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Day June 14, 2004

Hitchens on Abu Ghraib scandal yet to come

Today’s article by Christopher Hitchens on Slate is well worth reading. Despite my ongoing attempts to articulate where I disagree with Hitchens (on Iraq), he’s right on the money discussing what will happen when further disclosures are made from Abu Ghraib. Especially since we know that the material we haven’t seen yet is even more disturbing than the pictures and video already in circulation.

The DOJ’s memo (PDF) on “standards of conduct for interrogation” only underscores Hitchens’s point. The memo is designed to construe terms such as “serious pain” in such a way as to leave considerable latitude for physically coercive interrogation. In essence, the DOJ wrote that interrogations involving infliction of physical pain aren’t “torture” unless that pain is “equivalent” to “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Psychological suffering, in order to count as “torture,” must produce “significant psychological harm of significant duration.”

The DOJ goes on to state that “mental harm” must result from a constrained list of sources, mostly involving the threat of imminent death or “torture”-level physical pain, or the use of psychoactive drugs. The memo does not mention, and thus would seem to exclude from the DOJ’s notion of torture, the use of sexual humiliation on Muslims or others for whom such treatment would be culturally taboo. How very convenient that this is not considered mental “torture.”

However, the most reprehensible thing about the DOJ memo is the requirement of “intent,” which Hitchens discusses in his article. The notion that “it’s not torture if I didn’t intend to do it” is simply ridiculous, and attempting to defend this is morally outrageous. The effects of torture on its victims, amply documented by Amnesty International and others, has nothing to do with intentions. The actions create the effects, and the actions are well-documented. Actions, not intentions, form our fundamental notions of responsibility. And regardless of legal wrangling over the definition of “mental harm” or “severe pain,” our government is plainly responsible for past and current torture at Abu Ghraib and other facilities world-wide.

The DOJ’s memo is well worth reading (or at least skimming), because it underscores a point that Orwell made long ago — the face of evil, when we see it, won’t always have cloven hooves or a swastika-laden brown shirt. Sometimes the face of evil is best visible in the dry, dusty prose of a lawyer’s brief, or a court’s decision.