by the stormy present
Tue Jun 5th, 2007 at 08:00:43 AM EST
Just wanting to draw your attention to a particularly disturbing piece in the Washington Post:
The Tortured Lives of Interrogators
Veterans of Iraq, N. Ireland and Mideast Share Stark Memories
(All emphasis in the following excerpts is mine.)
"I tortured people," said Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. "You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that."
Being an interrogator, Lagouranis discovered, can be torture. At first, he was eager to try coercive techniques. In training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructors stressed the Geneva Conventions, he recalled, while classmates privately admired Israeli and British methods. "The British were tough," Lagouranis said. "They seemed like real interrogators."
But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies' values.
promoted by whataboutbob
What we have here is the story of three "interrogators," and although the headline speaks about their "tortured lives," it's hard for me to summon up much sympathy for them.
The world of the interrogator is largely closed. But three interrogators allowed a rare peek into their lives -- an American rookie who served with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion and two veteran interrogators from Britain and Israel. The veterans, whose wartime experiences stretch back decades, are more practiced at finding moral balance. They use denial, humor, indignation. Even so, these older men grapple with their own fears -- and with a clash of values.
I don't actually want them to find moral balance. I am offended by their moral balance, honestly. Am I a bad person to take comfort in the idea that torturing another human being should not be something you can really ever fully "come to terms with"?
So reading their justification and rationalization of their actions, I had to suppress wave after wave of nausea. Real, rising-knot-in-stomach nausea. Still choking a bit of it back now.
Just thinking about torture makes me angry. I know this about myself: I have an adverse physical reaction to the idea of torture, part of which comes from personally knowing people who have been tortured, and part of which comes from just having a soul. Oh, but there I go editorializing again. Don't I know that these guys are trying to Fight Terror and Save the Free World?
I read this story and perceived it to be a strong indictment of torture. What I can't tell is whether it would have the same effect on a different reader. The writer does very little editorializing, really. She lets these men talk, and in my view they indict themselves, but I can't quite tell whether someone who came to the story pro-torture -- with a Jack Bauer sort of we-can-save-the-world-by-cutting-off-this-man's-fingers sort of attitude -- would also read it as an idictment, or as an endorsement. I honestly cannot tell.
The reporter behind this story, incidentally, has her own slightly demented backstory, quite an interesting one.
But back to our story. We have Three Torturers.
Meet The Brit:
James, 65, was one of Britain's most experienced interrogators in Northern Ireland. Starting in 1971, James said, he worked for the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), interrogating Irish nationalists Gerry Adams, Bobby Sands and others whom the British government suspected of being terrorists.
Oh, the Special Branch. Nice. More coffee?
Once, IRA leader Brendan Hughes claimed that James had cocked a gun to his head. James does not deny it. "You fight fire with fire," he said, the memory igniting his blue eyes.
He noted that the sectarian killings dropped off: "If it's going to save lives, you're entitled to use whatever means you can." How do you fight bad guys and stay good? "You don't. You can't."
Apparently not. But James seems to persist in thinking he is good. His subconscious might have a few things to say about it, but on the surface he's not seeming like the most introspective sort. Which, if you're a torturer and you're going to live with yourself, is probably to be expected.
We will come back to James in a moment, But first, we get to know The American:
"At every point, there was part of me resisting, part of me enjoying," Lagouranis said. "Using dogs on someone, there was a tingling throughout my body. If you saw the reaction in the prisoner, it's thrilling."
In Mosul, he took detainees outside the prison gate to a metal shipping container they called "the disco," with blaring music and lights. Before and after questioning, military police officers stripped them and checked for injuries, noting cuts and bumps "like a car inspection at a parking garage." Once a week, an Iraqi councilman and an American colonel visited. "We had to hide the tortured guys," Lagouranis said.
Then a soldier's aunt sent over several copies of Viktor E. Frankel's Holocaust memoir, "Man's Search for Meaning." Lagouranis found himself trying to pick up tips from the Nazis. He realized he had gone too far.
At that point, Lagouranis said, he moderated his techniques and submitted sworn statements to supervisors concerning prisoner abuse.
"I couldn't make sense of the moral system" in Iraq, he said. "I couldn't figure out what was right and wrong. There were no rules. They literally said, 'Be creative.' "
Lagouranis blames the Bush administration: "They say this is a different kind of war. Different rules for terrorists. Total crap."
OK. Deep breath.
Tips from the Nazis.
I have some things I want to say here, but I just can't.
So we're going to meet The Israeli instead:
"You have to play by different rules," the Israeli interrogator told an American visitor. "The terrorists want to use your own system to destroy you. What your president is doing is right."
