No Comment — August 15, 2007, 8:07 am

Bush and the Art of Breaking Human Beings

Out in West Texas, from which the New England-bred and Andover, Yale and Harvard-educated George W. Bush pretends to hail, the word “break” is most often used with horses. (Bush of course is famous for his fear of horses. It took quite a bit of coaxing in 2000 for photographers to get him into a shoot with some of these creatures in whose form artists for centuries have found the expression of freedom.) The phrase means stripping the animal of its free spirit, and bending it to the will of its human master. For Bush, however, the term has taken on a new meaning, namely “breaking” human beings. The sense is the same: to destroy the free spirit of the subject and to bend him to the will of his captor.

A major story in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor by Warren Richey gives us a good sense of the specifics that were used. Moreover, used on a U.S. citizen named Jose Padilla. At that time Padilla was accused of nothing, was being held (illegally, as it turned out) as an unlawful combatant. He is now on trial in Florida. Richey reports:

When suspected Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla was whisked from the criminal justice system to military custody in June 2002, it was done for a key purpose – to break his will to remain silent. As a US citizen, Mr. Padilla enjoyed a right against forced self-incrimination. But this constitutional guarantee vanished the instant President Bush declared him an enemy combatant.

For a month, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had been questioning Padilla in New York City under the rules of the criminal justice system…. Padilla was delivered to the US Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where he was held not only in solitary confinement but as the sole detainee in a high-security wing of the prison. Fifteen other cells sat empty around him.

The purpose of the extraordinary privacy, according to experts familiar with the technique, was to eliminate the possibility of human contact. No voices in the hallway. No conversations with other prisoners. No tapping out messages on the walls. No ability to maintain a sense of human connection, a sense of place or time. In essence, experts say, the US government was trying to break Padilla’s silence by plunging him into a mental twilight zone. Padilla was not the only Al Qaeda suspect locked away in isolation. Although harsh interrogation methods such as water-boarding, forced hypothermia, sleep deprivation, and stress positions draw more media attention, use of isolation to “soften up” detainees for questioning is much more common.

It is clear that the intent of this isolation was to break Padilla for the purpose of the interrogations that were to follow,” says Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist and nationally recognized expert on the debilitating effects of solitary confinement. Dr. Grassian conducted a detailed examination of Padilla for his lawyers.

Under U.S. military procedures governing the treatment of captured enemy prisoners embodied in a Department of the Army Field Manual, these isolation techniques were banned. The decision to ban them was driven more by concern about their efficacy than legality. It’s well established at this point that they don’t work. In fact, they routinely lead to false statements.

They also mirror techniques developed by the Soviet Union and condemned by the United States during the Cold War:

The Soviets expected their isolation technique to break a man in four to six weeks. The prolonged isolation creates in the subject a powerful desire to talk to anyone about anything. This sets the stage for the interrogation. If isolation wasn’t enough to adequately prepare the subject, the Soviets would ramp up the psychological pressure by adding sleep deprivation, stress positions, or temperature adjustments to make the cell either too hot or too cold, the article says.

When used on U.S. airmen and soldiers during the Korean conflict, for instance, these techniques led the American service personnel to confess to atrocities of various sorts, all as suggested by the interrogators. The confessions were, of course, completely false. They were torture-induced. Which is just the point now lost on the upper tier of the Bush Administration.

Yale law professor Jack Balkin comments on the Monitor article:

It’s important to remember that the Bush Administration did everything it could to deny Padilla even the basic right of habeas corpus. It argued that courts had no power to second guess the President’s determination that Padilla was an enemy of the United States and could be held in solitary confinement indefinitely. It argued that no one had the right to contact Padilla and that no one had the right to know what the government was doing to him. It argued that courts should defer to the President’s views about who was dangerous and who was not—that once the President declared a person an enemy, that person had all the process that was due them and courts should respect that determination.

It argued, in short, that the President always knows best. If the President had his way, the government, on the basis of information that never had to be tested before any neutral magistrate, could pluck any citizen off the streets, throw them in a military prison, and proceed to drive them insane.

Those are the powers that the Bush Administration sought. I will not mince words: They are the powers of a dictator in an authoritarian regime. They are the powers of the old Soviet Union, of the military junta in Argentina during the time of the disappeared.

The Padilla case is important as a demonstration of the power of isolation tactics to destroy a human being—without producing anything of gain. Torture apologists find it easy to defend, but they ignore the psychological truth, namely, in the words of John Donne, “solitude is a torment which is not threatened in Hell itself.” And the case is important for another purpose, namely: it helps demonstrate how tactics which are introduced to deal with “foreign enemies” suddenly wind up being used on United States soil and against United States citizens with very little additional thought.

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

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