Torture: Can they walk away unchanged?

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Reading through opinion about “enhanced interrogation”, you will find that there is a pervasive assumption that if there is no physical evidence of torture after the fact, the victim of torture remains unharmed. In fact, the Bush administration defined this as one of the axioms that justified their legal opinions that supported their methods — and it is one that softens public opinion toward torture, as well. The fact is that if this assumption is wrong, the W administration’s torture policy falls like a house of cards.

The crucial issue at hand is that, in the memos, torture was defined as something different than it was in practice. To understand the fundamental flaw in a way that is more than superficial, though, we have to think about what happens to a prisoner that undergoes “enhanced interrogation.” We have to consider why these tactics cause long term harm. We also have to understand why a subject in a “cracked” state of mind will always provide dubious information.

So, what happens when Rambo cracks? Will he walk away unchanged by the experience? Even if he has no pre-existing psychological conditions?

The Bush administration would have us believe that the approved interrogation techniques are a lot like hazing at a college fraternity — a trickle of water, a panty on the head, a pyramid of naked guys, a little isolation, an occasional lost night’s sleep. Stressful, but not so awful. What’s the big deal? As soon as they talk, it’s done, right? We’re not using thumbscrews or red hot pokers or peeling up fingernails with toothpicks. The drowning is controlled, after all. The US mostly uses interrogation techniques that are designed to leave behind no objective evidence of harm, deliberately and by design. It is the American way to give a pass to reasonable doubt, and the W administration carefully nurtured this doubt to the policy makers and to constituents who might otherwise object to methods that cause visible harm or obvious long term suffering. They distracted policy makers with the subject of acute pain, and redefined basic concepts that surround torture. (See previous diaries about The Rambo Myth here and about the 1789 Trick here for a brief discussion of some of this sleight of hand.) In spite of what the Bush administration and the main stream media would have us believe, the purpose of the US enhanced interrogation methods is to systematically cause severe psychological harm: harm that results in long term damage.

Enhanced interrogation is by definition an assault on the body’s emotional centers — the emotional nervous system — and its goal is to elicit extreme states of terror and despair by systematically using techniques that produce suffering and fear. The techniques used by US interrogators break down the limbic system, and trigger the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The limbic system contains the primary emotional centers of the brain, and controls all of the hardwired emotions and the basic survival instincts — it is sometimes described as driving our need for the four F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing, and that other one.) It also controls how easily the two sides of the brain can speak to one another. These are two important features that come into play during interrogation. When interrogators use severe stress and terror to break down a prisoner emotionally, they are attacking the limbic system. So, what happens when the limbic system breaks down under stress?

We cannot “think” with the prefrontal cortex (logic) without input from the limbic system (emotions) or the brain stem (biology of entire body). For example, the brain stem tells the limbic system that the heart rate has increased, the limbic system begins to feel emotional discomfort, and the prefrontal cortex attempts to discern what is causing the emotional discomfort and thinks about how to address that cause. It is when these structures are impacted by trauma that people experience instability of thought (“It must be my fault”), emotion (“I don’t know why I get so angry sometimes”), and instability of the body (“The doctor says I’m healthy, but the pain in my body is real”). Trauma’s main impact on the brain is in triggering significant over-activity of neurons and the entire brains response often results in cell toxicity and cell death to varying degrees.

A political prisoner cracks when his emotional system is so severely overtaxed that he becomes neurologically compromised. And cracking may or may not be connected to any confession, accurate, confabulated, or plain gibberish — it happens when the prisoner’s head starts to break down. This brings me to the precise reason that people have so much trouble understanding the heinousness of our interrogation methods. (See SERE study results in Valtin’s excellent article.). While it’s telling that they measured SERE students’ stress response to training and found genuine PTSD behavior after the fact, there is an important difference between the students and the political prisoners. I’ll say this as gently as I can. On some level, the SERE students knew that the harsh treatment such as waterboarding was an academic exercise. It was a damned unpleasant and rightfully traumatic experience, no doubt. But they had more confidence in the value of their lives than political prisoners do. Political prisoners are much more expendable than special forces candidates. There is something completely different that happens when you are absolutely convinced that you’re going to die next time they start to pour water on your face — than when you have even 10% confidence that you’ll survive if you just hold on. It is a completely different level of trauma. Please let me suggest that our political prisoners experienced a level of terror that might not have been approached by the average SERE student. It is nearly impossible to measure the level of damage done to a political prisoner undergoing torture in one of our prisons by testing a technique on an American.

