter of policy in the "war on terrorism."

Our legislators are no better in this regard. With the notable exception of individuals like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), congressional vows to find out who was responsible for the Abu Ghraib scandal ebbed after the prosecution of a few low-level ranking officers, a few fines and the issuance of a single demotion.

In an exhaustive May 2005 Amnesty International report, "Guantánamo and beyond: the continuing pursuit of unchecked executive power," the running count of detentions in the global war on terror stands, at least, at 70,000 people, including the known deaths of 27 individuals in U.S. custody since 2002. To take but one example, consider this June 2004 account of Martin Mubanga, a British citizen who was kidnapped by U.S. Forces in Zambia and eventually brought to Guantánamo:

I needed the toilet and I asked the interrogator to let me go. But he just said "you'll go when I say so." I told him he had five minutes to get me to the toilet or I was going to go on the floor. He left the room. Finally, I squirmed across the floor and did it in the corner, trying to minimize the mess ... He comes back with a mop and dips it in the pool of urine. Then he starts covering me with my own waste, like he's using a big paint-brush, working methodically, beginning with my feet and ankles, and working his way up my legs. All the while, he's racially abusing me, cussing me: "Oh, the poor little negro, the poor little ####." He seemed to think it was funny.

What such systemic brutality means, on some level, is that Americans bear collective responsibility for the damage our government has done. That's not an easy thing to contemplate. But the public won't find any such admission represented on the pages of our commercial newspapers and magazines. Instead we see outrage and compassion about things that we're not responsible for, the deaths of Terri Schiavo and the Pope, for instance, or the toll of the tsunami.

At the recent National Conference for Media Reform, author Naomi Klein spoke of these media-managed, "ritualized, collective mourning moments" that serve as "compassion release valves."

"We have moments where all that pent up compassion is allowed to release, and you are allowed to care [and have] spasms of outrage and compassion," Klein said.

Such large-scale, media-frenzied, compassion-release-valve mechanisms are important, she added, because "the feeling of being outraged alone is the feeling of being crazy."

Could it be that Americans are subconsciously trying to stay sane by desensitizing themselves and finding cathartic release in endless media depictions of torture and brutality? The U.S. military death toll now nears 2,000 men and women, in addition to the countless thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis who have died. Who among us truly wants to face the emotional impact of what we've done?

I asked clinical psychologist Bruce Levine, the author of Commonsense Rebellion, what he thought of all of this. "When you become disconnected from your own alienation [from society], you become cut off from your humanity," he told me. "You become numb to all kinds of atrocities."

A crucial mechanism of that numbing process where real-life torture is concerned seems to revolve around the ability to release primal reactions (terror, fear and outrage, for instance) in both a socially condoned and politically non-threatening way. Gorging on the barrage of fictionalized torture imagery has become the easiest and most accessible way for American citizens to do this with the least possible discomfort. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the writers and producers of torture-saturated media play a crucial role in this process, feeding and fueling this perverse and deeply rooted pathology.

These media-produced, sanitized bloodsports have become a thick bandage affixed over the deep and ugly gash of human suffering and cruelty. But that bandage can only stay in place for so long before it begins to rot away.

Real healing and emotional catharsis would actually require genuine discomfort, discourse and reparation. It would necessitate an admission of our collective culpability for the emotional and physical damage inflicted by our government, whether on the streets of Baghdad, or in the interrogation rooms of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

Without such reflection, we're headed for our own true-to-life Sin City, a veritable carnival of bloodsport, torture and misery for all.

Reader Comments

My feeling is that sadists are often attracted to power and positions of authority and many people who start off sane and compassionate become power-drunk after holding onto that power. 

“Could these media images be serving as a form of misplaced cathartic release to ease our social conscience, a bizarre way of processing and desensitizing ourselves to real life torture?”

Maybe.  Maybe those folks attracted to perverse entertainment are already desensitized.  Are these type of images more prevalent or are we more conscious of the reality of torture these days? 

I think that torturers can inflict pain because they are numb to their own feelings.

Our own gov’t is surely powerdrunk when they use torture for military gain, in secretive settings, and with no accountability for abuse.  It is an outrage that torture is even considered useful!

