"OK, so some 6'5'' dude that looks like a pro wrestler rapes and kills 10 men with his bare hands. Because capital punishment is now abolished, he is sentenced to life in prison and put in a cell with YOU." OK, so with the death penalty this dude is in a cell with someone like Cameron Todd Willingham for twenty-five years while their appeals are working their way through the system. Better? How?
To your reader who expressed concern regarding what to do with lifers who act out in prison; two words: Solitary Confinement. For the rest of their lives.
The scenario described is one of the reasons for different security levels in the prison system. Non-violent offenders are separated from violent ones, and the most violent end up in maximum security prisons in solitary confinement. Death row inmates spend years in prison and are placed in solitary confinement for the same reason the violent inmate sentenced to life in prison ends up in solitary. But however unjust solitary confinement would be for someone wrongly convicted, it will always have the chance for a meaningful exoneration, unlike the death penalty.
What's more humane about imprisoning a human being for their lifetime instead of killing them? This has always baffled me.
Jean Casella and James Ridgeway reprint the declaration of Thomas Silverstein, a prisoner "held in an extreme form of solitary confinement under a 'no human contact' order for 28 years":
I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world. …
I was born while shots were being fired outside of the hospital and my father was in his car across the street listening to BBC Radio. Hours later, on February 11, 1979, what was left of the Shah's military announced its neutrality and by that the Iranian revolution ended 2500 years of monarchy. The Islamic Republic was soon established and by the time I could pronounce the name of the leader of the revolution, the freedoms and democracy he had promised had been replaced with the iron fist of a small circle of his loyal revolutionaries.
At age 18, I was one of the millions of hopeful Iranians who stood in line to vote for the only presidential candidate who was no longer part of that circle. The nation stunned the regime's leadership on that spring day of 1997. The under dog became the President and the "reform" movement was born. The new supreme leader and his allies in the regime apparatus spent the next eight years blocking all his efforts of change, arresting many of his supporters and shutting down free press. I was one of the many victims of that crackdown. After spending 63 days in solitary confinement at age 20, I left Iran.
A few year later, when many had also lost hope and the reformist opposition was in political disarray, the supreme leader managed to manoeuvre Ahamdi Nejad into the President's chair. And four years of massive crackdown and scaling back of the limited freedoms began.
As I read Glenn Greenwald's post on the conditions under which Bradley Manning is being held, mentioned before in this Dish roundup, I cannot help but reflect upon how much less I trust my own country now on matters concerning the treatment of prisoners, whether they're accused of crimes, already convicted, or stuck in War on Terror limbo. It just wouldn't surprise me very much if we were abusing someone and covering it up, though of course we'd never be so Third World as to use crude tools like drills or needles: sensory deprivation, water boarding, and long term isolation is more America's style because the lack of marks enables us to persist in the self-delusion that we aren't a country capable of behaving barbarically.
In my opinion, locking up someone who has not presented any kind of threat to other prisoners and who has not been convicted of a crime for months on end in solitary confinement under tight restrictions is torture. It's horrible enough to do it someone who has been convicted, but using these techniques on someone you are trying to get to testify against someone else cannot be seen in any other light.
Glenn Greenwald brings our attention to the 22-year-old accused of leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, and the conditions of his incarceration:
From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell.
The story about that poor woman who was foolish enough to screw with that cat reminded me of one of my biggest "Everyboy Else is Crazy" things: The way that most people are far more concerned about the welfare of animals than the welfare of children. On the same day this woman shut a cat in a garbage can, how many children were abused in Britain? Why haven't any of those become international news stories? It's not just the presence of video. Here's another example that illustrates the point: My father is a juvenile criminal attorney, and about five years ago, he had a doozy of a case. A 13-year-old from the local Russian immigrant community soaked a cat in gasoline and lit it on fire. Tragic. A horrible thing to do. The result was that someone found the poor animal still alive and took it to a vet. The vet named the cat "Purr-Purr" and kept it alive for THREE WEEKS, performing a series of skin grafts, before the cat finally died. There was local and then national news coverage. My father defended the kid in court. He got literally hundreds of letters from all over the country, many suggesting that the kid be killed – burned to death just as he had done to the cat – or at the very least be locked up in solitary confinement for the rest of his natural life. This Russian kid? He was 13. He'd been horrifically abused at the hands of a series of relatives. His IQ was in the low eighties. He was scared shitless, pissed off at the world, and he made a terrible mistake. But did he deserve to be killed? Was what he did so much more horrible than what was done to him?
With the distressing news of so many democracy activists being rounded up by the Iranian regime, the specter of torture for false confessions emerges. The confessions "prove" that the demonstrations were entirely a function of a foreign plot. And, more to the point, the torture techniques include those adopted and championed by the neocon right in the US. Among the Cheney techniques that are used by the Khemenai regime are sleep deprivation, forced nudity, beatings, solitary confinement, and stress positions. The torture also exceeds Cheney techniques in many cases: beating with cables, which was barred by Cheney in favor of beatings that did not leave such scars or "walling". The Tehran regime does not have a record of waterboarding. Khamenei's regime, like Cheney's program, denies outright that they torture anyone.
