[Ppnews] Visiting the Torture Museum - Barbarism Then and Now

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Sat Feb 23 12:57:29 EST 2008

Visiting the Torture Museum

Barbarism Then and Now

February 23, 2008 By Karen J. Greenberg
Source: <http://www.tomdispatch>TomDispatch

Sometimes a little stroll through history can have its uses. Take, as 
an example, the continuing debate over torture in post-9/11 America. 
Last week, Stephen Bradbury, the head of the Justice Department's 
Office of Legal Counsel, testified before the House Judiciary 
Committee about waterboarding. In defending its use, Bradbury took a 
deep dive into the past. He claimed that the CIA's waterboarding of 
at least three of its prisoners bore "no resemblance" to what 
torturers in the Spanish Inquisition had done when they used what was 
then called "the Water Torture."

As part of his defense of the techniques used by the Bush 
administration to gain information, Bradbury went out of his way to 
play the historian, claiming that the water torture of yore differed 
from today's American-style version in crucial ways. The 
waterboarding employed by interrogators during the infamous Spanish 
Inquisition, he 
"involved the forced consumption of a mass amount of water." This 
led, he claimed, to the "lungs filling with water" to the point of 
"agony and death." The CIA, on the other hand, employed "strict time 
limits," "safeguards," and "restrictions," making it a far more 
controlled technique. As he 
<http://harpers.org/archive/2008/02/hbc-90002418>put it: "[S]omething 
can be quite distressing or uncomfortable, even frightening, [but] if 
it doesn't involve severe physical pain, and it doesn't last very 
long, it may not constitute severe physical suffering" -- and so 
would not qualify as torture. Bradbury summed up his historical case 
this way, "There's been a lot of discussion in the public about 
historical uses of waterboarding," but the "only thing in common is 
the use of water."

To remind readers, Bradbury is the government lawyer who, in 2005, 
secret memos authorizing the use of freezing temperatures, and 
waterboarding in CIA attempts to break terrorism detainees. Nor is 
Bradbury the only one with the urge to distinguish any current 
American proclivity towards torture from the barbaric procedures used 
until the Enlightenment set in. As Senator Joseph Lieberman commented 
last week, <http://www.connpost.com/localnews/ci_8265434>citing 
another medieval torture technique, waterboarding "is not like 
putting burning coals on people's bodies. The person is in no real 
danger. The impact is psychological." Waterboarding isn't torture, 
both men claimed, because it leaves no "permanent damage."

Visiting the Water Table

It's here that our stroll down history's narrow, medieval lanes comes 
in. Anyone curious to test Bradbury's historical accuracy should 
consider a visit to one of the dozens of torture museums that dot 
Europe's landscape. Why not, for instance, the bluntly named Torture 
Museum in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. Unlike other 
European memorials to torture, such as the Clink Prison in London and 
the torture museums in Florence and San Gimigniano, this modest 
two-story building in a former private home in Prague's historic Old 
Town is a relative newcomer to the continent's penchant for recording 
its past mistakes.

Upon entering one of a series of gloomy, cave-like rooms, filled with 
the implements of the dismal craft that had its heyday from the 
fifteenth to the eighteenth century, you would notice a range of 
mechanical devices and iron tools (also illustrated in drawings 
galore), all once meant to pierce, prod, or otherwise drive some poor 
heretic into the agony of confession. Often in those years before 
video cameras were available, all this was done in public sight.

And then, as you wound your way through the exhibit, you would come 
upon one of its centerpiece displays -- the "water torture table" to 
which Bradbury alludes. After you'd checked out the period drawings 
of prisoners being tied to the edges of the flat tabletop or read 
about the interrogation method in which the water-filled abdomen was 
struck repeatedly with heavy blows, you might stop for a moment to 
consider the more detailed explanatory text nearby.

