Stuff that isn't obviously torture if you're a US gov't official

Courtesy of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a list of "things that government officials could do to an American citizen and still claim later that they didn't know they were "torturing" that citizen."

Prolonged isolation; Deprivation of light; Exposure to prolonged periods of light and/or darkness; Extreme variations in temperature; Sleep adjustment; Threats of severe physical abuse; Death threats; Administration of psychotropic drugs; Shackling and manacling for hours at a time; Use of "stress" positions; Noxious fumes that caused pain to eyes and nose; Withholding of any mattress, pillow, sheet or blanket; Forced grooming; Suspension of showers; Removal of religious items; Constant surveillance; Incommunicado detention, including denial of all contact with family and legal counsel for a 21-month period; Interference with religious observance; and Denial of medical care for serious and potentially life-threatening ailments, including chest pain and difficulty breathing, as well as for treatment of the chronic, extreme pain caused by being forced to endure stress positions, resulting in severe and continuing mental and physical harm, pain, and profound disruption of the senses and personality.

Lowering the Bar explains:

The legal issue was whether John Yoo should be entitled to "qualified immunity" in a case brought by Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen detained as an "enemy combatant." "Qualified immunity" is a doctrine that bars claims against government officials if, at the time they acted, it was not "sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he or she was doing violated the plaintiff's rights." The idea is to try to preserve some freedom of action for officials who have to act in areas where the law may not always be clear. If it applies, no lawsuit.

So, next question: do you think a "reasonable official" in 2001-03, when John Yoo was in the government, should have understood that doing those things to an American citizen -- one who, by the way, had not been convicted of or even charged with a crime -- violated that citizen's rights?

Would the Last Civil Right in America Please Remember to Close the Door on Its Way Out?



    1. Some of them describe living in Oregon at the moment. Specifically deprivation of light.

    2. I read that some of the intelligence guys at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib actually got some ideas from that show. Horrifying.

      Maybe we should all be grateful that “The Human Centipede” didn’t come out until after 2003.

    3. Seriously, I can’t watch those shows or like, any police procedural ’cause I’m all “the crooks are the cops, they are totally violating that suspect’s rights, I can’t watch this.”  The “good guys” we’re fed on all these cookie cutter cop shows are seriously ruining the way that people perceive their rights & the ways that jury’s understand evidence, & it is spooky.

  1. I could have sworn most of this junk was settled at the Nuremberg/Tokyo trials, or maybe other precedents within the US: that lawyers or advisors who smooth the way for torture and/or breaking Geneva Conventions were accessories to the crimes they helped justify. Did I err?

    I wish everyone who flew those black POW/MIA flags and complained for decades about Vietnamese mistreatment of American soldiers would apply the same standards to Yoo and the Bush admin for disappearing and mistreating prisoners of war. Would the VC be let off the hook by claiming that the US never declared war, therefore John McCain and others were only “enemy combatants”?

    1.  Repugnicons will justify anything.  Even John McCain is a sellout now.  TORTURE AWAY in the interest of higher profits for me and my cronies!  There are no morals left on the right wing extremist path, and the mainstream Republicans are voting Democrat now (to maintain fiscal and constitutional conservativism at the “expense” of social progressivism).

    2. None of this stuff is even vaguely legally controversial, and the Yoo memo is indefensible, any minimally competent law professor would have flunked it as obviously specious. Nor is the evidence in doubt, given that virtually everybody in the chain of command has confessed in public, several of them in writing, to having broken these laws.

      Now, who are you planning on arresting them? In what court will they be tried? What judge will sentence them?

      The  UN Convention against Torture (which the US has ratified, and therefore it’s binding law in the  US, on par with the Constitution itself) attempted to preempt this problem by removing prosecutorial discretion in torture allegation cases: if there is any plausible accusation of torture or of ordering torture, signatory states are required to prosecute it; if the accusation is false, let a court and a jury acquit, not a prosecutor.

