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How much does race matter?

2014 December 15

2014 death toll far higher than widely known…

As we approach the end of a truly harrowing year for race relations in the United States, it’s hard not to wonder whether we’ll be able to make it through the remaining two and a half weeks without more killings.

In an eyBLM-1e-opening piece in today’s edition of the online newsletter, Nation of Change, Andrew Emett offers a sobering list of sixteen unarmed black people killed by police so far this year. Most black victims were men or boys, but one woman and two children are included in this sad accounting. Also included are several unarmed people of other races (including a white teenager shot because he opened the door to a police officer while holding a Wii remote control.) The Nation of Change article doesn’t cite the race of the police officers involved in these cases.

The sixteen incidents described include the well-publicized cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but most of the others have received little attention outside of the localities where they occurred.  Below is one sample from the report:

According to a Louisiana State Police press release, deputies with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a fight on the evening of March 2. After confronting Victor White III and searching him twice, Cpl. Justin Ortis allegedly found drugs in his pockets. Ortis placed White into custody, cuffed his hands behind his back, and put him in the backseat of a patrol car. Upon arriving at the Sheriff’s Office, White reportedly became uncooperative, pulled out a gun, and shot himself in the back. But according to the autopsy report, White had been shot in the chest with his hands cuffed behind his back and the coroner found lacerations on White’s face near his left eye. Witnesses stated White’s face had been unmarked before he was taken into custody.

What if Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson was black and Michael Brown was white? Does anyone have the slightest doubt that the mostly white grand jury would have brought in an indictment against Wilson? Keep in mind that an indictment is not even a finding of guilt. It’s only a finding that there are enough facts that the matter should go before a trial jury.

What if NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was black and Eric Garner was white? Does anyone doubt that a Staten Island grand jury would have indicted Pantaleo for causing Garner’s death when he used an illegal chokehold on him — all of which was recorded on film?

Race matters. Black lives matter. In this country, though, it looks like they don’t matter nearly as much as white lives.

CheneyTo explore another “counterfactual”: what if we should someday have reason to engage in another conflict in Europe? It’s not unthinkable; we fought two major wars there in the past century. Would some future Vice President Cheney or CIA Director Jose Rodriguez be ready to authorize beatings, or waterboarding, or use of “stress positions” on British or German or Russian prisoners of war?

Mr. Cheney himself, of course, got five student deferments during Vietnam, the war of his own generation. He was quoted by the Washington Post as saying  “I had other priorities in the 60′s than military service.”

Few of the black young men who did serve got to choose their own priorities.

Race matters. Black lives matter.


“We want them back alive!”

2014 December 9

Vivos se los llevantaron…vivos los queremos!

Ayotzinapa-2“They were taken from us alive! We want them back alive!” That’s the demand of the families and supporters of the missing young men from Ayotzinapa. But yesterday, newspapers around the world announced the first hard evidence that at least one of the 43 kidnapped Mexican campesino students had been murdered, his body burned and his bones scattered.

A laboratory in Austria confirmed yesterday that a fragment of one of those bones matched the DNA of Alexander Mora. According to the New York Times, Mora’s parents received the news from Argentine forensic scientists who have been working with the student’s families on the case.

As widely reported by witnesses, the students had been arrested by local police on orders of the corrupt Mayor of the town of Iguala, in the State of Guerrero, and his wife. They were then turned over to members of a drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, who carried out the killings, and attempted to destroy the evidence of the crime by burning the students’ bodies. Despite their efforts, it’s possible that more remains may be identified in coming weeks.

The students were mostly crammed into the back of a cargo truck, piled atop one another (some others were forced into a smaller truck), and then driven to the Cocula municipal dump. According to the detained witnesses, some fifteen of the students were already dead by the time they arrived; several had been wounded during that night’s earlier attacks. The cartel gunmen interrogated those who were still alive about their identities and the reasons they had come to Iguala, and one after another the captives replied that they were students. Then the gunmen executed them…the fire burned for more than fourteen hours.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the state police and federal army units in Iguala had failed to intervene to protect the students, despite the fact that local human-rights activists had alerted the state government to the crime, and that the buses carrying the students when the police attacked them with gunfire were stopped a hundred metres from the military installation of the 27th Infantry Battalion [of the Mexican Army.]

