No Pain, No Gain

It's not torture when Americans are doing it

 It's a safe bet that well-read right wing pundits and neoconservatives in the upper echelons of the Bush administration are becoming devotees of The Atlantic Monthly. In the July/August issue, author Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for the magazine, wrote a cover story entitled "The Supremacy of Stealth," which begins with the assumption that at this juncture in world history it is American power, "and American power only, that can serve as an organizing principle for the worldwide expansion of a liberal civil society." Then, organizing his analysis around 10 "Rules for Managing the World" (Emulate Second-Century Rome. Speak Victorian, Think Pagan....), Kaplan sets out to prove that "the highest morality must be the preservation--and wherever prudent, the accretion--of American power."

This month's cover story, written by the best-selling author Mark Bowden (Killing Pablo, Black Hawk Down), is titled "The Art of Interrogation: A Survey of the Landscape of Persuasion." It's a telling title, not only because it equates the medieval act of intimidating suspected criminals through physical coercion with art (as Bowden does throughout his 18-page article), but because the editors, like the writer, conspicuously avoid the word "torture"--even though that's exactly what Bowden reports the U.S. government is doing to suspected terrorists in captivity.

When meted out prudently, according to Bowden, "civilized" methods of breaking people down are a necessary evil in today's perilous world. "A method that produces lifesaving information without doing lasting harm to anyone is not just preferable; it appears to be morally sound," Bowden concludes in the story's setup. "Hereafter I will use 'torture' to mean the more severe traditional outrages, and 'coercion' to refer to torture lite, or moderate physical pressure." (As spurious ideological distinctions go, this is much like the old Cold War parsing of "totalitarian" regimes versus "authoritarian" ones--the former being Soviet-allied thugs, the latter being American-allied thugs.)

After seeing excerpts from the Atlantic piece online, Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), quickly rewrote a speech he was about to deliver at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "President Bush has stated flat out that the U.S. will not use torture and will prosecute those who abuse their authority," Johnson said from the podium on September 24. "But other commentators suggest this masks a shift in definitions, not substance, and the U.S. is using what has been called 'torture lite' to gain information deemed valuable from captured al Qaeda leaders and followers. Some of these commentators argue that this is a good thing. But it is deeply troubling to me, and will be deeply troubling to us as a nation."

At several points in his prose, and often in an obsequious tone, Bowden describes the various methods of psychological "coercion" carried out by the U.S. military. There is "sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fear for himself and his family."

What's most alarming to Johnson and his colleagues is Bowden's recurring assertion that these tactics, "although excruciating" for the victim, "generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm."

"In fact, they are forms of torture that our clients have reported to us as being much more difficult for them to recover from than the physical pain," Johnson told the Commonwealth Club in a speech CVT's communications director hoped would be on National Public Radio. (It was pre-empted by the now infamous gubernatorial debate in California.) "We know that these do present lasting harm, and can lead to a lifetime of nightmares, depression, and suicidality."

Established in 1985 with the help of the late Governor Rudy Perpich, the nonprofit Center for Victims of Torture was the first treatment program in the U.S. for survivors of politically motivated torture. There are now over 250 such programs around the world, many of them modeled after Minnesota's, and CVT provides training and technical assistance to thousands of health care professionals, social workers, and teachers around the globe. The 225 clients CVT treats directly each year go through intensive therapy in safe houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, specially designed to make them feel as comfortable as possible while revisiting memories of their trauma. There are lots of windows; no square, four-walled rooms; no overhead lighting; and easy access to exits in case a client feels threatened. The organization also maintains an office in Washington, D.C., to develop policies that aid and protect victims of political torture from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. (In Minnesota alone, there are some 30,000 such survivors.)

"I remember a client saying to me, 'You have a very hard job, because your job is to put the soul back in the body,'" says Dr. Andrea Northwood, a psychologist who does training and clinical work at CVT. "Torture survivors feel that their very core has been taken from them. That can be done in a number of different ways, but primarily it's a psychological, spiritual, and existential phenomenon. The physical injuries can be treated. It's the psychological effects that keep people in treatment for years."

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