Friday, May 30, 2008

Media Lapdogs Let Loose

Scott McClellan’s remark, even before his book is released, that the media formed a team of “enablers” in the Bush Administration’s propaganda effort to sell the Iraq war, has turned the criticized media hotshots into a pack of angry dogs. Jeff Cohen writes about this in his column posted on Common Dreams (May 30, 2008), pointing out how Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and others have scrambled to defend the “good job” they did. For me, it was ABC’s White House correspondent, Martha Raddatz, who took the excremental prize. We have seen her embedded with American troops in Iraq, usually cheerleading for the troops she seems to love and respect so much. We have seen her politely questioning the liar-in-Chief, George W. Bush, as he stumbles through press conference after press conference. Never have we seen her press or challenge an administration or a military that has made an art form of dissembling.

Last night, however, we saw Martha Raddatz with another kind of subject for her interview—the now politically powerless, former press secretary Scott McClellan, promoting his book. The book, for those who have been on another planet, makes some stunning charges against the Bush White House and the President himself: that he lied his way into Iraq, that the whole package, including what McClellan himself said in defending the war and defending those who championed it, was political propaganda meant to deceive the American people from start to finish. Martha Raddatz seemed to take this personally. It was as if she has all along been the secret press secretary for this administration, and McClellan’s pulling back the curtain to reveal the sordid shell game the whole affair really was, has exposed her sagging posterior for all to see. And so she attacked him almost from the outset, challenging him on why he never spoke up before, on the contradiction between what he had written and what he said as press secretary, on how he was “spinning” even as he defended himself. It was a remarkable performance—one that most Americans would have valued long ago if the target had been one of the lying, spinning administration spokesmen. Instead, Raddatz saved her aggressive investigating until this late in the game, to expose a whistleblower. She pushed and mocked and prodded McClellan in what appeared to be a determined attempt to undermine his very credibility as a White House insider.

What does this mean? This high-level “stenographer” who, as McClellan rightly says, was one of those who “enabled” the Bush administration to lie consistently about its so-called “intelligence,” now attacks the person who tries to tell the truth?

What it means is that truth seems to have lost its meaning entirely in our time. As Jeff Cohen testifies, those who told the truth in the runup to the war—Scott Ritter among them—were pilloried, mocked, and censored by major news CEOs as fantasists. Those who marched in the streets in hundreds of cities to stop the war—15 million of them worldwide—were also mocked and ridiculed and pitied for being naïve. And now, now that mountains of evidence have emerged proving that the marchers and dissenters were right from the outset, while the administration and its media enablers were not just dead wrong but criminally wrong, now that same media tries to discredit the very insider trying to add the “I was there” element to the story.

It is a spectacle that so shames and pollutes the very idea of press freedom in the United States of America that it is hard to see how this once-honorable profession so crucial to democracy will ever manage to restore itself. One thing is certain: the rehabilitation, if it comes, will not come from the major media, nor from lapdogs like Martha Raddatz.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ban Your Critics

In all the debate about Israel in this country—all that is allowed by the self-censoring U.S. media, that is—we are constantly told that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with a democratic government; that it is western civilization’s outpost in an otherwise dictatorial region. Yesterday’s action by the Israeli government—it apprehended American historian Norman Finkelstein at Ben Gurion airport on Friday, May 23, interrogated him for 24 hours, and then banned him from the Jewish state for 10 years—gives the lie to that notion. What this action demonstrated, instead, is that Israel is much like other dictatorial governments, including our own: it simply will not tolerate criticism of its actions, no matter how brutal or illegal they may be. Of course, those who follow the doings of the Jewish state already knew this: the great Israeli historian Ilan Pappe was also forced to leave his post at the University of Haifa last year. Like Finkelstein, he had sharply criticized Israel in several books, and even endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. He now lives in London, where he continues his criticism.

