Psychological vs. Physical torture

I had a friend, a tortured soul, who’d routinely describe any mildly unpleasant experience as “pure torture”.   Never once, that I recall, was this torture physical.  It was that psychological torture most of us are familiar with, the kind we must endure from time to time in a life that sometimes contains insoluble frustrations.   Psychological torture  can become unbearable, no question about it.   Sometimes the answer to unbearable frustration, from the point of view of people in power, is to torture those who would torture us.   Torture and full-scale infrastructure demolishing military invasions, instead of smart, targeted law enforcement–  indictment, capture, trial– you know, the marks of a civilized response to intolerable crimes against humanity.   The impulse to torture is some sick, primitive, lizard-brained shit, if you think about it.  Once resurrected and tolerated it becomes a feature, rather than a disgusting bug to extinguish once and forever.

After the brilliantly executed terrorist masterpiece of 9/11 the world suddenly seemed a terrifying place.   You’re sitting in your office and a giant plane smashes through the window, turning the building into a crematorium.   On the internet you watch the filmed beheadings of people innocent of anything but being hated by these same terrorists.  These maniacs, many at the time believed, will come to your house and slit your throat in your bed.  In those extraordinarily terrifying days, extraordinary measures were called for.  Cue the cynical public servants and their ambitious, ass-licking lawyers.    I’ll let Amy Goodman and her brother David take it for a moment, from their 2006 book Static [1]:

When the eulogy for American democracy is written, this will stand out as a signal achievement:  how an American president and vice president championed torture, how Congress acquiesced, how the courts provided legal cover for the sadists, all the while sage media pundits politely debated our descent into barbarism.


These are the last words of their chapter on the Bush/Cheney torture regime.  About psychological torture specifically, they write, quoting historian Alfred McCoy’s interview with Amy:

“The second major breakthrough that the CIA had came in New York City at Cornell University Medical Center, where two eminent neurologists under contract from the CIA studied Soviet KGB torture techniques.  They found that the most effective KGB technique was self-inflicted pain.  You simply make somebody stand for a day or two.  As they stand — you’re not beating them, they have no resentment — you tell them, ‘You’re doing this to yourself.  Cooperate with us and you can sit down.’  As they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate hallucinations start, the kidneys shut down.”

Through a process of trial and error, the CIA refined its methods by experimenting with a variety of torture techniques, from beating, to secretly giving American soldiers hallucinogenic drugs.  “LSD certainly didn’t work — you scramble the brain.  You got unreliable information,” said McCoy.  “But what did work was the combination of these two boring, rather mundane behavioral techniques: sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain.”

The CIA codified its findings in 1963 in the KUBARK Counter-intelligence Manual (which can be found online).  McCoy noted that KUBARK presented a “distinctly American form of torture, the first real revolution in the cruel science of pain in centuries — psychological torture… it’s proved to be a very resilient, quite adaptable and an enormously destructive paradigm.”

It is a mistake to consider psychological torture — sometimes referred to as “torture lite” — to be the lesser of evils.  “People who are involved in treatment tell us [that psychological torture] is far more destructive, does far more lasting damage to the human psyche, than does physical torture,” insisted McCoy.  Even Senator John McCain stated when he was advocating his torture prohibition in 2005 that he would rather be beaten than psychologically tortured.     [3]

My sister and I were raised by a father who (I learned toward the end of his life) had been brutally tortured as an infant and child.   The regular torture he was subjected to was both physical and psychological.   He was able to exert himself as a father not to inflict physical torture on my sister and me, something I applaud him for posthumously.   The psychological torture he was generally unable to refrain from inflicting.   So I write on this subject with some personal experience and strong feelings about it.  Torture leaves lifelong wounds — even the relatively mild forms of torture I experienced.   My sister still blames herself for the damage that was done to her.  One of the devilries of psychological torture is how it undermines your trust in your own perceptions.

You can shrug off torture done in our names, to strangers who may or may not be terrorists, as you can shrug off many terrible things you can do nothing about.   Why am I starting the new year writing about fucking torture?  A lesson from history, I suppose [4].  2006 is history now, although largely forgotten in our frenzied and fearfully competitive commercial culture, and Amy and David Goodman’s reporting was a first draft of history, and a chilling one.  The efforts undertaken in our name, on the Dark Side, as the personification of righteous evil Dick Cheney famously scowled it on national TV, casts a dark shadow across our culture today.  Ignore it at all of our perils, boys and girls.

