What does it mean that one of the first female soldiers to die in Iraq was Allyssa Peterson? Peterson killed herself after rejecting her assignment -- interrogating Iraqi inmates in a military prison. For a full recounting of this story, see the recently posted Nation article by Greg Mitchell.
As KNAU, the public radio station in Peterson's hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, explained, "Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed." Peterson was likely refusing to participate in torture. According to Mitchell of the Nation, a female soldier working at the same prison said inmates were punched, burned with cigarettes, and blindfolded then stripped. When the blindfold was lifted, the first thing the nude male inmates saw was a female soldier staring at them. The military's investigation into Peterson's death, writes Mitchell, "would later note that earlier she had been 'reprimanded' for showing 'empathy' for the prisoners." Mitchell also quotes this unsettling sentence from the investigation: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she...could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."
So Peterson stayed true to her sense of self. Then she put a bullet in her head. As Mitchell's Nation article makes clear, the details of Peterson's death took years to feel the cleansing touch of sunlight, and only because of the work of a determined Public Radio reporter who had a hunch. The story of Peterson's death followed a circuitous, muffled, much blocked route to revelation. Mitchell notes that, a full three years after the event, Peterson's parents still did not know how she had died. That years-long revelation parallels other stories involving torture that have been slow to see light. I'm speaking here of those symbols of U.S.-inflicted pain: Abu Ghraib, and the torture memos.
While psychologists will say that suicides have many factors, and I am not interested in offering up a simplistic explanation for Peterson's death. I suspect that what confronted this patriotic, Arabic-speaking, intelligent, sensitive, and empathetic woman in the last days of her life was evidence of a culture in conflict. She appears to have gone to Iraq as a true believer in the good of her country. She discovered there the American culture of punishment.
The potentially devastating emotional cost to such a discovery is clear in the energy so
many use to fend it off. In response to the Abu Ghraib revelations in 2004, Donald Rumsfeld famously said, "It doesn't represent American values." Unfortunately, he was wrong.
Torture is American. It was American when Peterson died. It was American long before that. How do I know? I am a reporter who for years covered allegations of prison abuse and ill treatment in domestic U.S. prisons. Nearly every technique used at Abu Ghraib had a close, recent parallel in a U.S. facility, as I recount in my book Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America (Yale University Press, paperback edition, 2010). Just to mention a few parallels, inmates in domestic U.S. prisons have been threatened with electrocution, intimidated with dogs, restrained nude, and restrained for weeks. Some U.S. inmates have alleged that they were forced to soil themselves, an allegation that also arose in Iraq. So I didn't feel surprise when the Abu Ghraib story broke. I felt a sickened familiarity. What bothered me more than Abu Ghraib was the outrage my fellow Americans expressed. Why were they so upset about torture in Iraq when similar punishments had been used in the United States in recent years? Peterson's death says a bit about why. She didn't know about such techniques until she saw the "interrogation techniques used on prisoners" with her own eyes. Prisons are closed, private places. Most of us don't know, and would rather know little, about what life inside is like.
And prisoners, even those who have been severely mistreated, can be less-than- sympathetic subjects. My subject matter has inspired baffled stares at high school reunions, jokes from schoolteachers about putting their students in stun belts, and yelling sessions in elevators. The response tends to be strong, and I feel a hitch in my stomach when a new acquaintance, upon hearing I am a reporter and writer, asks me my area of specialty.
It might seem odd, but I sympathize with the angry reactions. One woman was outraged that poor Americans outside the prison system were unable to afford medical treatments that are the right of inmates behind bars. Others are deeply concerned or worried about crime.
As I explain in the acknowledgments to Cruel and Unusual, shortly after I started as a journalist my editor offered me my first story -- on stun belts, a new device advertised as a "100 percent nonlethal" method for controlling prison inmates. The belt used a 50,000-volt shock for eight seconds. The manufacturer said that most inmates fell to the floor within the first two seconds.
I loved my new job. I had begged to take on my first story. So I responded eagerly, saying I'd do the article. Inside, I felt dread and confusion. Like many Americans, I was afraid of crime and disliked criminals. I also thought the stun belt might be a good idea. For one thing, it allowed guards to control inmates from up to 300 feet away, enhancing the guard's safety. I went about the research with real curiosity -- to the extent of shocking myself with a stun gun to experience electrical pain. The manufacturer's claims of absolute safety notwithstanding, I learned that medical experts were concerned the belt could prove fatal, and that human rights experts worried it would eventually be used for torture. The company's president confided to me that he would be willing to sell to Mexico, China, and Saudi Arabia -- all known torturing states at the time.
The resulting story led to an Amnesty International campaign against the stun belt and won a major journalism prize. Eventually, information from the story led the United Nations Committee Against Torture to demand that the United States stop using stun belts. The United States responded by declining. I'd become, inadvertently, an advocate for prisoners' rights. But, more importantly, I'd begun to question why our prisons and jails punish the way they do. For instance, the stun belt's manufacturers advertised the shock as "devastating." The popularity of the device (and of others entering the prison system) suggested our authorities understood prisoners as requiring more than the sentence they had received--they needed pain and extreme control, as well. From my childhood, I remembered people talking about prisons as places that were failing to heal prisoners. By the time I became a journalist, that assumption of prisons as places of healing had taken a hard turn toward a philosophy that implied prisons should be places where prisoners would feel hurt.
It occurred to me that the insides of prisons say a great deal about our country. The more I reported on prisoners, the more I questioned. Why were some of the innovative prison and policing methods I had described in my reporting becoming accepted ways of dealing with schoolchildren, mentally ill people, and football crowds? Why did so many innovative policing and prison technologies echo military ones? I wrote Cruel and Unusual to find answers to these questions. In the process, I learned how important it is to care about those who live out their lives behind high walls. Our lives outside are linked to those inside, whether we admit this to ourselves or not. Alyssa Peterson appears to have made the same realization in the days before her death. The wrenching revelation that she was punished for showing empathy to prisoners offers only a hint of the human cost our punishment culture extracts.
Dr. Anne-Marie Cusac's new book, "Cruel And Unusual: The Culture Of Punishment In America," can be ordered here.