Gaslighting: the use of torture under Obama

On this most august and holy month of Ramadan, the coverage of hunger strikers at Guantanamo has taken on a whole new depth of human rights violations: piling over indefinite detention, military camp, inhumane detention facilities, we are now adding torture to the list. If abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo is sadly nothing new, the force-feeding of the hunger strikers has been widely documented. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, there is a debate on whether or not force feeding inmates chained to a chair through a nasogastric tube constitutes torture. Perfectly reminiscent of the very same kafka-esque “conversation” on the use of waterboarding as a interrogation method, it seems we are only collectively, nationally adding question marks at the end of simple statements because we refuse to believe they are true. We create subjectivity because well documented, legally astute facts become impossible to digest. This is what the Obama Administration has proved to be masterful at: the art of gaslighting.

Waterboarding was torture. In fact, it still is. There would be no need of undergoing the shock of seeing an intelligence agency’s nominee stating facts if it had been recognized as such when practiced. Beautiful, poetic euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” or slightly more ominous ones related to “stress and duress” all refer to the use of prohibited actions taken against individuals, citizens or not, charged or not, in custody of law enforcement and/or military, worldwide. As time went on and the watch of human rights organisations progressed, the use of more subtle forms of torture – like the British “five techniques” – aimed at circumventing international law. When using different methods was not appropriate, playing on territoriality laws could easily be done with the practice of rendition. Torture is reprehensible; it sends the collective consciousness back to medieval times of Iron Maidens and witches at stakes and the drawing and quartering of Guy Fawkes. Here lies the problem though: those methods belong in a distant past, when humanity was devoid of empathy, bathing in the bloodshed of constant wars, and tyranny was the only political system we had known. Revolutions, Enlightenment and the Nüremberg Trials sought to give us rules to live by. But the practice perdures; we just label them differently.

The public was shocked by Abu Ghraib because the photos released were indeed images of an obscure, dark age of cruelty and systematic dehumanisation. The war in Iraq and abuses by US armed forces were said to be provoked by extreme duress suffered by soldiers under guerrilla warfare; under lack of proper training on interaction with civilians; and a seemingly absent accountability. Soldiers were extremely young, sent to a country they didn’t know fighting a war they didn’t understand facing an enemy they couldn’t identify using weapons they could not see. Abu Ghraib was horrifying in that it brought the public closer to the atrocities of war, the destruction of the human psyche, and the compartmentalisation of conflict. It was the brutality and senselessness of the Bush era; before him, war was supposed to be not just clean, but “just”, approved by international organisations and using sanctioned weaponry by highly trained military personel. The War On Terror™ reverted back to our most basic, primal instincts. When Obama took office, he swore to change; words like “transparency” and “accountability” were used. Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize, could surely not violate the CAT so close to the 25th anniversary of its signature. A constitutional law professor could surely understand the binding principles of international conventions. Besides, America had evolved as a nation; it was understood no one could possibly win the hearts and minds of foreign populations while capturing their citizens in the night and electrocuting them in the name of intelligence gathering.

But Guantanamo has always remained a dark stain on Obama’s lyricism on foreign policy. First claiming he would close to shameful and illegal military base, he let the movement simmer down and inmates fester. To this day, among 166 prisoners, around half have been cleared for release in 2009, yet still detained. The rest are still awaiting charges. The very fact that this system exists – and does so outside of the realm of civil law – is in itself a massive human rights violation. But the abuses are rampant, in a zone outside of continental America, guarded by military, where no visitation rights are granted, and the legal status of inmates is vaguely unknown. Enemy combatants, terrorists, aiding and abaiting criminals, whichever way you look at them, the very fact those appellations are created in a text that is a constitutional exception should raise all possible red flags. How could an isolated island away from the prying eyes of Judge Kessler and consorts could be free of any abuses? Accountability exists precisely because history has proven, again and again, that use of force left to its own devices never checks itself. It runs amok and destroys. And in the case of Guantanamo, it is destroying under our very eyes. Thanks to the relentless work of Guantanamo attorneys and journalists such as Jeffrey Kaye, Jason Leopold and John Knefel, consistent reporting has been made. It would be hard for anyone now to claim that they did not know. But when the narrative becomes too painful to bear, when the ghost of collective responsibility creeps in at every election, the easiest way to cope with the deafening silence on the part of your chosen political champion is to… Change the narrative.

