Torture, American Style -- The Wave of the Future?

The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

This definition makes no distinction between mental torture and physical torture, nor is it restricted to acts inflicted on persons in prison or held under conditions of physical custody or control. Nevertheless, advocates and authorities consistently make such distinctions.

Amnesty International has assumed a dominant role among non-governmental organizations, especially in its influence at the UN. Amnesty's prisoner-oriented mandate, however, creates a blind spot, reducing or eliminating any possible focus on cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment inflicted on persons not physically confined or controlled.

The Initial Report of the United States of America to the UN Committee Against Torture, submitted four years late, reflects the "understandings" imposed by the US Senate in its ratification of the Convention. These provide a very convenient loophole for certain forms of torture and state terrorism. The Clinton Administration's justification for these "understandings" is posted in Part II of the Report, from which I quote here.

"U.S. Understandings. In order to clarify the meaning of `torture' and to delineate the scope of application of the Convention with the greater precision required under U.S. domestic law, the United States conditioned its ratification upon several understandings related to Article 1. ..."

[JH Graf's comment: Greater precision, or deliberate evasion and obfuscation?]

"a. ... assessment of mental pain and suffering can be a very subjective undertaking. There was some concern within the U.S. criminal justice community that in this respect the Convention's definition regrettably fell short of the constitutionally required precision for defining criminal offenses. To provide the requisite clarity for purposes of domestic law, the United States therefore conditioned its ratification upon an understanding that, in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from:

(1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;

(2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;

(3) the threat of imminent death; or

(4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality."

[JH Graf's comment: This excludes from the definition of mental torture the deliberate exploitation of the victim's anxieties or phobias. It also excludes such mental terrorism as the torture of animals and intense, frequent, malicious, organized interference with computers.]

"b. For similar reasons of clarity and specificity, United States adherence was conditioned on the understanding that the definition of `torture' in Article 1 is intended to apply `only to acts directed against persons in the offender's custody or physical control' in order to clarify the relationship of the Convention to normal military and law enforcement operations."

[JH Graf's comment: This excludes all torture inflicted on persons not in custody, such as that involving terrorism and the use of electromagnetic or bio-chemical weapons. See "John Akwei vs. NSA" and "Marks of Torture."]

" ... d. The United States further stated its view that the term `acquiescence,' as used in Article 1, requires that a `public official, prior to the activity constituting torture, have awareness of such activity and thereafter breach his legal responsibility to intervene to prevent such activity.' The purpose of this condition was to make it clear that both actual knowledge and `willful blindness' fall within the definition of `acquiescence' in Article 1."

[JH Graf's comment: This conveniently limits the definition of "acquiescence" to circumstances involving prior knowledge, thus excusing Presidents George W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, for instance, of responsibility for programs and actions begun under President Reagan, even if they had knowledge of them and did nothing to stop them.]

Torture by means of electromagnetic weapons, bio-chemical weapons, and organized terrorism frequently occurs outside the bounds of physical custody. Its victims usually cannot identify the perpetrators, may not even understand the nature of their experiences, may consider themselves mentally ill or be regarded as such by others. Amnesty International is not interested in such victims because we are not in prison cells.

Other non-governmental organizations likewise turn their backs. Advocates can "handle" such abuses as electric shock, mutilation, rape, and other physical attacks. These are graphic, documentable, attributable to particular individuals in particular places. State terrorism and mental torture, however, are inflicted from a distance, through surreptitious intrusion by nameless, faceless perpetrators using classified technologies and bio-chemical weapons. These abuses are hard to document, hard to prove, easy to rationalize as symptoms of mental disorder. We victims are routinely ignored, disbelieved, dismissed. Thus, society at large makes itself an accomplice to the torture.

America's torture agenda threatens everyone. There's certainly no lack of torture in the world, and ordinary materials suffice to inflict suffering, but the forms of torture embraced by the United States of America are the wave of the future, since, of their very nature, they tend to discredit the victim. The world must come to terms with this awful reality, before it's too late, for us victims and for the very continuance of civilization.

Whether a conspiracy of silence is a conspiracy of complicity, of cowardice, of stupidity, or of apathy is an academic consideration in the long run. Nothing but the truth will do. Nothing but justice under law will save the world.

Discuss this article in my Yuku Human Rights Community

What is a Private Purgatory, Marlin Fitzwater?

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