Euphemisms for Torture

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Mother Jones has just published an interesting interview with Torture and Truth author Mark Danner. The whole thing's worth reading, but here's one especially notable passage:

One of the virtues, if you can call it that, of the Abu Ghraib scandal is that we've been offered a window into the realm of government decision-making having to do with interrogation and torture. And so we enter this—one has to call it Orwellian, to use a much overused word—realm of euphemism in which keeping somebody awake for 72 hours, or making them stand on a box and telling them they'll be electrocuted if they move, or handcuffing them high up on a cell door so that they lose all feeling in their arms, are somehow "sleep adjustment." You have this panoply of euphemism in which procedures that are painful, psychologically damaging, and physically debilitating are described in ways that suggest they are not harmful and they're simply "enhanced interrogation techniques." Some of the news media have adopted these euphemisms and refuse to call things what they are. It's a general harshening of the public perception and the public sensitivity to what should be an appreciation for human rights.

NEXT: In Defense of — gasp — Rummy

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  1. Serious question:

    Can anybody point me to an authoritative source on the issue of whether or not torture, or “coercive interrogation”, or whatever term you prefer, actually leads to useful information?

    I suspect that even if (hypothetically) it can lead to useful information, there’s a big difference between a “coercive interrogation” conducted by an experienced, disciplined professional, versus a bunch of people who enjoy tormenting (or whatever term you prefer) inmates without a clear objective.

    (And yes, I know, some would argue that what happened in Abu Ghraib was “no big deal”. Fine. Whatever. Even if, for the sake of argument, the inmates didn’t suffer to an extent worth getting upset about, and even if, for the sake of argument, all of the inmates were in fact dangerous guys, that still doesn’t mean that it served any useful purpose. And if it really was “a bunch of bad apples” acting without the knowledge of superiors, at the very least it implies a serious lack of discipline and breakdown in communication between leaders and subordinates.)

  2. thoreau:

    My old man was trained in interrogation back in the early sixties by the gub-ment. I asked him a similar question following Abu Ghraib.

    His response was that torture, per se, does not produce reliable or truthful responses, and that most military and intelligence people know that.

    He thought that what probably happened in Iraq was not torture during the course of questioning, but rather torture during incarceration periods. According to him, the THREAT of torture, or any any mental duress, is a time-tested method of getting information out of people.

    He said that most military interrogators are trained to IMPLY threat without actually doing it. This implication of threat gets more and more effective over time, even if nothing actualy happens. Eventually people crack under the weight of their own fear rather than actual physical mistreatment.

    He went on however. Real gung ho types and headcases (like the VC or suicide bombers) don’t rattle that easily. That’ when various forms of inducement like diet changes or sleep deprivation might be used (he said the sleep deprivation thing was actually learned from Japanese interrogators, and that diet changes are a relatively new thing). Anyway, these kinds of treatments are administered, along with full on hell session interrogations (sans violence). Over time, the prisoner loses the ability to think clearly or rationally, and therefore his resistance crumbles.

    His best guess as to what’s going on in Iraq right now is that grossly untrained people are being used as handlers and to carry out the softening up process, while interrogators are looking for quick and easy results. Thus the idea that people can have something beaten out of them emerges.

  3. I don’t know of any authoritative report; I’m guessing it’s probably hard to get the grant money for that study.

    It does seem that a torturer, even in the tickin’ time-bomb scenario, has to make some pretty big assumptions though; he has to assume that the victim in question has useful information and that the information the victim divulges is accurate.

    If the victim divulges false information, do you keep torturing him until he gives you accurate information? What if he just doesn’t know anything? Do you keep torturing a victim who doesn’t know anything until he gives you accurate information?

  4. huskermet-

    It sounds like what you’re talking about is a long-term process whereby a disciplined person deliberately establishes a relationship with the subject, and any “unpleasantness” that the subject experiences is deliberately calculated to work away at his mind. It sounds more complex than just “Talk or Pfc. England will ram the glowstick up your ass again!”

