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Human Rights in the Dust

The policies of the Bush administration were not just horrific in themselves or to others— they may also have brought to an end the human rights movement as we know it.

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

The next step from offering reasons for redefining torture for just one individual—Zubaydah—to a general policy proved easy, despite the fact that Zubaydah's powers to withstand and recuperate from these techniques were deemed exceptional. The memos assumed that the next detainees to undergo these methods of interrogation were somehow in the same category as the Navy Seals who had experienced them while undergoing training to resist the techniques of torturers from totalitarian or rogue regimes. Repeatedly, that August memo insisted that such techniques, rather than being the property of torturing regimes, really added up to little more than "physical discomfort," to (at worst) only temporary psychological disorientation, rather than a "profound" disruption of one's psyche. "No prolonged mental harm," the memo asserted, "would result from the use of these proposed procedures."

One by one, then, the techniques were intricately described in ways that repainted them the color of mere "abuse," which sounds so penny ante, rather than torture. When it came to sleep deprivation, for example, the reasoning was that, even if "abnormal reactions" did result, "reactions abate after the individual is permitted to sleep." Likewise, "the goal of the facial slap is not to inflict physical pain that is severe or lasting. Instead the purpose of the facial slap is to induce shock, surprise, and/or humiliation."

The subjects might believe themselves tortured, but they would be wrong. "The idea," as the memo wrote about what's now called "walling," "is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result... [whereby] the interrogator pulls the individual forward and then quickly and firmly pushes the individual into the wall. It is the individual's shoulder blades that hit the wall," but his "head and neck are supported by a rolled towel... to help prevent whiplash."

Even when there is a modest admission that some damage could actually occur—that, for instance, "placement" in "small," "cramped" confinement boxes could "disrupt profoundly the senses"—it was quickly dismissed on the grounds that such confinement wasn't to extend beyond two hours. And finally, there were those assurances in the matter of waterboarding, or so-called simulated drowning, that "the sensation of drowning is immediately relieved" once the procedure is stopped.

And this, of course, just grazes the surface of these nightmarish documents that should bring to mind the demonic regimes that gave rise to the human rights movement. Among other things, the Justice Department lawyers writing them weren't just changing the language and redefining torture out of existence, they were offering nothing short of a detailed manual for those about to go to work on actual human beings in just how to perform torture. Take for instance, this description of how to waterboard correctly:

"...[T]he individual is bound securely to an inclined bench, which is approximately four feet by seven feet. The individual's feet are generally elevated. A cloth is placed over the forehead and eyes. Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. As this is done, the cloth is lowered until it covers both the nose and mouth. Once the cloth is saturated and completely covers the mouth and nose, air flow is slightly restricted for 20 to 40 seconds...This causes an increase in carbon dioxide level in the individual's blood... [stimulating] increased effort to breathe... [producing] the perception of 'suffocation and incipient panic,' i.e. the perception of drowning..."

One day, perhaps soon, much of the rest of the minutiae produced by the Bush administration's torture-policy bureaucracy will come to light. Procurement lists, for example, will undoubtedly be found. After all, who ordered the sandbags for use as hoods, the collars with chains for bashing detainees' heads into walls, the chemical lights for sodomy and flesh burns, or the women's underwear? The training manuals, whatever they were called, will be discovered: the schooling of dogs to bite on command, the precise use of the waterboard to get the best effects, the experiments in spreading the fingers just wide enough in a slap to comport with policy. The Senate Armed Services Committee's report, released last week, has already begun to identify the existence of training sessions in techniques redefined as not rising to the level of torture.

For now, however, we have far more than we need to know that what the United States started when, in 1948, it led the effort to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and became the moral figurehead for human rights concerns worldwide for more than a half-century, has come to an end. Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the commission that drafted that 1948 Declaration, remarked at the time that the United States was "the showcase" for the principles embodied in the declaration. Sixty-one years later, that is no longer true.

The Human Rights Movement Is History

From the very beginning of my own descent into the world of Bush administration torture policy—and, among other things, I was the co-editor of a 2005 collection of documents, already leaking out then, called The Torture Papers—I have resisted associating what U.S. officials were doing with past state atrocities. That was another, far worse realm, I reasoned, one in which countless people were disappeared and millions murdered. After all, the unfolding torture policy didn't kill (though some detainees certainly did die from maltreatment in U.S. secret and not-so-secret prisons abroad), it only inflicted pain. Others pointed out similarities between such Bush administration outrages and past barbarisms, but I veered away from analogies which, to my mind, undermined the evils of this particular story. So when Scott Horton compared the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Hoess to those who crafted the U.S. torture policy or Susan Sontag compared administration abuses of language to the linguistic perversions that preceded genocidal acts against the Hutus in Rwanda, I recoiled.

Analogies of such an extreme order just didn't suit me. But what I've resisted for five years, since the first Abu Ghraib revelations in the spring of 2004, I now find sadly indisputable. The supposed moral exceptionalism of the most powerful nation on Earth is no more. In its action-packed eight years, the Bush administration ensured that the United States would be the most ordinary of abusing, torturing nations.

Through perverse language, a twisting of the law, and an immersion in the precise details of implementing torture techniques, the United States renounced its position as the leader of the global human rights movement. Abandoned by the country it long considered its greatest ally, that movement now teeters at the edge of its grave. That's what the torture memos and the present media uproar over torture really mean.

Karen J. Greenberg is the Executive Director of the Center on Law and Security at the NYU School of Law, the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib and the editor of The Torture Debate in America. Her most recent book is The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days. To catch an audio interview in which she discusses the Bush administration "torture memos," click here.

Copyright 2009 Karen J. Greenberg

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