Whitesburg KY

Thoughts on torture

I have always found the debate relating to torture fascinating, as it seems to be a constantly recurring theme throughout history.

As an aside, I have never been convinced that societal execution was ever a good form of criminal deterrence but it does seem to satisfy our natural instinct for revenge.

Because of constant practice, man has always been really creative when it comes to torturing their fellow man. Some of the more creative methods have been boiling to death, flaying, crucifixion, impalement, crushing, burning, sawing and necklacing. Even stoning still seems quite popular in some fundamental Islamic communities.

( Note: If you don’t already know, necklacing is the placement of a rubber tire filled with gasoline around the neck of an individual then lighting the gasoline.)

Being human, we all have our favorites. My favorite torture is Scaphism. Never heard of it? I first ran across it in doing research on Plutarch, a 1st century Greek historian, and when it came to torture the ancient Greeks were really creative. Let’s see what you think.

Plutarch writes in his biography of Artaxerxes that Mithridates was sentenced to death by Scaphism for killing Cyrus the Younger. Mithridates was put into a box tailored especially for him (two small, modified wooden boats placed top-to-top). His entire body was covered with honey with his arms, feet and head left sticking out the box. Various insects were then allowed to feed on him. Plutarch says it took him 17 days to die. Now I found that the height of creativity in torture.

The Spanish Inquisitors were also quite expert in torturing the heretics in order to get them to recant and once again become faithful, believing Christians. The Inquisitors seemed to have two favorite torture methods, the Strappado and the Heretics’s Fork. Never heard of them? Well, in their version of the Strappado the hands of the heretic was tied behind their back with a rope then looped through a pulley and the heretic slowly lifted until he confessed and converted. This technique proved quite a successful conversion technique.

The Heretics Fork was an iron bar with a fork at both ends placed between the breastbone and throat, just under the chin, and secured with a leather strap around the neck. This resulted in sleep deprivation since the individual could not go to sleep without his head coming forward resulting in great pain. This technique also proved quite successful in converting the heretics.

The word torture comes from the French and they seemed to have liked the Iron Maiden, which consists of an iron cabinet, with a hinged front, which could enclose a human being. The cabinet back and hinged front had spikes that penetrated the body when closed. If the victim did not confess or provide the required information it took about two days for them to die.

It was in the 1700’s that the use of torture began to decline. For example, Napoleon realized the futility of torture and forbid “… the use of torture which is contrary to reason and humanity.” His rationale was that, “… the wretches say whatever comes into their heads and whatever they think one wants to believe.” This observation is as true today as it was then.

During World War II both the Germans and the Japanese forgot Napoleon’s dictate or, perhaps, just relished their ability to torture and kill people. The Nazis killed approximately six million Jews and 20 million Russians. I love this word approximately – give or take a million of so — when applied so casually to a body count.

The Japanese, not to be outdone by the Germans, killed approximately 30 million.

This brings us to the current issue of torture by the CIA.

After 9/11 fear was rampant throughout the land to include both the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Because of this the CIA was tasked to provide security by finding those terrorists responsible for attacking the U.S. and preventing a reoccurrence “by any means necessary.”

The men and women at the CIA are not dummies and realized this meant harsh interrogations, possibly torturing prisoners, so they asked for and were provided with legal justifications for the use of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT).” Euphemisms such as this are quite interesting, because they are commonly used when people want to distance themselves psychologically from their actions.

There were two major techniques employed by the CIA or the agency’s contractors to extract information from prisoners. These were waterboarding and hypothermia.

In waterboarding, the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, his feet raised with his head slightly below the feet. Absorbent material is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over it thereby inducing a drowning effect on the prisoner. Depending upon the prisoner, it may take five or six times before the subject will answer questions or at least say anything he thinks you want to hear.

As an aside, some special operations forces are subjected to waterboarding in order to increase their ability to resist torture and become knowledgeable of the method.

In hypothermia, the prisoner is typically left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees Fahrenheit while being regularly doused with cold water in order to increase the rate at which heat is lost from the body. A water temperature of 50°F leads to death in about one hour, so most prisoners have difficulty withstanding this form of interrogation.

The CIA torture report recently released by the Senate Intelligence Committee highlighted the approved techniques designed to elicit information from terrorist prisoners. The rationale for the CIA in using these techniques was to gain actionable intelligence and to detect and prevent future terrorist activities that might harm the U.S. One simply has to recall the fear permeating the government at that time to understand how senior government executives tolerated a variety of steps, that now look questionable, in order to protect us from further attacks.

We cannot make the fact that we used torture on prisoners go away because it is true. To be truthful I have some sympathy for the CIA men and women who took this action to protect the United States.

An opposite view of torture is taken by Senator Dianne Feinstein, current Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who indicated we need an ethical roadblock against future torture and hopes the release of the report on CIA torture will be one action allowing us to build that roadblock.

Some opponents of the release of the torture documents proclaim that it will give terrorists reason for continuing to use torture as a means of coercion. I’m not convinced of this, because anyone who has observed the extremism exhibited by ISIL must realize they need little or no incentive to commit violence and torture.

Again, to be truthful, I also have some sympathy for Senator Feinstein’s perspective.

The torture debate, as it should, will continue to rage for the foreseeable future.

The current debate seems to boil down to these questions: One, is torture effective in gaining intelligence and, two, is torture under all circumstances morally unacceptable?

I suppose a case can be made that information could have been better obtained through less coercive means. However, I’m not entirely convinced that useful information cannot be gained through torture.

As far as the second question is concerned, an argument can be made that torture under any circumstances is morally unacceptable simply because it violates the Christian tenet that we should treat others as our brother. The problem I have is the difficulty in viewing or treating extremists and terrorists as my brother. If someone is intent on killing me, my family, or causing mass casualties then where is the morality in that?

Because of our mountain heritage we each know the answer to that question — we do whatever is necessary to protect our family.

Consequently, I can easily visualize a unique set of circumstances in which torture might be necessary. Therefore, I am not fully convinced that torture under ALL circumstances is unacceptable.

Some people view the world as either black or white, torture or no torture. I view the world as grey, and from my perspective as long as terrorism exists fear will be its handmaiden and, in fear, a population will commit or forgive excesses to include torture.

Torture by nature is a messy business and many at the CIA were unhappy with its application but did it anyway. Yes, I can hear someone now pointing their finger and saying they followed orders just like the Nazis at Nuremberg. Those pointing fingers are from people sitting comfortable and secure in their homes, who now blame the CIA and call for their prosecution. I have difficulty understanding or sympathizing with that perspective.

It must be realized, however, that torture as a national policy has no place in a society that wishes to retain any semblance of morality or standard of ethics. However, as long as there are extremists or terrorists abroad in the world willing to commit any atrocity then, realistically, torture will continue to remain a tool in the senior, on-site intelligence officer’s interrogation toolkit whether authorized or not. That is as it should be.

Southeastern Kentucky native J.T. Oney served more than 40 years with the Department of Defense in various military, intelligence and security organizations. He retired in 2000 and taught for 11 years at a small college in Northern Virginia. He is now retired, living in Mayking, and is an Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. He is also the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction.

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