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.

23 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

23 responses to “Torture and demonization in America

  1. Anonymous

    Ideals such as the presumption of innocence, prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to refrain from self-incrimination are very hard for humans to live up to since they fly in the face of their cruder instincts. Using this as a context for partisan sniping is as you point out a bit unfair. I think though, that both explicitly (threatening to veto a torture prohibition) and implicitly this administration has reveled in “rough justice.” So to say that Bush caused these men to act this way is not be justified, but to state that in many ways these are his fellow travelers may not be totally out of bounds.

  2. Lori Heine

    Although this story should cause much alarm, I, very sadly, doubt that it will meet with much more than a collective yawn.

    We have become so desensitized to violence — to even the lowest and most bestial forms of cruelty — in our society that few people will even regard the news that SOMEONE ELSE was tortured by police officers as a problem.

    They only consider it a problem, now, if it happens to themselves.

  3. Omar Barsawad

    Just – by reading this, I am horrified! I just do not understand how such a great nation like yours with all the human rights and laws, can allow such hapennings!

  4. Revenant

    It amazes me that anybody pays attention to what Andrew Sullivan thinks. I’m just glad he’s an embarassment to the *other* side of the war debate now.

    Anyway, I think you’re right on the money in saying police use of torture didn’t start with Bush. I don’t think you could really say *when* it “started”, actually, because it is more like it never ended in the first place. Torture and quasi-torture of criminal suspects were openly accepted police tactics until the 20th century, when public outrage and court rulings finally made such practices officially unacceptable. But they never ended; they were just driven underground.

    So to say that Bush caused these men to act this way is not be justified, but to state that in many ways these are his fellow travelers may not be totally out of bounds.

    In the sense that it would “not be totally out of bounds” to say that Andrew Sullivan and Osama bin Laden’s mutual condemnation of Bush administration tactics makes THEM “fellow travellers”, I guess. But in both cases it’d be about as close to out of bounds as you could get. A person would have to be pretty stupid to think that Bush either officially or unofficially approves of what those cops did.

  5. Synova

    At most 7 years in prison sounds like a European sentence for killing someone.

    BTW… the soldiers (now in prison themselves) who were misbehaving at Abu Ghraib were weekend warriors who’s… get this… civilian jobs were as prison guards.

    I don’t think this had anything at all to do with a culture of acceptance within the *military* or Bush administration but *civilian* ideas about how to treat prisoners in prison.

    And then we get these moronic episodes of Law and Order where one character points out something about how suspects are treated (on the show) in the interrogation room and the “hero” explains how *that* isn’t bad, not like what the military does. When most of us understand that what TV cops do, real cops would get in trouble for.

  6. Rainsborough

    Bush doubtless would condemn what the cops did in Tennessee.

    Trouble is, while mouthing a condemnation of torture in the great war, he didn’t disavow its practice. And he did first threaten to veto a bill intended to curb the practice of torture, he then, after it passed, issue a “signing statement” signalling he considered the administration free to rewrite the bill as it saw fit–to continue torturing as necessary.

    The torture in Tennessee of course resembles the torture that has been a piece of the war on terror in that they both entail the dehumanization of the victim and the corruption of the executant. The difference is that the torture in Tennessee was not licensed by an amoral lawyer working in the Justice Department who declared no infliction of pain was tortuous or illegal so long as it didn’t result in “organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Are we to believe this lawyer was not doing the president’s bidding? Are we to believe that this president has not embraced the necessity of torture? I think that would be extraordinarily naive.

    In the case of both the war on terror and the war on drugs, it would also be naive to blame only those who actually handle the instruments, or even to blame this most corrupt (in the republican sense) and small-minded of presidents. In both instances, the processes of dehumanization that underlie the employment of torture pervade entire sectors of our society and are to be found in some form or other in the heart of many a fearful parent and citizen. Misdirected and exaggerated fear is common to both wars.

  7. Revenant

    Trouble is, while mouthing a condemnation of torture in the great war, he didn’t disavow its practice [etc, etc]

    Yes, those events have been rehashed quite a few times in Cathy’s forum here, as we all know. Perhaps you’d like to rehash it yet again, but personally I find the “debate” on that subject tiresome and I doubt I’m alone. International law, amoral lawyers, poor pitiful Gitmo folks, yadda yadda McYadda.

