February 28, 2005

Channel 4: The Torture Network

Damien Love writes in the Sunday Herald ( http://www.sundayherald.com/47945 )that the reality torture show, Guantanamo Guidebook, is only the beginning of Channel 4's season-long "torture strand", which will include a documentary on the US government's "Special Removal Unit"--aka, "special rendition"--which sends suspected terrorists, without charging them of any crime, to countries known to have no ethical qualms about torture (see Feb link below).

Love writes: "The season explores a post-9/11 acceptance of, even appetite for, torture – or, to use the Newspeak euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques” – within the US and UK administrations. An acceptance this has led to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and to the situation where Britain will happily use information extracted from captives in Uzbekistan, whose intelligence agencies (according to Craig Murray, our former ambassador to that country) boil their prisoners alive. "

Love writes of Guantanamo Guidebook:

"There is a danger about the programme. The intentions – to confront us with what is happening – seem clear, but it could shoot itself in the foot. It requires a lot from a viewer. In a sense, you have to bear in mind that it’s a TV show while forgetting it’s a TV show. "

He continues:

"You must remember that these techniques are only the mildest of those actually employed; that these volunteers can leave at any time. Then, for it to work, you must imagine this is not the case. It teeters between documentary experiment, and some hardcore reality revival of Endurance, the famous Japanese gameshow, whose contestants won for being able to stand having their nipples burned the longest. It is easy to imagine someone watching thinking, “I could handle that”. Indeed, the original adverts for volunteers asked prospective entrants how “hard” they were. It unwittingly runs the risk of introducing the idea that light torture might not be so bad. But it is grim, genuinely unsettling watching, and maybe constructive. If all The Guantanamo Guidebook manages is to force us to glimpse the tip of the iceberg, then wonder more about what enormities lie beneath, it’s worthwhile."


Torture Reality Show: Are you tough enough?

This mornings online edition of Britain's newspaper The Independent bears the headline: "Channel 4 is Condemned over Torture TV Show." http://news.independent.co.uk/media/story.jsp?story=615215

Reporter Severin Carrell writes:

"The programme, Guantanamo Guidebook, was filmed in an east London warehouse and shows the men being assaulted, stripped naked, verbally abused, sexually humiliated and exposed to sensory deprivation by a team of former US military interrogators."

The men the article speaks of were selected from a pool of 150 of the fittest, toughest chaps they could find.

Carrell continues:

"Several of the men - who include a martial arts champion, "Britain's fittest fireman" and a triathlete - became ill during the 48 hours of ill-treatment - called "torture-lite" by the US authorities. One man fell ill with hypothermia, another wet himself, and others suffered cramps, hallucinations and vomiting."

Though the show claims to be raising public awareness by "investigating the Pentagon's illegal use of torture in the 'war on terror'," the show's critics in the humanitarian and medical communities are accusing the show of "glamorising the abuses suffered by torture victims."

"Dr Nimisha Patel, chief psychologist for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which treats torture survivors, claimed the programme risked being seen by some viewers as "sadistic voyeurism". He said: "Torture is torture, and as such is always inhumane and unjustifiable. The packaging of it as entertainment by Channel 4 is not only grossly distasteful but potentially offensive to many, including survivors of torture and their families."

Commercials for the show asked the question: "Are you 'hard' enough?" The implication being, "could you hold up under these circumstances?" and "Are you tough enough to watch it?"

Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4's head of news and current affairs . . . said Channel 4 was "determined to educate viewers on the use of illegal torture by the US and British complicity in that torture."


For "Rape" press "A". For "Pillage" press "B"

Last Wednesday the University of Notre Dame hosted a one day conference on the current humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. John Prendergast, special advisor to President Clinton on Africa and current advisor to the president of the International Crisis Group, gave a straight-forward, no nonsense talk on the daily atrocities in the Darfur region committed against non-Arab Sudanese.

