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Liberation, France

How Brave Americans Were Turned Into Torturers


"What explains the ease with which people working on behalf of the government of the United States were able to accept the practice of torture on their prisoners? If we want to understand why these brave Americans so readily agreed to become torturers, we hardly need to look to a hatred or ancestral fear of Muslims and Arabs."


By Tzvetan Todorov*



Translated By McKenzie Zeiss


May 6, 2009


France - Liberation - Original Article (French)

Memos made public by the Obama Administration on April 16 relating to the practice of torture in prisons run by the CIA shed new light on one question: What explains the ease with which people working on behalf of the government of the United States were able to accept the practice of torture on their prisoners? The fact of this torture was already well known, but the new documents carry a great deal of information on the manner in which the torture sessions were conducted and perceived by their agents. What is most striking is the discovery of incredibly nit-picking rules, formulated in the manuals of the CIA and followed by the responsible legal officials in government. One would imagine that up to that point, the practice of torture concerned what might be called blunders, the inadvertent exceeding of the norm provoked by the urgency of the moment. We can see from the documents that, to the contrary, it was a question of procedures set down to the minutest detail, to the centimeter and nearly to the second.


Thus, the forms of torture number ten, which then rise to thirteen. They are divided into three categories: conditioning techniques (nudity, dietary manipulation, sleep deprivation), corrective techniques (beating), and coercive techniques (dousing in water, cramped confinement and waterboarding). For face slaps, the interrogator must strike with the fingers apart, at an equal distance between the chin and the bottom of the earlobe.


The dousing in water of a prisoner cannot last more than twenty minutes if the water is at 41 degrees Fahrenheit, forty minutes if it is 50 degrees, and up to sixty minutes if it's 59 degrees. Sleep deprivation must not last more than 180 hours, but, after a rest of eight hours, it can recommence.


Waterboarding can last up to twelve seconds and no more than two hours a day for thirty consecutive days (one tough prisoner suffered this ordeal 183 times in March 2003). Confinement in a small box mustn't last longer than twelve hours, but if the box permits the prisoner to stand upright, it could last as long as eight hours at a stretch, eighteen hours a day.


We have also learned what the training of the torturers consisted of. Much of the torture was copied from a program that American soldiers follow when preparing to confront extreme situations (this permits the responsible officials to conclude that these tests are perfectly acceptable). More importantly, the torturers themselves were chosen from those who have had “a prolonged training experience" [a translated quote] in these extreme tests, in other words: the torturers had been tortured themselves. Following that, an intensive four-week training program sufficed to prepare them for their new work.     



The torturers’ indispensable partners were the government's legal advisers, who were there to ensure the impunity of their judicial colleagues. This, too, is a novelty: torture is no longer represented as a breach of common norms, which is regrettable but excusable, but is a legal norm itself. To accomplish this, the lawyers resorted to another series of techniques. To escape the law, it was necessary to conduct the interrogations outside the United States, although only at American bases. For the same reasons, they suggest to the torturers that they deny any intent to cause suffering. Thus, slaps were not administered to produce pain, but to provoke surprise and humiliation. Confinement in a box was not meant to result to sensory disorder, but to give the prisoner a feeling of discomfort! The practitioner must always insist on his “good faith,” his “honest belief” and his reasonable assumptions. Thus the use of euphemisms like “enhanced techniques” for torture, and “expert interrogator” for torturer. It was also necessary to avoid leaving physical traces of distress, and for this reason mental destruction was preferable to physical damage; any visual evidence of the sessions would be destroyed after the fact.


Several other professional groups are implicated in the practice of torture: the contagion spreads well beyond the limited circle of torturers. Apart from providing legal legitimacy for their actions, repeated reference is made to psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors (obligatorily present during every session), women (the torturers were men, but degradation in front of women aggravated the humiliation), and university professors who provided moral justifications - legal or philosophical.




NRC Handlesblad, The Netherlands: Torture Has No Place in 'Shining City on a Hill'

Le Temps, Switzerland: Doing Evil in the Name of the Good

Izvestia, Russia: U.S. and Torture: For Mr. Obama, It's 'Hard to Be Gorby'

Publico, Spain: Torture Charges Filed Against Bush Legal Team; Judge Garzon Handles Case

Hurriyet, Turkey: Dick Cheney's Torture Logic is 'Deeply Offensive'

Die Tageszeitung, Germany: America and Torture: 'Just Following Orders'

Financial Times Deutschland, Germany: Obama: Inviting the Next Torture Scandal

Jornal de Noticias, Portugal: Poverty and Torture: Bush Has Company in Europe

Le Monde, France: 'Fussy' Rights Groups 'Wrong' to Be Impatient with Obama

Le Figaro, France: Obama's Moral Crusade: A Few Words of Caution

The Independent, U.K.: America Doesn't Need a Witch-Hunt

BBC News, U.K.: U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Calls CIA Exemption 'Illegal'

Ottawa Citizen, Canada: Torture the 'Chicago Way'

Toronto Star, Canada: Winking at CIA Abuse


Who, today, should be held responsible for these perversions of the law and of the most elementary moral principles? The voluntary performers of torture less than the legal officials who justified and encouraged them, and these less than the policy-makers who demanded that they do so. Friendly foreign governments, particularly European ones, also carry their share of responsibility: while they were always in the know about these practices and benefited from the information obtained in this way, they never raised the slightest objection or signaled their disapproval. In a democracy, the condemnation of politicians consists of depriving them of power - in not re-electing them. As for the other professionals, one would expect them to be punished by their peers, for who would want to be a student of such a teacher; a person on trial before such a judge; or a patient of such a doctor?


If we want to understand why these brave Americans so readily agreed to become torturers, we hardly need to look to a hatred or ancestral fear of Muslims and Arabs. No, the situation is far more serious. The lesson of these revelations is that any man, if the situation is carefully framed and in obedience to noble principles dictated by the “sense of duty,” by the need to “defend his country,” or moved by the elementary fear for the lives and well-being of his own family, can become a torturer.


*Tzvetan Todorov is honorary director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, a historian and an essayist















































[Posted by WORLDMEETS.US May 7, 7:58pm]