Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The One Torture Hurts the Most: US Troops

According to new evidence, in September of 2003, Alyssa Peterson took her own life. Ms. Peterson was a soldier, working as an Arabic-speaking interrogator in Iraq. According to new research, Ms. Peterson killed herself after refusing to participate in the torture of terrorist subjects. From the article:

"Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed."

According to the official report on her death released the following year, she had earlier been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of that report is: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."

Ms. Kayla Williams, formerly of the army, has recently come out and testified that she witnessed detainees in US care being tortured, and did nothing about it. I'm not condemning Ms. Williams - she feels bad enough:

I witnessed detainee abuse in Iraq and did not report it. This moral failing is my own burden, one I will carry with me for the rest of my life. But it has also influenced how I look at headlines about torture, from Abu Ghraib to the recent revelations about GITMO.

The detainees I saw being abused might have been guilty when they came in. But I am sure that after being treated the way they were, they walked out full of rage and more likely to attack Americans. On a larger scale, I believe that the ability of insurgents in Iraq and terrorists worldwide to use US treatment of detainees in Iraq and GITMO for propaganda has caused significant harm. According the Washington Post, Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair agrees that waterboarding and other 'enhanced interrogation techniques' (read: torture) do more harm than good: "The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world. . .The damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."

Of all of the reasons why the US torture of terrorism suspects and other detainees is so heinous, this is the worst. Ignore the issues about whether or not torture gets accurate or useful information (though by all accounts it doesn't). Ignore whether suspects tortured - whether guilty or innocent of any crimes - leave with anger and rage against their prison guards - which makes them more likely to lash out against the United States. Even ignore whether information that the US has tortured prisoners makes it harder for the US to make their case in the world.

The greatest reason why the Bush administration approving and ordering the use of torture tactics, is because of what they did to the United States troops. Over the objections of the military leaders who clearly labeled waterboarding and other techniques as torture - leaders that the Bush administration said over and over again "Oh, we take the guidance from the military on what to do - unless it's about size of troops in Iraq, and torture".

By ordering that US soldiers participate in the torture of detainees, the Bush administration committed a crime against our very soldiers. From the Lynndie England's of Iraq that the Bush administration labeled a "few bad apples" - who, according to new information coming out today, learned their techniques of using dogs to attack prisoners from high level US officials. To the guards who were encouraged to "wall" prisoners by shoving them into walls via plastic collars, to the military doctors who had to decide if the guy who had been chained for 3 days straight as his ankles swelled up to twice their size and skin blisters formed was in any medical danger.

Some, such as Ms. Petersen, found themselves in an impossible situation - either obey their superior officers as all of their training had taught them, or obey the Constitution they had sworn to protect from enemies foreign and domestic. Some took their life, some simply say nothing but carry the shame and scars for the rest of their lives.

Of all the reasons to investigate the torture of detainees, this is perhaps the greatest. Even if that investigation is a Truth Commission without any power to prosecute, we need to insure that it never happens again. Not to protect detainees or terrorist suspects - but to protect our own soldiers from small fear minded people who would force them to act like monsters.

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