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.