It would inform you that, over the course of these centuries, several 
water torture techniques were developed, one of which involved 
"inserting a cloth tube into the mouth of the victim [and] forcing it 
as deep as possible into his throat. The tube was then filled slowly 
with water, swelling up and choking the victim." This is, in fact, an 
almost exact description of what has been described as CIA-style 
waterboarding. Former interrogation expert Malcolm Nance, once an 
instructor for the U.S. military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, 
Resistance, and Escape) training program -- said to have been the 
template for some of the interrogation techniques the Bush 
administration developed -- himself experienced waterboarding. He 
described the process this way:

"Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the 
agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then 
feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to 
involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word...

"Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, 
occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator 
and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, 
as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to 
simulate that. The victim is drowning. How much the victim is to 
drown depends on the desired result (in the form of answers to 
questions shouted into the victim's face) and the obstinacy of the subject."

The similarity in methods across a torture gulf of at least four 
centuries would have been but the first of many striking lessons for 
our modern moment from a tour of this museum, only steps from the 
famed Charles Bridge with its own medieval and religious statues, a 
museum modest in everything but its subject matter. Perhaps the 
eeriest lesson would be just how many of the torture techniques 
illustrated in these rooms are still painfully recognizable, are, in 
fact but minor variations on those practiced today in America's name.

Take, for example, those etchings of the strappado or "jerking" in 
which the arms were pulled up behind the prisoner in what would now 
be called a "stress position" before he would be "jerked" or dropped 
painfully. The weights and leather ties on display are perhaps a 
reminder that a version of the strappado is perhaps the most common 
form of torture reportedly used throughout America's offshore prison 
systems today. It is called "short shackling."

And don't forget the Vigil or Cradle of Judas, which today we far 
more mundanely term "sleep deprivation." Or what about the medieval 
use of cold water sprinkled onto naked bodies (another kind of water 
torture), today mimicked with what official documents call "exposure 
to freezing temperatures"? Of course, with those infamous photos from 
Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in mind, you would have no trouble 
recognizing the persistent themes of nakedness and sexual humiliation 
endemic to what no one back in the less civilized days of the 
Inquisition hesitated to label "torture."

Torture Lite

As you wandered through the Prague Torture Museum, noting all the 
practices other than waterboarding that have their modern American 
equivalents, you shouldn't skip past the medieval forms of torture 
the United States doesn't practice. Scattered through these precincts 
are terrifying mechanical devices and tools that once led to 
permanent physical damage and often to the death of those being 
questioned. Take the Virgin of Nuremberg, a full-body casket studded 
with spikes meant to slowly pierce any living being closed inside and 
sure to cause a long, agonizing death.

Then, there's the Bock, often called the Witch's Billy Goat, a wood 
pyramid designed to pierce the genitals, and that torture shown in 
classic Hollywood medieval costume dramas, the Rack, in which the 
human body was literally stretched beyond the tearing point, or the 
Garrote, an instrument whose sole task was to crush the head.

Had Stephen Bradbury come along with you, eager to discover the 
differences between pre-Enlightenment torture and today's "enhanced 
interrogation" methods, he might feel satisfied indeed as he passed 
through this part of the exhibit -- if, that is, he avoided the 
accompanying texts that sit on small easels near these horrifying 
arrays of instruments. For on them, you and he would find the theory 
that lay behind the practices of those torturers from a barbaric 
past, and he would discover that those torturers of old, like his 
colleagues in the Bush administration, distinguished between torture 
and Torture Lite. The former was indeed meant to result in permanent 
damage or simply death. The latter was consciously meant to cause 
"mere" suffering, however protracted.

Reading these texts, Bradbury might find himself uncomfortably at 
home. After all, his Justice Department has followed similar 
reasoning, although, unlike medieval torturers, its practitioners 
have used it as the basis for distinguishing between torture and what 
they like to describe as "enhanced interrogation techniques." They 
have, in other words, declared part of the Spanish Inquisition's 
torture techniques too lenient to qualify as torture. This is perhaps 
their unique achievement.

Medieval torturers, of course, hadn't had the benefit of the 
Enlightenment and modern American civilization when they failed to 
make this fundamental distinction. They did not understand that the 
infliction of "mere suffering" did not qualify as torture.