    Are we to believe that this president has not embraced the necessity of torture?

    Whether or not the President has embraced the use of torture simply isn’t relevant to what happened in Tennessee. There’s no causal connection between the two.

    Contrary to the apparent beliefs of many Bush-haters, people didn’t automagically start thinking torture was OK just because Bush took a soft line on it. By and large the people who think the wartime torture of captured foreign terrorists is justifiable (e.g., me) already thought it was justifiable before they ever heard Bush’s opinion on the subject, and would have considered him misguided had he banned it (witness the criticism Bush encountered when it briefly looked like he might really ban the practice). The reason for this phenomenon is that people, by and large, don’t worry too much about the suffering of people they think are evil to the core. And virtually nobody truly adheres to the oh-so-frequently-mouthed pious line about torture “always being wrong”. Torture’s wrong except when it isn’t — that’s what people’s actions show they really believe.

    Your mistake is that you view acceptance of torture as a top-down phenonmenon, with underlings falling in line with the views of their superiors. But the desire to inflict pain on those you hate or loathe is very much a bottom-up phenomenon, and universally appears in any good-guy/bad-guy relationship where the “good guys” have unsupervised power over the “bad” ones.

    One final note — the 1929 Wickersham Commission found that police use of mental and physical torture to extract confessions was widespread throughout America. What the Tennessee cops did wasn’t a result of the war on drugs, but a result of police power itself.

  8. Rainsborough

    About the last point, I’d agree that police abuse of those detained was pervasive before the war on drugs. But my hunch is that it was in something of a retreat before that war, and has become more common since.

    I also agree, and thought I said, that what Bush has done to encourage torture has been backed by a considerable portion of the public.

    I also appreciate a forthright defense of the practice of torture and not deigning to pretend otherwise (as the president, in his position, must).

    The notion that a thoroughly evil person literally deserves whatever he gets is an intriguing one. I know that’s how Hitler felt about those who tried to assassinate him, and wouldn’t settle for merely executing them. Instead he had them exquisitely tortured. As I recall, in their case he overcame his usual squeamishness and actually relished watching film of their agony.

    But of course this rationale (the evil deserve it) won’t serve to justify those instances where our victims have not been correctly ascertained to be evil, but have instead been more or less randomly detained and mistreated.

    And we must remember that now millions of people who once thought “Americans wouldn’t do that” now know better. Me among them.

    There was a certain utility in our former reputation for probity.

    But returning to the central moral argument, how does one go about ascertaining that another person is evil to the core? Has that been the chief criterion our torturers have applied in selecting their victims? Should anyone evil to the core be tortured? Or only certain of them? Which ones? To what end?

    Why do we start this practice only at the water’s edge–why not apply it as well to domestic miscreants?

    Should we welcome the pain that those we give the needle too reportedly endure? Should we return to the gas chamber or electric chair? Or is this pain perhaps too brief for the deeply deeply evil–should there be days or weeks of it? Should we look to drawing and quartering again?

    We don’t want to underestimate the gravity of evil, nor its degrees, and should calibrate our treatment of the evil one accordingly.

    If a detainee isn’t evil to the core but somewhere short of there, can we torture him, too, but less?

    What about the victim’s relatives? Can we torture them, too? What if the victim loves them more dearly than his own life? (Or, if he did, would he follow he wasn’t evil to the core?) What if they’ve committed no crime, but love him (love evil)? What if they share his ideology of hate?

  9. Rainsborough

    Another angle I quite forgot: what difference, if any, do international boundaries make? Can we detain the evil ones wherever they reside, whatever their citizenship? If the local government demurs, does that make any difference?

    And another: this activity is forbidden by law, both domestic and international. Who will then carry out these lawless acts? Since not authorized by law, then how?

  10. Synova

    I don’t think that what amounts to “we don’t do it but we also don’t want to promise that we never will” is a ringing endorsement for torture. Nor do I think that exploring a definition of degree, no matter how distasteful, is an endorsement either. What counts as torture or not is actually sort of important… is humiliating someone the same as torturing them? Is ridicule torture? If religious offense, even greivous, torture? Is wrapping someone in an Israeli flag actually torture? Is it torture to mess with someone’s mind? Scare them? Lie to them?

    When the only acceptable thing to say is “Torture is always wrong, no matter what,” it’s not possible to have any sort of discussion. When the failure to categorically condemn all of whatever someone else might decide was torture is seen as endorsement, that’s not useful.

