Torture and the theater of cruelty

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

We seem to have lost sight of a fundamental motivating factor in the torture controversy: torture made good political theater. The theatrical dimension of the punishment of America’s foes was made plain to me when I first saw pictures of Guantanamo captives kneeling in their orange jump suits. At first I thought that they were kneeling in prayer. Then I realized that they were in two lines facing in opposite directions. They were being made to kneel to humiliate them. (Later, I learned that they were also blinded and deafened by sensory deprivation gear.) Americans did not recoil from the humiliation of these prisoners (a clear violation of the Geneva conventions). No, most Americans delighted in the vengeance inflicted on the “worst of the worst.”

Not coincidentally, at the same time that the Bush administration’s theater of cruelty began its productions, the FOX television network launched the popular series “24,” which regularly featured the torture of terrorist captives. This torture was consistently depicted as successful and appropriate to dealing with the terrorist threat. Thus, the case can be made that Bush, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their whole sick crew were using torture of captives to enhance the political popularity of the Bush administration. The mob was howling for vengance, and Rove, Bush, and Cheney gave it to them.

But mobs cool down, and in the cold gray light of dawn, as we survey America’s tattered reputation, the unavoidable question is “What were they thinking?” I submit that the answer is that Bush and Rove were thinking about the political gains to be achieved from feeding retributive violence to a bloodthirsty mob. It would be a grand reprise of an ambitious young Texas governor earning the praise of his savage constituents by setting a national record for executions. Bush used his record of eagerly killing convicts to rise to the Presidency, and he intended to increase his power by brutalizing captive “terrorists.”

The theater of cruelty has closed, temporarily, but many Americans have fond memories of its exciting productions, and they resent Obama for questioning the quality of its shows. Theaters can’t exist without an audience, and the torture scandal is ultimately a reflection of the blind, vindictive cruelty of the American people.

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    • Edger on April 21, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    It is extremely painful debilitating torture. Try it for even 10 minutes on pavement or on hard packed gravel like that picture you posted, much less than the hours they forced them to kneel like that…

    Padilla Torture Claims Detailed

    It was someone very close to me, serving the last of several enlistments in the US Navy to include SEAL school, who initially brought the torturing of detainees to my attention back when we all first saw the photos of folks in orange jump suits kneeling behind fences at GITMO. He asked, “You know those guys are being tortured, don’t you?” “Huh?!” I replied, not understanding the effects and goal of the stress position. He then went on to tell me exactly how it works, ending with, “Go kneel on your driveway like that for four hours, if you can make it that long, and see if you can even walk afterward.” He also told me of the treatment of intercepted Haitian refugees at the hands of Navy personnel that I would consider torture.

    For any of you who may be interested and missed them, check out the relevant interrogation manuals available at George Washington University’s National Security Archive (“Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past”), especially the 1963 KUBARK manual. The gist of the military’s post-WWII/Vietnam era approach was to use advances in psychology and related fields to switch to indirect methods that force the person being tortured to fight against themself instead of having a torturer upon whom to direct their attention: self-defeat being more complete and effective than defeat by another which may include external resistance and resentment. Thus the introduction of stress positions, and other passive, non-aggressive measures instead of hot lights and rubber hoses. Apart from the more complete capitulation and destruction of the tortured, the side benefit is that to many outside observers the techniques do not look like torture or even cruel and unusual punishment (fraternity pranks, anyone?).

    • rb137 on April 21, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    And it appealed to the most base and vulgar characteristics of the human personality.

    Of Edger’s comment — he is absolutely right that this kneeling is a brutal torture. Notice that the feet are criss-crossed underneath them. The knees are unstable in this direction, and this strains ligaments, wears cartilage — but it looks pretty tame, doesn’t it?

    What’s worse is that this is one part of a systematic combination of tortures designed to wear the prisoners down with despair. One more case of US interrogation policy passing itself off as something other than torture.

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