On Torture

I witnessed detainee abuse in Iraq and did not report it. This moral failing is my own burden, one I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And it has influenced how I look at headlines about torture.
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I witnessed detainee abuse in Iraq and did not report it. I fully believe that we bear personal responsibility for our actions; this moral failing is my own burden, one I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But it has also influenced how I look at headlines about torture, from Abu Ghraib to the recent revelations about GITMO.

The detainees I saw being abused might have been guilty when they came in. But I am sure that after being treated the way they were, they walked out full of rage and more likely to attack Americans. On a larger scale, I believe that the ability of insurgents in Iraq and terrorists worldwide to use US treatment of detainees in Iraq and GITMO for propaganda has caused significant harm. According the Washington Post, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair agrees that waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation techniques' (read: torture) do more harm than good: "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world. . .The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, I talked to the Warrant Officer who was in charge of the Cage (what everyone called the detainee holding facility) where I witnessed detainee abuse. He told me that he had gotten the impression from friends and colleagues -- the Intel Community is a small world -- that those "at the highest levels" were sending out clear signals that detainees in the Global War on Terror did not need to be treated according to the standards required by the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war.

Well, the recently declassified Congressional report released Tuesday confirms this -- according to this New York Times article, the paper trail leads directly to Rumsfeld.

There have been lots of questions raised -- about the history and effectiveness of these techniques, the impact on those tortured, the larger foreign policy implications -- all of which are important considerations. There is, however, one aspect of the conversation that I believe has been neglected: What does this do to those committing the acts?

Some of those who participated in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (this fascinating site is well worth your time) struggled with their experiences later, one "felt sick at who he had become." Another said,

I had really thought that I was incapable of this kind of behavior. I was surprised, no I was dismayed to find out I could really be a--that I could act in a manner so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would ever really dream of doing. And while I was doing it, I didn't feel any regret. I didn't feel any guilt. It was only after, afterwards when I began to reflect on what I had done. That this began to, this behavior began to dawn on me and I realized that this was a part of me I hadn't really noticed before.

In this experiment, "about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior." That was an experiment -- now make it real life, knowing that your fellow Americans, your comrades in arms, are at risk, and that you may be able save lives by pushing those lines -- it is no surprise at all that waterboarding happened, that Abu Ghraib happened. But what has it done to us?

If soldiers -- or CIA personnel, or anyone -- spend months demeaning, mistreating, or even torturing other human beings, what does that do to them in the long run? How do these people treat their spouses or small children when they come home? Do they have nightmares later? Do they begin to doubt themselves? In all of the high-level discussions, the debate on whether or not these documents should have been released, let us not lose sight of this: those who were encouraged by our highest levels of government to commit torture and told it was legal to do so -- they too are victims.

[Note: This blog is cross-posted at VetVoice.]

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