Daily Archives: April 26, 2006

Torture and demonization in America

Via Andrew Sullivan and Radley Balko, a horrific case of torture right here in the U.S. of A. The victim is one Eugene Siler, a suspected drug dealer, and the offenders are five sheriff’s deputies in Teneessee. Writes Balko:

The only reason we know Siler was tortured is because his wife had the good sense to start a recording device about halfway through the ordeal.

The audio is now available online (read the transcript here). Drug war outrages lend themselves to overuse of superlatives. But I gotta say, this may be the most horrifying 40 minutes of audio I’ve ever heard.

The police are attempting to get the illiterate man to sign an admission of guilt without telling him what it says. They beat him, over and over, hook electrodes up to testicles and shock him, threaten to kill him, and threaten to go after his family. Early news accounts reported that the torture continued well beyond the end of the recording. After the tape ran out, the same deputies apparently repeatedly submerged the guy’s head in a fish tank and a bath tub, threatening to drown him unless he confessed.

This guy at worst was a small-time drug dealer. He had no history of violence. Right now, we’re having a national debate about torturing terror suspects with designs on killing everyone in this country (longtime readers might remember I’m a bit conflicted on this issue). But an incident like this (and you’re delusional if you think it was isolated), in which a U.S. citizen who had inflicted no direct harm on anyone was nearly beaten to death, has been barely mentioned outside of Tennessee.

Andrew Sullivan comments, “Listen if you can bear it.” I shut down the audio when Siler’s moans turned to whimpers and screams.

Andrew also tries to link this story to the torture scandals in the War on Terror:

The five cops are now mercifully in jail, but only for, at most, seven years. I guess when the president has endorsed torture by the CIA, it’s hard to put low-level cop-torturers in jail for life. Radley believes this kind of atrocity is more common than we might believe. I have no way to know. What I do know is that when the government launches an ill-defined “war” on a “thing”, rather than an explicit foreign enemy, and when you have an administration as profoundly hostile to American liberty as this one is, all sorts of abuses will necessarily follow. And they have.

I’m on Andrew’s side in the debate over torture, but sadly, I seriously doubt that abuses in the War on Drugs started with this administration. (Siler was tortured in July 2004; the first reports of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandals came in April 2004. That would be a pretty short time for a trickle-down effect to take place.) As Balko writes:

We’ve inculcated in cops the idea that the government preventing people from putting items from a banned list of substances into their bodies is so necessary and urgent, enforcing those laws with tactics like these is in many cases viewed as entirely appropriate.

This was the rare incident where someone in the home was able to record and save evidence of the abuse on the sly. Think there aren’t hundreds more cases where circumstances didn’t pan out so neatly?

I think this has a lot to do with “moral panics” over certain offenses, and the consequent demonization of suspects: accused drug dealers, for instance, or sex offenders. Think of the child abuse witchhunts of the 1980s and early 1990s, or the present-day hysteria over the public identification of sex offenders. Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, presided over some of the child abuse witchhunts (and later used reports of child abuse as a justification for the attack on the Branch Davidians’ compound).

Pedophiles are rightly abhorred, and communities should be warned when a potentially dangerous offender moves in; but the sex offender panic leads to the demonization, and in one recent case the murder, of a person branded a child abuser for having sex, at the age of 19, with a 16-year-old girl. How many police officers feel morally justified in applying the kinds of interrogation tactics used on Siler to despised “scum” like suspected pedophiles?

Dehumanization breeds abuse; and the dehumanization of certain classes of offenders certainly did not begin with Bush.


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