Finkelstein has been hit hard for his critiques of Israel before. Last year, after his book “Beyond Chutzpah,” detailed a case of massive plagiarism against Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, in the latter’s book, “The Case for Israel,” Dershowitz, in retaliation, demanded that DePaul University of Chicago deny Finkelstein tenure. DePaul’s dean caved in to the massive pressure organized by Dershowitz (even though Finkelstein’s department had voted to grant him tenure), and denied the distinguished scholar his permanent position. The lesson to American academics and all who dare to criticize Israel was once again made crystal clear: any attempt to point out the historical truth about Israel’s continuing campaign to expel, ethnically cleanse, imprison and, if necessary, exterminate the Palestinian people will be met with the harshest measures available (among them, restricted access to the U.S. press; the story about Finkelstein’s apprehension and deportation was covered by London’s “Guardian” newspaper.)

Fortunately, not everyone in Israel agrees with its right-wing leaders. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, via its lawyer Oded Peler, called Finkelstein’s deportation an assault on free speech “typical of a totalitarian regime.” Peler added that “A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities to hear.” Exactly. Perhaps we in the United States should invite Oded Peler here as well—to convey his sentiments about free speech to the Bush administration and its many Israel-right-or-wrong supporters. Given the frontal assaults on the Bill of Rights in the last 7 years, it—and most citizens of what used to be a Republic as well—could use the reminder.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bisphenol A (BPA)

Last night (Friday May 23) Bill Moyers aired a segment on the investigation of the dangers of BPA by journalists for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It was sobering for many reasons. To begin with, here was a textbook case about why we still need newspaper journalism. The lead reporter, Susanne Rust, demonstrated both the persistence and expertise required for good journalism: she had studied endocrine disruptors in graduate school before becoming a journalist, and so was able to personally review hundreds of scientific articles to report firsthand on what they said. Needless to say, what she uncovered differed dramatically from what industry and government representatives were saying in response to the controversy. Second, the Journal Sentinel assigned no less than three reporters to this story, and gave them ample time—not hours or days but months—to thoroughly research the story. No television station would, these days, allow that much time for a story; it’s far cheaper to cover the latest murder or sex scandal.

Aside from this demonstration about the value of true journalism, the report was sobering in what it revealed about the possible dangers of Bisphenol A, and the criminal negligence of government agencies in downplaying those dangers. The internet is today full of reports about this, but one in particular provides ample reasons for anyone interested in his/her own health, and even more, the health of children or grandchildren, to be concerned. I am referring to a report by two scientists, F vom Saal (shown on the Moyers report) and C Hughes, titled “An Extensive New Literature Concerning Low-Dose Effects of Bisphenol A Shows the Need for a New Risk Assessment” (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2005). The article, which can be found on the website, (itself the name of a book by Colborn, Dumanosk, & Meyers), represents an overview of the scientific literature, and on that basis concludes that health standards for BPA “should be strengthened dramatically to protect public health.”

First, we should be clear about what BPA is. Though first synthesized in 1891, it was not used until 1931, when it was synthesized for use as an estrogen (only to be replaced by the infamous diethylstilbestrol (DES), because of the latter’s greater effect.) This initial intent is important because of the dangers BPA poses as an endocrine disruptor. In any case, chemists soon discovered BPA’s current use—its ability to polymerize, or form large chains, to become polycarbonate plastic. All well and good: polycarbonate plastic is hard and clear and widely useful. The fly in the ointment turned out to be that the bond linking BPA’s monomers to one another is not stable; it decays with time, releasing BPA into the materials it contacts, such as food or water. By now, many people have been alerted to the problem BPA poses in water bottles and food containers (it is used widely to line the inside of the metal cans containing foods of all kinds). But BPA is also used in making a host of other plastics, resins, fungicides, flame retardants, and even the plastic coating for children’s teeth to prevent cavities! It is ubiquitous in our plastic-drenched lives, and thereby in the environment (rivers and estuaries and our water supply) we have contaminated as well.

