Bob Herbert writes in the New York Times of the recently releases Physicians for Human Rights report, Broken Laws, Broken Lives: Medical Evidence of Torture by the US:
All Too Human
By Bob Herbert
Thursday was the 21st anniversary of the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
It was also the same day that two Bush administration lawyers appeared before a House subcommittee to answer questions about their roles in providing the legal framework for harsh interrogation techniques that inevitably rose to the level of torture and shamed the U.S. before the rest of the world.
The lawyers, both former Justice Department officials, were David Addington, who is now Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and John Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. There is no danger of either being enshrined as heroes in the history books of the future.
For most Americans, torture is something remote, abstract, reprehensible, but in the eyes of some, perhaps necessary – when the bomb is ticking, for example, or when interrogators are trying to get information from terrorists willing to kill Americans in huge numbers.
Reality offers something much different. We saw the hideous photos from Abu Ghraib. And now the Nobel Prize-winning organization Physicians for Human Rights has released a report, called “Broken Laws, Broken Lives,” that puts an appropriately horrifying face on a practice that is so fundamentally evil that it cannot co-exist with the idea of a just and humane society.
The report profiles 11 detainees who were tortured while in U.S. custody and then released – their lives ruined – without ever having been charged with a crime or told why they were detained. All of the prisoners were men, and all were badly beaten. One was sodomized with a broomstick, the report said, and forced by his interrogators to howl like a dog while a soldier urinated on him.
He fainted, the report said, “after a soldier stepped on his genitals.”
Officials at Physicians for Human Rights said extensive medical and psychological examinations were conducted – and in two cases prior medical records were consulted – to help corroborate the testimony of the detainees. The organization has a long and credible history of documenting such abuses.
Leonard Rubenstein, president of Physicians for Human Rights, said: “In doing the evaluations, we used international standards, medical assessments of torture and ill treatment, and meticulously assessed physical and psychological evidence of torture and ill treatment, and the long-term physical and mental health consequences.”
The most effective element of the report is the way in which it takes torture out of the realm of the abstract to show not just the horror and cruelty of the torture itself, but the way in which it absolutely devastates the body, soul and psyche of its victims.
The detainees profiled in the report were abused at facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Three said they had been subjected to electric shocks. One said he was stabbed in the cheek with a screwdriver and hit in the head and in the jaw with a rifle.
In an example of how medical evidence was used to back up a detainee’s account, the report said scarring on one of the prisoner’s thumbs “was highly consistent with the scarring caused by electric shock.”
In addition to the physical mistreatment, the detainees reported that various gruesome forms of humiliation, including sexual humiliation, were pervasive. They said men were paraded nude in front of female soldiers, forced to watch pornography, and forced to disrobe before female interrogators.
The sheer number of different ways in which detainees were reported to have been abused was mind-boggling. They were deprived of sleep, forced to endure extremes of heat and cold, chained in crouching positions for 18 to 20 hours at a time, told that their female relatives would be raped, that they themselves would be killed, and on and on. All to no good end.
The ostensible purpose of mistreating prisoners is to inflict pain and induce disorientation and despair, creating so much agony that the prisoners give up valuable intelligence in order to end the suffering. But torture is not an interrogation technique; it’s a criminal attack on a human being.
What the report makes clear is that once the green light is given to torture, the guaranteed result is an ever-widening landscape of broken bodies, ruined lives and profound shame to all involved.
Nearly all of the detainees profiled in the report have experienced excruciating psychological difficulties since being released. Several said that they had contemplated suicide. As one put it: “No sorrow can be compared to my torture experience in jail. That is the reason for my sadness.”
Congress and the public do not know nearly enough about the nation’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation practices. When something as foul as torture is on the table, there is a tendency to avert one’s eyes from the most painful truths.
It’s a tendency we should resist.
July 1st, 2008