Friday, 12 February 2010

Is sleep deprivation torture?

Alex Massie does a terrific job of putting the recent revelations in context. Some very powerful testimony about the methods and effects of sleep deprivation.

We shouldn't wonder at the consistent (and ongoing) desire of the British Government to cover up the facts. It's deeply shaming. The people who have conducted, participated in, condoned or tolerated torture have been discrediting our claims to be better than the nihilistic lunatics who oppose our way of life. Personally, I'm as angry as hell. We need a judicial inquiry to get to the bottom of the whole experience and to hold politicians, bureaucrats and intelligence operatives to account.


Sean said...

No we don't, we need to contain, capture, restrain and if necessary kill our enemies, with urgency and extreme prejudice, Anything else would give sucker to those very same enemies.

From the history books that looks to me how you win wars, winning the peace is an entirely different issue.

"If a captured British or American soldier were subjected to this sort of treatment would you consider it torture?"

Interesting question, the answer is it is a matter for them, another interesting question would be if your son or daughter is being sent to a warzone do you expect all necessary means to be taken to execute that war in a manner that brings it to a speedy conclusion with the minimum loss of life?

Too much time in the orange grove! I thinkthe MASH sums it nicley :0)

Gaw said...

Sean: Hearts and minds, behaving decently, living up to our inheritance, ends not justifying means are just some of the reasons you're wrong. "Give sucker" probably means a bit more than you mean it to. I hope.

dearieme said...

I have reservations about extending the word "torture" to cover sleep deprivation. Are young babes to be called "torturers"? More seriously, what are we to call real torture - the rack, the thumbscrews, the God-I-don't-want-to-even-think-about-it stuff that presumably goes on in some places? It's a bit like my discomfort with classifying as "anti-semitism" everything from the holocaust to some nasty joke. It's logicall defensible, but is it wise? What on earth do we gain by using words with such hopelessly wide meanings, especially if the extension is new, so that confusion is introduced about what the word means? They are surely more likely to confuse an issue than illuminate it?

Brit said...

Please let's not get into the 'define torture' debate again (and I don't understand Dearieme's anti-semitism analogy, where the application is unproblematic and uncontroversial. Of course nasty jokes can be anti-semitic - it's when they're anti-semitic. Menawhiile "anti-semitic" doesn't really carry the neccessary weight to describe the Holocaust, does it?).

I think Sean is arguing that we should never give a succour an even break.

Gaw said...

Dearieme and Brit: Tell me, D, you wrote that before reading the accounts of sleep deprivation Massie enumerates! Christ, that sure looks like torture.

Anyway, we're not talking about the equivalent of grade inflation, here. There's legislation, case law, convention and precedent to establish what torture is. The confusion arises as some two-bit US govt lawyer sharpened his pencil.

Rest assured, Brit, the definitional debate is over in this location. Anyone wishing to re-live it can look at torture-related posts passim.

Gaw said...

Oh and I appreciated the pun. Something of a succour punch.

malty said...

The same instruction booklet covering 'capital punishment' can be used here.

'Not on our watch thank you'

"But we do it on your behalf, it's protection against them".

"It's not about them, it's about us".

"What else can we do".

"Apply yourselves intelligently to not creating the conditions in the first place, where most of them breed"

Vern said...

The use of sleep deprivation is nothing new, it's been an interrogation tactic deployed by the CIA since at least the 1950s, see the KUBARK manual, easily available online. Thus there is no great sliding into cruelty here, simply a continuation of the old cruelty. We're not that nice, never have been- which is neither an excuse nor a justification, merely a statement of fact. Perhaps now we will 'rise above' these tactics, but if so it will be for the first time, and I suspect it won't last long.

GK Chesterton long ago pointed out that torture was at its most refined in the most advanced civilizations of the past- Ancient China, Rome, the Ottoman Empire etc. It did not disappear, it just got better.

And if you compare US torture techniques to (say) Guatemalan techniques (tying a corpse to a man's back and throwing him in a hole in the ground) or the techniques of the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan (rape with a Coke bottle, fingernail pulling etc). They are indeed highly refined.

Gaw said...

Vern: I don't think it's news that bad things have happened to prisoners in the course of world history. But in nearly all democracies under the rule of law and for nearly all of the time since the 19th century torture has not been tolerated. I guess it occasionally requires us to make an effort to keep it like this. It was Ronald Reagan's administration that provided the impetus to withdraw the offending parts of KUBARK. If only we had a Ronnie around today.

Vern said...

I'm not so sure if our hands have been all that clean in modern democracies. The French did terrible things during the Algerian War, the British were fairly nasty in Malaysia etc. Certainly officially we were all good, sportsmanlike sorts, but in reality, when under pressure, when nobody was looking? Not so much. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue and all that.