      Why does anybody bother to negotiate with the US, though? At no point in our history have we ever lived up to the terms of a treaty, if the treaty impaired presidential authority even in the slightest. Ask an Indian.

    1. It’s an absolute moral principle: it’s different when we do it, because we’re the good guys, and we only do it to the bad guys. If anybody else does it, it’s wrong, because they’re not the good guys.

  2. I think we should start adding these penalties for infractions by school children in these officials’ school districts. If it’s good enough for Americans, it’s bound to be good enough for their kids.

  3. The theme of these methods seems to be leaving no physical marks, which is useful if you want to deny the victim evidence of his torture. (or non-torture I guess)

    1. Reminds me of the church’s (theoretical) ban on breaking the skin during the inquisitions. Then, as now, the restrictions basically just inspired more creatively diabolical punishments by the people administering the torture.

    2. The Bush administration guidelines were something like ‘no organ failure or death’.

  4. Any government which tortures its own citizens is by definition illegitimate. Pro-torture government officials should be treated to the list above. 

    1. It wouldn’t even bother me as much if it were just a few government officials behind this, because then we could theoretically kick the bastards out. What really worries me is that they really ARE abiding by the will of the people when they sanction this shit.

    2.  No, no they oughtn’t. They should be arrested, treated humanely, set on trial, convicted, and placed in a jail cell – and all possible fruits of their crimes should be confiscated and redistributed.
      We don’t have to stoop to the level of the criminals. We don’t have to let them profit from their crimes.

  5. Would the Last Civil Right in America Please Remember to Close the Door on Its Way Out?

    Ooh.  It’s guns, right?  I bet it’s guns.

    1.  Need the guns, can’t lose the guns, without them you don’t have an internal enemy with whom you can justify the use of extreme force.
      Take for example a guy in his underpants with a golf club, how can you execute him during a no knock, don’t know if it’s criminals or the police raid (and give a warning as you pull the trigger doesn’t count for nothing). With limited guns out there, it would be impossible to justify what is really impossible to justify.

  6. And it’s going to continue until American citizens send a clear and unmistakable message that such things are not tolerated.

    But as the saying goes, people end up with the government they deserve.

  7. Most Americans virtually experience all these things as a form of entertainment.

    Torture is a staple of TV and video games; every child knows that good guys can withstand any amount of torture with no lasting effects and bad guys break down sobbing and confess where the kittens and explosives are hidden long before they are significantly harmed.

    This is the world we have built; many loving human urges are evil and must be hidden, but sadism is part of everyday authoritarian normality.

  8. After reading the article, it has become obvious to me that under US law NO sociopath is liable for his evil acts, BECAUSE he does not understand they are evil (that was apparently the basis of the dismissal). Why do I not find that encouraging?

    1. No, they only get qualified impunity if they hold a position of power. If an unperson or an ordinary civilian did this to anyone except an unperson, they would face worse torture than they inflicted. If an official or police officer does it, they will probably have protections. If the president does it, it’s not illegal.

      (And it’s quite clear that many people are, in the eyes of the government, unpeople, with police ignoring those who kill sex workers, with politicians calling on people to kill trans folks, and with prosecutors targeting minorities who defend themselves from would-be-murderers.)

    1. It seems minor, but there’s a lot of identity caught up in how we wear our hair, whether we decide to shave it off, whether you have so little control over your body that someone else can force you to shave. Seems more humiliating for women to have their heads shaved because it’s less common in our culture.

  9. All this stuff must be part of this freedom-thing the USians tell us they have and we Europeans don’t.

    USians are rather quick condemning others for their oppressive government (ref.: comments BB Article: Surface-to-air missiles in London) – makes it easier to forget their own country goose-stepping toward a police state eh?

    1.  So what you’re saying is that Americans should not make generalizations about others… oh wait. (I think) I see what you did there.

