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March 25, 2008


Iraq — Sensory deprivation

Many discussions of “Exposure,” the Abu Ghraib article in the March 24 New Yorker, comment that authors Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris assert,

The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.

The verb assert is appropriate. The statement appears out of the blue in the middle of the article, with little to back it up. Perhaps the authors’ forthcoming book and movie, Standard Operating Procedure, will provide proof.

The documentary Taxi to the Dark Side does, in excruciating detail, laying out statements by Dick Cheney, memos from Donald Rumsfeld, and a series of decisions by the commanders of the prisons at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo.

As the case builds, it raises the question, why didn’t the American people object? Can they plead ignorance, like Germans who protested after World War II that they knew nothing about the Holocaust?


The evidence was there. Carlotta Gall reported on abuse at Bagram in the New York Times as early as 2003; stories by Tim Golden appeared a little later. The media kept the world informed as John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales redefined torture, and as members of Congress expressed shock over testimony presented at its official hearings. Even the about-face of John McCain has been duly covered, from his condemnation of “aggressive interrogation techniques” less than a year ago to his support for the CIA use of these methods at the beginning of this month.

Why, then, did the public not respond?

Taxi to the Dark Side offers the suggestion of Alfred McCoy, author of The Question of Torture, that Americans have become desensitized to the moral implications of violence by their exposure to violent images in the movies and on TV. A clip from 24 accompanies McCoy’s statement, in which Agent Jack Bauer passionately defends his use of electric shock to extract information from a suspected terrorist.

I’m not sure we should blame it all on the big bad media. A more complex mechanism seems to be at work, which may have broader implications than simply a complicity in the torture of prisoners. For some reason — I can think of several, including a decline in community relationships, a decrease in direct involvement with the natural environment, and an increase in media-mediated experiences — for some reason, Americans seem to have become numb. Like the prisoners with their padded gloves and blacked-out goggles and ear muffs, they show signs of sensory deprivation.

The problem is, as any army interrogator can tell you, a few days of sensory deprivation can induce psychosis.

       — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008