Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Tortured Logic

The Purple Heart
The Hill
The Crucible

A discussion of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – a euphemistic expression that essentially means torture – has taken center stage in the current political theater in the United States. It is said by some who fear another terrorist attack on the scale of September 11, 2001, that this is a useful tool that will help prevent such an event from happening again. However, I have my doubts about its effectiveness – doubts that are based on history that includes testimony before a U.S. Senate committee on May 13, 2009, by FBI interrogator Ali Soufan, who said he extracted crucial information from a captured al Qaeda operative without the use of torture. Soufan also testified that when CIA contractors began using the enhanced interrogation techniques against the terrorist, the prisoner "shut down" and refused to provide more information. I will point out similar refusals to cooperate in the movies examined in this posting.

Additionally, while I also have serious doubts about the legality of its usage, I have no doubt that it diminishes our moral standing as a nation and as human beings – and that it is an act of fear-based cowardice that makes a mockery of the line in our national anthem that declares the United States to be “the home of the brave.”

In a movie that I watched over and over again as a child, The Purple Heart (released in 1944 in black and white) tells the story of eight captured American airmen who are placed on trial – before an international group of journalists – in a Japanese civilian court. They are accused of killing civilians and targeting nonmilitary sites with their bombs. The Americans deny the charges and one of them, Lt. Wayne Greenbaum, challenges the validity of the trial, claiming that according to the Geneva Conventions civil courts cannot try military personnel in a time of war. The challenge is ignored and the court is shown film footage of destruction allegedly caused by the raid. One of the journalists, however, recognizes the film as a depiction of air raid drills made by the Japanese.

The trial, we come to learn, has another purpose – to determine exactly where the U.S. planes began their bombing run. The Japanese army general believes the bombers came from American aircraft carriers and blames the Japanese navy for not adequately protecting Japan from the U.S. ships. The Japanese admiral, however, claims that their enemy doesn’t have carriers large enough to launch the bombers.

When it becomes obvious that the airmen are not going to cooperate with their inquisitors, the Americans are then introduced to Japan’s version of enhanced interrogation techniques. Sgt. Jan Skvoznik is the first to be tortured. After a night separated from the cell where his fellow captives are kept, he is left in an extremely mentally challenged state. Others tortured include Lt. Angelo Canelli, who had his arm broken; Lt. Peter Vincent, who is returned to the cell on a stretcher; Sgt. Howard Clinton, who loses his ability to talk; and Lt. Kenneth Bayforth, whose hands are crushed.

But the trial continues and the speechless Clinton is called on to testify. Clinton writes a defiant note that Greenbaum reads to the court. The Japanese judge then offers to dismiss the charges against the airmen send them to a prisoner of war camp if they cooperate. Implicit in that offer, as I saw it, is that a failure to cooperate would lead to their deaths. Capt. Harvey Ross, the crew’s commanding officer, asks the judge if they can have some time to discuss the offer. The men then go into the judge’s chambers and decide to vote on it by placing their insignia wings in a small-mouthed vase. If even just one set of wings is broken, they will accept the offer.

When they return to the courtroom, Ross hands the judge the vase and explains that their answer is in the vase. One by one, the judge shakes the wings out of the vase – and none of them are broken. This answer leads the Japanese general to shoot himself in the courtroom. As the prisoners are lead out, they hold their heads high, proud of their refusal to talk in spite of the torture inflicted upon them and the death that awaits them.

The Hill (1965, b&w) is a movie I just discovered within the past year. It also takes place during World War II, but the torturers and the tortured are members of the same army. The story takes place in a British military prison in North Africa that is run by an extremely tough Master Sgt. Bert Wilson and his sadistic second-in-command, Staff Sgt. Charlie Harris. Although the camp commandant and medical officer technically outrank Wilson, they are both weak-kneed officers who allow the master sergeant full control of the camp’s operations.

The primary form of punishment for prisoners who misbehave – meaning doing anything that offends the apparently fragile sensibilities of the prison staff – is a run, in full military gear, over the hill. The hill is a prisoner-made elevation in the middle of the compound composed of sand and stone. As near as I could estimate, the hill is at least 30 feet high with an angle that looked to be at least forty-five degrees.

As the movie begins, five new prisoners – Joe Roberts, a former warrant officer who struck a superior officer; Jacko King, a Jamaican who stole booze from the officer’s mess; George Stevens, who went AWOL when his wife died; Jock McGrath, who is tall and muscular; and Monty Bartlett, who is short, fat and whiny – are indoctrinated into the ways in which the camp is run. While they are all given physicals to verify that they are fit for punishment – physicals that are nothing more than a quick strip in front of the medical officer – Harris lets Roberts know that he can expect special attention. Then, the five new prisoners are made to go over the hill six times and then taken to the cell they will all share.

Aside from the excursions on the hill, other means of discipline include having the prisoners “walk” in quick step (double time in American parlance) everywhere they go, even to mess and then back to their cells while carrying their meals; having their bunks constantly overturned by the staff sergeants; and having the light in the cells turned off and on repeatedly during the night.

As the movie progresses, Harris notices that Stevens is the weakest of the lot and continually makes him run up and down the hill. The exhaustion gets to Stevens and keeps him from sleeping. One night, Bartlett takes advantage of Stevens by barking orders to his off-his-rocker cellmate. While the rest of the cellmates laugh at Stevens’ manic obedience to Bartlett’s teasing, Stevens drops dead. The cellmates, led by Roberts, blame Stevens’ condition and death on Harris’s treatment. Initially, the only person to back Roberts is King, who has also been receiving “special treatment” because of his race. Eventually all the prisoners in the cellblock join in a vocal protest of Stevens’ death.