The government agency charged with protecting Americans from toxic dangers such as this, the EPA, has not conducted a new risk assessment for Bisphenol A in 15 years. It has essentially taken the word of the chemical industry that scientific studies (financed by the industry, of course) have shown that BPA is safe. vom Saal and Hughes, however, found a dramatically different story. First, they compared industry-funded studies with government-funded studies and found that of 115 relevant studies (11 by the chemical industry; 94 by government-funded research), “none of the 11 funded by industry reported adverse effects at low level, whereas 94 of 104 government-funded studies (from Japan, Europe, and the U.S.) found effects.” Now if you were the EPA, whom would you trust—the industry-funded studies? Or government-funded studies? Needless to say, EPA went with the industry studies.

vom Saal and Huges, however, clearly found the government-funded studies both more numerous and more convincing. They state: “the literature now provides overwhelming evidence that Bisphenol A alters cellular signaling, fetal development and adult physiology and reproduction in animals at doses far beneath the current ‘safe exposure’ level established by the U.S., 50 ppb (parts per billion).” In fact, vom Saal’s own first study reported “effects at 2 ppb, when male mice exposed in the womb (to BPA) grew up with enlarged prostates.” Not surprisingly, vom Saal’s study was severely criticized by chemical industry scientists, who said his results could not be duplicated. This must have been one reason for vom Saal and Hughes to conduct their review. Be that as it may, they found, first, that vom Saal’s results regarding the danger of even low levels of BPA had been duplicated numerous times in numerous labs. More important, more recent studies indicated that Bisphenol A, via its interaction with estrogen receptors within the cell nucleus, not only “alters expression of many genes dependent upon estrogen signaling,” but also “stimulates calcium influx into the cell,” a key process which also “alters the expression of genes involved in many different physiological processes, including brain growth, memory formation, the creation of fat cells, and reproductive development.” Indeed, in provoking these critical reactions, Bisphenol A has been found to be “more powerful” than diethylstilbestrol (DES)!

The conclusion reached by vom Saal and Hughes would seem to be a no-brainer: given its ability to alter such basic physiological functions, BPA may be involved in such diseases (all indicated by the studies reviewed) as: “obesity in adults, early puberty, reduced sperm count, breast cancer, impaired immune function, changes in brain chemistry, and changes in behavior—hyperactivity, increased aggressiveness, impaired learning, altered sexual behavior.” While all these indications come from animal studies since the relevant human research has not yet been done (indeed, it may be almost impossible to find control groups among humans who have NOT been exposed to BPA), it seems prudent to conclude that, given the widespread exposure of humans to BPA from so many sources, every individual should err on the side of caution. (Unless, that is, most of us have been so de-sensitized to chemical dangers by TV’s constant drug commercials running through their weirdly cheerful disclaimers—‘may cause headaches, stomach cramps, liver failure, heart attacks, blood clots, brain hemorrhaging, and sudden infant death syndrome’—that we’re too dumbed out to worry.)

The final conclusion of vom Saal and Hughes, however, indicates that even individual action, while prudent, will not be enough. This is because the ubiquity of BPA, most of it in unlabeled products, all leaching enormous quantities into the entire world’s water systems, means that we will all continue to be contaminated by Bisphenol A no matter what we do as individuals. As with global warming, it is governments—especially the U. S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency—which must act both nationally and globally to reduce the danger. And in order get them to do that, governments must no longer be allowed to dismiss the dangers of such a universally distributed substance. They must be deluged, starting with our own representatives, with demands for an outright ban on Bisphenol A. Whether they should subsequently be held accountable for the as yet uncalculated harm their negligence (or should we call it willful ignorance) has already caused is an open question.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Two Takes on Torture

As is characteristic of it, the Bush Administration, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, has managed to persuade most Americans that the torture problem has been solved: the wrongdoers have been punished, torture is no longer tolerated, and Abu Ghraib is closed. The public’s gullibility notwithstanding, however, there remains the criminal truth. Not only are the perpetrators of the torture policies still at large and in power, a recent report indicates that, in fact, more Iraqis are now imprisoned than ever before: over 51,000 now languish in American and Iraqi prisons. Indeed, the “surge” has meant mainly a surge in prisoners: the number of Iraqis held by Americans rose 70% in 2007 from 14,500 to 24,700, while the Iraqi government now holds more than 26,000 of its own people prisoners. (“The Surge of Iraqi Prisoners,” by Clara Gilmartin, Foreign Policy in Focus, 5/7/08.) Are we supposed to believe that none of these 50,000 now gets the “interrogation treatment” that made Abu Ghraib famous?

A look at two books—"A Question of Torture," by Alfred McCoy, and "The Lucifer Effect," by Philip Zimbardo--should quickly dispel any such notion, for each proves, in its own way, that torture by American agencies is not some recent innovation in response to the “war on terror,” but rather a longstanding government policy, and perhaps an unavoidable feature of imprisonment itself.

