Torture damage won't soon heal

May 21, 2004|By Mary Cogar

WE HAVE HEARD much about torture since the 9/11 terrorist attacks - debates about the moral, legal and ethical reasons for and against using it to obtain information.

More than 100 countries use torture, according to Amnesty International, and governments go to great lengths to hide it. The debates seem to be about concepts and the theoretical implications of using torture, and what other countries do, not what the United States does. Now we are faced with whether the U.S. government used torture.

There is still debate about whether the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq constitutes torture. Euphemisms such as "torture light" and "softening" prisoners for interrogation are frequently used to describe the abuse of prisoners. Most people accept that severe physical abuse and rape are torture, but it's less obvious that prisoners do not have to be touched in order to be tortured.

The definition of torture by the U.N. Convention Against Torture, signed by 74 nations and entered into force in 1994, makes it absolutely clear that what was done to prisoners in Iraq was torture. The definition: "Torture is any act by which severe pain or suffering ... physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted for the purpose of getting information, punishing, intimidating or coercing ... inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official."

By that definition, mental abuse such as being forced to stand naked in front of others and to simulate or perform sexual acts, being dragged by a leash, and being threatened with execution are equal to physical torture in causing suffering and punishing, intimidating and coercing prisoners. Cultural and social norms, such as the Muslim prohibition against being seen naked, intensify the effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques, making them especially abhorrent to the victim and causing intense suffering.

Forcing people to stand in unusual positions for hours, subjecting them to extreme heat or cold, restricting movement - all cause severe pain and may be considered torture, though there has been no physical contact with the victim. What is common to all of these techniques - psychological, coercive and physical - is that the victim suffers intensely and lives with the consequences of the suffering for years afterward.

People who have been tortured don't return home after their release from prison and resume their lives easily. They feel profound changes in the way they view the world, in how much they trust themselves and other people, in how they relate to important people in their lives.

Survivors of torture frequently tell us that they don't feel like themselves, that they have lost a sense of who they are. They often feel shame and humiliation, less than human, powerless and without control of their lives. They often avoid sharing these feelings with wives, husbands, children and siblings in order to control their own emotional reactions and to spare their families from distress about their torture. This leads to distance and withdrawal from the people they need most.

In addition, torture victims often exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical and medical problems. Torture victims commonly sleep very little, and when they do sleep, they have terrifying nightmares.

Awake, survivors often experience intense pictures or flashbacks of the torture, which occur suddenly and without warning. They may feel fear much of the time, even in situations where there is no objective reason to experience that feeling. This often leads to limiting of activities and emotional withdrawal, causing major disruptions in daily living.

These symptoms can last for months, sometimes years. Even if symptoms appear to be resolved, they can be rekindled by subsequent traumatic events. For example, some torture victims living in the United States, who have achieved relative safety and symptom remission, have had their previous symptoms return after reading accounts of the torture in Iraq.

There are 400,000 torture victims in the United States today, 40,000 of them in the Mid-Atlantic region, many of them from Africa, Central America and Eastern Europe.

What should the United States do about allegations of torture?

It must release all remaining pictures of the prison abuse in Iraq. It is only through full awareness by the American public and the world that there will be continued pressure to change interrogation techniques in order to avoid torture.

Identification must be made of all of those responsible for the prison abuses at all levels of the military and the government, and the abuses must be investigated thoroughly and condemned.

The United States must abide by the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Mary Cogar is a psychologist and clinical director of Advocates of Survivors of Torture and Trauma, which is based in Baltimore.

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