Open the November 5 edition of Newsweek and here's Jonathan Alter, munching on the week's hot topic, namely the propriety of the FBI torturing obdurate September 11 suspects in the bureau's custody here in the United States. Alter says no to cattle prods, but continues the sentence with the observation that something is needed to "jump-start the stalled investigation." The tone is lightly facetious: "Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?" There are respectful references to Alan Dershowitz (who's running around the country promoting the idea of "torture warrants" issued by judges) and to Israel, where "until 1999 an interrogation technique called 'shaking' was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect's head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment…. Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for 'moderate physical pressure' in what are called 'ticking time bomb' cases."
As so often with unappealing labor, Alter arrives at the usual American solution: outsource the job. "We'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies," he says.
What's striking about Alter's commentary and others in the same idiom is the abstraction from reality, as if torture is so indisputably a dirty business that all painful data had best be avoided. One would have thought it hard to be frivolous about the subject of torture, but Alter managed it.
Would one know from his commentary that under international covenants–signed and ratified by the United States–torture is illegal? One would not, and one assumes that as with the war against the Taliban's Afghanistan, Alter regards issues of legality as entirely immaterial. Would one know that in recent years the United States has been charged by the UN and also by human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with tolerating torture in prisons, by methods ranging from solitary, twenty-three-hour-a-day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000-volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by prisoners?
Would one know that one of the darkest threads in postwar US imperial history has been the CIA's involvement with torture, as instructor, practitioner or contractor?
Remember Dan Mitrione, kidnapped and killed by Uruguay's Tupamaros and portrayed by Yves Montand in Costa-Gavras's film State of Siege? In the late 1960s Mitrione worked for the US Office of Public Safety, part of the Agency for International Development. In Brazil, so A.J. Langguth (a former New York Times bureau chief in Saigon) related in his book Hidden Terrors, Mitrione was among the US advisers teaching Brazilian police how much electric shock to apply to prisoners without killing them. In Uruguay, according to the former chief of police intelligence, Mitrione helped "professionalize" torture as a routine measure and advised on psychological techniques such as playing tapes of women and children screaming that the prisoner's family was being tortured.
Alter expresses a partiality for "truth drugs," an enthusiasm shared by the US Navy after the war against Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner's research into "truth serums" at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup.
As part of its larger MK-ULTRA project the CIA gave money to Dr. Ewen Cameron, at McGill University. Cameron was a pioneer in the sensory-deprivation techniques for which Jonathan Alter has issued his approval. Cameron once locked up a woman in a small white box for thirty-five days, deprived of light, smell and sound. The CIA doctors were amazed at this dose, knowing that their own experiments with a sensory-deprivation tank in 1955 had induced severe psychological reactions in less than forty hours.
Start torturing, and it's easy to get carried away. Torture destroys the tortured and corrupts the society that sanctions it. Just like the FBI today, the CIA in 1968 got frustrated by its inability to break suspected leaders of Vietnam's National Liberation Front by its usual methods of interrogation and torture. So the agency began more advanced experiments, in one of which it anesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls and planted electrodes in their brains. They were revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping the prisoners would attack one another. They didn't. The electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot and their bodies burned. Alter can read about it in Gordon Thomas's book Journey into Madness.
The Israelis? They're still torturing. In July, AP and the Baltimore Sun relayed charges from the Israeli human rights group B'tselem of "severe torture" by police: Palestinian youths as young as 14 being badly beaten, their heads shoved into toilet bowls and so forth. But Israel outsourced too. After Israel finally retreated from its "security strip" in southern Lebanon, run by its puppet South Lebanese Army, the journalist Robert Fisk visited Khiam prison. His report for The Independent, May 25, 2000, began thus: "The torturers had just left but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo–the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators–which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon. Engraved into the steel were the words: 'The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA.' And I wondered, in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles."
If handcuffs are sold these days to the FBI's subcontractor of choice, at least the executives will know they have Jonathan Alter to explain the patriotic morality of their bottom line.