A long-standing trick of the torturer's art

E-mail E-mail this article
Print Print this article
Print Search archive
Most e-mailed articles Most e-mailed articles

Forced to stand on a box with wires attached to your fingers, toes and penis all night long. Just something that Spec. Sabrina Harman dreamed up in Abu Ghraib prison? Think again.

This torture is well known to intelligence agencies worldwide. The CIA documented the effects of forced standing 40 years ago. And the technique is valued because it leaves few marks, and so no evidence.

Forced standing was a prescribed field punishment in West European armies in the early 20th century. The British Army called it Field Punishment No. 1, though the soldiers referred to it as "the crucifixion." The French Legionnaires called it "the Silo."

By the 1920s, forced standing was a routine police torture in America. In 1931, the National Commission on Lawless Enforcement of the Law found numerous American police departments using forced standing to coerce confessions.

In the 1930s, Stalin's NKVD also famously used forced standing to coerce seemingly voluntary confessions for show trials. The Gestapo used forced standing as a routine punishment in many concentration camps. It even created small narrow "standing cells," Stehzelle, where prisoners had to stand all night.

In 1956, the CIA commissioned two experts, Harold Wolff and Lawrence Hinkle, who described the effects of forced standing. The ankles and feet swell to twice their normal size within 24 hours. Moving becomes agony. Large blisters develop. The heart rate increases, and some faint. The kidneys eventually shut down.

In the mid-20th century, torturers learned how to use the swelling and blistering to cause more pain. The South African and Brazilian police made prisoners stand on cans or bricks, the edges causing excruciating pain to the sensitive feet. In 1999, the South African Truth Commission determined that forced standing was the third-most-common torture during apartheid, after beating and applying electricity.

Hooding was a common feature of Brazilian and South African torture. In the 1970s, the Brazilians added the electrical supplement. They threatened victims with electroshock if they began to give up and collapse in exhaustion. The jolts of electricity would make the hooded victims' feet stick to the cans and force them to stand up straight.

Ironically, the Brazilians called the whole technique "the Vietnam." The innovative technique combined tortures used by the North Vietnamese (forced standing) with tortures used commonly by American and South Vietnamese interrogators (electrical torture from field phone batteries).

And now the ghost of "the Vietnam" appears in Iraq.

The American soldiers performed the torture, but someone taught them the parameters. This kind of torture is not common knowledge, and if it were not for the photographs, no one would know that it had been practiced.

Today, American interrogators are using "stress and duress" techniques in prisons in Afghanistan and at Diego Garcia. Officials refer to these techniques as "torture lite." Abu Ghraib gave us the first chance to see what these techniques really are: stealth tortures that leave no marks.

Torture like this doesn't just happen "over there." Torture like this casts a shadow back here for years afterwards. Soldiers trained in stealth torture take these techniques back into civilian life as policemen and private security personnel. It takes years to uncover the subsequent damage. The American style of electric torture in Vietnam appeared in Arkansas prisons in the 1960s and Chicago squad rooms in the 1970s and 1980s.

Likewise, the excruciating water tortures American soldiers used for interrogation during the Spanish American War appeared in American policing in the next two decades. For those who suffered from these tortures, it was small comfort that President Theodore Roosevelt felt it was a "mild torture," or that it was hard to see that anyone "was seriously damaged," or that, on Memorial Day 1902, the president regretted the "few acts of cruelty" American troops had performed.

When will we ever learn?

Darius Rejali is the author of "Torture and Democracy" (forthcoming, Princeton University Press) and a 2003 Carnegie Scholar. He is an associate professor of political science at Reed College in Portland.