    2.  I’m still wondering which ffantastic, enlightened European country you are from. 
      Not Belarus I assume. 

      Are you under the impression that smart Americans are cool with that shit? 

      1. Not Belarus I assume.

        On a barely related note, I’m fascinated that Austria (and likely some other countries) won’t attend Euro 2012 in Ukraine because Yulia Timoshenko has some scratches on her abdomen, but had no problem at all attending the Olympics in Beijing.

        1. ;-) That’s the reason the Austrians like to tell.

          They won’t attend because they failed to qualify.

  10. Can we end solitary confinement while we’re at it?  There seems to be this belief that it’s ok to make sombody’s life hell as long as you don’t physically hurt them.  That’s crazy.  Psychological trauma lasts longer than cuts and bruises.  If you put someone in solitary confinement for even a week, they will never be the same.  If you think about it, physical torture is just a tool to achieve the end result of psychological trauma.

    1.  Personally, I’d be perfectly happy with that type of torture, but that’s the point. . . you keep trying different things until you find what is torturous.  There you go, it’s all part of identifying your goal and the means, whatever it may be . . . GO GWB&DC!   Is it any wonder why they don’t travel internationally, and will never do so ever again?

    2.  Some people both want and need solitary. It’s a damn sight better than gang rape and HIV infection, being shanked repeatedly, or the various other dangers of general population.

  11. We can all make witty comments on BB – and then actually do something. Why not join ACLU, Human Rights Watch & Amnesty International. 

    Unless you think just commenting here will change anything…

    1.  Awareness and discussion of known problems are usually the first step to action. Just sayin’.

    2. If you think that joining ACLU, HRW, or Amnesty (note: I was an Amnesty volunteer for 4-years) will change this behavior, you’re kidding yourself.

      1. Those organizations don’t stop this stuff from happening, but at least they provide some opposition when it does. They also score some very real and important legal victories every once in a while. They don’t always win but they beats the hell out of giving up.

  12. I think one of the things missed here and by most of the comments is that torture isn’t the threshold, Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading treatment is. 

    So the even if Yoo, Bush et al. didn’t find that the United States practices rose to the level of physical torture (which would be willful indifference to suffering) they are clearly in violation of the lower standard of the Convention to which we in the U.S. are signatories. To say that torture is the standard for violation of the Convention is to accept the framing that torture apologists and criminals want you to so they escape punishment.

  13. Perhaps the reason for acceptance of such tortures is the concept that it’s something that shouldn’t be done to “American citizens”, but can be legitimately done to anyone else? Until the concept of being humane to all humans is accepted, there’s always a gap in ethics where the cruelty can get in.

  14. Those analogies are pretty weak. You might as well compare waterboarding to washing one’s face in the morning.

  15. Let me know if you still feel that way three weeks into being woken up every 15 minutes from your comfortable position on a cold concrete floor.

  16. “Sleep adjustment” is a euphemism for “not allowing subject to sleep for long periods of time,” and/or interrupting sleep frequently, which has the same very unpleasant effect. I’d agree that in the short term, that or withholding blankets (or “forced grooming,” unless that’s another euphemism) might not be “torture,” but they weren’t doing this in the short term. I mean, the whole reason they were doing it was to punish him and/or get him to talk, so by definition it wouldn’t have been short-term. Nor were they doing these things in isolation, so the issue is really whether someone subjected to all that stuff (or even just one of the more heinous things) has been “tortured.” And the answer to that has been “obviously, yes” since way before 2002.

  17. How many months do you think you could sleep naked on a cold concrete floor before you considered it worse than a “mild irritant?”

    Hell, even dogs at the animal shelter usually get a damn blanket.

  18. We’ve seen the evidence. Nobody is getting sued for “taking one of a prisoner’s three pillows.”

  19.  Forced Grooming is removal of body hair; delousing powder; showers (cold); loofah-onna-stick; antifungals; isolation.

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