And here's what the neocon right has to confront: if they refuse to believe that the victims of this regime are telling the truth, on what grounds do they believe the "evidence" that Cheney tortured out of America's prisoners?
The latest NYT euphemism for torture is "intense interrogation," another plausible translation of the Gestapo term, " by the British in Northern Ireland in 1972, the NYT called them "torture and brainwashing", which is exactly what the Cheney techniques are designed to accomplish. In 1996, the NYT ran a story on reports of "torture" in Brazil, which included "being kept naked in a cold cell," the Gestapo specialty that Cheney made standard procedure for the US. In 1997, in reporting on the CIA's record in training torturers in Latin America in the early 1980s, the NYT used the terms "psychological torture" and "mental torture" to describe long-time standing, stress positions, "deep exhaustion", and solitary confinement.
In 1998, the NYT reported on the CIA's training of Palestinian security forces. The Times reported that the CIA had dropped all last-resort use of physical torture in 1985, but also what they called "mental torture." In discussing allegations of torture by the Palestinian security services, the NYT noted a relevant fact as support for the claim: 18 prisoners had died in custody during interrogation. Even after a hundred deaths have now been recorded under the Cheney torture regime, the NYT refuses to call it torture. In 1999, in contrast, the NYT reported on "allegations of torture" in China that amounted to "beatings and solitary confinement".
Perhaps one clue to their shift can be found in their treatment of the case of Israeli torture in the 1990s. The torture Shin Bet used was the Cheney version. In 1992, the NYT reported that Palestinian prisoners had been "deprived of sleep for days and tied up in painful positions for many hours, often with their heads hooded." Another prisoner was "forced to stand handcuffed with a hood over his head in the bitter cold." Sound familiar? This brutality became "standard procedure" for most Palestinians subject to serious interrogation. The Israeli security services came up with their own euphemism, as governments usually do when they are torturing prisoners. Theirs was "moderate physical pressure." Here's an example:
The narrative that still lives in the minds of many Americans about the torture program of Bush and Cheney is exemplified by Pat Boone's simply uninformed column in the Christianist site, WorldNetDaily. Let's unpack it a little, shall we? Item one:
When Dan Rather and CBS obtained classified photos of reprehensible actions at Abu Ghraib and plastered them all over the world, they were committing near treason in a desperate effort to bring down George W. Bush. They knew that the military had already stopped those actions and initiated punishment, and it was being handled "in house," appropriately. But CBS exploited them anyway, with no regard to our country's image.
If you read the Senate Armed Services Committee report, you will discover that the torture and abuse techniques we saw in those photos from Abu Ghraib had been approved by the president, tested at Guantanamo Bay and moved to Iraq, as torture became the central intelligence-gathering tool in Bush's war. Far from having been ended by early 2004, they were being entrenched in a forward-looking program in 2005, as the OLC Memos show.
Item two in sentences addressed directly to the president:
May I tell you that my own mama inflicted more actual physical pain on me and my brother Nick – raising welts on our butts with a sewing machine belt when we got really out of line – than any of the techniques, including "waterboarding," that detainees of the U.S. military have endured. Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed endured it supposedly 183 times, experiencing no lasting damage, but divulging information that has saved thousands of American lives. How can you compare his gasping feeling of drowning with the actual torture John McCain suffered in North Vietnam, breaking his bones and impairing him permanently?
Some facts: John McCain disagrees with Boone that waterboarding isn't torture. And McCain broke his bones before captivity. The torture McCain suffered was the Vietnamese refusing to offer medical treatment for his injuries – something George W. Bush directly wanted to do with respect to the wounds of Abu Zubaydah. McCain was beaten repeatedly, also routine for prisoners under George W. Bush. McCain was also subject to solitary confinement – check – and roped stress positions. The stress positions Bush authorized were mainly not ropes, although prisoners were stretched from shackles preventing them from resting. President Bush refrained in his speech backing McCain's nomination in 2008 from describing McCain's treatment as "torture." He couldn't. He used the term "beatings and isolation". If he had used the term "torture", he would have been conceding that he believes the US committed torture under his command.
Doug Jehl, who's the Washington editor for the New York Times, explains today why his paper cannot use the word "torture" to describe "waterboarding" when no legal or political or cultural authority from the Spanish Inquisition until the Bush administration ever doubted for a moment that it was torture:
“I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?”
How about on the same basis that the museum that documents Khmer Rouge torture includes a room for the waterboard (see above)? Would Jehl hesitate for a minute in describing Khmer Rouge waterboarding as torture? So why does he have lower standards for the US than for Cambodia's genocidal regime? How about on the basis that the State Department uses the word torture when other countries use waterboarding and many of the other techniques used by Bush and Cheney:
In Jordan, for example, the State Department observes that “the most frequently alleged methods of torture are sleep deprivation, beatings, and extended solitary confinement.” In State Department reports on other countries, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, forced standing, hypothermia, blindfolding, and deprivation of food and water are specifically referred to as torture.
How about a clear domestic legal precedent where the Supreme Court of Mississippi, in 1926 no less, reversed the murder conviction of an African-American man because it found that he had been waterboarded by a local sherrif, a procedure described as "a specie of torture well known to the bench and bar of the country," and "barbarous." How about clear legal precedents in Texas that plainly find waterboarding torture and thereby illegal?