    The military, huge as it is and containing criminals just like any other population does, takes sadism very seriously. It takes discipline and self-control very seriously… military discipline isn’t what makes soldiers fire their guns, it’s what makes them *stop* firing their guns.

    And it has to approach absolute.

    I won’t make any claim about what police do or the CIA, but our military does not torture prisoners as any sort of policy whatsoever… stick a gun barrel to the temple of the guy you just tackled and demand to know what he just put in an airconditioner vent, yeah (this just happened, and it was a bomb)… but torture prisoners? No. And Bush having the Att. General clarify torture or the applicability of the Geneva Convention is irrelevant to that.

    (Hint about the G.Convention… it covers people who have signed it and who fight in uniform. Neither of which apply to Iraq. But only a complete idiot would think that pointing this out is the equivalent of mandating that the elements of the convention be violated, and our soldiers aren’t idiots.)

  11. Ben bayis

    Torture was historically SOP for police forces around the country. It was much worse in the 1940′s, 50′s, and 60′s. It’s gotten much better now, but this story shows that unfortunately it hasn’t been eliminated.

    That’s the problem with blaming it on President Bush: You’d have to show that torture has been on the increase since he took office, and I doubt that’s true. Certainly, one incident doesn’t prove it.

    Similarly, to support Cathy’s argument that police torture is related to a “moral panic” over drugs, you’d have to show that police are more likely to torture in a drug case than in a murder or robbery case.

    Of course, if drug dealing weren’t a crime, the police wouldn’t be arresting drug dealers, and so would have no occasion to torture them.

  12. Revenant

    The notion that a thoroughly evil person literally deserves whatever he gets is an intriguing one. I know that’s how Hitler felt about those who tried to assassinate him

    I can’t imagine why you’d choose that example, except in a lame attempt to paint people who think that way as being Hitler-like. Yes, that’s how Hitler felt about the people who tried to kill him. It’s also how a lot of the Jews felt about the Nazis. The difference being, the Jews were right. :)

    What about the victim’s relatives? Can we torture them, too?

    You’re not raising any issues that weren’t already raised and addressed months ago. Check Cathy’s archives if you really want to revisit the argument.

  13. Rainsborough

    What’s an actual historical example of justified torture?

    Lots of it goes on in secret and may never be known. But secrets do come out, and recorded history goes back over five thousand years, and lord knows there’s been a lot of torture along the way.

    I’m not saying there are no instances. Just that it often pays not to speculate and hypothesize, but look to the past and examine actual cases.

    Any nominations?

  14. Synova

    Again, it depends on how you define torture.

    If it’s pinning a guy to the ground with a cocked pistol pressed to his head screaming at him so he’s go no doubt whatsoever that he is going to die *right now*… then I’d say it saved several lives just a few weeks ago or so and was worth it.

    But usually people think of torture as some ongoing thing, starvation and beatings, electric shocks, rapes, etc. And I don’t think we have much indication that those are ever useful and even if they *were* useful, what payoff would be worth it? Life saving information is generally time sensitive, isn’t it?

    I can’t imagine *any* situation where getting a *confession* would justify even mistreatment, much less torture.

  15. Iguana

    As usual, you are right on target.

    The fact that some police will abuse authority is nothing new. Our Founders realized that abuse of authority can be found in any place your find authorities. They attempted to protect future generations by limiting government authority in our Constitution.

    The scary thing to me is not the knowledge that sometimes authorities will abuse their power, since we’ve known that since time eternal. What scares me is that we have chipped away at our Constitution, learned to trick it, and in many cases, simply decided to ignore it.

    Much of the workings of the feminist state come to mind. VAWA for example and things like mandatory arrest. The last line of defense has always been the family, but even that has been torn down.

  16. mythago

    then I’d say it saved several lives just a few weeks ago or so and was worth it.

    In other words, torture is okay, it just depends on the circumstances. You’re making exactly the same decision as those police officers did; you’ve just got a different level of how exigent the circumstances ought to be.

  17. Rainsborough

    The Secretary of Defense authorized criminal conduct.
    Source: the United States Army
    Maybe the problems the illegality of torture presents have not been entirely cleared up.

    http://balkin.blogspot.com/2006/04/army-confirms-rumsfeld-authorized.html

  18. Synova

    mythago, I don’t think it’s even similar to what the police officers did much less the same. It *was* violent and I’m sure the bomber got a few bruises.

