Torture Is Now Part of the American
by George Monbiot, The Guardian
You might have imagined that every possible
means of inflicting pain had already been devised. But never underestimate
the human capacity for invention. United States interrogators
have found a new way of destroying a human being.
After thousands of years of practice,
you might have imagined that every possible means of inflicting
pain had already been devised. But you should never underestimate
the human capacity for invention. United States interrogators,
we now discover, have found a new way of destroying a human being.
In early December, defense lawyers acting
for Jose Padilla, a US citizen detained as an "enemy combatant,"
released a video showing a mission fraught with deadly risk --
taking him to the prison dentist. A group of masked guards in
riot gear shackled his legs and hands, blindfolded him with black-out
goggles and shut off his hearing with headphones, then marched
him down the prison corridor.
Is Padilla really that dangerous? Far
from it: his warders describe him as so docile and inactive that
he could be mistaken for "a piece of furniture." The
purpose of these measures appeared to be to sustain the regime
under which he had lived for over three years: total sensory deprivation.
He had been kept in a blacked-out cell, unable to see or hear
anything beyond it. Most importantly, he had no human contact,
except for being bounced off the walls from time to time by his
interrogators. As a result, he appears to have lost his mind.
I don't mean this metaphorically. I mean that his mind is no longer
The forensic psychiatrist who examined
him says that he "does not appreciate the nature and consequences
of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance
to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of
a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated
by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."
Jose Padilla appears to have been lobotomised: not medically,
If this was an attempt to extract information,
it was ineffective: the authorities held him without charge for
three and half years. Then, threatened by a supreme court ruling,
they suddenly dropped their claims that he was trying to detonate
a dirty bomb. They have now charged him with some vague and lesser
offences to do with support for terrorism.
He is unlikely to be the only person subjected
to this regime. Another "enemy combatant," Ali al-Marri,
claims to have been subject to the same total isolation and sensory
deprivation, in the same naval prison in South Carolina. God knows
what is being done to people who have disappeared into the CIA's
That the US tortures, routinely and systematically,
while prosecuting its "war on terror" can no longer
be seriously disputed. The Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project
(DAA), a coalition of academics and human rights groups, has documented
the abuse or killing of 460 inmates of US military prisons in
Afghanistan, Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay. This, it says, is necessarily
a conservative figure: many cases will remain unrecorded. The
prisoners were beaten, raped, forced to abuse themselves, forced
to maintain "stress positions," and subjected to prolonged
sleep deprivation and mock executions.
The New York Times reports that prisoners
held by the US military at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were
made to stand for up to 13 days with their hands chained to the
ceiling, naked, hooded and unable to sleep. The Washington Post
alleges that prisoners at the same airbase were "commonly
blindfolded and thrown into walls, bound in painful positions,
subjected to loud noises and deprived of sleep" while kept,
like Jose Padilla and the arrivals at Guantanamo Bay, "in
black hoods or spray-painted goggles."
Alfred McCoy, professor of History at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argues that the photographs
released from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq reflect standard CIA
torture techniques: "stress positions, sensory deprivation,
and sexual humiliation." The famous picture of the hooded
man standing on a box, with wires attached to his fingers, shows
two of these techniques being used at once. Unable to see, he
has no idea how much time has passed or what might be coming next.
He stands in a classic stress position -- maintained for several
hours, it causes excruciating pain. He appears to have been told
that if he drops his arms he will be electrocuted. What went wrong
at Abu Ghraib is that someone took photos. Everything else was
done by the book.
Neither the military nor the civilian
authorities have broken much sweat in investigating these crimes.
A few very small fish have been imprisoned; a few others have
been fined or reduced in rank; in most cases the authorities have
either failed to investigate or failed to prosecute. The DAA points
out that no officer has yet been held to account for torture practised
by his subordinates. US torturers appear to enjoy impunity, until
they are stupid enough to take pictures of each other.
But Padilla's treatment also reflects
another glorious American tradition: solitary confinement. Some
25,000 US prisoners are currently held in isolation -- a punishment
only rarely used in other democracies. In some places, like the
federal prison in Florence, Colorado, they are kept in sound-proofed
cells and might scarcely see another human being for years on
end. They may touch or be touched by no one. Some people have
been kept in solitary confinement in the United States for more
than 20 years.
At Pelican Bay in California, where 1,200
people are held in the isolation wing, inmates are confined to
tiny cells for 22-and-a half hours a day, then released into an
"exercise yard" for "recreation." The yard
consists of a concrete well about 12 feet in length with walls
20 feet high and a metal grill across the sky. The recreation
consists of pacing back and forth, alone.
The results are much as you would expect.
As National Public Radio reveals, 10% of the isolation prisoners
at Pelican Bay are now in the psychiatric wing, and there's a
waiting list. Prisoners in solitary confinement, according to
Dr Henry Weinstein, a psychiatrist who studies them, suffer from
"memory loss to severe anxiety to hallucinations to delusions
... under the severest cases of sensory deprivation, people go
crazy." People who went in bad and dangerous come out mad
as well. The only two studies conducted so far -- in Texas and
Washington state -- both show that the recidivism rates for prisoners
held in solitary confinement are worse than for those who were
allowed to mix with other prisoners. If we were to judge the United
States by its penal policies, we would perceive a strange beast:
a Christian society that believes in neither forgiveness nor redemption.
From this delightful experiment, US interrogators
appear to have extracted a useful lesson: if you want to erase
a man's mind, deprive him of contact with the rest of the world.
This has nothing to do with obtaining information: torture of
all kinds -- physical or mental -- produces the result that people
will say anything to make it end. It is about power, and the thrilling
discovery that in the right conditions one man's power over another
is unlimited. It is an indulgence which turns its perpetrators
into everything they claim to be confronting.
President Bush maintains that he is fighting
a war against threats to the "values of civilized nations":
terror, cruelty, barbarism and extremism. He asked his nation's
interrogators to discover where these evils are hidden. They should
congratulate themselves. They appear to have succeeded.
George Monbiot is the author of 'Poisoned
Arrows' and 'No Man's Land' (Green Books). Read more of his writings
at Monbiot.com. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.