Prendergast's theme was "shame." He said that if the world could not be convinced by rational means to intervene in the genocide now responsible for nearly 220,000 deaths and countless rapes, the world would have to be shamed into doing something.

After Prendergast spoke, Notre Dame political science professor George Lopez was invited to give some remarks in response. He calmly walked to the podium and said, "Rape and Pillage. Rape and Pillage. Rape and Pillage" very slowly, pausing each time he uttered the phrase. He said that rape and pillage is the reality in Darfur, but he wondered if we could really comprehend the magnitude of that reality. Adressing the mostly undergraduate audience of about 150 students, he said, "many of you play video games in which there is rape and pillage." There was a deep and weighty pause. I sensed that he was going to elaborate on this statement indicting "Grand Theft Auto" and other sexually explicit and exceptionally violent video games, but he dropped it in favor of a more academic response echoing the the finer points of Prendergast's talk.

I was disappointed, so afterwards I tracked him down asked him to expand on the issue he raised, if only briefly. He said that the terms "rape" and "pillage" have no "conceptual" power for us. In other words, there is a fundamental disconnect between the word and the act.

The thing is, I wish this were the only problem. Consider as well the conceptual power, or lackthereof, of race.



February 25, 2005

If You Were a Torture Method What Would You Be?

Just found a site this morning which asks:

"If you were a torture method (or an inquisitor/executioner), which do you think you'd use? The Rack? The Iron Maiden? The Pear?" http://selectsmart.com/FREE/select.php?client=torture_devices

The site asks you to answer a series of questions about your disposition and the way you channel your anger. "Do you torture inanimate objects when you're angry?" "Are you a pyro?" "Do you want to throw your enemies off something high?"

It seems like it's a silly I've-got-nothin-better-to-do-at-work-today project or the creation of some sly Psychology or Sociology PhD cadidate. Based on your answers to these questions, the program determines which torture method your are most like.

But the more frightening thing is an adjacent animated ad of a ski-masked, black-uniformed soldier with an assault rifle stalking around in the desert. The ad reads: "Shoot the enemy and win a free I-Pod." When you drag the mouse pointer over the window a red crosshairs appears.

I'm waiting for I-Pods to come down a little in price.



PS In March of 2004 a twenty-something Memphis woman bludgeoned her boyfriend to death with her I-Pod after he allegedly erased the contents of the device. When police arrived she complained that it had taken her 3 months to build up her collection.

See the story here http://www.liquidgeneration.com/rumormill/ipod_killing.html

PPS I'm also reminded of the film Back to the Future when Michael J Fox uses a Walkman cued to a Heavy Metal guitar solo, turned up to 11, to blast the eardrums of his sleeping father in order to convince him that he is a menacing alien.

February 24, 2005

"Toying With Evil"

Mark Shea's article "Toying With Evil" in the March issue of Crisis Magazine blasts conservative Catholics who want to make arguments for torture on the grounds that this is a new kind of enemy and a new kind of war, so quit being "sqeamish." It's a fiery read. It'll leave you saying, "dang, no he didn't!"

The basis of Shea's argument is Romans 3:8: Evil deeds may not be committed so that good may result.

But there's also no getting around the Catholic church's teaching:

Whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as . . . torments inflicted on the body or the mind, attempts to coerce the will itself . . . all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor of the Creator.

or what Pope John Paul II said of torture:

"intrinsically evil"

Most poignant is Shea's argument that the slackening of norms against torture will lead to an increasingly slippery slope. He points out that the writing is already on the wall. "According to ABC News, 'U.S. military panels reviewing the detention of foreigners as enemy combatants are allowed to use evidence gained by torture in deciding whether to keep them imprisoned in Guntanamo Bay, Cuba' ( http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory?id/=299228 ).

So not only does this mean that residents of Camp X-Ray--as its affectionately called--have no rights whatsoever, but anything they say under the extreme duress of stress positions, sleep deprivation, temperature control, or whatever combo of the 25 interrogation tactics personally approved by president Bush for use at Gitmo, can be used against them.