Francisco Goldman, “Crisis in Mexico:
The Protests for the Missing Forty-Three

The missing young men were students at a rural teacher trainiMora-1ng college, Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos, in the town of Ayotzinapa – a school noted for giving youth from impoverished rural backgrounds a chance at an education and careers as teachers. While it’s been reported that the students were in town to “borrow” buses to take them to a demonstration in Mexico City, this kind of behavior by student activists has gone on for years, and is tolerated by locals, rather than being seen as a criminal offense.

Apparently, the students’ real “crime” was that their activities upset the Mayor’s wife — who has family links to the drug cartel — by distracting attention from one of her public appearances. (Both the Mayor and his wife went into hiding after the public outcry over the murders, but have since been apprehended.)

It remains to be seen how Mexican justice will deal with those who gave the orders for the probable massacre, and those who carried it out. In the meantime, there have been massive, continuing protests in Guerrero, elsewhere in Mexico, and throughout the world. In the United States, on December 3rd, demonstrations held in a symbolic 43 cities expressed solidarity and grief over the killings, as well as recognizing the key role of U.S. drug policy in empowering Latin American cartels and promoting the militarization of Mexican society.

Mora-3Mark Vallen is an activist/artist (or maybe the other way around) whose blog, Art for a Change, and newsletter regularly report on the intersections between those two realms. His latest post, Ayotzinapa: Between Pain and Hope, reports on the response to the kidnappings and disappearances by hundreds of Mexican artists who have been creating posters, each with the image, name, and age of one of the disappeared students.

Some of these images can be seen on Mark’s website, and many more on a Tumblr blog set up by the artists after the murders. In this post I’ve included several images of Alexander Mora, the first student proven to have been murdered.

Contact Mark if you’d like to receive his email newsletter, and see the sources below for more information about the Ayotzinapa disappearances. Thanks to my wife, Emily Achtenberg, for advice and research assistance on this post. Check out her blog, Rebel Currents, on the website of NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America.

Mora-4 The links below represent a small sample of recent articles documenting and responding to the murders of the Ayotzinapa students:


On the Side of the Road

2014 November 26

Documentary Explores Contested
History of Israeli-Palestinian Relations

Readers in Princeton, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, still have a chance to see a remarkable and important documentary about the birth of Israel and its impact on Palestinians – and to meet the producer while she is touring the United States. See the end of this post for information about dates and times.

LiaThanks to the Boston area Jewish Voice for Peace, I recently had a chance to see On the Side of the Road, Lia Tarachansky’s first feature length film, in which she explores Israeli attitudes about the state’s founding, and toward the Palestinians, for whom those same events represent what they call the nakba, or catastrophe. I’m not going to review the film without a second viewing but wanted to get this information out before Lia’s U.S. tour ends.

NakbaJournalist and documentary filmmaker Lia Tarachansky was born in the Soviet Union. Her parents moved with her to Israel when she was six, and she grew up in a West Bank settlement, never questioning the narrative of Israeli entitlement and Palestinian treachery. While in college, a chance encounter and growing friendship with a Palestinian woman her own age began to open her eyes to a different reality.

“The film is an exploration of the power of denial. It questions what Israelis learn, know, and sometimes choose not to know about the 1948 war. That fateful year led to the birth of the state of Israel and displacement of two-thirds of the Palestinian people.”
                                                     – from the film’s website

Lisa Goldman in The Daily Beast said “Tarachansky manages to show an upsetting reality without dehumanizing the people she interviews and films…[her] method is not to blame or even to teach. It is to examine, narrate and let others speak for themselves.”

To order a copy of On the Side of the Road contact Lia through the project website; she’ll let you know when they are available.

Below is the latest information I was able to obtain about Lia’s remaining screenings in the United States. Check to see if any more info may have been added on her Facebook page.