Posted by pick of the litter on June 28, 2005 at 8:57 AM

“The Christian in me says it’s wrong,” Army Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. said of torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. “But the corrections officer in me says I love to make a grown man piss himself.”

The implicatin being that, but for his christianness, he would just be a torturer.  Somehow, I think most people would say it’s wrong without having to use their religion as a crutch to explain it.  In fact, I think most people would think it’s despicable, independent of any religious beliefs.

Posted by Lefty on June 28, 2005 at 9:26 AM

I think in some ways we’re desentized to it--such as in our entertainment.  Remember when Lucy & Ricardo had to sleep in different beds? Gradually we became desentized to these things.  Less is no longer more and more is no longer enough.

However, when I think back to the witch hunts and the tortures that were performed on those accused of being witches, I have to wonder if this is a matter of simple desensitization.  In some ways the fear of terrorism is akin to the fear of witchcraft: you don’t know who is a witch, no one admits to it, you don’t know where it will strike.  Granted, witchcraft was a fallacy and terrorism is not, but the fears are similar. 

Because of the unpredicatability of where terrorism will strike, and the feeling that you are safe nowhere, and that your neighbor could be a terrorist, and the helplessness that results, I think torture may be a release, an illusion we create to think we are doing something, to think we are defending ourselves, to think we are beating the enemy.

Posted by Carolyn on June 28, 2005 at 9:43 AM

If authority has not supervision, it has been shown that normal people find their darker side.


“In 1971, a team of psychologists designed and executed an unusual experiment that used a mock prison setting, with college students role-playing prisoners and guards to test the power of the social situation to determine behavior. The research, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, has become a classic demonstration of situational power to influence individual attitudes, values and behavior. So extreme, swift and unexpected were the transformations of character in many of the participants that this study—planned to last two-weeks—had to be terminated by the sixth day.”

“ The major results of the study can be summarized as: many of the normal, healthy mock prisoners suffered such intense emotional stress reactions that they had to be released in a matter of days; most of the other prisoners acted like zombies totally obeying the demeaning orders of the guards; the distress of the prisoners was caused by their sense of powerlessness induced by the guards who began acting in cruel, dehumanizing and even sadistic ways. The study was terminated prematurely because it was getting out of control in the extent of degrading actions being perpetrated by the guards against the prisoners - all of whom had been normal, healthy, ordinary young college students less than a week before.”

I remember this back in 1971 when it was reported. I have only seen one reference to it in the news, and that on the internet, since the torture scandals of Guantanamo and Iraq began. And this experiment was performed without the pressure for results that were on the guards in Iraq. It is not hard to imagine how that amplifies it.  This experiment is very well known within the field of psychology and prisons. The guilt is on the ones who do not supervise and control the guards.

Posted by brock on June 28, 2005 at 9:56 AM

We have reached 150 signatures on the Petition to support Sen. Durbin’s statement on the torture at Guantanamo Bay. But we need more before I can send it to Sen. Frist, the Majority Leader in the Senate. Please forward to everyone and post where ever appropriate.

This is a defining moment in our current events. How are we as citizens responding to torture being done in our names and with our tax money? What will the people of the future say about the average American citizen of our day if we let these crimes against humanity go on.

Even if you believe that all those being held in Guantanamo are guity of terrorist activities, even though there have never been charges brought against them nor a trial to determine guilt or innocence, you cannot deny them the rights that we as a nation signed onto, whether through the Geneva Convention, the Declaration of Human Rights or the international war crimes tribunals calling for the end to crimes against humanity. Perhaps you believe that those being held at Guantanamo Bay have no rights. Is that really what we have decended to in the name of security?

Are we a nation of vengence or a nation of laws?

As a resident of Illinios, a citizen of the U.S. and a member of Humanity, I support the statement made by Sen. Richard Durbin (D. IL) on the senate floor concerning prisoner abuse at Guantanamo bay.

His words are being twisted by some in the media and on the other side of the aisle in the Senate. I urge you to please read his words for yourself at the link below and then if you agree with them please sign the petition at the other link that shows your support.

Senator Durbin has always shown his support for the U.S. troops through his word and deeds, but now some want to portray him as a traitor and supporter of terrorists. Take the time to show those in the Senate majority that Senator Durbin represents the views of the majority of the people.