Begin with McCoy, in his book subtitled "CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror." What McCoy demonstrates is that “Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Kabul are manifestations of a long history of distinctive U.S. covert-warfare doctrine developed since WWII, in which psychological torture has emerged as a central facet of American foreign policy” (p. 7). That is, in response to Cold War fears that both the Russians and the Chinese were engaging in “mind control” experiments that could force captives to reveal state secrets and, indeed, to commit criminal acts, the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s embarked on a massive program to develop mind-control tactics of its own. Its new paradigm focused on two elements: sensory disorientation, and self-inflicted pain. These methods were meant to substitute for more primitive, physical methods of torture, which not only have the negative characteristic of leaving visible marks on their victims, but also fail, in many cases, to break the will of captives to resist. With the psychological methods (often enhanced by physical methods where necessary), resistance almost always vanished.

To accomplish its task, the CIA elicited the help and funded the work of several university researchers in psychology. Donald Hebb, of McGill University in Canada, supplied the first element: sensory deprivation. Several Americans—Albert Biderman, Irving L. Janis, Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle—provided data on the role of self-inflicted pain. And Stanley Milgram, whose obedience experiments at Yale became legendary, provided the third element—that almost anyone could be trained to inflict torture.

Hebb started in 1951, under a CIA-funded contract, to provide data on sensory deprivation. Paying college students to just lie in his “black box” 24 hours a day with all sensory stimuli blocked by translucent goggles, soundproofing, and thick gloves, he discovered that “even short-term deprivation produced a devastating impact on the human psyche.” After only a few days, the subject’s identity “began to disintegrate.” In other words, a varied environment was found to be so essential for humans that without it, subjects could be brought to a state of “acute psychosis,” with brain function seriously impaired.

The CIA also financed the research of another Canadian, D. Ewen Cameron, who was fond of a procedure he called “depatterning.” Working on his patients at the Allan Institute, Cameron used drug-induced comas, electroshock treatments, and repeated taped messages for long periods to induce breakdown. By 1964, Cameron was considered a crackpot, but by then he had so maimed several patients that he was sued, with the CIA paying an out-of-court settlement of $750,000 to nine patients, with the Canadian government adding another $180,000.

Still, the CIA was not discouraged and financed the research of Hinkle and Wolff into self-inflicted pain techniques. They reportedly found that the Russian KGB used a simple method—making victims stand still for 18 to 24 hours—that produced excruciating pain wherein ankle size doubled, blisters erupted, heart rates climbed, kidneys shut down and delusions emerged. The “best” part of all this was that, contrary to torture where the interrogator inflicted the pain—thus increasing the will of the victim to resist—self-inflicted pain had the opposite effect. The victims seemed to blame themselves for the pain, and hence could summon less will to resist.

The CIA was quite excited by this, as well as by the results from the experiments of Stanley Milgram at Yale (McCoy produces circumstantial evidence to suggest that Milgram was in the orbit of the CIA and the Office of Naval Research). There, ordinary citizens were induced and encouraged to shock “subjects” in order to make them learn. Though the subjects were not actually being shocked, but were acting, the shockers did not know this. They found themselves administering higher and higher voltages, encouraged always by the authority figures urging them on, up to and including the most excruciating pain available. The conclusion demonstrated that anyone—especially the police and military of foreign allies, such as those in Latin America, where the CIA was ‘fighting communism’—could be easily persuaded to torture those deemed in possession of useful information.

All these results were not simply academic exercises. The CIA put them into training manuals and implemented them worldwide for the next 40 years. In 1963, for example, the CIA produced its "Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation" handbook. It embraced the two-part form of torture—sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—its paid research had uncovered. As McCoy puts it, the “fundamental hypothesis” of Kubark is that interrogation involves “methods of inducing regression of the personality to whatever earlier and weaker level is required for the dissolution of resistance and inculcation of dependence” (p. 51). All interrogation is a way of “speeding up the process of regression,” to the point where the assault on personal identity becomes “mentally intolerable.” The methods researched by Hebb and Cameron, among others, are laid out in full, with techniques such as “hooding” or “sleep denial” used to disorient the prisoner, and “personal or sexual humiliation” used to attack personal identity. It also pointed out that pain which the person “seems to inflict on himself” diminishes resistance much more rapidly than pain from without.

