Predicting Torture

Eight-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a six-part series titled “Repeal the PATRIOT Act.” In Part III, I talked about how the PATRIOT Act opened the door for torture. I cited to an Amnesty International report that noted “cruel treatment includ[ing] prolonged solitary confinement; heavy shackling of detainees during visits . . . and lack of adequate exercise” among detainees held under the Act.

Since that writing, a number of high profile suspected, so-called “unlawful enemy combatants” have been held in indefinite detention for years without due process of any kind, without a habeas corpus hearing to justify their detention, without any hearing on the merits, without charges, without trial, without a conviction. While solitary confinement itself is considered torture by many experts, the enemy combatants were also subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” involving prolonged isolation, painful stress positions, exposure to extreme temperature, sleep deprivation, extreme sensory deprivation, and threats of violence and death.

Exceptions, weren’t they? They were exceptions because they were Terrorists (with a capital T). They were Enemy Combatants. They didn’t deserve the freedoms we so proudly maintain that we Americans, of all the peoples of the world, preserve, for which we claim they hate us … and which we hypocritically denied these men.

In “Enemy Aliens,” constitutional lawyer and scholar David Cole shows that what we do to foreigners (aliens), we ultimately use as precedent for what we do to our own citizens.

This is what is now happening with Bradley Manning, who has been held in solitary confinement for seven months. Manning is charged with leaking classified documents to Wikileaks and faces a court martial. The conditions of his confinement are extreme. While Manning is not apparently being subjected to the enhanced interrogation techniques, he is not allowed to exercise in his cell, where he is kept 23 hours a day and allowed out of the cell for only one hour of “exercise” (in an indoor room, by himself, where he is allowed to walk in figure eights), escorted with leg chains on, has contact only with the men guarding him, is allowed to read only one book at a time from a list of 15, permitted limited visitation with no physical contact, must surrender his clothes when he sleeps, is permitted only a blanket (no sheets or pillow), and is checked on every five minutes (to which he must respond, even at night).

Are we frogs put in warm water slowly being brought to boil? Because I cannot imagine Americans prior to 9/11 accepting extended solitary confinement of someone without a conviction. According to Glenn Greenwald:

“Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture.”

I’d like to say I told you so, but there is no satisfaction in having predicted this correctly.

Glenn Greenwald writes:

“The U.S. ought at least to abide by minimal standards of humane treatment in how it detains [Manning]. That’s true for every prisoner, at all times. But departures from such standards are particularly egregious where, as here, the detainee has merely been accused, but never convicted, of wrongdoing.”

We must ask what it means about us that we can justify treatment that goes against all the values we hypocritically say we stand for. This is an erosion, a demoralization, a destruction of moral grounding which will come back to haunt us. We have become more and more aggressive to the point of complete irrationality. We openly admit that although we don’t know what if any laws Julian Assange, founder and editor of Wikileaks, has broken for having published the documents Manning is accused of leaking, we are nonetheless working hard to find some way to charge him with something.

James Madison wrote:

“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

I fear we have already arrived at one or the other of these conditions.