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Petty torture rules played on sense of duty

by Tzvetan Todorov

PARIS — The top-secret memorandums released by the Obama administration concerning torture practices in CIA prisons shed new light on a fundamental question: How is it that people acting in the name of the United States government could so easily accept the idea of torturing detainees in their charge?

The newly published documents do not disclose the very facts of torture, which were already well known by whomever wanted to know them. But they do reveal a great deal of information about how the torture sessions unfolded and how the agents involved perceived them.

What is most striking is the discovery of niggling little rules, outlined in CIA manuals and co-opted by the government’s legal executives. One would have thought that torture was the result of blunders or unintentional excesses committed on the spur of the moment. On the contrary, these memos make clear that torture was a tactic formulated in minute detail.

In the Bush administration’s “guidelines,” torture can be divided into three categories, of varying levels of intensity: “baseline” (nudity, dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation); “corrective” (hitting); and “coercive” (water-dousing, box confinement, waterboarding).

For a facial slap, the interrogator was supposed to hit with fingers slightly spread, at equal length between the tip of the chin and the bottom of the corresponding earlobe. Dousing a naked detainee with water was to last 20 minutes if the water’s temperature measured 5 degrees Celsius, 40 minutes at 10 degrees, and up to 60 minutes at 15 degrees. Sleep deprivation could not exceed 180 hours, but could start over again after eight hours rest.

Water immersion in a tub could last up to 12 seconds, no more than two hours a day, for up to 30 days in a row. Waterboarding could last 40 seconds at most, though two prisoners were subjected to this torment a combined total of 286 times in a single month. Confinement in a small box could not exceed two hours, but if the prisoner could stand in the box, it could continue up to eight hours at a time, 18 hours a day. If an insect was introduced into the box, rules governed that, too.

How the torturers were trained is also disclosed. Most methods were reverse-engineered from the training given to U.S. soldiers preparing to face “long and extreme” situations (which somehow enabled executives to conclude that these ordeals are perfectly bearable). In other words, the torturers had been tortured themselves. An intense crash course lasting four weeks followed, enough to instruct them in their new jobs.

The Bush lawyers were the torturers’ necessary partners, whose work was intended to ensure legal impunity. This was also a novelty: Torture does not appear as a breach of a common standard, unfortunate but justifiable. Instead, it has a legal standard.

Here, lawyers fell back on another series of techniques. In order to circumvent the law, interrogation had to be conducted outside the United States, even if that place was an overseas American military base.

The legal definition of torture implies the intentional infliction of severe suffering. Torturers are thus advised to deny such an intention. As a result, the goal of a facial slap is not to inflict physical pain, but to induce surprise and humiliation. The purpose of confinement in a box is not to disorient someone, but to give the detainee a feeling of discomfort. The torturer must always emphasize his “good faith,” “honest beliefs,” and the reasonable premise for them.

So euphemisms were systematically used: “enhanced techniques” for torture, “interrogation expert” for torturer. Leaving material imprints is contra-indicated. To that end, mental damage is preferable to physical injury. Any video recordings of these sessions, not surprisingly, would be destroyed afterward.

Various professional groups were involved with torture practices. Thus, the contagion went well beyond the torturers’ limited circle. Besides the lawyers legitimizing the deeds, psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors (whose presence was mandatory at any session) and scholars also regularly provided moral, legal or philosophical justifications. And, while males inflicted torture, degradation in the presence of women enhanced the humiliation.

Who is to be held legally liable for this perversion of the law and basic moral principles?

The volunteer who carries out the task of torture is less liable than the high-ranking civil servant who justified and nurtured it. And the latter is less liable than the political decision-maker who asked for it.

The best democratic punishment for politicians is not to re-elect them. As for unelected collaborators and enablers, we can hope that they will be sanctioned by their peers: Who would like to study with a professor who advocated torture? Who wants justice done by a judge who authorized brutality? Who wants to be treated by a doctor who oversaw it?

If we are to understand why some Americans accepted administering torture so easily, we need not look for some ancestral hatred or fear of Muslims and Arabs. No, the cause is far worse. The memos that the Obama administration has disclosed teach us that anyone who complies with seemingly noble principles dictated by a “sense of duty” or by the necessary “defense of the homeland,” or who is urged by a basic fear for his own life and welfare, or the lives and welfare of his kin, can become a torturer.

Tzvetan Todorov is directeur de recherche honoraire at the CNRS in Paris, and the author of many books on history and culture. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)