Posted by greg on June 28, 2005 at 10:13 AM

To connect the fiction of a graphic novel to the reality of war is so very silly. It’s a MOVIE. People enjoy Sin City because it’s a well-made film, adapted from a very entertaining piece of literature, much like A Clockwork Orange. If I like Burgess’ book, does that mean I want to rape and torture? try reality sometime, people.

Posted by Frank Zito on June 28, 2005 at 10:23 AM

We all internalize our early lives and often replay those events later. Parents beat their kids, kids grow up and beat anyone who will permit it. The connection is invisible to the ones doing the beating but it is still real. The, often times discovered, history of felons reveals this and often is present in the history of the jailers as well. Do the math, if you connect with force and pain that deeply you have to, as a society, secure the situation in prisons precisely because of this possiblity. The surprise is not that the torture happens but that it doesn’t happen more. People are more likely to be mean and hurtful, that’s why we have laws.

Posted by Adrian on June 28, 2005 at 10:55 AM

This article is really hard to take seriously.  It throws the word “torture” around freely, but never defines it or cites an example.  There have been abuses of course, but does anyone think that any of the corroborated mistreatment qualifies as torture?  Get real.  Then the article refers to one detainee getting mopped with piss as “systematic brutality.” Sure, it’s humiliating, twisted, and inexcusable, but there’s no indication that it’s systematic.  Is there a standard practice of mopping prisoners with their own piss?  For all the article provides it’s only happened once.  Even classifying it as brutality is far-fetched.  And how do we know Mubanga’s telling the truth anyway?  If anyone really thinks the U.S. is torturing prisoners, please make the case.  Until then please spare me the hand-wringing.

Posted by Ted on June 28, 2005 at 4:28 PM

Terrorism, religion, witches are all inventions that separate us from our humanity and spirituality, and those who know how to manipulate it are clever indeed. How do we all wake up to our divinity and leave the funky fascination behind?

Posted by Fred Brewster on June 28, 2005 at 5:12 PM

I think you are missing something here with respect. True, it is ‘only a film’ and books are just books, but how we approach the experience of reading or experiencing the visual images and the narrative, is not a question of what is before us, it is finally a question of where we put ourselves in relation to the author and the narrrative generated by their work.

I cannot imagine ‘enjoying’ watching a human being suffer, in the way I might ‘enjoy’ eating an apple for example, or enjoying a piece of music. I might ‘enjoy’ the craft of the author or filmmaker, and admire the way s/he has presented the experience of the thing, but to say I ‘enjoyed’ the experience of watching/feeling suffering, is to say nothing of the craft of the film maker or author, but it says plenty about the person who reports this enjoyment. Things are never ‘just’ something. They are always about something, and a lot else besides. What this is all about IMHO, is the final tabooo being broken in this disgusting culture. Soon, we will read about how torture in the name of our values, is perfectly OK, because it demonstrates how serious we are about defending ourselves against those who might torture us. Or are we there already?

Posted by Jane Doe on June 28, 2005 at 6:34 PM


USA Reported to Have Confirmed Torture
Le Nouvel Observateur

Sunday 26 June 2005

According to a UN official, the United States has acknowledged cases of torture inflicted on prisoners in Afghanistan, in Iraq and at Guantánamo.
The United States has acknowledged to the UN that there are cases of torture inflicted on prisoners in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as on the American base at Guantánamo, a member of the UN’s Committee against Torture pronounced Friday, June 24.

According to this official - who wished to remain anonymous - in a report handed over to the Committee, Washington acknowledged that the abusive treatment inflicted on prisoners at the hands of American forces could be considered torture in the sense of the International Convention against Torture.

The United States’ Mission to the United Nations in Geneva could not be reached Friday evening to comment on this information.

Up until now, the United States has always maintained that the abusive treatment inflicted on prisoners at the hands of its Armed Forces could not be considered torture under American law.

“Handing Over an Account”

“They’re not dodging their responsibilities any more and have taken on their obligation to inform the UN,” this official reported. “Now they’re going to have to hand over an account (to the Committee). Nothing should remain in the dark.”

The United States, which answered all the Committee’s questions in its report, should have to appear next May before this UN agency that will analyze the conclusions Washington has handed over.

