Charlie's Diary

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Thu, 06 May 2004

Nothing new here ...

I'm back home again, exhausted from my travels but otherwise unharmed. I am, however, catching up on the news from the past week. It's funny how, deprived of regular net bandwidth and stuck in the pressure-cooker environment of a science fiction convention the real world tends to recede. So it's only really over the past day or so that the significance of the news from Iraq and Abu Ghraib prison began to sink in.

With twenty-five deaths in US military custody (including incidents described as murder to a BBC correspondent) being investigated, and photographic evidence of war crimes (euphemistically described as "Iraqi Prisoners Controvery" by the Washington Post) surfacing, I am reminded that we've been here before.

By way of example, in 1971, during the early stages of the Northern Ireland insurgency, when internment was introduced a special system of interrogation (sometimes known as the "Ulster Hybrid") was introduced:

Twelve of 342 arrested men were subjected to several techniques which appeared to serve as pre-interrogation procedures. This included placing a black bag over their heads ('hooding'); being made to stand against a wall with their hands held high above their heads and legs apart for up to 16 hours at a stretch and being deprived of sleep for the first two or three days. In addition, the rooms where the men were left had recorded "white noise" played in them and the men were made to wear boiler suits (perhaps to reduce tactile stimulation). It was also alleged that the men's diets were severely restricted to occasional administrations of dry bread and cups of water (British Medical Association, 1986, pp.15-16; Shallice, 1972, p.388). The British Army termed this "interrogation in depth" and the methods used (hooding, noise bombardment, food deprivation, sleep deprivation and forced standing positions) were known collectively as the "five techniques" (Hogg, 2003). At the time, the UK government stated that these procedures were necessary in order to "provide security for detainees and guards", an "atmosphere of discipline" and to prevent inter-prisoner communication (BMA, 1986, pp.15-16).

(From Psychology and the war on terror by Dave Harper.)

This mistreatment has extremely serious side-effects:

Three men later seen by professor Daly, an Irish psychiatrist at University College, Cork, were reported to have become "psychotic" within 24 hours of the beginning of the interrogation. The symptoms were loss of the sense of time, perceptual disturbance leading to hallucinations, profound apprehension and depression, and delusional beliefs. One man is said to have heard and seen a choid conducted by the protesant leader, Ian Paisley; another could not stop himself from urinating in his trousers and on his mattress; a number had suicidal fantasies. Shallice reports that most other cases of hooding suffered severe mental injuries after it was all over and that almost all of Daly's other patient (20 in all) had overt psychiatric illness. Anxiety, fear, dread, as well as insomnia, nightmares and startle respose were common; depression was almost universal. Psychosomatic symptoms such as peptic ulcers had developed rapidly.

(Quoted from "War on the Mind: The military uses and abuses of psychology", Peter Watson, ISBN 0 14 02 2300 2, pub. Pelican, 1980.)

It should be noted that the British government discontinued the use of these techniques after the Irish government took the case to the European Commission of Human Rights in the early 1970's, where it was deemed that these techniques certainly fitted the relevant definition of torture under the Geneva Conventions (read down a little way to see it). But it would appear that the old and bloody tools were not forgotten; they were just set aside, discussed and remembered still, to await the arrival of a more conveniently dehumanized victim. And if there's just one species of dehumanized hate-figure in the west today, it's got to be the Islamicist terrorist.

Other bloggers (notable picks: Kathryn Cramer and Rivka) are all over the subject of what's going on at present. But I've got a nasty feeling that what we're seeing isn't merely the tip of an iceberg confined to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the tip of an iceberg of institutionalized torture at the heart of all western attempts to deal with the question of Islamicist terrorists.

Ignorance and impatience are a fatal combination, and I find it frighteningly easy to believe that intelligence agencies, short of trained interpreters and cultural experts, are resorting to more and more brutal techniques to try to break the will to resistance of suspected terrorists. The slippery slope argument applies in spades: if you're holding someone who may know where the ticking bomb is planted today, and can justify torturing them to make them confess, why not torture the friend of a friend of an acquaintance of the guy who might plant a bomb next week? And so the pervasive sense of urgency surrounding the War On Terrorism (as exemplified by the rhetoric and the term itself), combined with a level of ingrained contempt and hostility towards the culture of the suspects, leads to corner-cutting of the most brutal kind imaginable.

Which is to say: I think the torture is symptomatic of a much deeper malaise at the heart of the neoconservative program to restructure the Middle East. It's the same disease that enabled another cultured, well-educated western society two thirds of a century ago to efficiently and systematically brutalize half a continent: the conviction that the Other is backward, ill-educated, unworthy of tolerance, brutish, must needs be governed for their own good and punished for rebellion against the self-evidently correct policies of the superpower ... you can't justify the invasion and occupation of other nations these days without espousing a belief that their citizens are morally, intellectually, or ideologically inferior. To view someone as inferior in one of these ways is to dehumanize them. And, once dehumanized, they become fair game for the most odious of practices: collective punishment, suspension of civil rights, torture, and finally mass murder of civilians -- whether by gas chamber or cluster bomb makes no difference.

This is a wake-up call. We aren't just on the slippery slope, we're two-thirds of the way down it and trying on the jackboots for fit.

(Meanwhile, I see that US army forces have entered Najaf. Where do I go to hand back my "member of the human species" badge?)

[Discuss Iraq invasion]

posted at: 19:53 | path: /wartime | permanent link to this entry


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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
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Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
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Bruce Sterling ]
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Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
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This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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