The Wilberforce instinct re-appears today in George Will’s superb and important column on prison reform. It’s worth reading in full. He brings some righteousness to the need to tackle prisoner abuse – primarily solitary confinement, and its essential nature as torture. He cites the words of the federal law defining torture (rare in the conservative media), words that plainly refute the Bush administration’s continued, ludicrous argument that they didn’t torture people – an argument still used by the Republican party with a straight face, when they don’t avoid the topic altogether.
But look at the zig-zag in the first paragraph:
“Zero Dark Thirty,” a nominee for Sunday’s Oscar for Best Picture, reignited debate about whether the waterboarding of terrorism suspects was torture. This practice, which ended in 2003, was used on only three suspects. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of American prison inmates are kept in protracted solitary confinement that arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
Notice that “meanwhile,” which I italicized. Can you hear the tires screech? It seems to me that Will is saying that solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time is torture. And yet he also wants to imply that the full extent of the torture carried out by the Bush-Cheney administration was three waterboarded suspects. He implies we are missing the real scandal for a minor one.
But surely George Will knows that indefinite solitary confinement was routine for many, many prisoners in the war on Jihadist terror under Bush – and critically, deliberately combined with other torture techniques to intensify the impact on the human psyche. Here’s what Will rightly notes about solitary confinement:
Supermax prisons isolate inmates from social contact. Often prisoners are in their cells, sometimes smaller than 8 by 12 feet, 23 hours a day, released only for a shower or exercise in a small fenced-in outdoor space. Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.
They do; and Will’s column is dead-on about our relative equanimity when it comes to this cruel, brutal androutine violation of American law. We cannot campaign against torture when it is committed in the war on Jihadist terrorism and ignore the torture our domestic prison system is perpetuating. We can’t worry about the treatment of foreign alleged enemy combatants if we do not worry about US citizens who are treated the same way.
So allow me to introduce Mr Will to another US citizen, Jose Padilla. What he went through gives a whole new meaning to the terms “solitary confinement”.
Padilla was arrested without any formal charges and put in solitary for three and a half years. He was not just isolated; he was subjected to “total sensory deprivation.” He never knew night from day; he couldn’t sleep because they blasted noise at him day in day out; he was even manacled, deafened and goggled when taken for dental treatment (see photos above) so the total isolation and destruction of his psyche wouldn’t be interrupted. He lived in a nightmare world of darkness, deafness and total isolation for three years. And he was a US citizen, detained and tortured in a navy brig.
Here is what one of his psychiatric evaluators said when it became a serious question whether the torture had rendered him mentally incapable for the trial that eventually took place:
Number one, his family, more than anything, and his friends, who had a chance to see him by the time I spoke with them, said he was changed. There was something wrong. There was something very “weird” — was the word one of his siblings used — something weird about him. There was something not right. He was a different man. And the second thing was his absolute state of terror, terror alternating with numbness, largely. It was as though the interrogators were in the room with us. He was like — perhaps like a trauma victim who knew that they were going to be sent back to the person who hurt them and that he would, as I said earlier, he would subsequently pay a price if he revealed what happened.
Here is how he appeared to one lawyer after the torture:
“During questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel.”
This sounds to me an extreme example of a fact that Will is rightly bringing to light: “prisoners often lose their minds.” But this kind of torture was done to almost everyone at Gitmo and far worse at countless black sites. Here is another specific case, that of al Qahtani, as recorded by the FBI:
“[He] was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end).”
I am writing this not to hammer Will for being unwilling to confront these war crimes when they were discovered. I am writing to say that his review of Zero Dark Thirty and this latest column make him the most prominent establishment conservative journalist to, as he put it, “look facts, including choices, in the face.” He wrote this of the ghastly phrase “enhanced interrogations” or what the Gestapo called Verchaerfte Vernehmung:
“In the end, everybody breaks, bro — it’s biology,” says the CIA man in the movie, tactically but inaccurately, to the detainee undergoing “enhanced interrogation.” This too familiar term has lost its capacity for making us uneasy.
America’s Vietnam failure was foretold when U.S. officials began calling air attacks on North Vietnam “protective reaction strikes,” a semantic obfuscation that revealed moral queasiness. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, who warned about governments resorting to “long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
We may be seeing a crack in the conservative edifice of lies and newspeak that was constructed to protect Republican officials from legal responsibility for what were clearly war crimes in a country that since 2002 has been in violation of the Geneva Conventions it helped create. I sure hope so. And if conservatism can turn its endorsement of torture into a movement for prison reform, it might go some way to repair the damage.
But first: honesty about what was done. George Will is slowly, gingerly moving toward it. Will others follow?
(Photo: An Iraqi prisoner peers from his solitary confinement cell in the criminal section of the prison October 28, 2005 on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. The solid structure of the Abu Ghraib prison complex, infamous for photos of prisoner abuse in 2003, is now in the hands of Iraqi authorities, who house about 1,000 criminal prisoners at the site. The U.S. military, meanwhile, has about 4,600 suspected insurgents housed in tents on the same compound. By John Moore/Getty Images.)