Because the most current example of double standards and political consciousness hypocrisy concerns the issue of state surveillance – intolerable under Bush but somewhat necessary under Obama – lets apply the same technique to the use of torture in a democratic society that is only supposedly at war in two countries. Waterboarding was severely decried under Bush by Democrats and other liberals; it was unacceptable, and Matthew Alexander had released an incredible and courageous book on the possibility of using alternative, legal interrogation methods in conflict zones. There seemed to be consensus – at least in places other than the far right and John Yoo’s offices – that torture was not only inacceptable, but that it was perfectly avoidable. But instead of understanding human rights law as a legal blanket of protection over all citizens, we legally created exceptions, and this rhetoric has persisted and bled into Obama’s foreign policy. It is not acceptable to torture, UNLESS: it is unacceptable to indefinitely detain someone without charge, UNLESS; it is impossible to waive Miranda rights, UNLESS; it is illegal to use military force in foreign lands without declaring war, UNLESS. This string of constitutional and international exception has morally – even if definitely not ethically – plagued the Obama Administration since it took office. And no place is more glaringly and obnoxiously standing in the face of the international rule of law than Guantanamo.

Kristine Huskey, from Physicians for Human Rights, testified at the time of the hunger strike:

Severe and lasting psychological trauma … caused by chronic states of stress, anxiety and dread, because these people at Guantánamo don’t know if they’re going to be released, if ever … all of this uncertainty and uncontrollability causes extreme stress on the immune system, the cardiovascular system. It leads to asthma, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, spread of cancer, viral infections, hypertension, depression, suicide, PTSD.

A hunger strike is a destructive and dangerous way to make yourself heard; but it has been the tool of the oppressed and desperate political prisoners for centuries, from South Africa to Northern Ireland. Most often these hunger strikers had nothing left to lose. They sought attention from the international community to shed a light on their plight. What a hunger strike means to convey is that the striker will willingly risk his or her life because his or her liberty is more valuable, especially if it benefits the collective in the long term. Guantanamo prisoners have nothing left to lose. They were deprived of their most basic rights under domestic and international law; they are detained for no apparent or declared reason; they know not of when their ordeal will cease; they are subjected to arbitrary abuse by armed forces which legitimacy to act is severely questioned. So, they are letting themselves die. But because the perspective of the death of an inmate in illegal US custody is a legal black hole the administration refuses to fall into, those inmates are now force-fed; put simply, nutrition is forced inside their body cavities, against their will, in the attempt to keep them alive. To save face. And this, in itself, is an act of torture. Self-inflicted starvation is destruction; medically supervised force feeding is torture and a sick twist on the Hippocratic oath. Several statements have been released against the force-feedings. And the irony of the holy month of Ramadan implying fasting until sunset means the force feedings will take place at night, in a disgustingly cynical display of pseudo respect of the inmates’ religion. There is no such thing as torturing a man according to his own religious rites. This is a farce.

Force-feeding has been declared as a form of torture and prohibited medical behavior in detention facilities by the Declaration of Tokyo, article 7; it has, of course, been classified as torture by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). The textbook reference on torture in democratic societies, compiled by Darius Rejali (1), classifies three models on the use of torture: the national security model, the juridical model, and the civic discipline model. On the topic of national security, referring to France and its control of French Algeria, Rejali explains:

What is important here is that democratic institutions were unwilling or unable to stop the turn to torture. One after the other, the judicial system, the legislature, the opposition parties, and the press failed. The police and military soon operated outside the law. In effect, they formed a closed state within the state. The military used its privileged position to establish covert torture, delay investigations, shape information, recruit political allies, and mobilize public opinion for the war. (…) In the National Security model, as France suggests, officers practice torture as part of a proactive strategy to combat an enemy in an emergency. Victims may be locals or foreigners, but they are always chosen because of their suspected political activities.

I understand terrorism is scary and may tear away at one’s sense of safety. I understand war has become a distant, professional occupation that hardly affects the general population. I understand that the fallacy of a democracy Bush put the country through for eight years needed to be changed; I saw the glimmer of hope in people’s eyes when Obama was first elected in 2008. I saw the desperate need to believe again, to hold onto a sense of security, that we would all be alright, that sanity had been restored and fear would no longer prevail. But this is over. No matter how much we try to believe our elected leader would just never sign on an individual’s torture before lunch, it is happening, and it is our collective responsibility to hold him accountable. From renewing the Patriot Act and adding new provisions; signing NDAA; not interrupting the PRISM program; and using JSOC all over our blue planet, the current foreign policy is dangerous. Do not mistake torture for what it isn’t: simply an enhanced, supersize version of interrogation. Do not believe torture is an acceptable exception (and certainly do not believe it is suddenly legitimate because it has been ordered by warrant). Do not believe torture is anything anyone deserves, under any circumstances. Human rights law has been created and enforced under the belief there is such a thing as an absolute in natural law – that unless we created a legal framework every nation would abide by with a goal to protect everyone from the horrors we suffered in the past, there would be no end to the pain we would inflict and would then receive as a result. Torture has never saved lives; it destroys them. Torture has never freed lives; it chains them. Torture is a degrading easy way out serving sociopathic purposes when acting alongside basic rules of human decency, empathy and righteousness has lost its meaning. A nation who tortures,  a nation that kills is a nation that has little left as a collective conscience.

(1) Torture and Democracy. Rejali, Darius. Princeton Press, 2007.

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About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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