    As I heard the story it went like this (I believe it was on Blackfive if you don’t want to go with my recollection.) A soldier was talking to his wife on his phone and noticed an Iraqi acting strangely. The man carried a package and a chair over to the side of a building, stood on the chair and put the package in the air conditioner. (Okay, right here I’m thinking “bomb” but since I’ve been overseas I might also think “lunch” so who knows.) The soldier thought it was weird but not until the guy started running away did he realize it was more than strange so he dropped his phone and chased him, kicked the back of his legs to tackle him, pinned him to the ground and shouted for an interpreter. He held his 9mm to the guy’s head, cocked it, and asked what the package was… answer “bomb”… asked how long the timer was… answer “five”. The “internet cafe” was evacuated and 15 minutes later the bomb exploded.

    Yes, violent, yes, painful, yes, in fear for his life. Yes, lives saved.

    But how is that similar to having someone completely in your power and hooking electric cords to his testicles and spending… how long?.. trying to get him to confess?

    Is it just that I think that the circumstances have to be different? Maybe. Are you saying that circumstances make no difference?

    There are circumstances where it’s okay for the police to shoot someone. Tied to a chair isn’t one of those circumstances. There are circumstances where it’s okay for the police to subdue someone by force. Tied to a chair isn’t one of those circumstances.

  19. Rainsborough

    revenant–
    I want to make this an honest apology, so I preface it by saying that I do find something frightening in the notion that we can so to speak read souls, find them to be evil, and then inflict pain commensurate the the degree of evil. I remain an unreformed liberal in thinking that punishment should be for crimes, not sins. An element of a crime is mens rea, but I don’t think that goes to the condition of the soul. And in no event, in my view, is torture a rightful punishment.

    I admit also to discomfiture at the thought of finding positive enjoyment in the suffering of any other human being, whatever they’ve done. But lots of people would, including perhaps in certain circumstances, me.

    All this said, the suggestion of any comparison between any conscientious blogmenter in America today and someone who played in quite another league and retired the cup for evil is to, say the least, inapposite, and I apolgize for it.

    Rainsborough

  20. mythago

    Yes, violent, yes, painful, yes, in fear for his life. Yes, lives saved.

    Staff Sgt. Richburg did the right thing in clearing the café; I don’t know what ‘bomb squad’ protocol is in Iraq, so I’m not going to speculate on whether or not he should have taken further action. But what if the bomber didn’t care about dying? Or had lied about the timer? Would it have been OK then?

    BTW, the story was on Stars & Stripes. I don’t know what the blogosphere has against primary sources.

  21. Synova

    I’m sure there was a link to the primary source on the blog where I read it.

    I’m not demanding that you agree with me, but do you see what I’m trying to say about how torture is defined? I think that it matters because every violent action or intimidating action or coercive action isn’t “torture” because of that. The definition can’t be “would this be wrong if it was done to my 3rd grade teacher Ms. Smith?”

    I think I agree with what Cathy said about the perception of a certain “class” of people who it’s okay to torture, and I think that’s wrong and bad and evil, because it’s not okay to hurt someone because of who they are. I do believe it might be okay to hurt someone because of what they are doing *right now*.

  22. Anonymous

    Much of the workings of the feminist state come to mind. VAWA for example and things like mandatory arrest. The last line of defense has always been the family, but even that has been torn down.

    Ah, yes, the Saykrid Fambuhlee. Even though most children who come to harm do so at the hands of their parents, not some “pervert” in the bushes. Yet the powers that be, especially in “red states,” are notoriously reluctant to break up fambuhleez — even those that torture and kill their own.

  23. Pablo

    Mythago said:

    I can’t imagine *any* situation where getting a *confession* would justify even mistreatment, much less torture.

    The more important situation would be not to gain a confession, but to acquire actionable intelligence. Waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed would be an example of that, and IMHO, was a stellar idea. I’m not troubled in the least by it.

    What happened to Eugene Siler is an abomination. How anyone could conflate the two situations is beyond me.

    In other words, torture is okay, it just depends on the circumstances.

    And giving poison to children is bad, period. Until you have one with cancer, that is. Circumstances…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s