29 April, 2004

American torture techniques

Abu Ghraib is a dreaded Iraqi prison, notorious for torture and disappearance under Saddam Hussein's regime. Last year, the Americans "reluctantly" reopened Abu Ghraib to deal with "intransigent" Iraqis. It still managed to hang onto a corner of its reputation, as Iraqis frequented the prison desperately searching for signs of inexplicably disappeared relatives and friends.

Now it looks like it's going to recover 100% of its reputation. CBS recently obtained photographs showing "mistreatment" of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Six soldiers are being court-martialed and some higher-ups are being investigated for disciplinary action. Mark Kimmit is appalled, of course.

But in any case, what I actually want to talk about is torture techniques. The above story happens to mention some incidental techniques used against Iraqis, and they pretty much fall into the pattern of torture techniques I've heard about over the course of the "War on Terror". These include sleep deprivation, hoods, and exposure to loud music.

There are lots of ways to torture someone if you want them to give up information, but some of them are obviously going to be more effective than others. There's lots of pain-based techniques, like electro-shock to the head or groin, finger-breaking, etc., but as far as I can tell Americans like to use less bloody techniques that are based more on the principal of confusion: so, throwing off the sense of time and messing with sleep cycles is often used. In fact the "loud music" technique is in the end a form of sleep deprivation - I first heard about this back in the early 1990s, when, during the invasion of Panama, Marines used "New Kids on the Block" to flush out Maniel Noriega. It seemed sort of silly at the time, but the actual torture part of it is simply the fact that it's impossible to sleep when someone is playing loud and repetitive music constantly. As most college students are probably aware, sleep deprivation is one of the quickest ways to screw up the human body and reduces the brain to absolute mush. Other methods of sleep deprivation include irregular serving of meals, constant bright lights, extremes of temperature and uncomfortable sleeping surfaces.

Sensory deprivation also seems to be common - hoods and earphones, goggles, cuffs so you can't touch yourself, etc. The infamous Guantanamo picture showed detainees bound, goggled and ear-phoned. Isolation from everything is a good way to break the mind.

Why these techniques as opposed to physical ones? I'm just speculating, but I can think of a few reasons: first, these require relatively little training. Electroshock, thumbscrews, finger-breaking, etc., all involve a certain amount of knowledge and require active time investment on the part of the interrogator to get the subject prepared. The above techniques are relatively simple to perform by just about anybody and can be done routinely, and will leave the subject pliant for the interrogator. Second, they leave few physical marks, which probably is useful if you're worried about human rights organizations getting on your case. Third, they might be more effective in general (although I once saw a 60 minutes interview with a Mossad agent who claimed that nothing was more effective than a wet-towel-over-the-mouth suffocation torture in getting people to talk).

Anyhow, I point these techniques out just so people can keep their eyes open for similar activities and recognize them for what they are. I should emphasize that these torture techniques, especially prolonged sensory deprivation, can have severe psychological effects and should not be considered "nicer" than physically traumatic techniques.

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