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The Politics of Cruelty

Our Enlightenment Legacy On the Ropes

In his 2006 book cited above, Alfred McCoy shows how the Central Intelligence Agency’s extensive research on torture led to the emphasis of two concepts during the Bush years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo: sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain. McCoy describes the former as “a total assault on all senses and sensibilities -- auditory, visual, tactile, temporal, temperature, survival, sexual, and cultural. . . . The method relies on simple, even banal procedures -- isolation, standing, heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence -- for a systematic attack on all human senses.” Most important, as with many lines of military research these days, the thrust is how to make the tools of cruelty and human debasement palatable to a 21st century sensibility. In an age when we’re all bedazzled and confused by the mind-boggling geometric expansion of information thanks to the internet and social media, add the many expanding regimes of secrecy and surveillance that dominate institutions competing to keep themselves whole and profitable in a drowning flood of information. Euphemisms are always employed. It’s no longer torture, it’s now enhanced interrogation. It’s no longer thumb-screws and the rack to get people to go along with the program; it’s now sensory and sleep deprivation, adjustments of cold and heat -- all aimed at the calculated, slow, steady break-down of a person’s humanity while in custody. It’s not only in the immigration business; it’s the methods of modern penology.

The idea of self-inflicted-pain was developed by the CIA from research done by the Soviet Union that found when pain is applied to a victim by another person, the will to resist can be intensified in the victim. However, once a person can be truly disoriented (a procedure that could include beatings and other “tuning-up” abuses) he or she can be mentally leveraged by inducing the idea that the victim is actually causing the pain he or she is suffering. The concept relies on relatively mundane things like enforced standing in uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time. It also relies on the fact that over time one becomes exhausted and one’s thinking process is strained. Abuse people enough and their critical thinking skills begin to decay.

“Victims are made to feel responsible for their own suffering, thus inducing them to alleviate their agony by capitulating to the power of their interrogators,” says McCoy. “The fusion of these two techniques, sensory disorientation and self-inflicted pain, creates a synergy of physical and psychological trauma whose sum is a hammer-blow to the fundamentals of personal identity.”

Protesters outside the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix. (All photos by John Grant)Protesters outside the Eloy Detention Center near Phoenix. (All photos by John Grant)

story | by Dr. Radut