  5. Can I just say that I’m turned on by the thought of having something rammed up my ass while a dog barks at me?

  6. If you remember a few months back, a lt.col. (name forgotten) got into trouble for threatening an iraqi prisoner with a gun. It turned out that the information he received was good and it saved men in his battalion. As mentioned above, the threat can and will jar information from many prisoners. What will always remain useless is the torture of prisoners out of blind hatred or personal satisfaction, nothing gained and only your humanity lost. It may seem a fine difference to some but is as different as recognizing that the death from the abortion of a baby to the death sentence received by a convicted killer are scarcely the same.

  7. A with the terms “Fascist” and “Genocide”, my personal opinion is that most of the actions described are “coercive” or “pressure” but not up to the standard of the emotionally-loaded word “torture”. …And I am not referencing “International Standards” but some common-sense examination of the word and the acts. To use a word incorrectly cheapens it, and robs it of it’s visceral-imprimatur, it’s terror.

    What happened at Abu Ghraib was stupid, ineffectual, unlawful and ungoverned….but “torture”? A “failure of leadership” is putting it mildly, and heads should roll both at the bottom and up the chain of command to Gen. Karpinski. But to use the same “word” that we describe the Gestapo interrogation rooms, the Gulags, and the Inquisition is damnable. Our self-appointed, inept amateurs barely scratched the surface.

    And it generally never works anyway, so why bother other than selfish puerile-pleasure?

  8. No one can or should defend the events at Abu Garib. At some point, however, enough has to be enough. What exactly do people want? The people involved in Abu Garhib are in the process of going to jail for their actions. If responsibility goes higher than is currently being prosecuted, then by all means every good citizens should be calling for all the guilty parties to be held accountable. Perhaps we should just order the ritual beheading on the floor of the House of everyone even remotely involved with it from Rumsfeld on down. Would that satisfy everyone? What is happening is that people are using Abu Garhib to discredit the entire war effort in Iraq and against terror in general. Yes, there may be a lot of valid reasons why we should or should not be in Iraq, but a bunch of perverts stacking naked guys at Abu Garhib is not one of them. Whatever actually happened at Abu Garhib has ceased to be relevent. Abu Garhib has instead become a brand name to be used by every Islamist sympathizer and libertartian crackpot to undermine whatever the objectionable policy de jour is.

  9. “If you remember a few months back, a lt.col. (name forgotten) got into trouble for threatening an iraqi prisoner with a gun. It turned out that the information he received was good and it saved men in his battalion.”

    This idea of “it can save lives” has been trotted out repeatedly as a justification for employing torture. The fatal flaw is that the justification can only be determined ex post. This leave the torturer to act on the assumption that he will indeed gain some information, and that this information will be truthful, relevant, actionable and timely. This string of assumptions is hardly an ex ante justification for violating an individual’s rights.

    So, IMO the solution is clear. If you’ve got a suspected terrorist who won’t tell you where the bomb is planted unless you torture or threaten him, then you’ve got a decision to make. You’re free to either play by the book and accept that people are going to die, or break the rules because you think it could save lives. If you choose the torture route, just accept that you’re going to be punished whether you avert the disaster or not, and then decide.

    The issue isn’t “Should I torture him in order to save some lives”… it should be, “Am I willing to spend a number of years in prison to save some lives.”

    Internalize the costs and people make better decisions.

  10. thoreau:

    that’s it, in nutshell (at least according to pops). Effective and reliable interrogation is a function of time. No one can hold out, given the interrogators have enough time to mentally work them over.

    Like I alluded to before, dear old dad’s assessment was that these dumb Iraqi bastards were victims of not having enough trained people on hand to handle them correctly. So when Pfc. England and others were told to soften them up, they didn’t get the differences in implying threat and monkey stacking people.

    This is just a symptom of the bigger problem of too few qualified people on the ground in Iraq to properly handle prisoners (let alone execute the war), and the overarching emphasis on extracting information quicly.

    I’m no shill for the Iraqis (before anyone accuses me of that). My opinion of A-G is that it constitutes ignorance and overzealousness more than torture. However, I do think that if we are going to wage an intelligence based war, we need to get the people there to do it properly.

