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American Torture Techniques

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Palestinian Hanging

A victim of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. The prisoner is simultaneously being subjected to forced standing, Palestinian hanging, forced nudity, and sexual humiliation (as his face is hidden by a woman's underwear).

Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Big Question:

The U.S. government has been accused of using "torture-lite," or "moderate physical pressure," against detainees. In practical terms, what does this mean?

Psychological Torture:

The number one criterion for American torture is that it must leave no physical marks, and psychological torture certainly qualifies. Whether U.S. officials are threatening to execute a prisoner's family or just falsely claiming that the leader of his terror cell is dead, it's hard to imagine a form of torture that is more effective--or easier to get away with--than a steady diet of misinformation and threats.

Sensory Deprivation:

When you're locked up in a cell, it's already remarkably easy to lose track of time. Eliminate all noise and light sources--or, as was done to the Guantanamo prisoners at one point, simply bind, blindfold, and earmuff a prisoner into temporary oblivion--and life becomes a hellish, sanity-destroying experience. Whether prisoners subjected to long-term sensory deprivation can still tell fiction from reality is, of course, another question.

Starvation and Thirst:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies basic physical needs as the most fundamental--more fundamental than religion, political ideology, or community. A prisoner who is being given enough (unpleasant) food and water to survive, but only just, can go as long as a week before looking physically thinner--but will soon find that his or her life revolves around the quest for food.

Sleep Deprivation:

Studies have shown that missing a night's sleep temporarily drains 10 points from a person's IQ. Consistent sleep deprivation, through harassment, exposure to bright lights, and exposure to loud, jarring music and recordings, can drastically impair judgment.

Waterboarding:

Water torture, one of the oldest and most common forms of torture, came to the United States with the first colonists and has cropped up many times since then. In the latest incarnation, waterboarding, a prisoner is strapped down to a board and then dunked in water until nearly drowned, then brought back, gasping, to the surface. The interrogator repeats the procedure until the desired result is obtained.

Forced Standing:

"I stand for 8-10 hours a day," Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a 2002 interrogation memo. "Why is standing limited to four hours?" Rumsfeld would probably feel a little differently about this if he had to stand in place for 8-10 hours, which can cause ankle swelling, bruising, and excruciating pain.

Palestinian Hanging (aka Palestinian Crucifixion):

This form of torture, referred to as "Palestinian hanging" due to its use by the Israeli government against Palestinians, involves binding the prisoner's hands behind his or her back. After fatigue sets in, the prisoner will inevitably fall forward--putting full body weight on the shoulders, and impairing breathing. If the prisoner is not released, death by crucifixion results. Such was the fate of U.S. prisoner Manadel al-Jamadi in 2003.

Sweatboxes:

In this form of torture, sometimes referred to as the "hot box" or simply as "the box," the prisoner is locked up in a small, hot room which, due to lack of ventilation, essentially functions as an oven. When the prisoner cooperates, he or she is finally released. Long used as a form of torture within the United States (most recently against one Alabama activist in 1998), it is particularly effective in the arid Middle East.

Sexual Assault and Humiliation:

Various forms of sexual assault and humiliation documented in U.S. prisons as forms of torture include forced nudity, forcible smearing of menstrual blood on prisoners' faces, forced lapdances, forced transvestitism, and forced homosexual acts on other prisoners.
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