The CIA then proceeded to use Vietnam as its own personal laboratory for these and other techniques. Its main venue was the Phoenix program, meant to destroy the Vietcong underground. Information was crucial, and so all its new techniques, and many old ones such as the simple, old fashioned killing of captives, were employed. One of these ‘experiments’ deserves mention. In 1966, the CIA shipped to Vietnam an electroshock machine along with three psychiatrists, including Dr. Lloyd Cotter, to test the depatterning techniques of Ewen Cameron. Cotter applied electroconvulsive treatment to Vietnamese patients and was “impressed” with the results. The results with Vietcong prisoners were even more impressive: the CIA psychiatrists applied 12 electroshocks the first day, and as many as 60 during the next seven days, until one of the prisoners died. Undaunted, the electroshocks continued until the rest of the prisoners died several weeks later. At that point, the CIA operatives simply left; experiment over.

The result of all this was enemy “neutralization” estimated, in 1972, at 81,740 eliminated, with 26,369 detainees simply killed. As McCoy points out, this killing of suspects left over is necessary to avoid indefinite jailing of captives who can no longer offer information; hence his conclusion: “In effect, the logical corollary to state-sanctioned torture is state-sponsored murder” (p. 196). In Iran under the Shah (whom the U.S. installed after organizing the downfall of the democratically-elected Mossadegh government), the CIA, with help from Israeli intelligence, used its new torture doctrine to organize and train the Savak, the Shah’s secret police. According to Iranian poet Reza Baraheni, “at least half a million people” were beaten, whipped or tortured in Iran by Savak (p. 75).

Still, the United States did not want to appear to approve of torture, so it signed international agreements such as the 1984 UN Convention against Torture. However, the Reagan Administration posted reservations to the new treaty, which were effected when President Clinton finally signed it in 1994. These reservations, in the form of “clearer” definitions of what constituted psychological torture, limited it to such things as using mind-altering substances and the threat of imminent death. These narrow definitions, McCoy points out, made no mention of “sensory deprivation (hooding), self-inflicted pain (stress positions) and disorientation (isolation and sleep denial)—the very techniques the CIA had been refining for decades” (p. 100). Hence, even after the United States had signed the 1984 Convention, the CIA felt free to use its psychological techniques while U.S. officials could continue to say, “We do not torture.”

Thus we see that far from being an aberration, or a radical departure from previous interrogation practices, the Bush Administration’s announcement that the “gloves were coming off” after 9/11 meant mainly that, for America’s spy agencies, it would be business pretty much as usual. The departure from prior practice—for there was one—came with the extension of CIA torture techniques to the military: those interrogators at U.S. military installations who have since become so famous. In order to implement this “force drift,” however, the administration had to outflank its military officers, particularly those in the Advocate General’s office, who raised loud and persistent objections to what they saw going on at Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force Base, and later, Abu Ghraib. All, without exception, said such tactics violated military interrogation manuals and should be halted. In response, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, aided by the White House neocons like David Addington and lawyers in the Justice Department like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, organized a Defense Working Group to provide him and the military the cover and authority they needed.

As intended, Rumsfeld’s DWG produced a memo in March of 2003 approving of the extreme interrogation methods. They read like a reprint of the Kubark manual, especially when specified by General Geoffrey Miller for Guantanamo: a 72-point matrix for stress and duress, using “harsh heat or cold; withholding food; hooding for days at a time; naked isolation in cold, dark cells for more than 30 days; and stress positions designed to subject detainees to rising levels of pain” (p. 129). Miller also added forms of psychological torture specific to Arab culture which, since Abu Ghraib, have become disgustingly familiar—the conscious strategy of sexual humiliation and other forms of assault on Muslim cultural inhibitions. And though the International Red Cross, in 2004, declared such methods to be “tantamount to torture,” and hence violations of international law, the U.S. military simply dismissed these charges.

