The Unspeakable Fact of Torture

Abigail & the Box 33

One does not expect to turn to The NY Times‘s “Science” section to read something horrific, but that’s what happened yesterday as I encountered the wide-ranging and disturbing article about torture by authorities (and terrorists and criminals) of all stripes in Iraq — no, not under Saddam Hussein’s reign, but the past few years:  “Tugging at Threads to Unspool Stories of Torture.”

The first time the Iraqi Army arrested him, he said, soldiers burst into his shop in Baghdad, dragged him out in handcuffs and a blindfold, and took him to a filthy, overcrowded prison. Beatings, rape, hunger and disease were rampant, and he expected at any moment to be killed. He was held for four months, until December 2008.

During an interview here, the shopkeeper, 35, a balding, stocky man wearing a T-shirt and slacks, was calm and soft-spoken at first, but grew increasingly loud and agitated as he told his story. He described enduring episodes of torture, threats by captors to go to his house and rape his wife, and daily horrors like the suicide of a young prisoner who electrocuted himself with wires from a hot plate after being raped by soldiers.

That’s only the beginning.  It makes for hard reading, but worthwhile to gain a picture of the kind of regime we are supporting there.

Personally, I am of two minds about torture.  In general, and in the kind of circumstances depicted in the article and as has been reported vis à vis torture conducted at secret rendition locations overseas, I certainly find it abhorrent and condemn it.  I’m still troubled, however, by the so-called “imminent threat” argument.  I.e., is torture justified if confronted with the possible threat of imminent massive death and destruction — e.g., as is often given as an example, the threat of a terrorist organization setting off a nuclear bomb in a major city?  One can take many principled stands against such torture, including arguments on humanitarian, legal and practical grounds (the latter being the argument that information gleaned from short-term but violent torture has been shown to be very inaccurate — the victim tells his tormenters whatever he thinks they want to hear).  But if the threatened explosion would be in one of the three cities where my wife and I or either of our two daughters presently live, would I stand on principle to oppose such interrogation?  It’s similar to the “Dukakis Trap”:

[W]hen Bernard Shaw, the moderator of the debate, asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis replied, “No, I don’t, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life”, and explained his stance. After the debate, Dukakis told Estrich he was sorry and didn’t realize it was that question.  Many observers felt Dukakis’s answer lacked the passion one would expect of a person discussing a loved one’s rape and death. Many– including the candidate himself– believe that this, in part, cost Dukakis the election, as his poll numbers dropped from 49% to 42% nationally that night. Other commentators thought the question itself was unfair, in that it injected an irrelevant emotional element into the discussion of a policy issue and forced the candidate to make a difficult choice.

From Wikipedia.

But back to the article.  Iraqi expatriates at the treatment center in Jordan, “a branch of the Center for Victims of Torture, a St. Paul-based group that also operates in Africa and since 1985 has treated 20,000 torture victims from around the world,”  have described being

kidnapped, beaten, given electric shocks, raped and burned. Some said they saw relatives killed or kidnapped, or were threatened repeatedly with the murder or rape of loved ones. One reported being sent a video of captors killing a family member by drilling into his skull. An 11-year-old girl and her family revealed that she was raped by a group of men who then shaved her head and threw her on a trash heap. A toddler witnessed her father’s murder; a schoolboy saw his teacher and classmates killed.

The torturers, clients say, have included the Iraqi Army, American forces, Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and the sectarian groups, gangs and militias that continue to terrorize parts of Iraq. Some clients report having been tortured by more than one of these groups. Many clients still fear for their safety, so the treatment center omits victims’ names from its records and uses a code instead.

“Torture was like a genie released from the bottle, used for any purpose, not just to get information but to send a message to the community,” said Darrin Waller, the center’s former director for operations in Jordan, who set up the branch in Amman.


Why were these Iraqis detained in the first place? Many were thought by their captors to have useful information, but some said they had no idea why they were arrested or kidnapped.

“You are captured for no reason, there’s nothing to get out of you,” said Muriel Genot, another French psychologist working at the center. “It broke your life. For nothing.”

The abuses, particularly rape and other sexual violations, engender lasting bitterness and hatred. Some Iraqi men say they would rather die than admit to having been raped.

“This will not be forgotten, generationally,” said Mr. Waller, who now works for the British Council as the director of an education program in Baghdad. “It will make the process of reconciliation tremendously difficult.”

Our own country, of course, is no stranger to torture.  Not only torture and abuse of “the other” in many forms, as in Abu Ghraib, but what has been euphemistically referred to as “the third degree,” levied against our own poor, vulnerable, uninformed or less intelligent criminal suspects, mostly in the past although we occasionally hear of such rough treatment levied against our fellow citizens even these days.  (This is not to mention instances of sheer brutality levied by cops on young men, persons of color or others, now occasionally documented by video, which although not considered torture nevertheless — because of long-lasting effects of intimidation and other psychological harm — have similar effects on its victims.  “Don’t talk back to police — you’ll regret it.”)

