Exposing two important myths about torture.

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

Torture apologists are shouting desperate arguments from the rooftops to justify their support for enhanced interrogation, and it is common to see people in liberal and progressive circles take a “no harm done” position regarding many of the techniques the US used on their political prisoners. Here, I want to discuss flaws in two common statements:  

Myth 1: It isn’t torture if the technique is psychological.

Myth 2: It isn’t torture because our techniques have no long term effects.

If we want to fight pushback — if we want to make sure that our country does not torture again — we need to understand what is wrong with these memes. In particular, we need to understand the popularized fiction that was created by the people who tortured in your name.  

Myth 1: It isn’t torture if the technique is psychological.

Whether a perpetrator uses a rack, insects, or a red hot poker, the purpose of torture is to provoke an emotional response — not a physical one. The goal of torture is to break a person emotionally: it is entirely psychological. Torture is the systematic use of severe trauma to force a mental breakdown — the goal of the exercise is not to alter the body. The goal is to alter the mind.

A person who tortures will likely have a secondary ambition such as pursuasion or interrogation, but the goal is to inflict trauma with the purpose of creating a psychiatric transformation: to get to the head. Physical harm is an effective tool for inflicting trauma, but breaking a body is not necessary. Severe or protracted traumatic stress will work, whether it is applied as bodily pain or psychological terror. It is patently wrong to say that a particular technique does not qualify as torture because its effect is psychological. That fiction dismisses the point entirely.

But the torture apologists in America invoke this fiction all of the time.

The Bush administration distracted and fooled many casual observers by conflating “pain” with “suffering” to exclude psychological methods in their definition of torture. We must get this straight: torture is an act of psychology. It is patently and malicioiusly wrong to say that psychological methods of harsh treatment are not torture.

Myth 2: It isn’t torture because our techniques have no long term effects.

Torture is a deliberate, systematic attack on the emotional centers of the brain. The point is to overstimulate the limbic and autonomic nervous systems enough to cause an emotional breakdown. But there is a limit to how intensely neurons can fire, so some parts of the brain will shut down under severe stress. As the trauma triggers excessive neuron activity, cell toxicity and death sometimes occur, as well. Trauma particularly affects the hippocampus, which is the part of the limbic system that controls memory storage function.

The hippocampus consists of two “horns” that curve back from the amygdala.  It appears to be very important in converting things that are “in your mind” at the moment (in short-term memory) into things that you will remember for the long run (long-term memory).  If the hippocampus is damaged, a person cannot build new memories, and lives instead in a strange world where everything they experience just fades away, even while older memories from the time before the damage are untouched!

Proper memory function shuts down under extreme stress. The common occurance of amnesia with respect to a traumatic event bears witness to this. People sometimes cannot remember details of a car accident after the fact — or they cannot remember what they did just before or after. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to properly store memories, and those poorly stored memories are thought to be an important element in the various manifestations of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

…The hippocampus, a brain area involved in verbal declarative memory, is particularly sensitive to stress. Patients with combat and abuse-related PTSD were shown to have smaller hippocampal volume and deficits in hippocampal-based verbal declarative memory functions. Hippocampal dysfunction may underlie many symptoms of PTSD and may explain elevations in concentrations of CRF in PTSD.

Christopher Hitchens voluntarily underwent a cycle of waterboarding when he was doing research for this article in Vanity Fair magazine. He lasted about fifteen seconds on the board before the stress became unbearable; if you look at around four minutes into the video, he describes how he felt during the exercise. At 5:15 he talks about the post traumatic stress symptoms he’d experienced since the waterboarding. In spite of the fact that he was drowned for only seconds, the waterboard had a lasting effect on him.

When a traumatic memory gets triggered, the limbic system will respond as if a threat was imminent and it will hyperactivate the autonomic nervous system. This triggers the adrenals and the major hormones shift, leading to a cascade of physiological consequences. But these phenomena are due to neurological events from the original trauma — whether it was psychological or physical. People do not get PTSD because they are weak or lack strength of character. They get PTSD because it is a normal consequence of the way the body responds to stress.

It is not new news that trauma has serious and sometimes permanent consequences. Please read more about long term effects of torture here and here.

The neurological effects of trauma are cumulative. Our political prisons are a source of constant stress for the detainees, and the ongoing trauma inflicted on them by harsh treatment, torture, and the looming threat of torture lasted for months or years. The W administration devised many innocuous looking methods that could be used systematically for a significant, cumulative traumatic impact.

It is a blatantly false to say that psychological methods of enhanced interrogation have no long term effects.


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    • rb137 on April 28, 2009 at 22:49
    • Edger on April 28, 2009 at 23:28

    constant, loud, overwhelming, non stop pushback.

    • Valtin on April 28, 2009 at 23:53

    I hope you are helping people understand.

    Nice touch, the Hitchens waterboarding. He freaked himself out, because he thought he was going to prove it was no big deal.

    • geomoo on April 29, 2009 at 01:37

    It’s frightening that this stuff needs to be explained.  Hitchens is a good example of someone who overestimates the importance of mind.  Ideas about torture can be clinical, sterile.  Only when the body kicks in can understanding begin to dawn.  The mind is so arrogant.  The body is an automatic lie detector.

    Going over to dkos now.  I hope to see this on the rec list.  You explain these crucial ideas so clearly.

  1. Very good & informative diary.

    Thank you.

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