  11. For information on “unsavory” topics, Loompanics is a superb resource. One of their publications, Physical Interrogation Techniques, quotes a US Army Field Manual:
    “The use of force is not to be confused with the application of psychological techniques to assist the interrogator in the successful interrogation of difficult subjects.”

    The author says that force only makes people more likely to say anything, not necessarily useful or truthful, to make the pain stop. Then the book details an array of things I hope never happen to me, or anyone.

    The first section is on humiliation, where knowledge of the subject’s mind-frame is important and information can be gained without force. Our Abu G guards may have been following procedure.

  12. “What is happening is that people are using Abu Garhib to discredit the entire war effort in Iraq and against terror in general.”

    I would only use Abu Ghraib (and the response to it, not to mention the article I mentioned before in salon: http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2004/12/08/coverup/index.html) to discredit the QUALITY of the minds behind the war effort. Just as the fact that senior members of the Bush administration lied to gain support for the war doesn’t mean the war shouldn’t have been fought, but rather the people who are guiding it shouldn’t be in a position to do so.

    As far as discrediting the “war on terror,” its very name does that for us.

  13. John,

    Have you taken a look at the Schlesinger report? It disavows its own findings–no access to MI–but blames Abu Gharib on Rumsfeld for changing the standard at Guantanamo to include interrogation techniques previously prohibited as tortuous. Rather than prosecuting up the chain of command, it looks like the Bush Administration tried to enshrine torture in policy; indeed, one of the architects of the Bush Administration’s torture policy is about to become our Attorney General.

    If I wasn’t thumbing this on my phone, I’d post links to both the Schlesinger Report and Gonzales’ Torture Memo right here. Check back tomorrow morning and I’ll post links to both of them in this thread.

    Anyway, that’s why I keep harping on it. That and this sick feeling I have that somewhere, someone is trying to justify torturing people on the false pretense that they’re doing it to protect me.

  14. The accounts of the Abu Ghraib scandal should give pause even to those who aren’t horrified by these un-American actions of our government. History is replete with examples of the same cruelties inflicted on foreign enemies later being visited upon domestic dissent.

  15. So when Pfc. England and others were told to soften them up, they didn’t get the differences in implying threat and monkey stacking people

    Is it possible that they may have actually made the interrogation harder? While much of the stuff was clearly beyond the pale (e.g. sodomy), other things (e.g. panties on the head) might have fallen short of the inmates’ worst fears and hence undermined the fear and anticipation that makes the “softening” so effective? Which is not to say that it’s excusable, but simply to say that it might have interfered with the carefully calibrated environment of anticipation that a good interrogator works to create.

  16. I have yet to see any smoking gun that anyone truely higher up condoned Abu Garhib. More imortantly, the things that happened there, while reprehensible are no worse than the things that happen any war and pretty tame if you know much about the conduct of warfare. During the winter of 1944, it was a well known practice for American paratroupers to take captured German soliders found wearing American jump boots, meaning they were stolen from a dead paratrouper, and make them walk around barefoot in the snow until they had frost bite so bad that their feet would have to be amputated. Prisoners were almost never taken in the Pacific theater. The few Japanese who tried to surrender were almost always shot on site. The point is that war is a nasty business and Americans are very good at it. The fact that it continues to be nasty should not be read to be a sign that this government is any better or worse than the ones in the past.

  17. Les,

    You are right, I stand corrected. Its not the war on terror, its the war on Islamic extremism. the war on terror is a euphemism to make the cultural relativists among us feel better that we are not actually blaming anyone or any idealogy no matter how sick and psychotic it may be.

  18. thoreau:

    That’s a good question and a logical assumption. I doubt seriously it greased the wheels any. But then again, maybe it did. Who knows? If my cellmate came back telling me how he’d just been sodomized, I’d go into my next interrogation session at a mental disadvantage. But that’s just me.

    My gut feeling, not knowing what went on, and from only a short discussion, is that possibly the “humiliation” wasn’t enough to push these guys to the degree or timetable desired. Maybe at that point the mouthbreathers like England decided to get more, er…persuasive.