Read any reputable expert on interrogation and they'll tell you that torture is ineffective in "extracting"--lovely word--"intelligence"--another lovely word--from a suspect. As one suspected IRA detainee said of his torture at the hands of British para-military interrogators in 1971, "I would have told them I was in the cradle." Translation for Americans: I would have told them I was present at the birth of Jesus Christ just to get them to stop.

What's apropo about this Northern Irishman's testimony is that his torture, and the torture of several other men, consisted of the same basic techinques currently used by the Bush administration. These men, known today in torture literature as the "Hooded Men," were arrested without being charged, hooded, taken by helicopter to an unknown location, and made to stand "spread-eagle" for several days with their hands high against the wall in front of them. The entire time, they were subjected to an unrelenting hissing sound. No other sounds were audible--many said this was the most horrific part of the ordeal. They were not allowed to remove their hands or they were beaten. They did not sleep for a week. Most were not allowed to use the toilet. One man said that during the ordeal he became so deranged that he tried to throw himself down against a pipe at his feet hoping to hit his head and kill himself.

When the men were finally released, without charge, most of the men had swelling in their feet and hands that caused them chronic problems for years afterwards. One man reported afterwards that he did not remember that he was married and had children until someone reminded him.



ps Those interested in reading more about the "Hooded Men" and other instances of institutionalized torture should check out John Conroy's book, "Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People."

February 23, 2005

Half-man Half-god?

In America we love resolution. We have to know why. Our voracious yet insipid need to know compromises out ability to discern between acceptable reasons and unnaceptable reasons. When someone cries mea culpa we are inclined to let it go--just this once. But what about suicide?

Hunter S. Thompson is the latest in a long distinguished line of writers, artists and musicians who have killed themselves. Today a friend of the family and editor of some of Thompson's work stated:

"I think he made a conscious decision that he had an incredible run of 67 years, lived the way he wanted to, and wasn't going to suffer the indignities of old age. He was not going to let anybody dictate how he was going to die."

This really makes me realize something I'd never thought before. I've always known that Thompson was a man apart, a man who lived by his own creed. The disturbing thing is that Americans tend to lionize anyone who lives this way in spite of the fact that moral certitude is not on their side. In the twenty-first century there is a trend to call these types of people "heroic"--someone who, despite their recklessness, march on to the beat of their own drum. Recently, this personality has been variosly dubbed "hard-charging"--i.e. the high-ranking U.S. soldier who recently said that he thought it was "some fun" to shoot Taliban fighters in Afghanistan--and "courageous"--i.e. anyone whose actions defy straight-laced, button-down, God-fearing middle-American ethics.

I understand the need for writers to work at the margins of culture, especially American writers who, last I checked, aren't in any danger of being imprisoned for their ideas; afterall, this may be the only sure fire way to sell books.

On serious note, I know that we can never really know the mind of the suicide, and I constantly pray for those artists who may feel that they and their work amount to nothing--I've been there--but, suicide is, among other things, the ultimate disavowal that what human beings make with their hands and minds is of any consequence whatsoever.

I suspect there's much more to say on this topic, but I'll stop there.



Can Books Make Us Violent?


"I want to be loved. That is even the deep-lying reason why I elected to write. When I was eighteen, I read The Mill on the Floss, and I dreamed that one day I would be loved the way I loved George Eliot then." --Simone de Beauvoir

U of Chicago Professor Wayne C. Booth uses this quote to begin the chapter "Implied Authors as Friends and Pretenders" in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988, U Cal Press). The book takes a sober, sane, non-partisan look at the ethical arguments for and against books like Huck Finn, A Clockwork Orange and Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, among countless others.

I guess the recent suicide of Hunter S. Thompson has got me thinking. What's the proper response to work that is unapologetically a reflection of the author's less-than-saintly lifestyle? What about books that illustrate self-destructive behavior and the degradation of human dignity?

