April 19, 2009

WHAT'S MOST STRIKING ABOUT THESE REVELATIONS...:

The Lawyer and The Caterpillar: Torture is a complicated business, and the real world is never as neat as the imagined one. (Michael Isikoff and Evan Thomas, 4/18/09, NEWSWEEK)

In "1984," George Orwell's classic novel on the evils of totalitarianism, the agents of Big Brother break down the will of resisters by throwing them in a dreaded torture chamber known as Room 101. The idea behind Room 101 is to expose interrogation subjects to whatever they fear most. The protagonist in the novel, Winston Smith, fears rats. Confronted with a cage full of rats when he enters Room 101, Smith breaks down and betrays his lover, Julia, as an enemy of the state.

In the real world of a democracy struggling to deal with the threat of terrorism, torture is a much more complicated business. After 9/11 the CIA was under relentless pressure to break terror suspects in time to head off a second attack. In March 2002, the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, believed then to be a high-level Qaeda mastermind. Abu Zubaydah apparently feared insects. Someone at the CIA came up with the idea—right out of "1984," it would seem—of putting him in a small, dark box and letting an insect crawl on him. But since this was America, and not Orwell's fantasy police state, the CIA first had to get permission from a lawyer at the Department of Justice. Parsing statutes against torture, the lawyer (Jay Bybee, then chief of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel) ruled that Abu Zubaydah's interrogators could not tell the suspect that the insect was venomous because, under the law, prisoners could not be threatened with imminent death. However, Abu Zubaydah could be placed in a "confinement box" with a harmless insect as long as he was told nothing about it. The CIA had proposed using a caterpillar.


...is how fastidious the whole process was, in keeping with the liberal democratic tradition of finding ever more humane means of torture.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2009 8:12 AM
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