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Torture and False Confessions

By March 16, 2007

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Full Coverage: American Torture

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, at the time of his 2003 arrest. Image courtesy of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

There is a scene in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four where the torturer, identified as O'Brien, has rigged up would-be revolutionary Winston to a machine that creates unimaginable torment. "How many fingers am I holding up?" O'Brien asks him as he holds up one hand with four fingers extended. "Four," Winston replies. "And if the party says that it is not four but five, how many?" O'Brien asks. "Four," Winston responds again. O'Brien cranks up the machine and interrogates Winston over and over until he does, in fact, see five fingers.

And that's how torture generates confessions.

Last week, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed allegedly confessed to orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, coordinating planned attacks on 16 other countries, and personally killing Daniel Pearl. But he seems to have no real idea how the 9/11 hijackers were recruited, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda would have had one person orchestrate attacks in 17 countries from a single location, and there is videotaped evidence that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not, in fact, kill Daniel Pearl. So what are we to make of this? Reuters quotes the experts:
Robert Baer, a former official at the Central Intelligence Agency, said Mohammed's rambling testimony raised suspicions about his treatment by CIA interrogators.

He cited the alleged practice of "waterboarding", a technique to extract confession by submerging a prisoner and making him think he is about to drown.

"Once you rough up a witness with waterboarding, they figure out what narrative you want and that's the narrative they tell. And that suspicion is always going to be out there. That's what we're left with," Baer said.
Waterboarding has traditionally been referred to as water torture. President Bush admitted that the CIA had been using controversial "interrogation techniques" on Mohammed in a September 2006 speech, and Vice President Dick Cheney notoriously approved of water torture in a radio interview a month later. It seems reasonably certain that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has in fact been tortured in a secret CIA prison over the past four years, and it should surprise nobody that he is telling the CIA what he thinks they want to hear.

This is not to say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did not play a significant role in planning the 9/11 attacks. There is good intelligence suggesting that he did. But in his latest round of confessions, he took credit for planning the attacks "from A to Z"--something that he would probably not have been able to do from outside the United States. And to present himself as the global mastermind of al-Qaeda only serves to distract Americans from the real al-Qaeda leader: Osama bin Laden, who remains frustratingly beyond our reach.

It could also be helpful to President Bush's sagging approval ratings--which leaves us to consider the disturbing possibility that the administration "amped up" the torture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to serve a political, rather than counterterrorism, agenda.

I have no sympathy for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but his confessions, which range from unlikely to demonstrably false, only serve to demonstrate why torture is as ineffective as it is inhumane. It is a sad testimony to what fear of terrorism has done to our government when officials can capture someone, stick him in a secret prison and torture him for four years until he says what the administration believes the American people want to hear, and tout this as a sign of progress. To quote from O'Brien's speech in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The Russians persecuted heresy more cruelly than the Inquisition had done ... Before they exposed their victims to public trial, they deliberately set themselves to destroy their dignity. They wore them down by torture and solitude until they were despicable, cringing wretches, confessing whatever was put into their mouths, covering themselves with abuse, accusing and sheltering behind one another, whimpering for mercy.
This is not the American way. We were a better country than this before 9/11--and we must become that country again.

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August 28, 2010 at 8:49 pm
(1) victor Enyutin says:

Three articles on the topic of torture
concentrate on psychological and socio-political aspects of legalization and legitimization of torture in US of 21st century.
The first, combined with the analysis of Max Beckmann’s painting “The Night” (1918 – 1919) – “The Night, Abu Ghraib and Symbolism of Torture” (posted on July 6, 2009), analyzes psychological effects of torture on population and on torturers themselves. The second – “Bush Jr.’s ‘Exterminating Angels’: The Torture Lawyers – Gonzales, Bybee, Yoo” (posted on Sept. 11, 2009), is dedicated to the psychology of “torture lawyers” (people who wrote legal justification of torture) in connected with the interpretation of their photographs, and to analysis of three positions toward torture (of pro-torture-, a-torture- and anti-torture Americans). The third – “The Triumph of Torture in U.S., and the Turtle-Democrats” (posted on Nov. 21, 2009), tries to understand a political situation and its psychological environment (including the psychological condition of the leading members of Bush-administration) – around the time of legalization of torture.
Visit http://www.actingoutpolitics.com to enjoy these and other articles analyzing psychology of political behavior, intellectual films and works of serious painting and sculpture.

