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GOTT-September 22, 2006

Our “Rough Treatment” Technique of the Day

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. -–Hebrews 13:3 (NRSV)

Today’s technique is the use of “Little Ease” cells, and it has special significance for me, as it was one of the first methods of rough treatment I became aware of, sometime when I was in first or second grade.  No, I wasn’t actually subjected to it, thank God.  Just heard of it.  And I’ve had occasional nightmares concerning it ever since.

Here’s a brief description from the OED: “little ease: used as a name for a prison-cell too small to permit the person occupying it to assume a comfortable position.”

Here’s a little bit more, from a blog post by the philosopher and professor of law, William Edmundson:

“Stress positions” and devices to compel them have a long history.  One of the best-known examples is the “Little Ease,” a cell barely large enough for its occupant, who was unable to stand upright, sit, stretch, or find any comfortable position.  The 16th century Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion was confined in “Little Ease” in the Tower of London, followed in the 17th century by Gunpowder Plot conspirator Guy Fawkes.  Cells of similar description–4 feet high, 4 feet long and 20 inches wide–were used by US Special Operations in Iraq, according to the New York Times, “Pentagon Study Describes Abuse by Units in Iraq” (June 17, 2006), along with “cold cell” and starvation.  In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously outlawed the use of stress positions, shaking, and sleep deprivation as interrogation techniques–but, what would the Israelis know about combating terrorism, right?

(I should note that the dimensions of the cells that are given above — 4′ x 4′ x 20″ — don’t seem to match the description Edmundson gives, according to which one is “unable to stand upright, sit, stretch, or find any comfortable position.”  I measured it out & then tried it, and I could sit in such a cell, and I could lay on my back with my legs in various positions.  If the cell were a bit smaller, say, 4-1/2′ high (note I made this a bit higher) x 2-1/2′ x 20″, it would be much worse for me (I’m 6’1″ tall).)  [Since writing this, I’ve set up and tried sitting in a 20″-wide “cell”; I write about that experience in this later post.  I’ve also been contacted by someone who tried out sitting in such a “cell” for just one hour, and found it quite an ordeal.  I hope to be able to relay some of their story a bit later.]

Those who have been somehow or other confined to a very small space for a long time can tell you how awful it becomes after a while.  Is it torture?

With respect to the use of “stress positions,” and the use of other forms of “rough treatment,” like “cold cell,” it’s easy, especially when one is motivated to do so, to carelessly think of them in a way that makes them seem not all that bad – as if only a spoiled child would complain of such treatment.

But think carefully and honestly.  It’s obvious that on any reasonable construal, the use of stress positions is torture if it’s forced for a long enough period of time, and, in particular, that our technique of the day is torture if the confinement is long enough.  (It also seems that exact dimensions and the exact size of the prisoner matter a lot for our technique of the day.)  I suspect it becomes bad enough to constitute torture (by any reasonable construal) fairly quickly.  I confess: I truly hate thinking about these methods of “rough treatment,” and consequently haven’t learned all that much about them.  Given what I know now, if given a choice, I would opt to have my right (I’m left-handed) pinky finger chopped off (quickly) over being consigned to a cell of the above-mentioned dimensions (the smaller dimensions I gave) for even 24 hours.  Perhaps learning more about what happens to those subjected to this treatment –to their muscles, to their joints, at what point one starts to suffer lasting physical damage, the prospects for lasting psychological effects, and how excruciating the exercise becomes and how despondent those subjected to it become at various points in time– might make me revise that judgement.  Or perhaps more information would reinforce the judgment, and even make me willing to lose fingers (maybe several of them) over spending even shorter periods of time in such a cell.  Starting to think about considerably longer periods of time makes me ill.

(Incidentally, for those who are wondering how long US special ops subjected prisoners to this, according to the Pentagon report, two detainees near Tikrit were held in such cells for seven days!  But recall that the report is that they were using cells of “the more spacious” dimensions.  I have little sense for just how bad that would be.  Much would depend on the size of these prisoners, but even told that, I’d have little idea just how bad it would be for them.)

Unfortunately, it may be our duty as citizens to start to learn much more about such techniques, because there is reason to think the CIA is using some of these techniques.  We are assured by our President himself that we are not torturing detainees, though we are subjecting them to various forms of “alternative” methods of interrogation and “rough treatment,” short of torture.

But there are reasons to be skeptical of such assurances.  Here’s Marty Lederman (Law, Georgetown):

At Last, the Issue is Publicly Joined . . . and When All the Smoke has Cleared, the Central Question is Quite Simple

And it is this: Should the CIA be legally authorized to breach the Geneva Conventions by engaging in the following forms of “cruel treatment” prohibited by “common” Article 3(1)(a) of those Conventions?:

— “Cold Cell,” or hypothermia, where a prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees, during which he is doused with cold water.

— “Long Time Standing,” in which a prisoner is forced to stand, handcuffed and with his feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours.

— Other forms of “stress positions” and prolonged sleep deprivation, perhaps akin to “Long Time Standing.”

— Threats of violence and death of a detainee and/or his family.