“They haven’t avoided a single point in answering questions, whether about prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, or at Guantánamo, as well as about other accusations of abusive treatment and torture,” the same source added. “They said that it was a matter of isolated cases, that there was nothing systematic and that the guilty parties were now in the process of being punished.”

The report specifies that the acts in question were committed by subordinate officials and were not approved by the hierarchy, according to the same source.

In the case of Guantánamo, where 520 prisoners are detained - most of them arrested in 2001 in Afghanistan - the report explains that at issue are “enemy combatants” who cannot enjoy Geneva Convention protections as long as the “war on terrorism” is going on.

Thursday, four Human Rights experts from the United Nations decided to open an inquiry into the detainees on the American base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba without waiting for an ultimate green light from the US - slow in coming - for an eventual visit there.

The experts, Leandro Despouy (independence of judges and defense attorneys), Paul Hunt (right to health) and Manfred Nowak (torture) as well as the president of the work group on arbitrary detention, Leila Zerrougui, deplored that the American government had still not invited them to visit the detainees at Guantánamo, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, a year after they had made their initial request.

------------------------------------------------------------ ---------------------
Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

Posted by pick of the litter on June 28, 2005 at 7:08 PM

I also want to thank the poster for the link to this petition:

“Support For Floor Statement by Senator Richard Durbin On Guantanamo Bay
There are those who want to twist Senator Durbin’s words. Please read the words for yourself and then please show your support for the ending of the cruel and unusual punishment being handed out in the name of the American People.

“I hope we will learn from history. I hope we will change course.
The President could declare the United States will apply the Geneva Conventions to the
war on terrorism. He could declare, as he should, that the United States will not, under any circumstances, subject any detainee to torture, or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The administration could give all detainees a meaningful opportunity to challenge their detention before a neutral decision maker. Such a change of course would dramatically improve our image and it would make us safer. I hope this administration will choose that course. If they do not, Congress must step in.
The issue debated in the press today misses the point. The issue is not about closing
Guantanamo Bay. It is not a question of the address of these prisoners. It is a question of how we treat these prisoners. To close down Guantanamo and ship these prisoners off to undisclosed locations in other countries, beyond the reach of publicity, beyond the reach of any surveillance, is to give up on the most basic and fundamental commitment to justice and fairness, a commitment we made when we signed the Geneva Convention and said the United States accepts it as the law of the land, a commitment which we have made over and over again when it comes to the issue of
torture. To criticize the rest of the world for using torture and to turn a blind eye to what we are doing in this war is wrong, and it is not American.” - Sen. Richard Durbin (D. IL)”

I also think that the post above by Brock about the experiments are very revealing of human frailty.

Posted by pick of the litter on June 28, 2005 at 7:20 PM

‘ The U.S. military death toll now nears 2,000 men and women, in addition to the countless thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis who have died. Who among us truly wants to face the emotional impact of what we’ve done? ‘

No one does.

The present American regime, claiming that the world had changed on 9/11, consciously threw legality, morality and civilized behavior out the window; but only for “a little while”. The implicit promise was that after we did “the dirty work” we would return to the city of light on the hill.

Well, as it always does, the “brief interlude” of lawlessness and immorality and bestial behavior has stretched out. We now watch as our brutal occupation of Iraq unfolds daily in slow motion. We are caught in the spotlight for all the world, worse for ourselves to see, the authors of behavior we all profess to abhor. We used to attribute behavior to “terrorists” to our antithetic enemies. We have become our nemisis.

And this is what fuels our denial and our subsequent deathly embrace of present bad behavior.

If we don’t stop now, if we don’t admit that we’ve taken a wrong turn and strive to right ourselves, it will only get worse and worse from here on out.

Stand up to “our” barbarous regime. Remind them that they have beome liars, murderers, war criminals. That by their actions they have made of us liars, murderers and war criminals. Tell them that we will not stand for it anymore.

Posted by John Francis Lee on June 28, 2005 at 9:32 PM

There have been abuses, of course?  Ted, my man, there have been inexcusable applications of cruelty and quite a number of brutal deaths of individuals in our custody.  Does cavalierly conceding that there have been abuses, (of course) somehow redeem us?