In the last few years I've taught many many young writers in my fiction writing classes who idolize people like Bukowski and Thompson. If Simone de Beauvoir's quote is true--I know it is for me--then should we be worried that these days many young male writer's first literary crushes are on author's whose persona is a sodden, mysogynistic, hedonistic misanthrope? I wish I could reproduce some of the stories I've received from students, but that would be unethical.

I worry that by aspiring to be loved in the same way they love Bukowski or Thompson, young writers will go out of their way to duplicate experiences that they've read about. I know plenty of people, including myself, who are guilty of this.

Is there a way to talk about the morality of the imagination without seriously hindering the essential and wonderful freedom of the imagination?



PS One of my first crushes was John Cheever. Should I be worried?

February 22, 2005

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better; I Can Do Anything Better Than You

In Washington Post writer Anne Applebaum's Jan 25th 2005 column, "The Torture Myth," she scores a direct hit.

She writes:

"Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence [that torture is ineffective], the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher. Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier."

She concludes:

"Perhaps it's reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of "toughness" we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well."



And Now, For My Rendition of "April in Damascus"

In the Feb 14th-21st New Yorker, staff writer Jane Mayer's article "The Outsourcing of Torture" blows the lid off the U.S. government's "extraordinary rendition" program, a program in which the C.I.A., at the behest of the Defense Department and with the simple John Hancock of C.I.A. legal counsel, can seize a terror suspect without charge and whisk him or her off to another country to be interrogated. The most popular destinations for rendered suspects are Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Jordan--"all of which," according to Mayer, "have been cited for human rights violations by the State Department, and are known to torture suspects."

Mayer continues: "To justify sneding detainees to these countries, the Administration appears to be relying on a very fine reading of an imprecise clause in the United Nation Convention Against Torture (which the U.S. ratified in 1994), requiring 'substantial grounds for believing" that a detainee will be tortured abroad."

And they are being tortured. Ayer's brings us the story of a Syrian born Canadian national who was nabbed walking off a plane after returning from vacation with his family. He was flown to Syria and tortured for a year. In the end, no charges were filed and he was set free, but only after the Canadian government took up his case.

What kind of message does this send to the rest of the world concerning America's dedication to human rights? We are currently putting the heat on Egypt and Syria to not support terrorism and to improve civil rights for their citizens. Is this the way we win the hearts and minds of millions of muslims while convincing them to demand democracy over totalitarianism?




February 21, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson--Dead


I just found out that Hunter S. Thompson died this evening of a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Probably not a huge surprise to many of us. I know that it's hard to like Hunter S. Thompson. He's no saint. In fact, he was a pretty disgusting person all around. But I also feel like giving credit where credit is due. Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion changed the way we look at journalism. Each of them have styles as distinct as fingerprints. But style is just the beginning of Thompson's contribution. Like Wolfe and Didion, his articles were written against the backdrop of a bleak time in the history of our country. His 1970 article "The Kentuck Derby is Decadent and Depraved" is a masterful in its ability to capture the political tension of the late sixties. While purporting to write a profile of one of America's cultural mainstays, he juxtaposes the back slapping, glad handing good old boy syndicate of Colonels and belles against the threat of massive protests by the Black Panthers, campus unrest and white supremacists.

And while Thompson devotees are the last people I want to rub elbows with, I do think the man is equal to the myth. His style of "Gonzo Journalism", a term he coined, is in the OED.

Gonzo: "a type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style." - Oxford English Dictionary

Thompson described it this way:

'Gonzo journalism is a style of reporting based on William Faulkner's idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism - and the best journalists have always known this. Which is not to say that fiction is necessarily 'more true' than journalism - or vice versa - but that both 'fiction' and 'journalism' are artificial categories; and that both forms, at their best, are only two different means to the same end.'