    I don’t think the whole picture will ever become clear. It’s certainly understandable on some level that “Prison Guard Syndrome” might have taken over, or that they were poorly trained to handle prisoners, but I doubt very seriously that some kind of high level directive is going to surface (either because there wasn’t one, or because it has long since been destroyed).

    I think the best we can hope for at this point is to prosecute those we know about, and make sure this bullshit doesn’t occur again.

    Oh man…the more I think about it, the more I understand how my old man was constantly inside my head when I was 16. Spooky.

  19. The point is that war is a nasty business…

    Since that’s true, perhaps it’s time to develop and encourage less nasty ways to resolve international differences.

    …and Americans are very good at it.

    From what I can see of this undeclared war, very good indeed at the “nasty” bits, not so good at achieving the (theoretical) objectives.

  20. John,

    I despise Islamic fundamentalism and every other type of religious fundamentalism. You would be mistaken if you think that the Koran contains more cruel and barbarous philosophies than the Bible. That’s not cultural relativism. It’s an objective fact. That Islamic fundamentalism produces more terrorists (presently) than other kinds doesn’t mean that most Islamic fundamentalists support terrorism.

    The problem with “The War on Terror” is that every war on a never-ending thing that our government has waged (The War on Poverty, The War on Crime, The War on Drugs, The War on Terror) has been a dismal failure precisely because they are engineered and managed by people who actually think you can wage a war on never-ending things. That much is a practical matter more than a moral one.

    Had we decided to wage a focused war on the people who attacked us instead of an age-old and barbaric tactic (which the U.S. has used intermittently and without remorse throughout its history), we might have been more successful than we have been in wiping out Al Qaeda.

  21. Or alternatively, les, how about dropping the war rhetoric entirely, and concentrate on bringing criminals to justice….

  22. What exactly do people want? The people involved in Abu Garhib are in the process of going to jail for their actions. If responsibility goes higher than is currently being prosecuted, then by all means every good citizens should be calling for all the guilty parties to be held accountable. Perhaps we should just order the ritual beheading on the floor of the House of everyone even remotely involved with it from Rumsfeld on down. Would that satisfy everyone?

    mr john, i’ll repeat my previously-stated view: what is far more reprehensible and telling than the actual events of “torture lite” in abu ghraib is the willingness — nay, eagerness of tens of millions of americans to forgive or even encourage it. so much for christian america.

    as an act of a military overstretched and commanded by a bizarre gang of ideological ruffians, it may not rise to genocide. however — even as we sit here and parse semantics — the inability of most folks to muster so much as a “that’s not right” is disquieting — and quite evidenciary of the moral deterioration of our unanchored culture. can we wonder why conservative cultures fear americanization?

    and that deterioration is why we’re right to worry, as mr barton notes

    History is replete with examples of the same cruelties inflicted on foreign enemies later being visited upon domestic dissent.

    indeed, even now the “legal” architect of the end of the geneva civility in america has been promoted to attorney general. woe to us.

  23. John wrote:

    Prisoners were almost never taken in the Pacific theater. The few Japanese who tried to surrender were almost always shot on site (sic).

    I’d be interested in a source for that. There are records of Japanese prisoners being taken by American forces and being treated fairly well, as in Barbed-Wire Surgeon by Alfred Weinstein. My understanding is that Japanese prisoners were almost never taken because

    A. the Japanese considered it shameful to surrender
    B. the Japanese were told by their command that the Americans tortured prisoners, possibly to death.

    Most Japanese prisoners were apparently taken when unconscious or too badly wounded to resist. All this is not to say that the American GI had any warm feelings for his Imperial Army counterpart. One of the last parts of Weinstein’s book includes a soldier suggesting that all the Japanese be castrated to prevent a recurrence of the war.

  24. There are good points to be made about euphamisms, but as with Abu Ghraib, there is a distinction between interrogation and torture, and we need to be careful that we don’t dilute the latter term to mean ‘anything unpleasant’.