As a veteran, I am puzzled by the statement and offended at the notion that some number of sadistic and even macabre events are within the threshold of decency so long as the percentage is low enough.

It is important to remember at every moment that the moral high ground is some pretty exclusive real-estate.  Every time I hear another person rationalize our acts of inhumanity either because we investigate them (to some extent) or because they feel that the acts are justified, or because the numbers are lower than the number of people tortured and murdered under different regimes, I am reminded that these people are conservatives… just they other day, they were trying to tell me that moral relativism was wrong.

Torture is what people do when they hate.  Hate is the stock and trade of our regime.  They need us to want to kill “them” so we can look at our tv sets and feel ok.  They aren’t like us, they say.  They don’t value life the way we do, they say… sound familiar?

Posted by GrayArea on June 28, 2005 at 11:32 PM

Unfortunately, The US, Australia, Israel amongst other nations have shown that they are no better than NAZI Germany, Stalinist Russia or Mauist China and the leaders of these Nations should be tried as War Criminals. Until they receive their just deserts, animalistic minds will predominate in the Military and Security organisations of these countries who are imitating the so called leaders who pretend they are Christians.

Posted by A.D.Stewart on June 29, 2005 at 12:44 AM

Ted Said:

“There have been abuses of course, but does anyone think that any of the corroborated mistreatment qualifies as torture?  Get real.”

Hey Ted, when a prisoner in custody dies from “abuses” would that qualify as torture?  Or is it just murder?

Posted by Lefty on June 29, 2005 at 7:42 AM

GrayArea: I agree with you that the abuses that have occurred are inexcusable.  The problem is they’re also inevitable.  Anytime some people have that much authority over others there are going to be a few sickos who abuse that power.  It’s happened in every war and every prison in the world.  We should do more to prevent it, but it’s going to happen. 

A.D. Stewart:  the U.S., Australia, and Israel are better than Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China.  That’s not even debatable.  Please stop embarassing yourself.

Lefty: people die in prison all the time.  I don’t know if you’ve heard, but prisons tend to be dangerous places.  Prisoners are killed in probably every state and federal prison in the country.  Does that mean they all practice torture?

Posted by Ted on June 29, 2005 at 8:02 AM

Inevitable huh?  I would suppose that this inevitability would normally be mitigated by the *NON* inevitability of starting this particular war.

The rationale for war has changed to suit our needs, but the fact remains that we are now torturing Iraqis.  In the past couple of years, Iraqi’s have been dying at a pace far greater than that of Saddam’s regime.  We kill to protect the viability of a regime that we expect to be friendly with us.  Before that, Saddam killed to protect the viability of his own regime.  How exactly are we better?

The irony is that we believe our way is better than Saddam’s because we don’t believe in killing people or jailing them en masse without charges or torturing people who we think might threaten our way of life.

Posted by GrayArea on June 29, 2005 at 12:21 PM

Most people think that sadists enjoy hurting others. Actually the real enjoyment comes from having the POWER to inflict the damage. This kind of power masks an underlying feeling of helplessness and emotional impotence. The sadist attempts to cure his own powerlessness by torturiung.

In this age social alienation is not an aberrant condition, but one experienced by more than a small majority of Americans. Add to this 9/11 and the feelings of powerlessness are multilpied. No wonder scenes of this type of agression are so prevelant in the movies, the producers and directors also feeling this helplessness especially regarding terrorism. I am reminded of the Schwarzenegger films where all manner of terrible things are done, in some casses to terrorists. Although I disliked the films I admit to feeling a kind of satisfaction at the often gross maiming of the “bad guys”.

Posted by Alan Jacobs on June 29, 2005 at 12:42 PM

GrayArea, I’m not going to get into a debate about the war in Iraq.  Most of the GTMO detainees were picked up in Afghanistan, anyway. 

What I take issue with is the charge that the United States has a policy of torturing detainees and prisoners of war.  I just read the allegations in Amnesty International’s report, “Guantánamo and beyond: the continuing pursuit of unchecked executive power” and Amnesty’s case is not a strong one.  The vast majority of the allegations are uncorroborated accusations from former detainees.  The report repeats their claims of torture (both what they experienced and what they “heard about”) like it’s the gospel, but what makes their allegations reliable?  We know that al Qaeda operatives are taught to lie about having been tortured.  We know that, after being picked up and thrown in some hellhole prison camp, these people probably have a bone to pick with the U.S. government.  Why wouldn’t they lie about their treatment if they know it’s going to cause a headache for their former captors?  If you can name one reason to believe these accounts I’m all ears.