This open contempt marked another departure, according to McCoy: instead of using such psychological techniques covertly, as it had for half a century, the United States government under George W. Bush now “defied the international community by openly defending the techniques and denying that they constituted torture” (p. 157). Put another way, that which started out as a series of psychological methods to break any human being—but secretly, thus acknowledging their heinous nature—had now become something publicly and defiantly accepted, a kind of torture about which an American administration seemed almost proud.
What Philip Zimbardo’s "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil," adds to this discussion is the notion that, given the right situation, almost anyone can turn into a perpetrator of horror. In short, where most of us, particularly in the United States and the West, tend to attribute evil actions to “dispositional factors,” i.e. the alleged bad or evil inherent in a specific person whose evil disposition leads him to “sin”, Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) took the opposite tack: evil behavior stems mainly from the situation in which people find themselves. In the SPE, average college students were chosen at random to be either “guards” or “prisoners.” A pretend prison was set up in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building, and a situation created in which the guards were to control and discipline the prisoners for a set period. No physical force was to be used, but other means, such as humiliation, isolation, harassment, and so on were legitimate methods for the guards to use. Zimbardo summed up the design and purpose of the experiment as follows: “our research will attempt to differentiate between what people bring into a prison situation from what the situation brings out in the people who are there.” His assistant put it more succinctly: “You’re putting good people in an evil situation to see who or what wins.”

What stunned the experimenters, and stuns the reader, is how quickly the situation won, i.e. how rapidly the neutral students fell into their assigned roles. Within a matter of days, the prisoners become docile and obedient. The guards, many of them student radicals themselves, become authoritarian, brutal disciplinarians. As one “prisoner” put it afterward: “The guard role promotes sadism. The prisoner role promotes confusion and shame” (p. 189). Even more astonishing is the degree to which not just the students but the psychologists and graduate students running the experiment themselves seemed to forget the make-believe nature of the situation and became that which they were supposedly miming. The most dramatic example of this latter takes place when one of the prisoners, Doug-8612, becomes so overwrought that he must be released after his second day in “prison.” In response, the “warden” and Zimbardo himself as “superintendent” begin to worry that Doug-8612’s “breakdown” might have been just playacting designed so that he could gather other students outside the experiment to stage a ‘breakout’ of his fellow prisoners. Worse, they begin to analyze their screening methods to see if somehow they had allowed a “flawed” or “damaged” person to slip into their experiment. The irony is striking: in a “study designed to demonstrate the power of situational forces over dispositional tendencies, we were making a dispositional attribution” (i.e. Doug-8612 was a “bad apple” who had slipped into the group of “good” subjects. ed note)

Among many notable moments in this experiment, one of the most troubling, given our experience with Abu Ghraib, is the point near the end when one of the guards, Hellmann, on his own, adds sexual harassment of prisoners to his repertoire of control tactics: “’See that hole in the ground? Now do twenty-five push-ups, fucking that hole! You hear me!’ One after another, the prisoners obey, as Burdan shoves them down to do their duty.” Then the secondary guard, Burdan, makes the prisoners do the camel game—forcing three prisoners to play female camels, bending over, baring their behinds beneath their short prison smocks, while ordering the others to “Stand behind the female camels and hump them” (p. 172).

Fortunately for Philip Zimbardo and his subjects, an outside observer, his future wife Christina Maslach, intervened. Having seen what was happening, she objected heatedly, insisting that “What you are doing to those boys is a terrible thing!” This forced the researcher to admit his responsibility for having created this little “prison,” thereby leading his students into a tangled knot of dominance and submission that was deeply affecting their psyches, and to call off his experiment after only one week (it was originally scheduled to last two weeks.) It also led him to reflect, when writing his book 30 years later, on where the ultimate responsibility for evil behavior, especially in the real world, lies. In brief, though each individual should be held responsible for his actions, the situation in which those actions take place controls behavior far more than any of us realizes. Perhaps more important, it is the System that creates the action-inducing situation which is ultimately responsible. Zimbardo puts it thus:

“The negative power on which I had been running for the past week, as superintendent of this mock prison, had blinded me to the reality of the destructive impact of the System that I was sustaining….While I was focused on the abstract conceptual issue, the power of the behavioral situation vs the power of individual dispositions, I had missed seeing the all-encompassing power of the System that I had helped create and sustain.
The System includes the Situation, but it is more enduring, more widespread, involving extensive networks of people, their expectations, norms, policies, and, perhaps laws…Each System comes to develop a culture of its own, as many Systems collectively come to contribute to the culture of a society.” (p. 179)

Elsewhere, Zimbardo also includes a System’s ideology in the nexus of key factors that sustains it—ideology such as: America is a nation chosen by and protected by God, America is the model democracy, America is the home of liberty and justice for all, America is that singular nation which never attacks or exploits but always helps others, etc.

