Friday, June 01, 2007

Lessons in Torture from the Nazis, Russians, and Chinese

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).

Andrew Sullivan is creating quite a stir on the internet with his post on the Gestapo's interrogation techniques. Loosely translated as "enhanced interrogation techniques" they include food deprivation, hard beds, dark cells (sensory deprivation), sleep deprivation, and exhaustion exercises. Sullivan notes that the guidelines are quite strict about when these techniques can be used, and that the idea was to torture in a way that left no marks. Of course, if these "techniques" are familiar, it is because they are remarkly similar to those put in place by the Bush administration. Note that the Gestapo list is actually more restrictive, insofar as it excludes hypothermia and the Khmer Rouge-perfected technique of waterboarding. Also, as time passed, the restrictions placed on these techniques became more fluid, as, in the words of Sullivan, torture takes on a life of its own. Of course, a Catholic would recognize the power of evil to corrupt...

At the same time, Talking Points Memo notes yet another antecedent for the Bush torture techniques: the Soviet Union and communist China. During the cold war, US special forces received training in how to survive the kind of techniques that might befall them should they be captured. Such techniques included sleep deprivation, isolation, sexual humiliation, nudity, exposure to extremes of cold, stress positions, sensory deprivation (visual and auditory), exploiting prisoners phobias (notably fear of dogs), and threats against family members. Sound familiar? These techniques morphed from what the US feared would be used against them by brutal dictatorships into techniques they themselves used.

Sullivan also discusses a fascinating case from Norway in 1948, whereby three Germans were on trial for using these "enhanced interrogation techniques". The court convicted the Germans of war crimes, and rejected the "following orders" defense. On their side, the nazis argued that the torture techniques did not result in death or "permanent disablement". Exactly as Bush administration official John Yoo defined torture: "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function." Is this how far down the moral quagmire the US has sunk?

For more on the Catholic approach to torture see here.

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