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Jewish World Review
Dec. 15, 2005
/ 14 Kislev, 5766
Hate torture? Consider boot camp
Hold the presses. I've discovered that the use of torture by the U.S. government is far more pervasive than previously believed. There are major facilities all over the country where thousands of men and women who have not committed any crime are held for prolonged periods while subjected to physical and psychological coercion that violates every tenet of the Geneva Convention.
They are routinely made to stand for long periods in uncomfortable positions. They are made to walk for hours while wearing heavy loads on their backs. They are bullied by martinets who get in their faces and yell insults at them. They are hit and often knocked down with clubs known as pugil sticks. They are denied sleep for more than a day at a time. They are forced to inhale tear gas. They are prevented from seeing friends or family. Some are traumatized by this treatment. Others are injured. A few even die.
Should Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross want to investigate these human-rights abuses, they could visit Parris Island, S.C., Camp Pendleton, Calif., Ft. Benning, Ga., Ft. Jackson, S.C., and other bases where the Army and Marines train recruits. It's worth keeping in mind how roughly the U.S. government treats its own defenders before we get too worked up over the treatment of captured terrorists.
With all the uproar over torture, you would think we handled prisoners the way Saddam Hussein did. The former dictator's trial has featured copious testimony on how his goons raped, mutilated, beat or murdered those who fell under suspicion of disloyalty. This type of treatment fingernails pulled, electric shocks applied, sharp objects put where they don't belong is what the word "torture" commonly connotes. That's not what American operatives are up to.
Even the inexcusable (and unauthorized) behavior at Abu Ghraib was not as severe. Many of the abuses that critics cite seem downright trivial by comparison a Koran splashed with urine, a prisoner smeared with red ink and told it was menstrual fluid. Homicide is suspected in the deaths of about two dozen inmates out of more than 83,000 held at some point in the war on terror. That's a wrongful death rate of 0.02%, not exactly comparable to the gulags.
By and large, prisoners are well-treated and subjected to only the mildest forms of interrogation. Questioning of detainees in Iraq is governed by Army Field Manual 34-52, which "expressly prohibit[s] acts of violence or intimidation." Interrogators must stick with "psychological ploys, verbal trickery or other nonviolent or noncoercive ruses."
A few "enhanced" techniques were authorized for Al Qaeda operatives held at Guantanamo who had been trained to resist the stratagems described in this publicly available manual. For a brief period in 2002, authorized techniques included hooding detainees, removing their clothes and subjecting them to "stress positions," such as prolonged standing. But, according to an independent commission headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, all of these methods have been outlawed since 2003, leaving only a handful of techniques not found in the Army manual, such as "sleep adjustment" (changing sleeping hours, not denying sleep altogether), "Mutt and Jeff" (the good cop/bad cop routine) and an "MRE-only diet" (feeding prisoners what our troops eat in the field talk about cruel and unusual punishment!).
Beyond Gitmo, the CIA has apparently used rougher methods on a dozen top Al Qaeda captives, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to ABC News, interrogators have been given authority to slap them, strip them, make them stand for prolonged periods and even "waterboard" them, which involves wrapping cellophane over a subject's face and pouring water on it to induce a feeling of drowning. None of these techniques is supposed to cause injury, but they induce so much mental trauma they probably qualify as torture albeit a much milder and more justified form of torture than what the Baathists practiced.
Now Congress wants to outlaw these methods said to have yielded valuable intelligence by passing a prohibition on "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment. Even the "enhanced" techniques employed at Gitmo may not survive. The McCain amendment may make sense as a public relations move to counter a tidal wave of negative publicity. But it could lead to an anomalous result: a system that treats captured terrorists better than we treat our own soldiers.
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Max Boot is Olin Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He is also a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times. To comment, please click here.
© 2005, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate