Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The strappado and the serum.

The Enlightened absolutists of Europe abolished torture in the 18th Century: Leopold, Frederick II, Gustavus III, Louis XVI, Joseph II. Regimes founded on dynastic, patrimonial power, but influenced by Enlightenment ideas about how to run a state, outlawed their tool kits and sometimes even got rid of the death penalty while they were at it. America's unEnlightened polyarchy has legalised torture, long a clandestine practise of its intelligence agencies, is enamoured of the death penalty and mass incarceration, and has even revived that medieval tool of pain, the strappado, (what Israelis call a 'Palestinian hanging').

Systematically, they are now said to be driving hundreds, perhaps thousands of prisoners insane with the use of chemicals, sensory deprivation and sensory overload. Is it news? After all, the US has systematically tortured its prisoners for some time now. Well, let's say this is more systematic, and is being promulgated by new doctrines embodied in the 'war on terror'. What does the Padilla case reveal, or what can it reveal? Naomi Klein reports that it is now going to come to court:

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum,” a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged,” his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent” and that his treatment is irrelevant.

The US district judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. “It’s not like Mr Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place.” The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify on Padilla’s mental state at the hearings, which began yesterday. They will be asked how a man who is alleged to have engaged in elaborate anti-government plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, “like a piece of furniture.”


The American government's behaviour is interesting. Jeff Stein of Congressional Quarterly, argues that there's something up with the fact that the US government won't even deny that it used serums on Padilla. He is certain that the government do not, in fact, use any kind of truth serum on Padilla, because although these have been used in the past, they have never been effective (at what?), and because medical experiments are still illegal in America (didn't stop Tuskegee or thousands of eugenics inspired sterilisation programmes), and because most US agencies disapprove (but Padilla is not held by, say, the police or the FBI. He is held by the Navy as an "enemy combatant"). And his sources tell him that, in fact, if it has sufficient level of political approval, government agencies will consider practically any option.

Stephen Soldz produces a reply to the Stein article from a psychologist working in the field of drugs and addiction, indicating that the lawyers are barking up the wrong tree entirely: "It would sort of be like a NUCLEAR WEAPON hitting a city and saying, we know it must be an enormous amount of DYNAMITE that they used." Truth serums of the old fashioned kind (LSD, for instance) are "child's play" where the government is concerned, and they have all sorts of hormones that they can play with, which are much more effective. Soldz also notes that since much of the case in the upcoming trial will depend on Padilla's mental state, the government has found itself an authentic catch 22: "Rodolfo Buigas, the psychologist of the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, testified 'that the affidavit Mr. Padilla signed alleging mistreatment at the brig was evidence of his mental competence.'"

Well, torture is a global industry, a source of surplus extraction as well as the extraction of confessions. Disciplining bodies for capital, it is also a phenomenal source of profit in itself. America is one of the biggest exporters, as one would expect: it may not personally use the thumb-screw, but it does like its electro-shock belts to keep prisoners from getting out of line, and it does invest a huge amount in the various ways of inflicting psychological and physical pain. And, the British government has a stake in the trade, which is why it prevented a serious fraud office investigation into British Aerospace, whose products include tools for the efficient obliteration of human beings, or their rapid capitulation under massive pain. The government also has its own history of torture, which was routinely used against Irish internees. It would be amazing if they don't use it today, although there is the possibility of outsourcing, which is what the illegal torture flights and the legal international removal pacts are about. An interesting case of this is Abu Qatada who has now been deported. It is easy to be impressed by the fact that Qatada is someone with a profoundly unpleasant ideology, but that misses the point: he doesn't deserve to be tortured for it, and now that the precedent has been established, the case will be used to deport others to situations where they can be tortured without disturbing our sanctimonious, pristine culture of 'human rights'.