Monday, December 1, 2014 | 7:00pm | Princeton University, NJ—Location to be determined
Wednesday, December 3, 2014 | 6:30pm | New York, NY — Kimmel Center, NYU, 60 Washington Square South, Rosenthal Pavilion 10th Floor
Thursday, December 4, 2014 | 7:00pm | Philadelphia, PA — Friends Center, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia
Friday, December 5, 2014 | 6:00pm | Baltimore, MD — Hodson Building, Room 213, John Hopkins University
Sunday, December 7, 2014 | 7:00pm | Baltimore, MD — 2640 St. Paul’s
Tuesday, December 9, 2014 | 7:00pm | Washington DC — Nyumburu Cultural Center, University of Maryland, College Park (contact
Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | USA | 12:00pm | Washington DC — The Palestine Center, 2425 Virginia Avenue, NW
Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | 5:30pm | Washington DC — Abramson Family Founders Room, SIS Building, American University
Saturday, December 13, 2014 |  7:00pm | Washington DC — Emergence Community Arts Collective – 733 Euclid St. NW

Note: I’m not going to post on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — they’re being exhaustively covered by both the mainstream and progressive media and I have no insights to add. But see my post of earlier this month, “Black, Brown…and Targeted by Police,” on a New York group dedicated to keeping things like this from happening in the first place.


Black, Brown…and Targeted by Police

2014 November 6

Resources on
Police-Community Conflict

Communities United for Police Reform
Communities United for Police Reform is an impressive, grassroots organizing group, focused on what it describes as “an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York City.” They use the well-chosen acronym “CPR” for their work, which is indeed life-saving. The organization aims “to help build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and policing practices based on respect for the rights and dignity of all New Yorkers.” Among the concerns being addressed by CPR:

  • Excessive “stop and frisk” practices: almost 700,000 in 2011, almost 90% of which did not lead to arrest or summons.
  • Arrests were for minor offenses and/or did not lead to convictions, but in many cases did lead to loss of jobs and evictions.
  • Policing which “aggressively targets low-income communities of color,” as well as women, immigrants, people with disabilities, the young, homeless, and LGBT individuals.

CMalcolmAt a recent presentation to Boston-area supporters Yul-San Liem, one of CPR’s founders spoke, and introduced one of the group’s members and activists, Constance Malcolm, who struggled through tears to describe the shooting of her son Lamarley. The young man, though unarmed, was chased into his Bronx home and shot at short range by a New York City police officer. “There’s no accountability for an officer who breaks the law,” Malcolm said, “and they keep breaking the law over and over every day.” (The Ramarley Graham case was extensively covered by New York City media. Photo above from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.)

ACLUBlack, Brown & Targeted
Black, Brown and Targeted is an initiative by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts exploring similar issues. Their report can be downloaded here. According to the ACLU, racially biased policing by the Boston Police Department is demonstrated by data from reports of 200,000+ encounters between BPD officers and civilians from 2007–2010. According to researchers, the data show that police targeted Blacks in 63.3% of encounters—while Blacks make up less than a quarter of Boston’s population. The bottom line, the report says, “is that race was a significant factor driving the BPD’s stop-and-frisk practices.”

“This racial disparity cannot be explained away by BPD efforts to target crime,” the ACLU researchers note, Their statistical analysis found that race “drove police-civilian encounters even after controlling for crime rates and other factors,” and that Blacks were more likely “to be subjected to repeat police-civilian encounters and to be frisked or searched, even after controlling for civilians’ alleged gang involvement and history of prior arrest.”

Photo above from Massachusetts ACLU video, “Ivan’s Story.”


Can torture remain secret in a democracy?

2014 October 27

“If torture is a state secret,
impunity inevitably follows…”

Will we ever see the remaining torture photographs from Abu Ghraib and Bagram? In late October, federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein told White House lawyers that they have until December 12th to explain their rationale for keeping secret any of the roughly 2,100 photos showing “enhanced interrogation” (torture) of U.S. prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos in question have never been seen by the public and, according to The Guardian, “are said to be even more disturbing than the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs that sparked a global furor.”

The Obama administration had previously announced its intention to release the photos, but changed its mind, with Obama stating that release of the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion and…have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.” Think about that one for a moment: If we expose the military’s coverups of past misconduct, it will only make them more likely to cover up misconduct in the future. How would you feel if one of your kids tried that one on you?

According to Mr. Obama in a White House press briefing, “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.” Yet this is the President who has refused to authorize prosecution of any of the government officials responsible.

