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'Question of Torture' Gives Horrific Answers

Mark Meadows

January 28, 2006

You're probably familiar with the 1961 psychology experiment that showed that ordinary people would willingly play the roles of Nazi torturers, electrocuting a total stranger just because someone in a white coat told them to.

What you probably didn't know is that it may have been conducted on behalf of the CIA, not to prevent atrocities, but to repeat them.

Alfred W. McCoy, after studying the timing, funding and political connections behind the study, suggests it was actually a test to see whether the CIA could train ordinary Third World policemen to become torturers.

The test, unfortunately, was a smashing success.

That's just one of the many bombs that the UW professor of history drops in his new book, "A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation From the Cold War to the War on Terror."

But it's an important part of a pattern that McCoy exposes, of an agency forged in the struggle against totalitarianism, in which fighting the enemy became almost secondary to copying it.

McCoy roots the current scandals at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib firmly in the politics of the Cold War, when the newly formed CIA was putting Nazi torturers to work against its communist counterparts, the Stasi and KGB.

Alongside the arms race and the space race, McCoy posits a torture race, traced back to the mind control scare of the 1960s, when Americans witnessed the show trials of broken Soviet dissidents making their robotic confessions and were somehow inspired to ask:

How can we make people do that?

The failed "mind control" experiments that followed, although horrifying enough, have been consigned to a historical footnote.

That's because the public doesn't understand what came out of them, McCoy argues.

Breakthroughs in sensory deprivation showed that a normal person's sanity could be shattered in a weekend with nothing more than a pair of gloves, a pair of goggles and a foam pillow.

"Self-inflicted pain" was proved to be more effective than simple beatings. Nonlethal smothering and drowning could produce pain and terror without leaving marks.

With time, the CIA developed a program that could inflict mental and physical agony using techniques that the casual observer might not even recognize as torture.

And McCoy's exhaustive research connects the dots all the way to the Bush White House.

Torture can be even more damaging to democracies than dictatorships, he argues, because democracies don't experience the housecleaning effect of a tyranny overthrown. Too many players stay the same. Yesterday's criminals become today's judges. The guilty are never brought to justice. And the crimes continue.

McCoy tracks down the facts behind torture "success stories," where vital information was supposedly obtained, and watches them evaporate like urban legends - unsupported anecdotes that people believe because they so fervently want them to be true.

Torture simply doesn't work, he concludes. It creates enemies, provides false intelligence and corrupts societies that practice it.

The tempting concept of "a little bit of torture" is an illusion. Once the door is opened, torture becomes standard practice. Procedures intended for a handful of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants end up being used on Iraqi cab drivers.

Torture persists, he argues, not because it works, but because it offers such a seductive feeling of control over life and death.

Even to the most powerful man on Earth.

E-mail: mmeadows@madison.com

SOURCE: Madison.com


:: Article nr. 20020 sent on 28-jan-2006 22:19 ECT

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