Our View: The Abuse of the Body Politic



In the Fourteenth Century, the Roman Catholic theologian Nicholas Eymerich published Directorium Inquisitorum, a text that described many anti-religious and forbidden practices, like witchcraft, sorcery, and fortune telling. Eymerich also outlined methods of extracting confessions from heretics, the most important being: “The accused who hesitates in his responses shall be tortured.”1 Directorim Inquisitorium became the handbook of the Spanish Inquisition, a prolonged campaign of terror that sanctioned the repression and torture of countless innocents in the name of piety. Over six hundred years after the Holy Inquisition put forth his text, Eymerich’s idea that torture is a legitimate means of political coercion and terror remains—sadly—influential. 


June 26, which passed with barely a whimper, is recognized as a day against torture. More precisely, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which came into effect in 1997 by a United Nations resolution. Its purpose is to remind global leaders of their obligation to eradicate torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment of anyone. In other words, the resolution affirms the sanctity of the human being.


To discuss torture by itself, however, is to miss the bigger picture. Human rights abuses exist on a continuum, upon which torture is the extreme. Torture, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and C.I.A. “Black Sites” rightly occupies a central place in the national conversation, but focusing solely on the torture that occurs “over there” glosses over the spectrum of human rights abuses that occur before a society tortures, including here at home.


Torture, if that is our sole focus, becomes the ultimate standard by which we judge human rights abuses. This is an ugly and fearful standard we do not accept.


What are human rights abuses? Human rights violations are a devaluation of human dignity. They are, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all that violates the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, [which are] the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Such practices may include the denial of a fair trial, detention without charge, persecution for sexual preferences, the forbidding of religious practice, and similar abuses.


Our main concern is that abusing human rights is a gateway to more heinous crimes. This much is also noted by the Declaration, which recognizes “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…” We, too, are outraged.


We are saddened and outraged, but certainly not surprised that the “national conversation” regarding torture has not developed into larger conversation addressing ongoing human rights abuses on the American home front. Whether you call it cruel and unusual punishment or enhanced interrogation (that dirty euphemism), extreme physical and psychological abuse—torture—accomplishes the transformation of a person into a non-human Other. This is a perversion of democracy: it is the accomplishment of state institutions, and it is unacceptable.


How does one get from the “everyday’” abuse of human rights to torture? The phenomenon is known as “force drift.” Force drift is most obvious today in how Americans treat their prisoners, recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, still in Guantanamo Bay, and especially in prisons across the United States. Alberto Mora, former General Counsel of the U.S. Navy, investigated the abusive interrogation techniques of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, where commanders took no account of the concept of force drift, which he described as:


Any force utilized to extract information would continue to escalate … If a person being forced to stand for hours decided to lie down, it probably would take force to get him to stand up again and stay standing … [T]he level of force applied against an uncooperative witness tends to escalate, such that, if left unchecked, force levels, to include torture, could be reached.2


Dr. Michael Gelles, Chief Psychologist of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (1991-2006), says of force drift:


[W]hen you start to introduce these types of techniques and tactics, right, with an adversary that is ambiguous, difficult to understand, and who you see as a threat, your fear drives your inability to keep perspective and boundaries around what you're doing and, you get drift. And you slowly just get further drift, and things get well out of scope, in the service of what people truly believe they're doing is right in protecting us.


When a victim’s human rights are abused—or he or she is tortured—to extract information, justice is forfeited. There can be no subsequent trial, because anything said under extreme duress cannot be trusted as being truthful. If there is no trial, there is no justice. Where there is no justice, there is tyranny.


In his essay for The Mantle, David Frakt tells how he was able to free Mohammed Jawad, a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, based on the evidence that Jawad was tortured by American officials, and therefore Jawad’s confessions and testimonies could not be used in a court of law. The lead prosecutor in the case, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, was so disturbed by the treatment of Jawad that he resigned from the military commissions and actively assisted Frakt in his efforts to have Jawad freed, stating in a declaration in Jawad's habeas corpus case:


…based on my extensive knowledge of the case, [there is] no credible evidence or legal basis to justify Mr. Jawad’s detention in U.S. custody or his prosecution by military commission. There is, however, reliable evidence that he was badly mistreated by U.S. authorities both in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, and he has suffered, and continues to suffer, great psychological harm. Holding Mr. Jawad’s for over six years, with no resolution of his case and with no terminus in sight, is something beyond a travesty.


Vandeveld cites cruel and unusual punishment; Frakt, in his essay, cries torture. In any case, grievous wrong was done; injustice meted out. Tyranny ruled, but thanks to the efforts of Frakt and Vandeveld, for Jawad it did not last.


The enormous amount of indifference amongst the American public, be it over our treatment of individuals in “war zones,” prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or of the over two million prisoners incarcerated in the United States, helps perpetuate this system of abuse. Could it be that torture reflects American values? Do we believe that those who suffer abuse at the hands of authorities deserve this sick punishment?


Or, perhaps Americans are content with justifying human rights abuses retroactively, just as the mainstream media and leading politicians doubled back to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, in a country that spends nearly $700 billion on advanced war technology and nearly $100 billion on a domestic prison infrastructure, the American public expects a return on their investment. But we believe such a consequentialist justification of our human rights abuses—be it waterboarding abroad or solitary confinement at home—leads us down a very dark road.


Our worry, then, is that if we focus on torture alone, and agree to single out and eliminate that single element on the human rights abuse spectrum, we effectively move the bar on what "cruel and unusual punishment" actually is. By focusing on torture without considering the factors—the force drift—that led up to the event, torture becomes the new definition of cruel and unusual punishment. The abuse we consider inhumane now—trial without detention, sleep deprivation, etc.—simply become acceptable means of punishment. This cannot be allowed to happen. 


Yes, let’s talk about how we can abolish torture once and for all. But let’s start the conversation by discussing the human rights abuses we are allowing to lead up to torture in the first place. When it comes to protecting the right of person not to be unduly abused, we still must fight against the overwhelming power of the State. We cannot allow the State to drift into tyranny. It is a struggle we cannot afford to lose.



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1. As discussed in Eduardo Galeano. Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. Trans. Mark Fried (New York, Nation Books: 2013): 195.



2. The Constitution Project. The Report of The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment (2013): 58. Retrieved June 27, 2013: http://detaineetaskforce.org/read/.




Editorial, Human Rights, Torture, Prison