Author: Laura Bowen
On Monday, October 29, University of Washington Professor of History Al McCoy spoke in the Johnson auditorium about the current use of torture by soldiers in Iraq, and how this fits into a larger historical context of CIA psychological torture methods. McCoy recently published A Question of Torture, which offers an extension of his presentation.
McCoy began by highlighting the mass media attention of the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs. He discussed how these torture practices were not due to the soldiers’ derangement, but rather because of actions that reflected, as McCoy described, “the two key trademarks of CIA psychological torture.”
McCoy argued that psychological torture is a “distinctively American form of torture.” He talked about its beginnings around 1950-62, when research began on the type of torture which McCoy equated to a “Manhattan project of the mind.”
From this research, two discoveries were made about psychological torture that have been used since. The first is sensory deprivation (being made unable to hear with earmuffs, see with goggles, etc.) and the second is self-inflicted pain like, in the example that McCoy gave, “forcing victims to stand for days at a time.” McCoy described these methods as “no-touch torture.”
McCoy defined psychological torture as having very distinct aspects. He explained that this type of torture “lacks any visible signs of abuse.” Psychological torture also has an overall resilience, and adaptability to any situation in which torture might need to be used. McCoy addressed the “darkly erotic appeal” of psychological torture, and how people “concoct rationales” to continue these practices, even if another method of gathering information is more feasible. He described its destructive qualities which can leave “searing mental scars” on its victims.
The discussion was then brought back to the war in Iraq and how the United States army has been able to use these methods without defining them as torture. He discussed how the U.S. was able to pare down the definition of torture used by the U.N. to exclude all psychological methods even though they have been shown to be just as harmful as physical torture.
McCoy quoted President Bush as stating, on September 11, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” This approach carried over into his description of how the army “stiffened the psychological assault” and perfected many techniques using Arabian cultural sensitivities such as sexual humiliation. McCoy explained that these torture methods widened in use, from being used on main associates with al Qaeda, to thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Section 2340 of the United States Federal Code—which McCoy repeatedly told the audience to remember—defines psychological torture with four examples, which McCoy said banned “a few of the many possible methods for committing the crime.” McCoy stressed the negative responses to this lack of detail in the international arena, especially from Europe, and how the U.S. use of torture was putting a “stain on American standing.”
Near the end of his discussion, McCoy stated that there is a “well-established American alternative to torture.” He discussed “empathetic interrogation,” in which the interrogator relates to the person from whom he is drawing information. According to McCoy, this method has shown to be as effective as psychological torture, and was used and perfected by the FBI before the CIA became involved.
McCoy ended his talk by saying, “It is a small issue . . . but it is not going to be easy.”
“He was a really effective speaker.” Ben Kaufman (first-year) said. “It was intriguing and kind of disturbing . . . he made a lot of sense.”
This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.