AbuGAccording to Jessica Schulberg in the New Republic, the United States was relatively slow to sign on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and Obama – despite early support for legislation that would outlaw U.S. torture of prisoners “regardless of their geographic location,” has signally failed to put this interpretation of the Convention into force. The New York Times, she points out, has reported that “Obama is considering…affirming Bush’s notion that the U.S. is only obligated to prevent torture within its own borders.” (This interpretation, of course, provides both the Bush and Obama administrations with the primary rationale for the establishment and continued use of the prison/interrogation facility at Guantánamo.)

Schulberg quotes a report from the organization Open the Government criticizing Obama’s position: “All of the violations of the Convention Against Torture…flow from a single source: the decision to allow the United States’ intelligence services to classify evidence of torture, even the victims’ memories of it. If torture is a state secret, impunity inevitably follows.”

Assuming that Hellerstein decides the Obama administration must release some photos to the public, and assuming that Obama decides to comply with the order, the judge has said that he will hold a hearing in January. It’s anticipated that the administration will seek to withhold as many as possible. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sought release of the photos for the past ten years, according to attorney Marcellene Hearn: “The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad…We will continue to press for release of the photos in the courts.”


Note:, has filed a “shadow report” with the United Nations Committee Against Torture which will hold a review in Geneva on November 12 and 13 “to examine the United States’ record of compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Artwork: Justin Norman /cc/flickr, from Common Dreams: “An artist’s intepretation of prisoner mistreatment, because the real photos may never be released.” The image is called “Indefinite Detention,” and the subtitle reads “A reminder of those still being held indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and other detention centers around the globe.”


Holocaust Museum Hosts Photos by Syrian Dissident

2014 October 16

“People make choices. Choices make history.”

I’ve borrowed the headline above from the website of the invaluable educational resource Facing History and Ourselves. Nothing could better characterize the actions of the courageous Syrian dissident who risked his life, family, and future to bear witness to the brutality of the Assad regime.

ThCaesar-1e United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will be hosting a small display of the devastating images taken by the anonymous Syrian military photographer who was assigned to take photographs of more than 10,000 tortured and murdered victims of President Bashar Assad – as described in my post of earlier this year, Code Name Caesar. At extraordinary risk, Caesar managed to escape with his family to Europe, taking with him more than 55,000 photos documenting the carnage. Some of the photos can be viewed on YouTube.

Interviewed by Brett Zongker for the Associated Press, Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said that the twelve images selected “show dozens of bodies piled atop one another. Others show the effects of deprivation and torture, including electrocution, gouged out eyes and removed genitals…They show a side of the Syrian regime that hasn’t really been seen…When you’re confronted with these images, they’re impossible to ignore.”

“You don’t wither away and die like that on a battlefield” Hudson told the AP. “You don’t get that in a matter of days or weeks. Its months and months of deprivation that causes the human body to wither away like that.”

Perhaps anticipating the denial and disbelief that some viewers might have when confronted with such pictures, the reporter notes that “the museum relied on forensic examinations of the photographs conducted by the FBI and by former prosecutors and forensic experts of the International Criminal Court to verify the authenticity of the images.”

Chile 4140BDRWhen my wife and I visited Chile last year, we were shown a number of sites where torture was carried out under the U.S.-supported Pinochet regime, as well as documentation on others. One of the things that surprised and shocked me – in addition to the sheer number – was the realization of how many torture centers were located in ordinary homes, in ordinary neighborhoods. It simply was not possible for people not to have known what was going on. I believe this is intentional: you are supposed to know.

In a Sunday New York Times article last year, Eric Lichtblau wrote that one of the things that had shocked even experienced scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the sheer number of Nazi “ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories” that researchers had been able to document, beyond the well-known names. In fact, he notes, there were some 42,500 such installations throughout Europe:

ghetto-2The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.

Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.

As in Chile, there is no way that citizens of those countries could have been unaware of what was happening in their midst, and it is survivors like Caesar who bear that message from parts of the world that are less open to us.