Next, Amnesty lists some interrogation and detention practices that have either been confirmed by the government or supported by sources other than former detainees.  These practices include sleep deprivation, exposure to cold air conditioners, being “threatened” by dogs, uncomfortable positions, and having to listen to loud music.  Calling this kind of treatment “torture” is ridiculous, but I don’t expect much from Amnesty Internation or In These Times so I’m not surprised.  Do you really think this make the United States the moral equal of Nazi Germany, A.D. Stewart?  Find another cause to cry over, please.  These killers are getting better treatment than they deserve.

Posted by Ted on June 29, 2005 at 3:44 PM

What I want to know is how can the media deal with horrendous issues like U.S.-approved and perpetrated torture when it still covers its ears and ours when words like “fuck” or “n igger” come into play? (I had to misspell the word to overcome this site’s censor.) If our media isn’t adult enough for adult language, how can it be mature enough to deal with topics such as this one?

-- Dave

Posted by David P. Adalian, Jr. on June 29, 2005 at 5:25 PM

from :

Top five Gitmo falsehoods
In recent weeks, the debate over the Pentagon detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has garnered increased coverage on cable and network news programs. But as Media Matters for America documents below, conservative media figures have often attempted to downplay the severity of the alleged abuses at Guantánamo, dismiss every detainee as a terrorist unprotected by international law, and distort criticism of the Bush administration’s detention policy.

Falsehood #1: Abuse at Guantánamo is “minor,” allegations are based on “rumor”

Conservative commentators have repeatedly attempted to dismiss the alleged detainee abuse at Guantánamo as unsubstantiated or harmless. But these claims ignore firsthand accounts by FBI agents and human rights monitors that paint a much grimmer picture of detainee treatment at Guantánamo.

In a series of emails and letters, which the American Civil Liberties Union first obtained in December 2004 through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, FBI agents described graphic instances of abuse by interrogators at Guantánamo that the agents personally witnessed. In one email, an FBI agent described the interrogation methods employed by Department of Defense officials as “torture techniques.” An email by deputy assistant FBI director for counterterrorism T.J. Harrington detailed several agents’ accounts of abusive treatment, including one in which a female sergeant “grabbed detainee’s thumbs and bent them backwards and indicated that she also grabbed his genitals.” Worse, the sergeant warned that past interrogations had left other “detainees curling into a fetal position on the floor and crying in pain.” Harrington also included an account of a detainee being “subjected to intense isolation for longer than three months ... in a cell that was always flooded with light,” which led to him showing signs of “extreme psychological trauma (talking to non existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).’ “ A third FBI document described a detainee “chained hand and foot to the floor” and subjected to food deprivation and temperature extremes. “The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him,” the FBI agent wrote. “He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out throughout the night.”

Further, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has described prisoner abuse at Guantánamo. The New York Times, which first obtained a memo that summarizes the confidential report of the ICRC, reported that the Red Cross delegation cited the use of “temperature extremes, persistent noise, and ‘some beatings.’ “

Copyright © 2004-2005 Media Matters for America. All rights reserved.

(cont. next post)

Posted by pick of the litter on June 29, 2005 at 6:29 PM

Falsehood #2: All Guantánamo detainees are confirmed terrorists

Numerous media figures have stated or suggested that the prisoners held at Guantánamo are all terrorists. On the June 21, 2004, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly stated, “From what I understand, they had—they took most of [the Guantánamo detainees], like 95 percent of them, off the battlefield, number one. So what the heck were they doing there?”