These are the CIA techniques that have been widely reported, including in this ABC News Report and in Ron Suskind’s book. To the extent some of these techniques are not among those that the President is now euphemistically designating “alternative,” or to the extent the Administration is attempting to preserve other techniques currently prohibited by Common Article 3, the burden is on the Administration to clarify the record. They have resolutely refused to disclaim any of these reported techniques, and so I think it’s fair for Congress and the public to assume, absent contrary evidence, that these are among the techniques at issue in the current debate. If we’re going to authorize conduct currently prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, we ought to know just what we’re signing on for.

(hat tip: William Edmundson)

While I find Lederman’s thinking quite sensible, others may wonder whether it’s really “fair for Congress and the public to assume, absent contrary evidence, that these are among the techniques at issue in the current debate.”  But the evidence Lederman cites (credible reports plus lack of denials – plus I suspect he’s assuming some background about this administration’s history of dealing with issues connected with torture) is clearly sufficient for establishing the weaker conclusion that, from our point of view, there is a serious enough possibility that these are among the methods on the table that we should be investigating these methods to decide if we really want them to be used on our behalf.  If you’re not convinced even of that much, add the following reason for suspicion to the grounds Lederman cites:

Methods of rough treatment would seem to achieve their goal of extracting information from detainees by making the detainees want to avoid or stop be subjected to these techniques so much that they will surrender the information demanded in order to get the “rough treatment” to stop.  But these are people devoted to their cause, most of them willing to die for it.  Now, even those who would rather die than give up information can be made to give it up by means of “rough treatment.”  But it would seem it would have to be truly awful treatment to achieve this end – bad enough to constitute torture under any reasonable construal.   Are we really to believe that hardened terrorists are being successfully “roughed up” into giving up information by means of methods mild enough not to constitute torture?  I’d like a little more explanation here.

Our President, and others in his administration, don’t want to talk in any detail at all about the methods being used.  The reason cited is that he doesn’t want to let the enemy know what we’re doing.  A great illustration of this is this video clip of his recent interview with Matt Lauer.  (Note that the transcript below the video clip contains only a small part of the exchange on the clip.)

I’d rather find out and discuss exactly what the CIA is doing, even if it meant that our enemies could anticipate and prepare for such methods, and we and our families might consequently be a little bit less safe.  (I believe that our enemies already have a pretty good idea of what methods we are, or at least very well might be, using, so being explicit wouldn’t have much effect on our safety, anyway.  But I’d still want to know what we’re doing even if I thought disclosing that information could make us a bit less safe.)  But even if you don’t agree with that judgment of mine, note that we can discuss these methods without giving anything away.  We have the above-mentioned grounds for suspecting the possibility that various methods are being used by the CIA.  That’s enough for us to discuss hypothetically which of these methods we do and do not want used by our government, and such a discussion gives no new information away.

It would be great if some news outlet (TV and/or print) would do a report (or series of reports) on various of these methods and tell us what they’re really like in some detail.  They could perhaps interview people who have been subjected to them and various experts, so we can start to think in a more informed manner about the methods we do and do not approve of.

I don’t know how likely that is.  Absent that, maybe some discussions in blogs would be helpful.  No, despite the title of this post, I’m not really planning on doing a series of daily posts on various methods of torture.  It should really be done by someone who has more knowledge about the topic.  Here I was hoping merely (a) to stress the importance of the issue, (b) perhaps to convince someone better informed than me to tell us more about these methods, and (c) to provide a illustration of how someone might think about these issues while in a state of relative ignorance of the methods in question.

But perhaps there’s a lot of good information already on-line that people know about, and can provide URLs for in the comments.

Posted by Keith DeRose in Current Affairs | Permalink


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It would be great if some news outlet (TV and/or print) would do a report (or series of reports) on various of these methods and tell us what they’re really like in some detail.

Well, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but Anderson Cooper had quite a bit on our use of torture on his CNN program last night, including, among several other very worthwhile topics, a discussion of the bills congress is considering and an interview with Maher Arar, the Canadian who was grabbed off an airplane by U.S. officials and sent off to Syria as a terror suspect. He was tortured in Syria, and now turns out to be completely innocent. Those interested can find the transcript for the show here:
The material on torture starts about half-way down the page. You can click your cursor at the top of actual text of the transcript and then search “prisoners” and the first occurrence of that word should bring you to the start of the relevant material.

Incidentally, in the course of interviewing Andrew Sullivan (who makes good points here), Cooper has occasion to say something that may explain why this issue isn’t getting more attention:

Why do you think, though, this story, this — what is happening really hasn’t gotten much attraction? I mean, people don’t want to hear about it. I mean, I know the ratings for this segment are going to go down because people turn this stuff off.

Posted by: Keith DeRose | September 27, 2006 at 11:10 AM

Whatever happened to the old addage that I was forced to strictly live by (not surprisingly, in specific regards to sexuality as a teenager) that Christians are to “avoid even the appearance of evil” as the scriptures admonish. Has even ONE person held this standard up to the President who has claimed to be one of our own? Does he get a divine pardon because he’s president?

Sorry this line of argument is so simplistic but I’m not sure it is too much more complicated than this.

Posted by: Matt Westbrook | September 28, 2006 at 09:01 PM

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