Other Resources: This may be an appropriate time to recognize some of the other holocaust museums and memorials around the United States (and the world.) A website from the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies has a directory of many of these, while Wikipedia lists a total of 44 in the United States alone. The Holocaust Museum’s Confront Genocide page links to a variety of resources on current situations of torture and abuse around the world.


“Mainstreaming Torture” & Other Resources

2014 August 22

RG2Does America Still Torture?

That’s the question Rebecca Gordon asks in The Nation, “Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards.” (Gordon’s article was also published as “A Nation of Cowards,” by Tom Engelhardt.)

I recently attended a speaking appearance by Gordon at one of the Boston areas invaluable remaining full-service bookstores, Porter Square Books to promote her recently-released Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but based on her talk at the bookstore, I’m looking forward to it (with some dread, but still…) In the meantime, I highly recommend the Nation article. You can also check out her website to see if any of her other upcoming speaking engagements are in your vicinity.

Gordon makes the case that, deRG1spite Barack Obama’s promises to end torture as we knew it under the Bush administration, “the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.” As she points out, despite Obama’s executive order directing the CIA to close its detention centers, “no such orders were given…to the Joint Special Operations Command” which had run secret detention centers in Iraq. “JSOC is presently deployed on several continents…where gathering “intelligence” forms an important part of its duties.”

Gordon also reminds us that we have never received a full accounting of all the “War on Terror” torture programs, and possibly never will, and that no government officials have been held accountable. In fact, the only American ever to serve prison time in relation to those programs, John Kariakou, is presently serving time − not for participating in our illegal, immoral, and arguably pointless rendition and torture programs, but for blowing the whistle on them. We live, as she points out, not in a “brave” but in a “cowardly new world.”

“‘Safety’ and ‘security’ have become primary national concerns,” Gordon says. “There is a word for people whose first concern is always for their own safety and who will therefore permit anything to be done in their name as long as it keeps them secure. Such people are sometimes called cowards.”
(Author photo: Art Illman, Metro West Daily News)


Recognizing Victims of Torture

According to Rachel Towers, author of a new report, Recognizing Victims of Torture in National Asylum Procedures, from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, “Many developed countries still do not have the proper policies in place to ensure that victims of torture are not re-traumatized by the asylum process, or are deported back to the country where they were tortured.”

The study found that, in a majority of the countries studied, legitimate abuse victims who are seeking protection have had the evidence of their torture misread or ignored by immigration officers, and many were detained or deported.


Refugees and the Affordable Care Act

This sDividehort video is pretty clunky, but offers information that will be important for many refugees, and provides it in six of the major languages spoken by current immigrants to the United States: English, Nepali, Arabic, Somali, Karen, and Kinyarwanda. It’s available from the Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center and the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement.


The New York Times apologizes…

2014 August 19

NY Times’ apologizes for failure to
acknowledge torture…ten years too late

I never thought I had anything in common with Sarah Palin except a fondness for salmon, but when I read the New York Times’ recent defense of its decade-plus refusal to acknowledge torture by U.S. forces, “lamestream media” was the first (non-obscene) phrase that came to mind.

The paper’s Executive Editor, Dean Baquet, writes: “Over the past few months, reporters and editors of the Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the CIA’s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.” Over the past few months? Most of the rest of the world – including most of its media – have had little trouble identifying what was going on as torture. Did it really take more than ten years for the Times to figure it out?

And the phrase “mealy mouthed” is the only description I can come up with for the rest of Baquet’s column, in which he apologizes for his paper’s refusal to face reality until years after it might have made a difference in the national debate.

The Times’ abdication might not seem to matter much, but the reality is that if the nation’s “paper of record” had been willing to call out the Bush administration for what it was actually doing – even if only to use the word “torture” in its coverage – it might well have changed the nature and level of public discourse on the issue. It might have saved lives, and it might have helped save the soul of the nation.

This kind of reporting by the Times and other media might also have made it more dangerous, politically, for Obama to refuse to seek prosecutions of those who were responsible. After all, it’s one thing to let your predecessors off the hook if all they’re guilty of is authorizing “harsh interrogation methods,” rather than torture.

There’s something else missing from the Times’ “apology” too. It’s the part my parents taught me always had to be included: the part that goes “…and I won’t do it again.”