Gaw said...

Vern: I'm not sure what your point is. It's not as if we've managed to abolish crime and ensure governments always act above board. Torture is a crime of government but other than that it must be like any other. And in other news man is fallen!

Hey Skipper said...

Please let's not get into the 'define torture' debate again ...

Yet despite the desire to avoid a definitional debate, there is a difference between soup and nuts.

Several weeks ago there was a NYT editorial asserting any sleep deprivation that allowed only 4 hours sleep per day for four days constituted torture.


Once upon a previous life, I had to live on three hours a day of sleep for ten days in succession.

Was that torture?

Gaw said...

If it looks like torture but we're not sure then let the courts decide. Have you read Massie's descriptions of sleep deprivation? It's not like pulling an all-nighter or having a small baby.

Hey Skipper said...

Have you read Massie's descriptions of sleep deprivation?

I lived sleep deprivation, so I don't need to read anyone else's account. (NB: by the standards of the NYT editorial, I was tortured.)

Unpleasant? Yes. But if you call that torture, then your (and the US's) entire penal system amounts to torture.

Either there is some objective standard, or we are applying the "torture" tag to situations, not consequences.

The definitional debate really does matter.

Gaw said...

Skip: It must be nice to have stocked up on all the information you'll ever need. But if you did go through what Massie enumerates you're lucky not to have become psychotic.

Anyway, my preference is for the definitional debate to be determined via a judicial inquiry and then in the courts should there be grounds for prosecution.

Hey Skipper said...

Skip: It must be nice to have stocked up on all the information you'll ever need.

That's a fair cop.

In my haste, I was thinking of the NYT editorial (which, IMHO, drains the word "torture" of all meaning), not Massie.

For the record, I ended up with pneumonia (keeping in mind that correlation does not prove causation).


I hear we just gathered up a high-ranking Taliban, who undoubtedly possesses lots of nice to have information.

What, in your view, is the maximum allowable amount of coercion to obtain that info?

Gaw said...

Skip: Not for me to decide. Whatever's legal.

I don't think there's any suggestion that Rudolf Hess was tortured following his landing in Scotland in 1941. The threat to Britain at the time was greater by an order of magnitude to any threat the US faces now. You should stick to traditional American principles, established as far back as Washington.

guthrie said...

You might be interested in the opinion of a US army trained interrogator with actual field experience. The short answer is torture doesn't work, and you don't need to do it anyway, not to mention the effects it has on you and propaganda for your enemies.
Longer answers can be found here:
and here:
and elsewhere in the lj.

Gaw said...

Thanks guthrie for those superb links, which I would urge anyone who comes across them to read.

I have tended not to defend my position with reference to the ineffectiveness of torture as even if it might be shown to work I still think it should be illegal. But the testimony of those two good men is a powerful argument that solely on utilitarian grounds torture should not be touched.

A couple of people commented on the second post with a simple 'Jesus wept'. Amen to that. People have been led down a truly horrible road.

Hey Skipper said...

Skip: Not for me to decide. Whatever's legal.

Surely, though, you must have a view as to what the correct answer should be.

Which gets right back to the definitional problem, doesn't it?


Unfortunately, contra Mr. Karney, coercion is, given the correct circumstances, very effective.

Otherwise, we wouldn't be doing it.

Gaw said...

Skip: I've said it until I'm blue in the face. There is no definitional problem. It's legally defined. And if in doubt refer to a court of law.

If it wasn't effective we wouldn't be doing it?

I must say I thought you were better than this. That justification's not good enough for reasons you know too well for me to explain.

Hey Skipper said...

It's legally defined. And if in doubt refer to a court of law.

Unfortunately, as legally defined, our, and your, entire penal system is disallowed.

Unless, of course, there is some way to square that circle.

If it wasn't effective we wouldn't be doing it?

I must say I thought you were better than this. That justification's not good enough for reasons you know too well for me to explain.

That was an observation, not a justification. Is != ought.

It has been noted elsewhere that one's opinion on this might well be predicated on how much skin one has in the game.

A soldier based in Afghanistan, might be willing to apply a little more coercion than a jurist in Brussels.

The question is why the jurist's point of view is to be privileged over the soldier's.

I am a consequentialist. Your position is deontological. Unfortunately, once you divorce yourself from consequences -- the negative outcomes of not coercing this Taliban commander have not been prominent -- then your judgment becomes unmoored.

Which wraps right around. The reason we won't entertain the notion of legally defined torture as having anything to do with penal policy is because of the consequences.

Gaw said...

Skipper: I'm bored with your sophistical arguments, which I've heard before from you. To be honest I feel soiled returning repeatedly to this horrible and quite evil crime so I'd like close the debate at this point.