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.

Ramming it Through

To those with no sense of sportsmanship (eh, sportspersonship…), there is only one object to the game– winning.  The point is not to play a game of skill, where the more skillful player has a chance to win even against great odds.  The point for “winners’ is winning.  Only winning, which is even better if the enemy is humiliated in the loss. 

To those who believe the point of every game is to beat an opponent in a zero sum war for dominance (a pretty sorry and vicious breed, if you think about it), the game itself is a distraction and any means may be used to dispose of it.  Fuck playing, fuck finesse, fuck the fun that makes it a game, fuck the rules, fuck you, loser.

Years ago I got to a certain level of skill in paddleball.   Paddleball is played on handball courts all over New York City.   The ball is a hard rubber “hand ball” that guys pound with their palms, and the paddle is made of wood, saving a lot of wear and tear on the hand.   I was a good player, never a great one.  I had many excellent games over the years, some against much more skillful players who nonetheless made it a game with me as they beat me handily.   

I appreciated the sportsmanship of these players, they were sympathetic to my fate, to a small extent, and pushed me to the limits of my game at the same time, which was very sporting, since they could have easily disposed of me without letting me touch the ball.  The thrill of paddleball is the volley, the quick twitch back and forth, the strategy, the sound of the ball sucking against the wall, the dash, the lunge, the return, the backhand.  Or as I learned one day from a much better opponent who took a moment to point it out to me, switching hands extends your reach by a good margin, allows you to return shots you couldn’t reach with a backhand.   Excellent advice.

Some play a game for love of the game, others use it as a means to prevail, to dominate someone and feel superior.   I once played a guy who had a fast, precise, killer serve.  In my experience with the serve, about nine or ten tries, it was unhittable.  His first serve was that one, his next, identical, 2-0.  I didn’t come close to hitting the third.  The fourth flew past my reach and reflexes again.   He continued serving his unreturnable, killer serve and took a 5-0 lead.   I may have had a a few poinst during my serve, but when he got the serve back it was that same killer serve.   

After his eighth or ninth unreturnable serve I said to him, with clear bitterness “obviously I can’t return this serve.  Do you want to show me your fancy fucking serve all day or do you want to have a game?”  He responded mockingly, telling me he’d give me an easier one since “you can’t handle this one.”   I told him to serve the ball, and I was very motivated to beat his ass good.   

Without his trick serve, I pulled even with him — he did not have much skill volleying, that serve was pretty much his whole game.   As I said, volleying is the whole point of this marvelous game.  It was soon clear to both of us  that if he hadn’t spotted himself a nine point early lead, I’d have beaten him easily.   

When he got the serve back it was those killers all the way and he won the game.  Afterwards I learned that he was in law school.  This was decades before I found myself in law school.   I said to him “that explains it, then, they’re instilling the idea that winning is the only thing and that the actual game is for suckers.”  He had some smarmy remark I don’t recall and it is also worth noting that he begged off of our rematch.

Bullying behavior is often this way, motivated by fear of a fair game.  Play the game, let’s see how it turns out.



The Urge to Say It All

Time is the only irreplaceable thing we have, while we have it.  It is like breath.   You cannot live without it and it goes on without you, time and the need to draw breath.  We take our time here for granted, turn over in bed and … those who knew you are suddenly speaking of you in the past tense.   One question that gnaws most of us — how to be productive in the time we are given?   The closest I come is trying to learn and understand the reasons for things and setting them out as clearly as I can, in the unknowable interval that remains.

I’ve been writing here for years now, one among countless millions who keep this kind of public journal.   Why put these thoughts out there?   Looking for company, monkey face?   Heh?  Is that it, you’re looking for company in your existential isolation in Death’s well-appointed anteroom?   Why don’t you take a class or something, stop wasting everyone’s time?   

I am driven forward by the need to dig toward some deeper truth, I suppose, to reach some fuller, more nuanced, understanding of the nature of this complicated arrangement.   I feel especially driven now, in an age when the value of all facts and every truth, such as we can grasp them, so often yields to short-term monetary/power calculations.  

It’s an old story.  The new pharaoh, would-be founder of an upstart dynasty, always sent his minions into the tombs of the former dynasty, to scrape their faces off the walls of history, erase them from the afterlife.  History written in the blood of the passive and powerless, the helpless dead, by the supremely ambitious, the aggressively ambitious, the insane:  fratricides, matricides, genocides, the movers and shakers.  Oy.

I suppose part of this writing I do is a mourning process.   The difficulty of accepting that certain cherished things of value, long friendships and loving relations, are actually already dead and need to be buried, their sad passing grieved.   Permanent estrangements, which can be meticulously detailed and flawlessly justified — on both sides.  “He feels like you don’t respect him,” says the wife of a man I finally find it impossible to respect.  Just because he has an uncontrollable reflex to kick you in the balls from time to time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t otherwise respect him!   Peace making conversations are futile, once the line is crossed, implacable certainty sets in like death itself, on both sides.   There is no convincing the other that he would hate being kicked in the nuts as much as you do — after all, by trying to explain this to him, in your superior fucking way,  you are kicking him in the same sensitive place.  Plus, you don’t respect him anyway, that much is clear to everybody.