Now we need to contrast this Systemic-situational view with the one that has pertained in the Bush Administration (and throughout American culture to a greater or lesser degree) when faced with the consequences of Abu Ghraib and its war on terror. Zimbardo quotes Condoleeza Rice in an interview with Jim Lehrer in July of 2005 to illustrate the latter:

“When are we going to stop making excuses for the terrorists and saying that somebody is making them do it? No, these are simply evil people who want to kill…This isn’t about some kind of grievance. This is an effort to destroy rather than to build. And until everybody in the world calls it by name—the evil that it is---stops making excuses for them, then I think we’re going to have a problem.” (p. 311)

The administration attitude (these are simply evil people) pertained, of course, not just to the terrorists, but also to the guards who committed the photographically-documented outrages at Abu Ghraib. It was the “bad apples,” not the barrel, who were responsible. And the “bad apples” got punished—Sgt Chip Frederick, Lynnde England, Charles Graner—while the barrel itself, and those who had created the barrel, got off scot free. In the most immediate sense, this means Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, according to Mark Danner (Torture & Truth: American, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror), issued directives about preparing detainees for interrogation that included the following recommended methods:

“Use of stress positions for 4 hours in isolation up to 30 days; Hooding during transportation and questioning; Deprivation of light and auditory stimuli; Removal of all comfort items (including religious ones); Forced grooming; Removal of clothing.; Using detainees’ individual phobias (fear of dogs) to induce stress.” (p. 408)

In the largest sense, it means all those, both appointed and elected, who helped to direct and justify and implement the system.

Thus, by examining American torture policies in light of his own Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo leads us to the conclusion that the situation trumps almost any individual disposition in leading the way to evil actions. And the System that creates the situation should bear the most responsibility of all. He liberally cites the memos noted above—memos that were designed to not only place the detainees in U.S. custody beyond the reach of any court or law, including the Geneva Conventions, but also to protect those implementing the policies from any liability for war crimes—to buttress his case. He also points out that a System is implemented by individual actors, to be sure, but it is not underlings like Sgt. Frederick and Pvt. England who bear most culpability; rather it is those actors who hold the power positions in that system—the Rumsfelds, the Cheneys, the Addingtons, the Yoos, the Bybees, the Rices, the entire Bush White House torture cabal including the President himself. As Zimbardo puts it:

"I believe that a system consists of those agents and agencies whose power and values create or modify the rules of and expectations for “approved behavior” within its sphere of influence. In one sense, the system is more than the sum of its parts and of its leaders, who also fall under its powerful influences. In another sense, however, the individuals who play key roles in creating a system that engages in illegal, immoral and unethical conduct should be held accountable despite the situational pressures on them.” (p. 438)

It is such a system, Zimbardo suggests, that allowed Nazis like Adolph Eichmann to commit his crimes while feeling all along that he was just “doing his job.” The extent to which a similar type of system has been created in the United States of America under all of our noses and with our tax dollars is the extent to which all of us who support and sustain and allow that system to continue are guilty. Not as guilty, perhaps, as the Bush administration high officials, who should, who must be held to account for their crimes—but guilty nonetheless.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sami al-Hajj

On May 1, presumably not as a May day present, the Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj was released from 6 years of imprisonment in Guantanamo. Al-Hajj had been on a hunger strike for more than a year, and was reported to be 40 pounds under his normal weight, and looking far older than his 38 years. Partly this was due to the treatment he received at Guantanamo, America’s infamous torture prison, where he said he was interrogated hundreds of times, and subjected to beatings, extremes of temperature, sexual assault, and threats with military dogs—all the standard methods used by Americans against “terror war” captives in recent years. In addition, al-Hajj was reportedly force fed to keep him alive, a procedure which involved forcing a feeding tube up his nose and into his stomach twice a day, and which exacerbated the throat cancer he has suffered from. As is customary, no charges were offered to justify al-Hajj’s captivity. He was a Sudanese national working as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic news outlet which the United States has constantly attacked, both verbally and physically, since the beginning of its “war on terror.” Upon trying to enter Afghanistan in December 2001 to cover the war there, he was seized by Pakistani authorities and turned over to American forces. Held and abusively interrogated at Bagram Air Force Base and then at another prison facility in Kandahar until June 2002, he was then delivered, bound and gagged, to the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He remained there for 6 years.

