Quaker Theology #14

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Alfred McCoy. Holt, 320 pages.

Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights. Trevor Paglen and A. C. Thompson. Melville House Publishing 208 pages. $23.00

Teaching About Torture, a Curriculum. Peggy Brick. 19 pages. The Quaker Initiative to End Torture; available for free download at: http://www.quit-torture-now.org/Pages/QUITcurriculum.pdf

Khaled E-Masri v George J. Tenet, et al, "The Complaint, Case lodged in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia - Alexandria Division, December 6, 2005." Published in Council of Europe: Full-text documents submitted to the European Parliament Inquiry, Item #159. Online at:

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

"Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured." (Hebrews 13:3; NRSV)

Quran 76:5, 8-10: “[5] But the righteous . . . [8] give sustenance to the destitute, the orphan, and the captive, [9] saying: ‘We feed you for God’s sake only; we seek of you neither recompense nor thanks: [10] for we fear from our Lord a day of anguish and of woe.’”

Few subjects are less likely to hold the attention of Americans than torture. As a population, we don’t want to hear about torture, we don’t want to talk about it, and – to come to our current task – we don’t much want to read about it either. And when Americans are obliged to think about torture, they tend to think it’s bad – unless, that is, U.S agencies, or contractors hired by such agencies, are doing it; then attitudes range from a grudging acceptance to the equivalent of “Bring it on!”

I make these observations based both on study, direct observation – and as a confession of my own parallel aversion: I don’t like to think or talk or read about torture either.

But it can’t be helped. Yes, I know that most (all??) governments use or wink at torture, either a lot or a little. And yes, torture should be opposed wherever it occurs. But such declarations are so sweeping as to be platitudes, beyond the practical reach of just about anyone but the higher-level staff of groups like Amnesty International – and even from those rarefied redoubts, it’s an uphill struggle. My hat is off to them, my occasional paltry checks follow, but in that arena, I’m strictly on the sidelines.

Not so in North Carolina. Here the abstractions of media chatter have become very concrete and impossible to ignore, because I live near Ft. Bragg. What I had long thought of as mainly a major army post has in the past two years been revealed as something more: part of the hub of what is best called the Torture Industrial Complex. Like it or not – and I do not – I’m surrounded by it.
         A real billboard that was seen all over North Carolina for from 2004-2007.

But while my awareness of this complex is relatively new, the machinery itself is not, and this realization makes me more mindful that 2007 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. Hardly had the ink of Harry Truman’s signature dried on the National Security Act which created it, when the new agency got into the torture business.

Of course, torture was not the stated goal: the Company’s mandate was to gather and process information. But much of the information they wanted was hidden inside the heads of people who did not want to disclose it. Torture was the traditional last-ditch way of overcoming such reluctance.

Yet if torture was nothing new, with the CIA’s entry on the scene, there came to be something new in torture. Over the next twenty years, the Agency and its numerous partners set about melding some of the most modern aspects of our culture in search of a foolproof cranial-information-extraction technology. In the true spirit of experimental science, the agency spent billions on covert research projects, contracting with hundreds of compliant (or patriotic) academics at scores of major and not-so-major universities.

In the spirit of experimental science, they tried many things. Drugs like LSD seemed promising; but they had the most of what they thought of as success in the field of psychology. Indeed, what appears to have been the key breakthrough in this long quest came in the early 1950s at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Donald O. Hebb, probably the most important psychologist most of us have never heard of, discovered and tracked the massive traumatic impact of isolation and sensory deprivation on his research subjects. Within a few hours, Hebb could reduce bright and healthy students to a state of terrorized madness, without drugs or physical abuse, and without leaving telltale marks.

This last was important, for agency secrecy if not for results. And Hebb was the archetype of the academic double agents the CIA recruited and cultivated: to the outside world he was a respected and popular professor; but behind closed doors (literally), his skills and intelligence were put to work in secret, often fiendish experiments financed clandestinely by spy agencies in Canada and the United States.

Hebb was exemplary in another way: psychologists seemed especially drawn to such work: several presidents of the American Psychological Association were on the CIA’s covert payroll.
Hebb’s pioneering work was later expanded and “perfected” into a modern recipe of what are now called “enhanced interrogation techniques” which its champions assert can, sooner or later, pry the hidden truth from even the most hardened or fanatical adversary.

There is precious little publicly-available evidence to back up this claim of results, and plenty to challenge it. But its destructive impact on the personality is undeniable – as is the protective value for the Agency of the lack of physical scars it leaves. Thus this recipe was well developed by the years of the Vietnam War. But its use has made quantum leaps since September 11, 2001 and the subsequent plunge by the rulers of the US into a permanent war mode. As part of that war, a planet-wide American “Gulag Archipelago” has been created, with a growing infrastructure supporting it. Torture, in both the new “enhanced” variety, combined with old-fashioned beatings and abuse, particularly by “subcontractors” in foreign governments, are its standard operating procedure.

Alfred McCoy, professor at the University of Wisconsin, tells this truly horrifying story in a calm and masterly fashion in his compelling A Question of Torture. As he also shows convincingly, however much torture goes on in other nations (and it does), the U.S. is now the pace-setter, chief legitimizer and exporter of torture in the world today.of Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson fill out this picture by tracking down and identifying the “torture taxis” of their title that are the connective tissue of this evil organism. Their detective work takes them from the Nevada desert, to Afghanistan, and to several other exotic locales.

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