(New York, August 22, 2007) -- The crystal blue waters and bright, hot
day begged for a jump in the surf. But my friend, a refugee from
Ethiopia, just wouldn't go near the ocean. "I haven't gone swimming
for years," he said, shaking his head sadly, "Ever since the regime
tortured me when I was a student. They stuck my head in dirty water
until I thought I would drown."
People tend to think of torture as physical. Torture conjures up
images of the thumbscrews in the Tower of London and the rack during
the Spanish Inquisition. Action movies to historical dramas focus on
the infliction of severe physical pain that leave a body scarred,
maimed or disfigured.
But torture is as likely to be mental as well as physical. The iconic
photo of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal -- the hooded man on a box with
outstretched arms -- was being subjected to psychological torture. The
wires attached to his arms went nowhere -- he merely believed he would
be subjected to electric shock.
The Convention Against Torture has long established torture as being
either "physical or mental." The US anti-torture statute also adopts
this definition. Even before the Geneva Conventions, the US military
opposed psychological torture such as "waterboarding" -- pouring water
into a detainee's nose and mouth until he believes, like my Ethiopian
friend, he will drown. After World War II, the US military
successfully prosecuted several Japanese soldiers who had subjected
American prisoners to sleep deprivation and "waterboarding." And an
American officer was court-martialed in 1968 for helping to
"waterboard" a prisoner in Vietnam.
Distinguishing physical torture from mental torture is not always
clear, which is one reason international law does not try to
differentiate the two. However, in common understanding, three
elements of psychological torture often get overlooked.
First, many coercive interrogation methods that are "only"
psychological often cause lasting physical harm. According to the
Physicians for Human Rights, psychological torture can have extremely
destructive short and long-term physical health consequences,
including memory impairment, headache and back pain, and severe
depression with vegetative symptoms. For instance, sleep deprivation
can result in hypertension and other cardiovascular disease, in
addition to serious psychological problems.
Second, some methods of psychological torture have not traditionally
been recognized as such. Placing a prisoner in indefinite solitary
confinement, with little or no human contact for weeks or months or
years, is likely to be far more destructive to an individual than a
relatively brief infliction of physical pain, however cruel. Yet
indefinite isolation is rarely labeled torture.
Third, the harm caused by mental torture, though unseen, can have a
far more lasting impact on the individual than physical torture. The
Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture says that people who
have endured mock executions frequently relive their near-death
experiences, inducing chronic fear and helplessness, and may feel as
if they are already dead.
The US armed forces understood this in its new field manual on
intelligence gathering. It specifically prohibits "waterboarding,"
mock executions and other primarily psychological methods of coercive
Unfortunately, the Bush administration would still like to have us
believe that mental torture isn't really torture. Last month July, the
administration issued an executive order on the CIA's detention and
interrogation program. Although there are some nice words about
banning torture and other ill-treatment, the clarity and specificity
of the army manual is missing, no doubt intentionally so.
The executive order tacitly endorses the CIA secret detention program,
which allows indefinite incommunicado detention, itself a form of
psychological abuse. There is no explicit prohibition of
"waterboarding," a practice that the vice president and CIA director
on down have refused to declare illegal. Administration officials have
suggested that sleep deprivation remains permitted.
The Bush administration's recurring failure to openly and
categorically ban torture deemed merely psychological places all
Americans at risk. So long as these methods remain among the tools of
CIA interrogators, the US will have no moral authority to complain
about such techniques being used against Americans held abroad.
President Bush should rewrite the executive order to end CIA secret
detentions and unlawful psychological as well as physical abuse. It is
high time the administration stopped playing mind games with torture.