Torture: The Bureaucracy In Action

I will have a lot more to say about the torture memos later tonight. For now, though, I just want to echo this point by Andrew Sullivan, which is very, very important. He’s contrasting the Bradbury memos from 2005 to the Bybee memo from 2002:

“What is far more important and far graver is the decision after the 2004 re-election, after the original period of panic, to set up a torture program, replete with every professional and bureaucratic nicety. This is why the Bradbury memo of 2005 is so much more chilling in its way. This was long after Abu Ghraib, long after the initial panic, and a pre-meditated attempt to turn the US into a secret torture state. These legal memos construct a form of torture, through various classic torture techniques, used separately and in combination, that were to be used systematically, by a professional torture team along the lines proposed by Charles Krauthammer, and buttressed by a small army of lawyers, psychologists and doctors – especially doctors – to turn the US into a torture state. The legal limits were designed to maximize the torture while minimizing excessive physical damage, to take prisoners to the edge while making sure, by the use of medical professionals, that they did not die and would not have permanent injuries. (…)

This was done by the professional classes in this society. It was not done by Lynndie England or some night-shift sadists at Abu Ghraib. (…)

If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos. Read how gifted professionals in the CIA were able to convince experienced doctors that what they were doing was ethical and legal. Read how American psychologists were able to find justifications for the imposition of psychological torture, and were able to analyze its effects without ever stopping and asking: what on earth are we doing?

By the time the Bradbury memos were written, the bureaucracy had evidently swung into full gear behind the administration’s policies of torture. There are references to various background papers on the techniques used, guidelines (apparently quite elaborate) on their proper use, etc. There is a proliferation of detailed requirements — when administering an abdominal slap, “the interrogator must have no rings or other jewelry on his hand” (pp. 8-9), though oddly this prohibition is absent from the section on facial slaps. There are specific requirements about how cold the water with which a detainee is doused can be, in what ambient temperature, and for how long (it’s different for different water temperatures.)

Moreover, there seem to be a lot of people involved. Besides the interrogators, “medical and psychological personnel are on-scene throughout (and, as detailed below, physically present or otherwise observing during the application of many techniques, including all techniques involving physical contact with detainees)” (p. 7.) Batteries of physical and psychological exams are given. Elaborate interrogation plans are submitted for approval, and detailed records are kept.

Suppose, for instance, a detainee who has been deprived of sleep (but not for more than 180 hours!), and is now being subjected to “walling”, dousing with water, and nudity. There is a mass of detail about how this should be done: the water must be no colder than 41 degrees farenheit; when slamming the detainee into the wall, he will wear a collar to protect against whiplash; when the detainee is deprived of sleep by chaining his hands to the ceiling to prevent him from lying down, medical personnel shall check at all times to ensure that he is not developing edema in his feet; if he does, they will switch him to a special horizontal no-sleep position. And yet, somehow, the obvious question never arises, namely: what on earth are we doing repeatedly slamming this naked and sleep-deprived guy into a wall and then dousing him with cold water? How can this possibly be OK?

As Andrew says: this is how democracies die.

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