Under low stress conditions, the brain stores time based information in one place, and feeling based information in another place, and when the memory gets recalled all of the parts are connected. The neurological issue (one of several) at hand is that the hippocampus function breaks down under trauma, and the different parts of the brain fail to communicate; this results in memory fragmentation. Emotional/feeling memories still get stored in a different part of the brain than time-based memory, but they are stored in an unconnected way, and the two pieces are isolated from one another when the memory gets recalled. So, a torture survivor might be able to recall time-based information about the trauma, but the feeling-based memory might not be accessible. A trigger could call up the emotional/feeling part of the memory — but that feeling is unconnected with time-based memory, so the survivor doesn’t understand why he or she is suddenly under severe stress and has no way to control it. Sometimes the survivor is unable to recall either the time-based or feeling memories. The extent of the damage depends on the severity and duration of the trauma — but over the past twenty years, the established correlation between torture survival and PTS/dissociation disorders is high.

Read more about long term effects of torture here and here. And let me suggest that, if it is done correctly, no one walks away from torture unchanged by the experience.



Skip to comment form

    • rb137 on April 18, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Peace to you all.

    • Valtin on April 18, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Your essay puts into context the faux-distinction about physical vs. psychological torture. The latter is, as you ably point out, an assault against the nervous system itself. You are correct that it especially affects the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic subunits of same). I’d add that it often leaves the organism in a state of chronic overarousal, i.e., for “fight or flight”.

    This terrible difficulty in self-regulation of the nervous system is itself a kind of torture. This is why torture victims will often state that the “psychological” torture was the worst: because its effects never really go away!

    A broken bone heals. The nervous system when attacked can take many years to heal, if at all, and is always, as rb137 maintains, changed forever.

    I hope others read and recommend your essay, and help spread the truth about what this kind of abuse does to human beings.

  1. intricacies of what happens neurologically/emotionally when one suffers or has suffered torture.  This is very important information that needs a greater “broadcasting” to establish better understanding of exactly what we did!

    Thank you again, rb137!

  2. one nit to pick in the last sentence… just gave me a startle, I guess… “if done correctly”…

    I thought: and… if not?

    I know I saw some people in teh orange commentary wondering aloud about this whole area. Thanks for laying it out, here.

    • geomoo on April 18, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    So perfectly described.  It strikes me as an excellent compliment to Heather’s diaries at dkos, in that by describing the actual torture on actual people she strips the myths away.  Yesterday in her diary, someone said they had had their eyes opened.

    Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine opens with a graphic study of a woman who had the misfortune to fall into the hands of McGill doctor helping the CIA develop just the psychological techniques you discuss here.  Of course, her life was ruined.  The theory of this insane doctor–I won’t honor him by looking up his name–was to completely break down the psyche and then have a blank slate to write a new person on.  He was fairly successful at the breaking down part, but the psyche is not a slate, as this diary makes clear.

    I would like to mention the psychological damage to the torturers, which is also real.  Just as with war, the myth is that our children go in, behave all manly, and come back heroes.  This myth persists despite overwhelming and obvious evidence of the debilitating effect of war on all but the most insensitive.  I see all involved as victims.

    I haven’t read anything on this, but it strikes me that mirror neurons are one mechanism through which the torturer suffers with the tortured.  But I don’t need a physical explanation to know that the biggest myth of all is the myth of separation.  We are all connected, and the effect of torturing on both humans involved is but one piece of evidence.  In eastern thought, all evil arises as a result of believing in the myth of separation.

    I’ll read your other diaries when I have a chance.  Thank you.

    • Viet71 on April 18, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    who surely must know this stuff, take part in it?

    Talk about monsters.

    Thanks.  Really informative.

  3. Ive been thinking this, marginally, for a few weeks now. And geomoo’s comment hinted at it too.

    What about the Military Families Againt the War? Have they come out with any specific position against torture, in a fairly current context? Or the vets groups?

    Id like to see a special appeal from those folks to Michelle Obama, who seems to have taken that up as her “special” cause.

    It is one of my many huge objections… not just how immoral it is to torture our “enemies” but what it does to our own men and women…. it gives a whole new nuance to the expression “in harm’s way”. Reed Brandon Neely’s testimony. Did he walk away unchanged?

    Its multi-levels.

    I really cant imagine being the parent of a 19 year old kid in the US military, well, at all, but of one who finds himself in the midst of this nightmare. It makes me ill just to think of that.

Comments have been disabled.