Does America Torture Prisoners?

Yes, of course. 

And so do most governments including India.

To believe anything else would be naive.

Who can forget the horrifying news reports in the late 1970s of policemen pouring acid into the eyes of undertrial prisoners in Bhagalpur (located in the North Indian state of Bihar) or the recent video footage of a suspected thief in Bhagalpur being tied to a policeman’s motorcycle and dragged across town.

The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi once famously said: Corruption is a universal phenomenon.

Although hardly ever acknowledged, Torture of prisoners by governments is a universal phenomenon too.

Torture, or enhanced interrogation techniques to use an American euphemism, has been a staple of governments for aeons.

In the middle ages, torture was a legitimate technique to extract information or coerce confessions through the use of cruel instruments such as the rack.

Stalin ordered his police officers not to show mercy to prisoners in their custody: Beat, beat, beat and beat again, Stalin wrote to the interrogators.

The Nazis conducted horrifying experiments on their prisoners when they were not busy gassing them or working them to death. Folks, does Josef Mengele – the Angel of Death – ring a bell?

Egypt’s prisons are notorious for the use of harsh interrogation methods.

Now, the U.S. is traveling on this dark road of torture after the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. Army used torture at the notorous Abhu Ghraib prison in Iraq. As U.S. General Antonio Taguba described in his now famous report:

Numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses were inflicted on several detainees . . . systemic and illegal abuse.

The American intelligence agency CIA is also believed to have used torture, stress positions (as former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once referred to the abusive methods deployed)  or enhanced interrogation techniques – call it what you will – on its high-value detainees to obtain information that the agency believes has saved innocent lives and stopped new attacks.

According to a recent piece in the New Yorker (August 13, 2007), a confidential Red Cross report based on the humanitarian agency’s interviews with 15 prisoners suggests torture and possible breach by the CIA of the U.S.Torture Act passed by Congress in 1994.

The New Yorker essay titled The Black Sites – A rare look inside the C.I.A’s secret interrogation program is blunt and minces no words:

The conclusions of the Red Cross, which is known for its credibility and caution, could have potentially devastating legal ramifications.

The Black Sites are the secret prisons in Poland, Afghanistan, Romania and elsewhere where CIA kept high value detainees for several years until they were transferred to Guantanamo after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

Some of the torture techniques believed to have been used by the CIA include waterboarding, sleep deprivation, prolonged hanging by the arms, sexual humiliation, extended sensory deprivation, etc.

However, two differences between the U.S. and many other countries that deploy torture stand out.

First, except for stray incidents of abuse like the Abner Louima case in New York, America does not torture its own citizens unlike a lot of governments elsewhere.

Second, an independent and competitive media in the U.S. brings to light even sensitive matters like torture that the government would prefer to keep under wraps.

Does torture work?

Opinions among the experts are divided here.

Some claim it does and has saved lives while others insist that it does not provide good intelligence a.k.a information.

Owing to the inherently secretive conditions under which torture is conducted, it’s hard to conclusively assess its effectiveness.

What can lay citizens repulsed by torture do against the might of their governments that deploy torture? Not much, except to expose the sordid practice.

After all, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said sunlight is the best disinfectant.

It’s only through the long journey of repeatedly exposing, highlighting and documenting instances of torture can lay citizens build a critical mass of public opinion to compel their governments to stop this inhumane practice.

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