Khadr & McCain

Time and again in the discussion of the use of torture by the US on its detainees, the focus is on extreme physical torture and that the effects of psychological torture are minimised or erased altogether [oh not that there seems to be overwhelming outrage about the physical torture either!].  In a society that is apparently characterized by the belief of a majority of its people in an unseen god, I am sometimes bemused by our inability to accept the reality and seriousness of psychic suffering.

I’m struck by the way that the minimisation and outright erasure often echoes sexist themes.  For instance, when video was released recently showing the interrogation of Canadian Omar Khadr by CSIS officials at Guantanamo Bay, I heard many people talk about the “whining, crying baby” they saw in Khadr, rather than the young man broken by fear, isolation, sleep deprivation, despair and various other forms of humiliation and threats.

Journalist Judi McLeod noted that:

Nothing on the video shows Khadr having been tortured or mistreated.

This despite the fact that it is known that Khadr was subjected to what is euphemistically referred to as the “frequent flyer programe” which involves moving a detainee from one cell to another every three hours, in Khadr’s case, every day for nearly two months so that he cannot get a long, uninterrupted period of sleep.  This is only the torture that we know about for sure.  Khadr has alleged other abuses, such as being threatened with rape and being used as a human mop to clean the floor of his own urine.  His allegations are very similar to those made by other Guantanamo detainees, despite the fact that they’ve had no contact with each other.

We cannot see these kinds of abuses on the tape so they have been dismissed by many.  The results of the abuse in terms of Khadr’s psychological state are easily dismissed by some, such as Sgt Lance Morris:

“Whoever has sympathy for a young snivelling, whining, crying Omar is misplaced sympathy because this is not a man who deserves any sympathy,” he told

“I use all my sympathy for Chris Speer’s widow and two children. I have none left for Omar Khadr.”

Morris has repeatedly stated he believes Khadr is responsible for throwing the grenade that killed Speer.

I have only sympathy for Speer’s family.  But we do not know that Omar Khadr killed Speer and we don’t know what forces affected or perhaps even coerced him, as a child, to do so if he did.  The irony is that some have said US forces should have killed Khadr on the spot, as the Geneva Conventions perhaps allow during a time of war (though I would dispute that); but the US has also argued that the Conventions don’t apply to people who are not formally members of a military force at war but rather, “enemy combatants” and seemingly covered by no law the the US administration has yet been able to unearth.

At the moment though, my interest is in the dialogue used to dismiss Khadr’s suffereing, the whining, snivelling crying baby stuff.  Whereas some of us saw Khadr’s behaviour as proof positive that he has been abused, others saw it as further evidence of the evil and cowardice that they believe Khadr represents.

Even fifteen-year old boys, then, are held to the standard of machismo expected of a US soldier under torture.  At the same time, John McCain, who admits that he “cracked” under torture, attempted suicide and signed “confessions” is valorized and many people acknowledge that cracking under torture is “normal”.  In the case of McCain, however, it is the physical torture that is highlighted:

“Every two hours,” according to a 2007 profile in the Arizona Republic, “one guard would hold McCain while two others beat him. They kept it up for four days…His right leg, injured when he was shot down, was horribly swollen. A guard yanked him to his feet and threw him down. His left arm smashed against a bucket and broke again.”


“He was placed in a cell and told he would not receive any medical treatment until he gave military information. McCain refused and was beaten unconscious. On the fourth day, two guards entered McCain’s cell. One pulled back the blanket to reveal McCain’s injured knee. ‘It was about the size, shape and color of a football,’ McCain recalled. Fearful of blood poisoning that would lead to death, McCain told his captors he would talk if they took him to a hospital.”

Yet McCain is fairly consistently cast in the role of war hero while Omar Khadr is a snivelling baby.  This makes me wonder to what extent we have been affected by the seeming inability of the US to come up with a definition of torture other than one that results in harm just short of death.  A 2002 US Deparment of Justice memo noted that torture is comprised of:

only those “extreme acts” that cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure.

Leave aside, just for now, the impossibility of measuring the amount of torture that would cause death or organ failure.  Oh wait.  Let’s not.  It’s impossible to measure the amount of torture that could lead to death or organ failure at least in part because people are different and because torturers are unlikely to take individual differences into account when meting out punishment.  Does the victim have high blood pressure?  is s/he suffering from an undetected heart condition?  diabetes?  iron poor blood?