Like Faulkner, Thompson understood that humans are flawed creatures prone to violence and vanity. His work was grotesque and full of excesses. But his work was a means to an end: to report on and expose the darkness so that we may never forget that these tendencies are at our core. Here's a quote from "The Kentuck Derby is Decadent and Depraved":

At the airport newsstand I picked up a Courier-Journal and scanned the front page headlines: "Nixon Sends GI's into Cambodia to Hit Reds"... "B-52's Raid, then 20,000 GI's Advance 20 Miles"..."4,000 U.S. Troops Deployed Near Yale as Tension Grows Over Panther Protest." At the bottom of the page was a photo of Diane Crump, soon to become the first woman jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. The photographer had snapped her "stopping in the barn area to fondle her mount, Fathom." The rest of the paper was spotted with ugly war news and stories of "student unrest." There was no mention of any trouble brewing at a university in Ohio called Kent State.



February 20, 2005

Pentagon Film Fest


Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for Peace Studies (www.nd.edu/~krocinst/) recently showed the famous war film The Battle of Algiers. The place was packed. The French military action against the Algierian insurgency in late 50s and early 60s is considered a text book case of how torture can succeed tactically but fail strategically. Algeria won its indpendence only to later be embroiled in a bloody civil war in which torture was again rampant.

It turns out that the film was screened at the Pentagon in August of 2003 in light of the strengthening insurgency in Iraq.



Boarding School of the Americas?


"They have this wonderful mission statement, but the reality is that it's a torture chamber in there . . . The kids are in charge. It's like Lord of the Flies." --Karen Sawyer, whose son was assaulted at the New York Military Academy.

Buried at the bottom of page A 24 of this morning's New York Times is a story by Our Town columnist Peter Applebome reporting on recent allegations of brutality at New York Military Academy, one of the premier military prep schools in the country. Founded in 1889, it is located in Cornwall-on-Hudson, sits seven miles south of West Point and is said to provide students with an exceptional academic education as well an education in personal virtues.

The occasion for this story is a law-suit filed by Karen and Michael Sawyer on behalf of their son who was admitted to the local emergency room twice in a six week period for serious injuries. Both times the student fabricated stories to explain what had happened. But when pressed he told of abuses at the hands of a 15 year old and two student officers, 17 and 18. The first time his head was rammed into a locker and the second he was stabbed in the leg with the jagged end of a broken brooms stick.

When Mrs. Sawyer confronted the commandant of the academy he told her that one of the students implicated was in "anger management classes;" but, he went on, "that doesn't make him a bad kid. He has a bad temper . . . " Sawyer pulled their son from the school after the commandant said that the matter was being dealt with internally and that academy's "zero tolerance" policies against violence, hazing and bullying would be upheld.

Applebome points out all the necessary ironies we've become used to in situations like these. He points out that hanging from the ceiling of the school chapel are banners proclaiming self-control, love, peace and gentleness. He lists famous almuni Donald Trump, Steven Sondheim (??!!) and current cadet Jesse Yu who scored a perfect 1600 on his SATs and want to attend MIT.

But most interestingly, Applebome ends the piece by turning to what might be the root of such behavior. He says that the current students "grew up with 9/11 and the world it ushered in--of non-stop war, of veneration of the military and the people in it." He blames the example of Abu Ghraib as well as the current administration and pentagon's seemingly cavalier approach to fighting of the war on terror and the Iraqi insurgency for the behavior of young men in a military academy.

While I agree that the military is being "venerated"--good choice of words--to the extent that they can do now wrong, it is sloppy to claim that this rash of behavior is attributable to 9/11 syndrome. This supports what I've claimed since Abu Ghraib broke, the secular media is not capable of dealing with such ironies in any appropriate depth. All this article does is establish yet another fuzzy arm-chair theory as to why kids are cruel to one another. What Applebome needs to say, but won't or can't because he's writing for a secular paper, is that schools in general no longer, if they ever did, teach students that human life and the human body are sacred gifts. Teaching this would come dangerously close to teaching students to be pro-life.



A Good War is Hard to Find website

My website is finally up and running. It you're interested in knowing more about my book, go there for a better understanding of the issues. There are links to my publisher's site and to other articles I've written.