After Wilson quells the uprising, Harris challenges Roberts to a man-to-man fight to settle their grievances. But Harris brings two other guards with him and when Roberts is returned to his cell, he has a broken foot. Staff Sgt. Williams, who has been warning Wilson during the entire movie about Harris’ behavior, takes Roberts to the medical officer. In the presence of both Wilson and Harris, the medical officer decides to place Roberts on the unfit for duty list. Harris threatens the medical officer by saying that it was the MO who said Stevens was fit for punishment. But the MO stands his ground, and after Wilson leaves the cell exasperated and aware that his fiefdom is about to crumble, Harris goes to beat up the injured Roberts. But King, who protests his treatment and the racist insults that have been hurled at him by quitting the British army and then stripping down to his underpants, and McGrath step between Harris and Roberts and begin to beat the staff sergeant while Roberts pleads for them to stop.

The Crucible (1996, color) was one of the plays I truly enjoyed studying when I was in high school. Written by Arthur Miller during the 1950s as an allegory for Sen. Joe McCarthy’s “witch hunt” that was carried on by the House Un-American Activities Committee, it is a story about the witch trials that took place at the end of the 1600s in the Puritan town of Salem, Mass.

The trouble begins when a group of girls are caught dancing in the woods with a black slave girl named Tituba. One of the girls found reveling in the “unholy” activity in Betty Parris, the daughter of the Puritan pastor, Reverend Parris, who had witnessed the “profane” behavior. The leader of the girls is Rev. Parris’ niece and ward, Abigail. When the girls return home, Betty, who is well aware of the community’s superstitions, pretends to fall into a trance and acts as though she is possessed. As news of the event spreads, the town sends for Reverend Hale, who is an “expert” on witchcraft. Tituba, who is blamed for the “blasphemous” behavior, eventually admits to being in league with the devil.

Meanwhile, Abigail decides to take advantage of the situation. A farmer named John Proctor, who has been having an affair with Abigail and is upset by the hornets’ nest the girls have stirred up, tries to get her to convince the girls to stop their lying. But Abigail, who would like to get rid of Proctor’s wife, decides to let it be known that Elizabeth Proctor is a witch. Additionally, it strikes certain members of the town that declaring their neighbors to also be in league with the devil it could improve their economic circumstances.

Now, things begin to get completely out of hand. Proctor convinces Mary, one of the girls involved in the original incident, to tell the court that the other girls are pretending. But when confronted by the court, the other girls go into their demonic-possession act and claim that Mary is bewitching them. The court also begins questioning the other alleged witches and their families, urging them to confess their sins. When the innocent neighbors deny the charges, torture ensues. In what is my favorite part of the story, Giles Corey is brought before the court to provide evidence that his wife is a witch. When he refuses, he is placed on his back in a prone position while heavy stones are put on his chest. As the court demands that he bear witness against his wife, Giles replies, “More weight.”

John Proctor is also charged as being a witch. The court convinces Elizabeth to get him to confess, and he agrees to in order to save his life. But then the court demands that he implicate the other alleged witches. This he cannot do and in the end, all the suspected witches are hung.

It is interesting to note that in all these films that those who were tortured failed to provide their torturers the answers and satisfaction that were expected. The tortured preferred to die rather than give in. This should tell us something about the effectiveness of these techniques.

Also in the first two films – stories that dealt with torture during times of conflict – torturers ended up dead themselves. In The Purple Heart, the Japanese general, disgraced by his inability to break the American airmen, commits suicide. In The Hill, the tortured prisoners took out their anger about their treatment on their torturer, presumably beating him to death. This should tell us something about how well torture “protects” those who use it.

But three more points need to be made about this debate – points that I will explain with historical facts. First a legal one. In 1901, according to an ABC News report on November 19, 2009, an American Army major was sentenced to ten years of hard labor after being tried for waterboarding an insurgent during the Spanish American War. Additionally, in 1983 a Texas sheriff and three deputies were convicted and sent to prison for four years for waterboarding a prisoner. These incidents show that the United States has considered waterboarding to be an illegal interrogation technique and a prosecutable offense for more than a hundred years.

Now, the moral point. Many of our fellow Americans who support the torture techniques such as waterboarding profess to be Christians. Yet, as television commentator Keith Olbermann pointed out recently, they ignore the fact that the primary symbol of Christianity is the Crucifix, which depicts the son of God being tortured to death. And why was he crucified? Because he wouldn’t give in to the demands of those who wanted him to denounce his faith. When we use waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques we are not serving God, we are insulting God. And remember, the tortured Christ wound up being the founder of the largest religion on our planet. Should we risk elevating those who would do us harm to the level of the Christ. I would hope not.

Finally, the political point. Another American officer, this one an army general, was court-martialed for allowing waterboarding by those under his command during the Spanish American War, according to a Politico article by amateur historian Daniel A. Rezneck, who is a former president of the District of Columbia’s bar association. Although the general was cleared of the allegations, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the general dismissed from the army. Said Roosevelt at the time: “Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.” Rezneck goes on to say that according to Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris, the president’s “decision ‘won universal praise’ from Democrats, who congratulated him for acknowledging cruelty in the Philippine campaign, and from Republicans, who said that he had ‘upheld the national honor.’ ”

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