After the slaughter of innocents on 9/11, DOJ lawyers John Yoo (tenured professor of Constitutional Law — of all things– at UC-Berkeley) and  Jay Bybee (lifetime tenured federal judge), got busy writing the now infamous (and generally forgotten) Torture Memo, the legal arguments for why America was entitled to use torture against its enemies.  Yoo had the brilliant insight to redefine pain, using a definition he found somewhere, and then to redefine torture as only that which causes the severe and unbearable pain that immediately precedes death.  

The definitions are key, in the law.   A prisoner of war may not be tortured, under international law, but what about an “enemy combatant” or a “detainee”?   Not exactly covered by those pesky Geneva Conventions.  Plus, since the treatment didn’t rise to the level of pain accompanying organ failure, it wasn’t torture, it was now “enhanced interrogation.”   See?  Let “bleeding heart” journalists and other lawyers find our secret memo and fight it out in court.  Fuck ’em.  

Like the neurologists the CIA hired in the early 1960s to create a manual of effective psychological torture (effective, we should note, in breaking the captive’s spirit, not in gaining actual intelligence) Cheney, Addington, Bush and co., soon after 9/11/01, hired two psychologists to create a new “enhanced interrogation techniques” program.   The EIT was based on the theory of learned helplessness.  You teach your captive that he or she is helpless.  You do this by creating debility, dependence and despair.  

There are many techniques.  You can deprive them of sleep for long periods, make them almost freeze, or almost parboil, chain them in stressful positions, lock them in coffins, slam them against walls, gag them on a board, turn them upside down and pour water into their mouths to simulate their drowning.  None of this is torture, by the way, if go by the legalistic Torture Memo and you are an insane fucking sadist on a mission from God. 

The creators of the EIT program, two psychologists, Jessen and Mitchell, were paid $80,000,000 to reverse engineer the SERE Manual (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) used to train Navy SEALS to resist giving up information under actual torture by savage enemies without the foresight and legal chops to set up an EIT program.   $80,000,000 tax payer dollars, boys and girls, for an American torture program that never worked.  Of course, its defenders say it saved countless innocent lives, but they are torturers and their words must be considered as such, however clever their lawyers’ reframing of torture may have been.

There was a study conducted and a massive report written on the extensive EIT program.  The report was compiled over several years, throughout the Obama administration.  The details of the inhuman things Americans and our allies did to “detainees” are sickening, the conclusion that torture does not work in terms of gaining useful information was unequivocal.   The highly redacted report on the most recent CIA torture program was classified, of course, never released to the public.  The summary of the report, which was reported on, was also heavily redacted. It was all very controversial, made America look very bad in hindsight.  Obama didn’t want it released, after all, he was “looking forward not backwards” and had already candidly stated, without any attempt to prettify it, that we “tortured some folks.”  That mea culpa was not enough?   Some very good people, with the best of intentions, did some bad things and some folks got “tortured.”   What more is there to say?  It’s like the banning of the n-word.   Stop people from saying the word in public and “bingo!” no more fucking racism.

Debility, dependence and despair.  It has been achieved on a massive scale, both here and abroad.   The number of American deaths of despair continues to rise.   The world is catching on fire, flooding, cracking open, the oceans are rising, swallowing coastlines.  Globalism has removed any trace of restraint from the corporations that run the planet, many of them hastening the end of the natural world by their heedless pursuit of the “bottom line”.  We are helpless against these forces, as we learn every day.  We depend on the massive international system that delivers our food, our water, our clothing and so forth.  Our only hope, we are told, is consuming things, while we can still get ’em.

Do not despair.  There are far better things to learn than helplessness.   The first task, it seems to me, is to see things as clearly as possible.  Facts exist, honest, they do.  The pain accompanying the shut down of a major organ is not the mark of what is fucking torture and what is not torture.   We live under the whims of a constantly enraged two-year old at the moment, here in the greatest and most exceptional nation God and or history ever created (among others who make the same claim), he serves the small group who already has it all, giving them more, taking from the least of us, but we must not despair.   There is much work to be done.   Time to get busy.

A friend said, when this insane, unfunny clown was elected president, fair and square by 78,000 surgically targeted votes that gave him the Electoral College, that we must remain vigilant.  These motherfuckers have made it extremely hard to remain vigilant, their cynical shit-flinging and “cult of personality” ass-licking is painful to watch.   But vigilant we must remain.

Do not despair.  There is much work to be done.  Time to get busy.  Here’s to a happy 2020, everybody.


[1]  Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders and the People Who Fight Back, Amy Goodman and David Goodman (c) 2006

[2] page 167

[3] pp. 161-2

[4]  I’ve also been intending to transcribe these passages from Static for a while now.  No time like the new year.

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