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All-American Torture

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Since last June, Private Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old alleged source of the WikiLeaks hoard of war logs and diplomatic cables, has been kept in solitary confinement at Quantico. He is in his cell for 23 hours a day, frequently deprived of clothing and denied the right even to do press-ups. He has no contact with other prisoners and is forced to acknowledge to a guard that he is OK every five of his waking minutes. Whether this no-touch torture is being inflicted on Manning to force a confession implicating Julian Assange, or is merely an object lesson to other potential whistleblowers, is not clear.

There is a growing rumble of criticism, from the usual scattering of law professors, pop stars and left-liberal media figures, and last Sunday some 400 protesters gathered outside the Quantico brig, including Daniel Ellsberg. Even the State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, a hitherto unflappable font of bland doubletalk, recently blasted the treatment of Manning as ‘ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid’. He resigned the next day.

Obama, however, has stayed serenely on-message. Asked by a reporter last week if he agreed with Crowley, the president said that he had personally inquired with the Pentagon about this and they had assured him that the prisoner’s treatment met their ‘basic standards’ and that ‘some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.’ This treacly concern for Manning’s wellbeing recalls the confinement of political dissidents to mental institutions in both the Soviet Union and the rightwing dictatorships of South America. With his soothing defence of Manning’s ongoing torture, Obama fed through the shredder any last hopes that he would spend political capital on civil liberties.

He can get away with this because the leaks have been hyped as the gravest blow to national security since 9/11. No real damage is discernible, however: only one ambassador has resigned, and the Pentagon has expressly denied that any Afghan informants named in the war logs have suffered reprisals. Julian Assange is hardly the first person to assert the virtues of transparency in statecraft, demands for which used to be a staple of American political discourse: that ‘diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and the public view’ is in the first of Woodrow Wilson’s ‘14 Points’ proposing the creation of the League of Nations.

The Military Whistleblower Protection Act arguably covers Manning’s disclosures, though the government will surely interpret the statute as narrowly as possible. The duty of soldiers to disobey illegal orders – Manning was ordered to convey Iraqi civilians to federal prisons where they were likely to be tortured – was not cooked up by Amnesty International last week but has deep precedential roots in American common law, from Mitchell v. Harmony in 1851 to Little v. Barreme in 1804. Even the Nuremberg Principles, which oblige soldiers to disobey illegal orders, are codified into US military rules in Army Field Manual 27-10.

The legal arguments are all well and good, but in high-profile cases like this the political climate usually shapes the outcome. Forty years ago, Ellsberg had solid support within Congress and the establishment media when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. Manning has no such high-level backing, and the majority of those opposed to his pretrial torture are at pains to stress they don’t condone his alleged actions. When Ellsberg was tried for espionage and treason, he had the full weight of the presidency perversely working for him: Nixon’s henchmen were so hamfisted, so patently criminal – breaking into his psychiatrist’s office to steal records; offering the judge the directorship of the FBI midway through the trial – that they made a guilty verdict impossible. The Obama administration, however, is not a gang of self-defeating slobs and they have gone after whistleblowers with a vindictive focus unmatched by previous governments.

There is another, larger reason why Manning’s torture is unlikely to stop soon. Since the early 1980s, we Americans have grown rather comfortable with long-term solitary confinement and other harsh punishments. ‘Enemy combatants are being treated better than Bradley Manning,’ as one Georgia Congressman has noted, and liberal pundits have bemoaned that the techniques of Bagram and Abu Ghraib have metastasised into the homeland. But if anything the influence has been in the other direction.

There are currently more than 25,000 prisoners in long-term isolation in the United States, seldom-mourned casualties of our wars on crime and drugs, trial runs for the war on terror. Many of these isolated prisoners are, like Manning, periodically and often arbitrarily deprived of what little they have left – clothing, meals, books, contact with visitors – at the often capricious discretion of prison authorities. Such profligate use of long-term solitary confinement was not always normal: in 1890 the US Supreme Court came close to banning the practice as unconstitutionally ‘cruel and unusual’. We must be a lot tougher than our 19th century forebears. Viewed from any angle, Manning’s torture is fully in the American grain.

Comments on “All-American Torture”

  1. Joe Morison says:

    What i find so hugely depressing in this is Obama’s attitude. I wonder whether in his heart he finds it despicable but has made a political decision to say nothing, or whether he actually doesn’t care. Neither alternative seems better than the other.

    • Geoff Roberts says:

      I think what happens is that when you get into power the thoughts of restraint and legal processes and democratic decision-making simply go out of the back door. Remember Nixon and those tapes? Not that Nixon was ever anything other than a smarmy salesman (‘slippery Dick’). But at least we didn’t expect anything else from him. Now with Obama, the expectations were very high.

  2. clareryan says:

    While concern for the rights of whistle-blowers is important and necessary, to call the conditions of Manning’s confinement, ‘torture’, ‘is ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid.’ It may be wrong; it may be immoral, but that doesn’t make it torture. When you water-down the meaning of words, they cease to mean anything. “Denied the right to do press-ups….” Torture! Really? An intellectually and morally mature person can not take that assertion seriously, and it discourages people who may be sympathetic to your broader point.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      From Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

      the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

      • clareryan says:

        Unless his conditions are worse than described in this article and elsewhere, I do not believe that his treatment rises to the level of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental…” Are we really to believe that his desire to do press-ups is so compelling that not allowing him to do so is mentally damaging? I do not in any way mean to minimize his true suffering, but Article 1 is clearly open to interpretation; simply restating it doesn’t prove anything. Unfortunately, if we claim that the meaning of the word torture is the same as the word, unpleasant, it only serves to minimize the suffering of people who have been and are being brutalized and tortured.

  3. clareryan says:

    Thank you for responding and including the link; it was well worth the time to read. I would suggest that torture is always, without exception, abjectly wrong. Isolation, in my opinion does not meet this definition, and the article ultimately concedes that point. In England ‘extreme custody’ is now ‘negligible,’ but it still occurs. You may be suggesting that they are wrong, and it should never be used. I doubt governments believe they are torturing people, but that it’s acceptable since it’s on a limited basis. The article certainly makes it clear that the point is debatable. Bush only water-boarded three men. His actions would seem to be acceptable by that standard, since it was only a few unfortunate souls. I appreciate that isolation, confinement, lack of privelages, etc. are extremely difficult, and should rarely be used, but I just don’t believe it amounts to torture.

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