More recently, Fox host John Gibson asserted that “We have 520 terrorists where we want them, with our boot on their neck.” [Fox News’ The Big Story with John Gibson, 6/15/05]

But the Pentagon’s decision to release numerous Guantánamo detainees suggests that many were not terrorists. In a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Matthew Waxman reportedly wrote that, as of April 2005, “167 [Guantánamo] prisoners had been released and 67 had been transferred to the custody of other countries.” The 167 detainees released were presumably found not to be terrorists, as in the cases of Abdul Rahim and Mamdouh Habib. Both men were captured in Pakistan following September 11, 2001. The U.S. later transferred them to Guantánamo, where they remained for more than two years, accused—but never charged—of involvement in terrorist activities. In 2005, the United States released them without charge.

Falsehood #3: The Geneva Conventions apply only to prisoners of war

Numerous media figures have defended the harsh treatment of Guantánamo detainees by claiming that the Geneva Conventions apply exclusively to prisoners of war (POWs). Though many legal scholars agree that Al Qaeda detainees are not entitled to POW status under the Third Geneva Convention, which details protections specifically for POWs, the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV) grants different protections to non-POWs.

But the U.S. Army’s own field manual states that GCIV protects “all persons who have engaged in hostile or belligerent conduct but who are not entitled to treatment as prisoners of war.”

Even the White House has acknowledged that the Geneva Conventions grant protections to some detainees who are not POWs. On May 7, 2003, the White House announced that President Bush had revised his earlier determination and decided that the conventions would apply to the suspected Taliban (but not Al Qaeda) detainees held at Guantánamo even though they are not POWs. Then-press secretary Ari Fleischer explained:

FLEISCHER: Although the United States does not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate Afghani government, the President determined that the Taliban members are covered under the treaty because Afghanistan is a party to the Convention. Under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, however, Taliban detainees are not entitled to POW status.

Copyright © 2004-2005 Media Matters for America. All rights reserved.

Posted by pick of the litter on June 29, 2005 at 6:31 PM

Falsehood #4: Enemy combatants do not qualify for protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention

Some conservatives have disputed whether the Guantánamo detainees even qualify for protections under GCIV. Their common argument is that GCIV applies specifically to civilians, thereby excluding so-called “illegal enemy combatants.”

Again, the Army’s field manual recognizes GCIV protections for non-POWs “engaged in hostile or belligerent conduct.”

Further, the ICRC—the organization that pioneered the concept of international humanitarian law and has monitored compliance with the Geneva Conventions for more than 140 years—concluded in a 2003 legal analysis that “unlawful combatants” are entitled to protections under GCIV, citing its 1958 analysis of GCIV, which stated:

Every person in enemy hands must have some status under international law: he is either a prisoner of war and, as such, covered by the Third Convention, a civilian covered by the Fourth Convention, [or] a member of the medical personnel of the armed forces who is covered by the First Convention. There is no intermediate status; nobody in enemy hands can fall outside the law. (Commentary: IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva, 1958)

Falsehood #5: Detainees captured on the “battlefield” are not criminal defendants, so they have no right to petition U.S. courts

A June 22 Washington Times editorial warned, “If the critics are right, and detained terrorists have an inalienable right to access U.S. courts, then they have created a new standard—one which has no precedent in the Geneva Conventions, the Constitution or U.S. history.”

But it is not merely “critics” who have taken the position that the detainees “have access to U.S. courts”; the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detentions in federal court. In Rasul v. Bush, the high court ruled that the “United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay.”

Conservatives also have attempted to paint opponents of the Bush administration’s detention policy as advocates of granting detainees the full due process rights that U.S. citizens enjoy. The Times, for example, referred to “the current effort to treat Guantanamo detainees like American criminals, with full access to our courts.” In fact, while “critics” have frequently argued that detainees must have some legal recourse to challenge their detention, Media Matters for America found no instances of human rights groups or elected officials arguing that the detainees have the same constitutional rights as U.S. citizens or that they deserve the same treatment as “American criminals.”

— J.K. & G.W.

Posted to the web on Thursday June 23, 2005 at 4:45 PM EST

Copyright © 2004-2005 Media Matters for America. All rights reserved.

Posted by pick of the litter on June 29, 2005 at 6:32 PM

This was a great post on that comment thread:


“But God above, our country is built on such beautiful dreams . . .