    Scaring people with dogs is not torture. The Air Force’s Survival Evasion Rescue training requires our own soldiers to go through interrogation scenarios that include depriving them of protein (it makes you not think coherently, apparently), sleep deprivation, hoses, long periods of standing up, etc. We are not torturing our pilots.

  25. Scaring people with dogs is not torture.

    i would submit, mr ligon, that being confronted by my nice neighbor lady’s schnauzer on a short leash is not.

    but i would submit that being confronted by a ravenous german shepherd in an attack frenzy, whose leash is held by a man who moments before threatened to kill you with a dog — such that you are naked, screaming and pissing on the floor in front of a camera — well, sir, any ethical person must call that torture, but that’s what it is.

  26. to deny that, frankly, is to deny being a member of anything that could be called civilization.

  27. “so much for christian america.”

    That’s a wide brush there.

  28. Whenever I hear about what’s being done in our name, I wish for the day that Bush, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzalez and all those other thugs get a taste of ‘sleep adjustment treatment’. Like most bullies, I bet they’d crap their pants and be crying for their mothers within an hour or two. How the hell can we be allowing this to happen in America?

  29. We are not torturing our pilots.

    Um, I thought that we were, and that that was the point: To get them ready for what they might face in enemy hands.

    Or, if you prefer, we aren’t torturing them, just submitting them to cruel and unusual interrogation methods.

  30. I had heard (I can’t remember where) that it may have been likely that the incidents at Abu Ghraib were not necessarily interrogations, but intended to create a situation where the detainees would be released back into the population and blackmailed into spying for US forces. (Hence the existence of the photographs). I’m not sure I buy into that idea, being that the detainees faces usually seem to be obscured in the photos, I’m just wondering if anyone has any insight.

  31. Regarding WWII and Japanese prisoners, Hit & Runners might want to consult John Dower’s War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War(http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0394751728/reasonmagazinea-20/. Dower is considered the authority on the Pacific theater of WWII. Anyway, Dower asserts that both Japanese and Americans took few prisoners, for unsurprising reasons. Race, ideology, and the brutality of war. American also had other reasons – early in the war, the Japanese were prone to bobby-trap bodies leading to reluctance to take prisoners. This aside, however, Dower pretty forcefully documents the savage nature of the war on both sides. Both Japanese soldiers and American GIs could be cruelly sadistic and committing what would be considered war crimes, while others expressed compassion in an otherwise hellish situation.

    Anyway, a fair (if unknowable) number of Japanese prisoners were killed outright by American GI. I hope this help plugs the request for documentation. Do an Amazon “search-inside-the-book” in Dower for more.

  32. “Or alternatively, les, how about dropping the war rhetoric entirely, and concentrate on bringing criminals to justice….”

    I can’t argue with that.

  33. “Um, I thought that we were, and that that was the point: To get them ready for what they might face in enemy hands.”

    The training comment is true, but my point is that if it is immoral to subject someone to these acts in the context of asking them questions, it is also immoral to subject them to these acts in the context of training them. Are we really saying that we have a lower standard of moral treatment for our own troops?

    I don’t think it is torture in either case.

  34. “If I wasn’t thumbing this on my phone, I’d post links to both the Schlesinger Report and Gonzales’ Torture Memo right here. Check back tomorrow morning and I’ll post links to both of them in this thread.”

    As promised:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/documents/dojinterrogationmemo20020801.pdf

    http://www.npr.org/documents/2004/abuse/schlesinger_report.pdf

  35. Gaius:
    to deny that, frankly, is to deny being a member of anything that could be called civilization.

    Putting aside my thoughts on Abu Grhaib/whatever torture scandal is going on now, your use of the word “civilization” is interesting.

    I can’t help thinking every time I hear the word “civilized” that I consider it a verb, in the past tense, objectifying the ostensible subject of the sentence. “He’s a civilized man” sounds to me a lot like “He’s been civilized.” Who “civilized” him? Who had the right to do so? Why does he accept it?

    Civilization is way overrated.

  36. Civilization is way overrated.

    but not as overrated as barbarity, or (worse) savagery, mr db.

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