If Bradbury were being honest with himself, however, he would 
certainly recognize a parallel between the medieval distinctions and 
those made by 
predecessor as head of the Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo. In his 
<http://www.thenation.com/doc/20040628/scheer0615>infamous "Torture 
Memo" of August 2002, Yoo parsed the definition of torture this way: 
"[Torture] must be of an intensity akin to that which accompanies 
serious physical injury such as death or organ failure... Because the 
acts inflicting torture are extreme, there is [a] significant range 
of acts that though they might constitute cruel, inhuman, or 
degrading treatment or punishment fail to rise to the level of torture."

In terms of torture as it was understood from medieval times until 
the Enlightenment, what American interrogators have inflicted on 
terror suspects in secret prisons around the world has amounted 
"only" to Torture Lite, now redefined as "mere suffering" and so not 
really torture at all. As Bradbury reminded congresspeople just the 
other day, what we do is, by definition, not torture. Following Yoo's 
and Bradbury's lead, <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9956644/>the 
President, two Attorney Generals, and 
Secretary of State have joined in the same chorus, repeatedly 
insisting that "we do not torture." And in John Yoo's terms, echoing 
pre-Enlightenment understandings, we don't.

Now, if Bradbury were to stop off by that Water Torture table on his 
way out of the museum and then opened his catalogue of the show, he 
might be intrigued to discover as succinct a legitimization of his 
form of torture as any he offered Congress. The catalogue follows a 
passage noting that the medieval water torture "in all of its 
variations, was considered 'light'" with this: "...and any eventual 
confession obtained through this technique was considered by the 
courts to be 'spontaneous' and obtained without the application of torture."

If this isn't a moving example of the brotherhood of torturers across 
the centuries, what is? After all, just as in the distant past, there 
has, in recent years, been purpose behind the seeming madness with 
which the Bush administration embraced torture and then repeatedly 
insisted on calling it not-torture. The purpose centuries ago was to 
have any confessions admissible in court -- and this, certainly, was 
what Yoo and his colleagues must have been hoping for all along. In 
the specific cases of the three detainees whom top administration 
officials have recently admitted were waterboarded -- Khalid Sheikh 
Mohammed, Ibn al Shayk al-Libbi, and Abu Zubaydah -- their 
confessions, obtained by a range of "enhanced interrogation 
techniques," have repeatedly been called trustworthy, valuable, and 
conclusive as to guilt by administration spokespeople.

Someday, Americans will have to reckon with this period of time -- 
and with a group of leaders who were more comfortable with 
definitions out of the darker ages than ones out of the Enlightenment 
era. This administration's bold flirtation with torture, 
medieval-style, has led us into sorry company, whether in the past or 
the present. Its top officials told the world they would do "what it 
takes" in their war on terror and in the Middle East, with or without 
allies. They then chose to leave the family of nations and take up 
kinship in the family of torturers.

Someday, our children may travel to Washington and somewhere near the 
Smithsonian and the Holocaust Museum, perhaps they, like the Czechs 
and other Europeans, will be able to visit their own official torture 
museum. There, a step from the Potomac River, they will be able to 
view strange instruments for inflicting pain and perhaps even watch 
horrifying videos of torture happening. And they may wonder how we 
ever faltered so miserably when it came to a war that was supposed to 
be on terror, but ended up adopting the worst traditions of terror in 
the Age of Barbarism Lite.

Karen J. Greenberg, the Executive Director of the Center on Law and 
Security at the NYU School of Law, is the editor of the 
Debate in America and, with Joshua Dratel, 
Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib as well as the forthcoming The 
Enemy Combatant Papers: American Justice, the Courts and the War on 
Terror (Cambridge University Press, April 2008).

[This article first appeared on 
<http://www.tomdispatch.com/>Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation 
Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and 
opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, 
co-founder of <http://www.americanempireproject.com/>the American 
Empire Project and author of 
End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), which has 
just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals 
with victory culture's crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.]

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