Academic journal article Social Justice

Review of the Trauma of Psychological Torture

Academic journal article Social Justice

Review of the Trauma of Psychological Torture

Article excerpt

Almerindo E. Ojeda (ed.), The Trauma of Psychological Torture. Westport, CT, and London: Praeger Publishers, 2008.

WHATIS "PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE"? COULD IT BE AS SEVERE AS PHYSICAL torture? Often, non-specialists assume that the former is "torture lite, perhaps not qualifying as torture at all. Almerindo Ojeda and his contributors put that notion to rest as they explore the trauma of psychological torture from political, historical, psychiatric, legal, and neurobiological perspectives in this very useful book.

Ojeda begins the collection by explicating the complexities of defining psychological torture in his chapter, "What Is Psychological Torture?" How much psychological pain must be induced before it qualifies as torture? Is there "a universal threshold of torturous pain" (p. 1)? Is cruel and unusual punishment distinct from torture, and if so, how? Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions explicitly forbids "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture" as well as "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." Despite the fact that the United States is a party to all four of the Geneva Conventions (signing the first in 1882), the Bush administration and its lawyers engaged in endless parsing of the terms. When asked about Common Article 3's prohibitions, George W. Bush famously responded, "and that Common Article 3 says that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's like--it's very vague. What does that mean, outrages upon human dignity? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation" (New York Times, "President Bush's News Conference," September 15, 2006). We now know that administration lawyers such as Jay Bybee and John Yoo, in contorted legal opinions, attempted to redefine and "legalize" torture in order to avoid the strictures and penalties established in international law (the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture), as well as U.S. statutes.

According to Ojeda, neither the qualitative (what is the nature of psychological pain?) nor quantitative (how much pain is required to qualify as torture?) questions need to be answered to define psychological torture. He begins by specifying a set of practices that are widely acknowledged to constitute such torture: isolation, psychological debilitation, spatial disorientation, sensory deprivation, sensory assault, induced desperation, threats, feral treatment, sexual humiliation, desecration, and pharmaceutical manipulation. He then proposes to define psychological torture as this set of practices. These abusive methods, he asserts, are already precise and can be quantified in terms of time and other measures. The goals or intentions of this sort of treatment are irrelevant, he argues. This is a key point: there is no "good torture" or "bad torture," and the supposed virtue of the torturer or his claimed higher cause are beside the point.

An interesting aspect of the book is that the authors seem to disagree on the origins of psychological torture. Ojeda, among others, discusses the roots of "coercive interrogation" in communist regimes, referencing the Stalinist show trials, while Alfred McCoy's chapter locates the origins of psychological torture in CIA programs of the 1950s and 1960s that drew on Nazi research, British practices, and CIA-funded Canadian science experiments (more on this below). Ojeda shows that the CIA's KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual of 1963 essentially codified the same techniques that had been denounced previously as abominations carried out by the USSR, such as induced debilitation and exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternating punishments and rewards, and demonstrating the omnipotence of the captor. The CIA added other methods from its own experiments and diffused its torture model, through the KUBARK Manual, worldwide (especially in Latin America), via the Office of Public Safety, U. …

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