Monday, June 12, 2006

Self-harm as a Publicity Stunt?

That's what we're supposed to believe, apparently. Colleen Graffy, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for public diplomacy (let me repeat that part... diplomacy!) said of the three suicides at Guantanamo, "it was a good PR move." Further, "It does sound that this is part of a strategy in that they don't value their own life and they certainly don't value ours and they use suicide bombings as a tactic to further their Jihadi cause." Elegantly done, Colleen. Now the British press -and I remind you that Britain is our closest ally in this demented war- is calling these and other comments "cold and odious." Diplomacy, indeed.

Yet the truth that the comments were indelicate and ill-advised is not the biggest story here. We need to keep coming back to the other truth that people have been sitting in that prison for four years, with no charges brought against them, no trial dates, and no end in sight. On some very low level you can almost sympathize with Ms. Graffy. Making absurd claims about this situation is the only possibility here; it's the situation itself that is surreal.

Mental health professionals and scholars know a little bit about self-harm in prison. Even making the argument as easy as possible for the administration, Guantanamo comes off as ethically indefensible and sociologically ineffective. It's torture, and it degrades us all, in other words. But I'm equally disappointed in scholars and practitioners who haven't exactly been exercising moral or intellectual leadership here. Let's see what we have.

Let's say the detainees were overtly manipulative of the guards, threatening suicide when they didn't intend to do it just to get attention and cause trouble. Some prisoners do that. However, there's at least one study that rejects the notion that manipulative prisoners and prisoners at risk of suicide are mutually exclusive groups. Try this link, if you're interested: Dear, Thomson, and Hills. Guards must take suicide threats seriously, whether or not they believe them -assuming of course that suicide prevention is the goal. So that argument doesn't work.

Let's try something different. Let's say that these prisoners were so dangerous that extended solitary confinement is the only possibility in order to ensure the safety of the guards. Psychiatric literature since the 19th century documents the link between mental aberrations, including psychosis, and solitary confinement. The longer you hold someone in psychologically dangerous conditions, the more likely that person is to have a psychotic break. Self-harm and harm of others are almost equally likely, so that argument doesn't work either.

The thing I really can't wrap my brain around is that if the administration thought these people were guilty of something, they'd want a trial -and a very public one, at that. So that can't be it. Maybe they do think that the detainees have information that they need. But the advisors must have access to the same information that I do. Well, of course they do; a google-scholar search is good enough. And that search will reveal that information gleaned through torture is notoriously unreliable. If google-scholar is too erudite (???), try the Army Field Manual which states "Army interrogation experts view the use of force as an inferior technique that yields information of questionable quality (Sec. 4A3)."

But here's the thing that googling obscures. The academic debate has been largely off the point as well, I think. There has been a steady parade of academics on the mainstream press and through the White House gates indicating that torture in catastrophic circumstances is morally permissible, if there's reasonable cause to believe that a greater evil might be prevented. We need to challenge the arguments for "principled torture", no matter the legal justification. The narrow framework of that discussion obscures the realities of torture and sets up a false choice between protecting human rights and preventing a terrorist attack. Where are the principled academics????

Now that I think about it, where are the spiritual leaders?

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