February 19, 2005

"Every ideology presupposes an anthropology"


The above quote is from a book by Edward Peters simply titled Torture. The full quote is this: "Every ideology presupposes and anthropology--an idea of what human beings are and how they are to be treated in order to create the society that each ideology requires." It was published in 1985, just before Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, a must-read for anyone wanting a full-on theory for understanding the total effects of pain on humans. (Note: Scarry goes to great lengths to explain how God is a concept created by the human mind. She sees God as Mankind's greatest act of imagination.)

Anyway, the reason I bring this quote to your attention is that it bears thinking about in terms of our culture. I don't want to get started on some rant about cosmetic surgery and hair removal via laser, nor do I want to talk in terms of pro-life vs. Choice or the death penalty. However, what Peters is helping me to understand is that this modern notion that the body is the site of political oppression, control and violence is a view of the world without God. The anthropology manifest here is that we're no more than rats in a cage.

What does this have to do with torture? Well, Peters is explaining how torture has been defended in the late twentieth century. In Earlier centuries torture techniques focused only on pain as a way of extracting information. There was no "sophistication" to what they were doing; there was no psychology or neurology involved. Torturers utilized a crude equation: more pain=more truth. But, Peters points out, the late twentieth century has seen the variety of torture increase--from subtle psychological torture using digitally enhanced images to preying upon a culture's sexual taboos--as well as the explotation of sketchy legal norms to make allowances for it. There is a new anthropology afoot, an anthropology that "subordinates individual human beings to a new transcendent good"--a good that is spiritually bankrupt.

So to bring it full-circle here, we're living in a time when the human body is interpreted as being owned by no one except ourselves. If we do not see our own bodies as sacred--imbued with purpose, meaning and power--then how can the bodies of others be of any real concern?
The ideology resulting from this anthropology gives rise to a culture that devalues life. It allows for people to vociferously oppose abortion but still cry for war. It allows people to support a woman's right to choose but vociferously oppose war.

What's the solution? A theological anthropology.

Peters quotes Francesco Campagnoni: " . . . It seems to me that one of the central doctrines of theological anthropology is the absolute preeminence of man's dignity as a creature . . . This dignity, autonomous in the face of any juridical institution or community whatever, is the reason why, even after the worst (and verified) crimes, there is always the possibility of repentance.

This goes for the victim, the torturer and the society that supports torture.


February 18, 2005


Hello and welcome to my blog.

This is my way of trying to understand the existence of cruelty, atrocity and torture. Sorry to darken the mood, but it's an issue that will always be with us, and I fear that it's not being taken as seriously as it needs to. My blog will keep up you updated on the various ideas and theories concerning why we do we what we do to each other.

I am currently working on a book with the working title "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Torture." Of course, I'm ripping off the subtitle to Kubrick's Dr. Strangeglove. I'm not one for cleverness, but in this case I don't know of any other way to express my feelings concerning cruelty, atrocity and torture unless I sift them through an arch vision--a vision that seeks out hope and light, but not at the expense of sentimentality.

You should know that I'm a Catholic male. I'm twenty-nine years old. I was married in October to a lovely woman named Jessica. She's a writer too. Both of us are contributors to Godspy magazine (godspy.com) and we are both dedicated to using our God given talent and time to better understand and deepen our faith through our art.

I have an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh. My BA is from the University of Notre Dame. I've written a book titled A Good War is Hard to Find. It's available through me and through my publisher (brettyasko.com). The book is as much visual as it is literary. Images of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal surround the text and ask the reader to consider the way images both implicate us and change us.

I'm working now on an expanded version of the original book. This new book will take up atrocity and torture in a broader way. I'm writing not only about the torture happening "over there" but also the cruelty happening right here in America.

This blog will be way of clearing the air, testing my thoughts. In short, the blog is one continuous essay. Essay comes from a French root meaning "an attempt." That's all I can promise, an attempt at understanding.

Keep in touch,

Dave Griffith