This other fellow here cannot help but lie (I’m not talking about the president now).  His need to change reality to make it less shameful leads him to do things like maxing out all of his dead father’s credit cards, having the bills sent to a secret post office box, presenting the cash advances to his wife every week as commissions from his steady sales from the job he pretends to go to everyday.  His wife may get mad at him sometimes, as when she discovers the real reason he is declaring a crushing surprise bankruptcy, but he knows just what to do.  Threaten a bloody death to everyone.    His loyal wife will later get angry at anyone who brings any of this up.  Why wouldn’t she?   As for the man, he is right to hate anyone who makes his wife upset.    Fuck them!

People pretend for the sake of peace.  Peace is wonderful, but pretend peace doesn’t last long, unless everyone agrees to keep pretending no matter what.   The impossibility of being objective enough to know when you are in the right or when you’re being brutal and harsh —  in its way as troubling as the sudden end of all joy, pondering and trouble.   All we have is our good will toward others, until that good will is returned badly, for the unknowable stretch of time each of us has left.

A few facts on the two previous presidential impeachments

In 1868 Andrew Johnson faced an impeachment trial in the Senate of the 40th Congress that was 57-9 Republican, according to the Senate’s website.  At the time, immediately after the Civil War,  the Republican party was united in its advocacy of Civil Rights for the freed slaves and its commitment to federal enforcement of those rights.   Johnson, a fierce opponent of Reconstruction, and an intemperate racist given to insulting his critics, was impeached by Radical Republicans.   His removal from office failed 35-19, one vote short of the required two thirds majority, (and apparently, every one of the 54 senators, not 66 as the Senate website has it, voted yay or nay).    Below is the gist of the case against Johnson (outside of violating the later invalidated Tenure of Office Act when he fired his Secretary of War without Senate advice and consent).   [1] 

Impeachment Articles ten and eleven against Johnson have great resonance for today’s impeachment of Mr. Trump, though nothing like them is contained in the two articles the Democratic House recently passed:

Ten:  Making three speeches with intent to “attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, hatred, contempt and reproach, the Congress of the United States”.

Eleven:  Bringing disgrace and ridicule to the presidency by his aforementioned words and actions.

As one would expect, there was evidence of chicanery on both sides of the Senate vote that narrowly acquitted the nonetheless disgraced Mr. Johnson. [2]

The 1998 Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton took place in the 105th Congress, the composition of which (according to the official, yet unreliable, U.S. Senate website) was 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats.  On Article One, Clinton’s perjury during a deposition about receiving oral sex from a White House intern, ten Republicans, and all Democrats, voted to acquit.   On Article Two, obstruction of justice, Clinton seeking the intern’s help in keeping their sexual relationship secret in an unrelated sexual harassment civil suit against the president, five Republicans voted with the Democrats to acquit.

I think is it interesting, and worthing noting,  that neither time, even with an overwhelming party majority, was either presidential malefactor removed from office.   It’s hard to get one of these creatures out by impeachment.   To paraphrase one of the legal masterminds who got OJ off the hook for double murder (the Juice is still out their looking for the real killer):  If the shit don’t fit, you must acquit.   



[1] Wikipeida:

Though a Democrat from Tennessee, Johnson had been a fierce critic of the Southern secession. Then after several states left the Union, including his own, he chose to stay in Washington (rather than resign his U.S. Senate seat), and later, when Union troops occupied Tennessee, Johnson was appointed military governor. While in that position he had exercised his powers with vigor, frequently stating that “treason must be made odious and traitors punished”.[5] Johnson, however, embraced Lincoln’s more lenient policies, thus rejecting the Radicals, and setting the stage for a showdown between the president and Congress.[6] During the first months of his presidency, Johnson issued proclamations of general amnesty for most former Confederates, both government and military officers, and oversaw creation of new governments in the hitherto rebellious states – governments dominated by ex-Confederate officials.[7] In February 1866, Johnson vetoed legislation extending the Freedmen’s Bureau and expanding its powers; Congress was unable to override the veto. Afterward, Johnson denounced Radical Republicans Representative Thaddeus Stevens and SenatorCharles Sumner, along with abolitionist Wendell Phillips, as traitors.[8] Later, Johnson vetoed a Civil Rights Actand a second Freedmen’s Bureau bill; the Senate and the House each mustered the two-thirds majorities necessary to override both vetoes,[8] setting the stage for a showdown between Congress and the president.

[2] Wikipedia:

After the trial, Butler conducted hearings on the widespread reports that Republican senators had been bribed to vote for Johnson’s acquittal. In Butler’s hearings, and in subsequent inquiries, there was increasing evidence that some acquittal votes were acquired by promises of patronage jobs and cash cards. Political deals were struck as well. Grimes received assurances that acquittal would not be followed by presidential reprisals; Johnson agreed to enforce the Reconstruction Acts, and to appoint General John Schofield to succeed Stanton. Nonetheless, the investigations never resulted in charges, much less convictions, against anyone.[37]

Moreover, there is evidence that the prosecution attempted to bribe the senators voting for acquittal to switch their votes to conviction. Maine Senator Fessenden was offered the Ministership to Great Britain. Prosecutor Butler said, “Tell [Kansas Senator Ross] that if he wants money there is a bushel of it here to be had.”[38]Butler’s investigation also boomeranged when it was discovered that Kansas Senator Pomeroy, who voted for conviction, had written a letter to Johnson’s Postmaster General seeking a $40,000 bribe for Pomeroy’s acquittal vote along with three or four others in his caucus.[39] Butler was himself told by Wade that Wade would appoint Butler as Secretary of State when Wade assumed the Presidency after a Johnson conviction.[40]