December 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm
(2) Victor Enyutin says:

Bush Jr.’s “Exterminating Angels”: The Torture Lawyers – Gonzales, Bybee, Yoo

11 Sep

Posted by victor as Discussion and Mind-Probing, Uncategorized

Conservative Government’s Angelic Political Bureaucrats

The Bush administration put relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.”
Iraq Coalition Casualty Count – 4,22,2009

A “Healthy mental growth seems to depend on truth as the living organism depends on food. If it is lacking or deficient, the personality deteriorates.”
Wilfred Bion*

bybee1 Yooalberto_gonzales_-_official_doj_photograph1

Let’s take a look at the faces of these white knights of the Bush-administration (Badministration) – of the men who prepared the legal justification for reversing the democratic stance on torture that is registered in the American Constitution. They explained in professional jerky jargon why torture, as soon as torturing agency is “our country” and the tortured are “our enemies”: alleged enemies of U.S., is absolutely legal – “a no brainer“, as Duck Cheneyfeld put it in one of his TV interviews, and, for sure, “a no hearter” or “no souler”.

Look at these streamlined faces, with its features generalized by a drilled obedience to the desires of the bosses. There is this smile displaying an unconditional openness to the commands of the superiors, the smile of a pebble polished by the brook, smile of the sand dune polished by the wind. Three faces – with the same smoothie of facial features.

The most striking feature of these sibling faces of Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee and John Yoo is their angelic purity. It seems as though these three pairs of eyes, dreamy, shy and childishly playful have never seen torture even if they had. Here is my “brainer” – these people identify neither with torturers, nor with the act of torturing! Then why are they endorsing torture? – It is exactly because they have nothing to do with it.

When we think about human actions we imply that people behave in a certain way with some understanding of what they are doing in situational and human (an existential) terms. We underestimate the degree of depersonalization and fragmentation the professional man (and just anybody who is obliged to follow orders) must endure. An office clerk or an office chair in this relation is no different from an army private. What determines the action of the professional man today is not his personality (his personal ideas and proclivities) but his agency’s expectations – his professionalism is immediately tied to his employer’s demands. In the case of torture lawyers this agency is the governmental order. It is here that we find the origin of the angelic smile worn by those who are responsible for legalization of torture – they function not on the level of human wholeness but on the level of psychological fragment that consists of their legal training plus their duty to follow the orders of their bosses. Torture for them is a bureaucratic article. They are craftsmen, construction workers following the designs of their foreman. They are just chisels in the hands of their bosses.

Does this mean that these people are not responsible for the ideas they have signed under? They feel that they are responsible not in the human but only in professional sense. Their personal responsibility is that of a psychological fragment, not of a psychological wholeness (it is of the hammer that is not suppose to suddenly brake or a measuring tape that should not tear apart too quickly). These people are professionals without being human beings. Today’s intensified division of labor doesn’t allow people to be at once both humans and professionals – the psychological fragment functions independently, in agreement with the social influences, and detours the judgment and control of human personality. The only responsibility a person bears for his actions today is just a matter of a job done well or poorly.

People like our torture lawyers are what Wifred Bion called ‘thoughts without thinkers”. They are Bernie Madoffs of the juridical profession – like Bernie Madoff is profit-making without the human being as a part of it, just the logic of multiplying the profit abstracted from the human context, Gonzales-Bybee-Yoo is a juridical logic without the human background and context. They are words, phrases and punctuation without anybody writing or constructing the meaning. Their memos are meaning without meaning.

The boss ordered Bybee-Yoo to write a memo explaining why it is absolutely necessary “for us” to use torture and why “we” have all the right to do this. What should By-Yoo do in this situation? Who is able today to lose his job? Are there many people whose psychological wholeness can override the conformism of their psychological fragment? Our authors of the torture memo are robust robots constructed to write memos (to transform memos into ammos).

The language the torture lawyers use is a dickchain of bureaucratic clichés. They dickchain the semantics of the language by their juridical jargon (jurgon) – “Torture is an act inflicting…severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical. Physical pain must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death… Mental pain must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.”

The impression is that the authors of these grazed phrases are angels who plan the torture of human beings while sitting somewhere in a heavenly clerical office and following a super-human rationality. When they write about “inflicting severe pain” or about the needed intensity of physical or mental pain they completely block any awareness that their bodies are made of the same alive matter as the bodies of those who will be on the receiving end of their angelic/impish torture approving instructions.

Job keeping and career enhancement (JKCE) transforms human beings into (impersonal) angelic smiles with wickedly impish deeds. Not to be human is more basic for humans than to remain human beings if for not being human beings the reward is celery of salary!

The inevitable result of using torture is losing the ability to understand the nature of the enemy and of the conflict involved (that will create more and more serious mistakes in how we carry out the “war on terror”). To believe in the effectiveness of torture is like to believe in the effectiveness of theft, robbery, battery and murder.

*Wilfred Bion was a British psychoanalyst, the author of innovative ideas about human psychological development. He remains one of the gurus of the international psychoanalytic movement.

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