And no, that’s not sarcasm. Humans are idea creatures. Myth, poetry, even a few good words have a power very like magic. And the United States was brought into existence with some very mythic words, powerful phrases like, “All men are created equal,” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Not just citizens. Not just people who speak our language, or live in our land. The Declaration was an incredible and glorious piece of hubris; it presumed to speak for all humans everywhere and lay down exactly what we’re entitled to. We said, “We’re going to shoot for perfection. Don’t tell us that it can’t be done, that there is no City on the Hill and never will be; we know that, and we’re going to build it anyway. Don’t tell us that peasants and colonies and other underdogs have to accept their lot in life; we know that, and we’re going to defy you anyway. Don’t tell us that an army of backwoods hicks can’t take on one of the world’s superpowers, the British Empire; we know that, and we’re going to win anyway.”

We did that last one, and became a modern myth.

And make no mistake, that myth has continued to make things happen, for good or for ill. It is no coincidence that our greatest cultural weaknesses include arrogance, greed, and aggressiveness. How could it be otherwise? We began, after all, by having the chutzpah to defy our king. We began by listing all the good things we deserve, not because we’re noble or especially worthy, but because we’re human. We began in anger, in defiance, in disobedience. We are drawing on our own myth.

But remember also: a preacher named Reverend King drew on our myth and did battle with the equally abiding myths of race: good race, bad race, seperate races. He--we--won that battle, even if the war is still going on. We won against McCarthy, and Nixon.

I think that the world has respected us before, and hopefully will again, not because we are the City on the Hill, but because we believe in it. You can respect a man who takes on the world’s monsters without fear, even as you wince and pray, “Dear Lord, not another bloody windmill . . .” You can respect a nation that, despite all its failings, declares every day that maybe this morning, we’ll finally manage to create liberty and justice for all.

I think that, in the end, is why I am so sickened by the cruelty of Guatanemo. The Nazis were worse, yes. Stalin was worse. The Taliban was worse. But we dreamed of being better, and I don’t want that dream to die. “

by irene - Saturday June 25, 2005 02:40:22 AM EST

Posted by pick of the litter on June 29, 2005 at 6:37 PM

Wrong again, Ted. I don’t equate U.S.-sponsored torture with the Nazi Holocaust.  The American torture campaign is far worse in one important way: it actually happened.

Posted by A.D.Stewart on June 30, 2005 at 8:21 AM

Wat to go A.D. Stewart!  Way to derail a good thread.  Get back under your rock!

Posted by pick of the litter on June 30, 2005 at 9:53 AM

This is a good article.

Torture and Accountability
By Elizabeth Holtzman
The Nation

18 July 2005 issue

last paragraph:

“ In the final analysis, there is no sure way to compel the government to investigate itself or to hold high-level government officials accountable under applicable criminal statutes. But if the public does not seek to have it happen, it will not happen. Those in the public who care deeply about the rule of law and government accountability must keep this issue alive. Failure to investigate wrongdoing in high places and tolerating misconduct or criminality can have only the most corroding impact on our democracy and the rule of law that sustains us.”

Posted by pick of the litter on June 30, 2005 at 10:14 AM

Ted said:

“Lefty: people die in prison all the time.  I don’t know if you’ve heard, but prisons tend to be dangerous places.  Prisoners are killed in probably every state and federal prison in the country.  Does that mean they all practice torture?”

That begs the question, Ted.  We’re not talking about dying in prison from old age.  If a prisoner dies from the abuses purposely imposed upon him, is that torture or murder?  Or is either that ok with you?  Would it be ok with you, if the same happened to you?  How about if it happened to your child, wife, mother, father?  You would cavalierly say, “oh well, prisoners are killed in probably every state and federal prison . . . nothing new here.”

Posted by Lefty on July 2, 2005 at 12:29 PM

Lefty, if a prisoner is intentionally killed by a guard (and not in self-defense or to prevent escape) then it’s murder.  If a prisoner dies as a result of coercive interrogation practices, I would think those practices would have to amount to torture.  The government should investigate and prosecute these crimes, which is exactly what it does.  Sure, it could provide more oversight to prevent these incidents before they happen, but the military already has its hands full with more important concerns than making sure captured combatants are safe.

“Would it be ok with you, if the same happened to you?”

No, it wouldn’t.  Call me a hypocrite but I care about myself more than I care about the killers rotting in prison camps.

Posted by Ted on July 6, 2005 at 9:50 AM

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