One thing boggles the mind:  many of these torturers and abusers will devoutly go to church or mosque, never understanding that their setting foot in such places is blasphemous and sacrilegious.  As has been amply demonstrated in many countries, from Germany under the Nazis, to South Africa under Apartheid, to Argentina and Chile during the “Dirty War,” to … well, you get the idea — none of these monsters feels the slightest remorse for their activities, unless and until society calls them on it and demands they reconsider and repent, through institutions such as South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” — and sometimes not even then.


A Special Place in Hell Department

The religious and socially conservative wing of the Republican Party must have a special room, filled with attorneys and legislative interns, whose 24/7 job is to dream up new ways to harass women who require or desire an abortion.  Such is the case with H.R. 3, the obscenely-titled “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”  I cannot do it adequate justice except by a few extracts from the ACLU blog entry, entitled meaningfully, “If You Get Raped, You Better Keep a Receipt,”

The essence of H.R. 3 can be expressed in two words: rape audits. That’s right, this bill could force rape and incest survivors who choose abortion care to prove their trauma to IRS agents. To be clear, this radical, expansive bill has many seriously harmful impacts, but this one uniquely captures H.R. 3′s malevolent spirit.

In an effort to impose one narrow ideology on every woman’s life, H.R. 3 rewrites long-standing tax laws to penalize a single, legal medical procedure: abortion. It denies tax credits to small businesses and middle-class families if their health plans include abortion coverage, and imposes a tax increase on women who need abortion care.


[T]he rape exception [written into the law] could be enforced just like every other tax provision — through IRS audits. And just as in every other audit, the burden would rest with the woman to produce sufficient evidence. Or as Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) put it last month at a rally for women’s health: if you get raped, you better keep a receipt.

Read the entire article, be prepared to be ill, and be glad that your health insurance covers you.  Some women may not be so fortunate.


More Radley Department

Seems Radley Balko is gone to Eastern Europe on vacation.  He’s invited a phalanx of guest bloggers to substitute in his absence, so if you wish to read a daily dose of diverse dissent (and opinion), do not dally long in this district, but rather decamp each day to The Agitator.  (I’ll continue to link to resources noted by the guest bloggers, and continue to credit The Agitator, but unless germane won’t be identifying individual GBs.)


Fakery on the Internet Department

A fascinating account of Megan McArdle’s sleuthing, in which she lays bare the inadvertent attribution of an overly passive quotation to Martin Luther King, Jr.  This is what he did not say (tweeted in reaction to news of bin Laden’s death), but which was attributed to him in tweets read by millions across the world:

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.

It was largely an innocent mix-up, but shows the power (and danger) of passing on stuff without doing your own, independent research.


Miss USA vs. the TSA Department

Susie Castillo appeared on NBC’s Today show to further explain her reaction and objection to the TSA’s groping of her:

Nothing much new, but she’s calmer and her argument less sensational.

One thing that the Susie Castillo affair did bring to mind:  We know that the porno scanners present a naked image, and we know that those images can be recorded and stored.  How much effort would it require to arrange a signaling system between document checkers, those who select passengers for scanning, and the scanner operators, to identify comely TV and movie stars, rock stars, and others whose images might be worth something?  Inquiring minds need to know.


WTC First Responders Might Be Terrorists Department

As promised, here’s a link to Jon Stewart’s excellent, biting commentary on the amendment offered in Congress requiring all who would benefit from the James Zadroga 9/11 Health And Compensation Law, including surviving first responders, to be certified they are not terrorists.  Idiocy!


Buy Copyrights and Sue Department

Some bloggers are exceptionally inventive and erudite, and the vast majority of material to be found on their sites is original with them — my friend Dr. L is one of them.  Other bloggers link frequently and occasionally extract, but always with attribution.  That’s Radley Balko over at The Agitator.  Others also link frequently and occasionally extract, but always with original commentary or analysis.  That’s me, I think.  Others, who I will not name, unabashedly reproduce photos and full articles, sometimes with attribution but other times without.  They, apparently, have no intention of observing even the slightest niceties of copyright law nor playing by the rules of “fair use.”

It appears the latter type is getting its comeuppance.  A company called Righthaven is acquiring copyrights of material that is reproduced on the web without permission, identifying the miscreants, and suing them for statutory damages under copyright law, which can amount to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Not everyone takes it lying down, but it makes for interesting times.

Watchin’ my back.


Abigail’s excellent interpretation of “The Box.”

This entry was posted in Air Travel Security, Civil Liberties, Law, Uncategorized, Women's Rights and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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