( – 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.