In Sudan, where he was hospitalized following his release, Sami al-Hajj has made numerous statements about his imprisonment:
“Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values. In Guantánamo...rats are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges, and they will not give them the rights that they give to animals….For more than seven years, I did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court. To defend their just case and to get the freedom that we’re deprived of, they ignored every kind of law, every kind of religion….
He concluded by saying: “My last message to the US administration is that torture will not stop terrorism—torture is terrorism.”

The U.S. response to al-Hajj’s claims of mistreatment follows a familiar pattern. ABC News featured three unnamed Pentagon “officials” who said that there was nothing to “substantiate his allegations that he was mistreated at Guantanamo.” These same officials tried to dismiss al-Hajj as “a manipulator and a propagandist.” (see Naomi Spencer, “Journalist released from Guantanamo details abuse,” May 5 2008, But there are countless accounts corroborating the harsh conditions at Guantanamo, as NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reports in a May 4 piece called “A Prison of Shame, and It’s Ours.” Among them are memoirs, some already published, some due out soon, that confirm what Sami al-Hajj and others have described. Murat Kurnaz, a German citizen of Turkish descent, has a newly published memoir about his 5 years there, including long bouts of torture that “included interruptions by a doctor to ensure that he was well enough for torture to continue.” Other books are a memoir by an interpreter of Afghan descent, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, and an account, Kafka Comes to America, by American attorney Steven Wax. According to Kristof, these and other accounts reveal two essential truths about Gitmo: 1) “most of the inmates were probably innocent all along” but were turned over because of the huge cash rewards America offered; and 2) “torture was routine, especially early on. That’s why more than 100 prisoners have died in American custody in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo.”

Al-Hajj’s release thus leaves us with several disturbing conclusions. It is not just what we now know about the torture tactics at Guantanamo (as well as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other American “interrogation” sites), though that is injurious enough. It is the attitude of American (usually Bush administration) officials about it, which compounds the injury, for the official response is always the same: these are the “worst of the worst,” and so any tactic that produces the information we need is legitimate. Or, these allegations are simply “propaganda” produced by the “bad guys,” those Arab/Muslim fanatics who seek to harm us. What is left unsaid is the logical conclusion that too many Americans have accepted: we are fighting an inhuman, or sub-human enemy who does not deserve the common decency normally accorded to prisoners. These are not people, like our previous enemies; they are “things” to be manipulated in whatever way we wish.

The truth, however, is that this age-old justification for torture crumbles under even the slightest scrutiny. And that is not only because torture violates all the treaties and laws we have signed over the years, including our own constitution outlawing cruel and inhuman treatment. It is also because we now know that this type of torture did not begin with Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, and has not been limited to the Arabs or Muslims we have been at such pains to dehumanize. As Alfred McCoy makes very clear in his A Question of Torture, there is a long history of this new kind of torture that began shortly after World War II, one that has been constantly perfected since then by the CIA among others. These methods were ready and waiting when the so-called “war on terror” was announced after 9/11, and were quickly and eagerly updated and implemented. My next post will go into that aspect of the story in detail. Suffice it to say here that even a cursory look at the methods McCoy lays out proves—even if we doubt the words of Arab/Muslims like Sami al-Hajj—that these torture techniques have been part of the American interrogator’s playbook for nearly a half century now, and have been used not only by American “interrogators” themselves, but spread like a new gospel to our “allies” around the world.

The only question for us who have now become revoltingly aware of such things is how do we, a complacent public, justify standing idly by and letting this happen, letting the perpetrators of this little shop of horrors operating in our name ride off not just unaccountable and unpunished, but richly rewarded for their crimes?

Lawrence DiStasi