The Israeli, who spoke on condition that he be identified by his code name, Sheriff, recently retired as chief of interrogations for Shin Bet, Israel's security service, which is responsible for questioning Palestinian terrorism suspects. The former head of the service, Avi Dichter, and the former chief terrorism prosecutor, Dvorah Chen, called Sheriff "the best."
"To persuade someone to confess feels better than beating him up," Sheriff said. "It's a mental orgasm."
This guy is actually intriguing, in the kind of I'm-really-glad-he's-not-someone-I-know way. There's a rather chilling anecdote about how he brought his 2-year-old child to work one day, let the kid sleep on a mat in an interrogation room.
It doesn't say, but I have to assume it was a room that wasn't actually in use at the time.
For Sheriff, interrogation was more psychological than physical.
Sheriff hugged his suspects, he said, poured them tea and kissed their cheeks. As his former boss, Dichter, put it: "You try to become friends with someone who murdered a baby. That's your job. It's the most difficult feeling." When he came home, Sheriff said, his wife would make him change. "You could smell the guy on your shirt."
But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was "a very little violence." Enough to scare people but not so much that they'd collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. "Not torture."
Sometimes a prisoner would accuse Sheriff of torture. He tried to shift the moral burden by blaming the prisoner: "I would tell him this: 'I'm sorry. We prefer it the nice way. You leave us no choice.'"
Ah, there's Jack Bauer. You leave me no choice! What's unsaid: There's always a choice.
Also unsaid: whether that intel he obtained through physical violence was actually reliable. Well, I guess it's easier not to think about these things. Especially on Take-Our-Sons-To-Work Day.
We're back to The American, who's talking to his girlfriend.
"Seeing innocent people being tortured is hard," she said.
"Not the things I saw, but the things I did. You keep saying 'torturing the innocent,' but the two brothers I tortured were guilty. It doesn't mean you should torture them."
Well, that's a start. And something that perhaps the other two protagonists in our story appear never to have learned.
There's a sickening, sickening end to the girlfriend conversation. After which the girlfriend seems to be deciding that she really doesn't want to know.
Because the truth is, if you want to keep loving this guy, I think this is probably stuff you can't know.
Or maybe that's just me.
This is supposed to be a story about the "tormented lives" of the interrogators, remember. Except that The American seems to be the only one who's actually feeling particularly tormented.
Sheriff stretched, relaxed. "I've got a clean conscience because I rarely use it."
Israeli society, however, has been conflicted. After more than a decade of debate in legal and security circles, the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that torture is illegal.
Pain, for James -- the interrogator tucked away on a Mediterranean island -- was what made the attempt on his life so frightening. The IRA had shot his partner in the heart, he said, but when the gunmen came for him, they brought a sledgehammer.
"They would have tortured me and extracted information," James said.
No, I don't think it would have been information they were after.
Britain, like Israel, reformed its interrogation practices. In 1979, the British government acknowledged that Northern Ireland police had mistreated IRA suspects. It introduced restrictions.
"Every time they changed the rules, it was to benefit murdering terrorists," James said, grinding the word "terrorists" with his teeth. "We got no protection. Next we'll be tried as war criminals."
His eyes turned red and watery as he said, "The people of Northern Ireland will never know how many lives were saved."
Worse yet, the people he interrogated "are now running the bloody country." They used to glare, with "venomous looks," and say in Gaelic, "Our day will come."
It's at this point that I'm thinking of Colman's latest diary, which makes some points that our unrepentant pal James clearly doesn't comprehend.
And remembering the title of our reporter's book, we might note that what James is talking about now is no longer stopping terrorism, if he ever really was. He's talking about revenge, and he's talking about his tribe.
I want these men to feel tormented by what they did. And sadly, except for The American, I don't think they are, not enough.
I know I should have some ringing and righteous closing to this piece, but I just don't. I'm so weighed down by anger and sadness that I don't know what else to say.
I live in a country where torture is routine. And severe. There are videos on YouTube, shot by the police themselves. I know someone who lives behind a police station, and she is kept awake at night sometimes by the sound of screams echoing between the buildings.
The torturers, the serious ones, could be my neighbors for all I know. They could be that guy at the gym who works so hard on his lats, or the guy who passes my office in the afternoons as he picks up his daughter from preschool.
And if I were to move back "home," to my "own" country, there could still be torturers at the grocery store, torturers sitting next to me on the subway, torturers bringing their dogs to the park.
I don't have a good closing for this story. I just don't want my world to be like this anymore.