Of course, if you believe, as I do, that the definition is already impossibly barbaric, these questions mean nothing to you.  However, they do serve to highlight the notion that one’s person’s discomfort may be another’s torture and also that psychological vulnerabilities are not likely to be the subject of concern for the torturers when applying such “enhanced interrogation” techniques as persistent, long-term sleep deprivation.  It is well-known that teenagers require more sleep than adults.  Some experts have even suggested that teenagers would benefit from a later start to their school day due to their increased biological need for sleep!  The American Psychological Association has stated that early high school start times are “tantamount to abuse“.

Besides leading to poor concentration, inability to learn due to poor cognition, memory and understanding, sleep deprivation also leads to psychopathologies such as depression, ADD/ADHD and behavioural problems.  These emotional or psychological “pathologies” hurt.  They hurt emotionally and they hurt physically.

I assume, as well, that this method wouldn’t be used if the torturers didn’t believe that it would inflict harm on the person being subjected to it.  That being the case, the fact that some people accuse Omar Khadr of being a cry-baby for reacting to it belies logic.  The technique is expected to harm anyone to whom it is applied and there is no surprise in the fact that it may have inflicted more harm on Omar Khadr than on an adult.

This leads me to ask, what is it that some people needed to see on the Khadr tapes to be convinced that he had been harmed?  Beatings?  Electrodes being applied?  Fingernails being pulled out?

The Center for Victims of Torture defines “torture” like this:

Torture is the deliberate and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity. Torture’s purpose is to destroy a sense of community, eliminate leaders and create a climate of fear.

It also notes that psychological torture is increasingly relied upon because it leaves no physical evidence:

Beatings and psychological torture are the most common forms seen at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT).  CVT clinicians have seen more sophisticated forms of torture over the years, especially psychological torture, that do not leave physical scars. This makes it more difficult for survivors to seek redress or make asylum claims.

CVT notes that

  • In CVT’s experience, psychological torture can be more damaging and cause more severe and long-lasting damage even than the pain of physical torture.
  • A recent study found that degrading treatment and psychological manipulation cause as much emotional suffering and long-term mental health harm as physical torture. (Torture vs Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. Basoglu et al. Archives of General Psychiatry, Volume 64, March 2007)

The use of waterboarding inflicts primarily psychological damage rather than ongoing physical damage:

  • Survivors say mock executions left them feeling they were already dead
  • Survivors relive these near-death experiences in their nightmares or flashbacks.
  • CVT clients have told us that they pleaded with their torturers to kill them, preferring real death over the constant threat and intolerable pain it caused

If we believe only what has been confirmed in the US about Khadr’s treatment at Guantanamo Bay, we must accept the truth of the fact that he has been tortured.  Sleep deprivation

  • Causes a host of negative psychological effects, the most prominent is cognitive impairment.
  • Sleep-deprived individuals take longer to respond to stimuli and sleep loss causes attention deficits, decreases short-term memory, speech impairments, perseveration and inflexible thinking.  These symptoms may appear after one night of total sleep deprivation, after only a few nights of sleep restriction (5 hours of sleep per night).
  • Sleep restrictions can result in hypertension and other cardiovascular disease.

Further, Physicians for Human Rights [download pdf]completed a study on the US use of psychological torture in 2005, concluding, among other things:

The use of psychological torture followed directly from decisions by the civilian leadership as well as high ranking military officers, including those in the Executive branch, and their support of decisions to “take the gloves off” in interrogations and “break” prisoners by employing techniques of psychological torture including sensory deprivation, isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, the use of military working dogs to instill fear, cultural and sexual humiliation, mock executions, and the threat of violence or death toward detainees or their loved ones. These kinds of techniques have extremely devastating consequences for individuals subjected to them and can be just as harmful and are often more long-lasting than physical torture.

There is no convenient split between mind and body.  There is really no way to torture someone either physically and not psychologically or vice versa.  And there is no way to predict which forms of maltreatment will lead even to meeting that terribly high bar of death or organ failure.

John McCain tried to commit suicide in order to escape ongoing beatings and isolation and also signed a confession and gave information, though he says it was either misleading or trivial inforamtion.  John McCain has been sanctified as an American hero.  Young Omar Khadr has been tortured at Guantanamo Bay and abandoned by his country in isolation, in a jail cell.  Yet he is a snivelling coward.  I venture to say that McCain might also have wept had he been visited by US personnel, mocked and told he was going to be left behind to be tortured further by the North Vietnamese because his country didn’t give a damn what happened to him.

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