…and itsGaza2 shifting headlines of a few
weeks ago are equally disturbing

In its first online account of the killing, by Israeli rockets, of four boys playing on a Gaza beach, the New York Times headlined its story “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach,” and went on to say, “Gaza officials and witnesses said they were killed in an Israeli attack.” This was an accurate and restrained statement of the facts that were available at the time. By the time the story made it into the paper’s final, print edition, however, the headline had become “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and into Center of Mideast Strife.” What does that even mean?

I have no problem with the final Times article by Anne Barnard which appeared under that headline and is a relatively objective account of the facts as they were known at the time of publication, but nothing in it explains its strange, bland title. (Note that the last part of the online address of the Barnard article, which often reflects a piece’s original or “working” title, is quite different. It reads: gaza-strip-beach-explosion-kills-children.html. It would be interesting to know who at the Times suggested, or ordered, the change.

Barnard’s article includes a map, which indicates that the first child was killed on what appears to be a sandspit or pier (possibly the “structure…used by Hamas” mentioned below, but the other three were killed roughly 30 seconds later, as they were running away across the beach, suggesting that they were specifically targeted by the naval attack.

Alon Ben-David, a well-sourced Israeli military affairs analyst, said on Israeli television that the first beach blast targeted a structure that Israel believed was used by Hamas. He said the second blast might have been aimed at the running children, perhaps mistaken for militants. He added that given the military’s technologically advanced surveillance equipment, “it is a little hard for me to understand this, because the images show that the figures are children.”

And now, as I’m wrapping up this article, the news is coming in that the Cairo peace talks have collapsed after Israeli delegates refused to lift the blockade. Three rockets were allegedly fired into Israel, and Israeli forces have resumed shelling Gaza.


A Vacation from Gun Violence?

2014 August 14

Guns1YearAmericans have way more guns,
but less vacation time…

An excellent resource paper from the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania details the horrendous toll taken by firearms each year in this country, and looks at some of the causes and consequences of that fact for what we still refer to as American civilization.

There’s no doubt that one of the primary factors in the enormous toll taken by guns in this country each year is their sheer prevalence. With almost one gun per person (97.0 per hundred residents) the United States has almost twice as many as the next cluster of contenders, Serbia (58.2) and Yemen (54.8), and the numbers go down steeply from there. (Fourth place goes to Switzerland at 45.7, but note that most adult men there, as part of the national militia, are required to keep their government-issued rifles at home. However, they are forbidden to keep ammunition for the guns, which would only be issued in case of national emergency.)

Having just read Katie Johnston’s excellent Boston Globe article, “Vacation not Included,” over my breakfast coffee, I thought I’d go out on a limb and speculate that some of the free-floating aggression that seems to characterize the U.S., and feed into our high rates of firearm suicide and murder, might also have to do with the fact that the United States is alone among twenty-one of the world’s wealthiest nations in requiring no paid vacations – that’s none, zero, nada. And, no surprise, it primarily affects poor people. Johnston reports that, while 90% of the top quarter of U.S. earners receive paid vacations, only 49% of the bottom quarter do.

In this regard, the United States falls in line with India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and a handful of island nations that don’t require employers to offer workers paid time off. France, on the other hand, mandates 30 paid vacation days a year for all workers; Scandinavian countries offer 25. US citizens in Puerto Rico get three weeks off a year.

I spent some time juggling the numbers, but I’m no statistician (any volunteers to help out?) Doesn’t it make sense, though, that the stress of having to work 52 weeks a year just to hang onto a job – and sometimes being unable to do even that – might make people a little bit hostile.

rangerWhen paid vacation legislation has been proposed, Johnston notes, it has routinely been shot down: “Some conservative commentators have called the proposals socialism; others say they would create a nation of slackers: ‘From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization,’ said John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time.”

De Graaf has produced a short film on the disappearance of vacation time in the United States, The Great Vacation Squeeze, which can be previewed on YouTube. A Yosemite National Park ranger says in the film that 20 years ago, 80 percent of visitors stayed overnight, while today’s average visit is less than five hours. The complete documentary is available from Bullfrog Films.

New publication supports recovery
from gun violence-related disabilities

A new book available through the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala focuses on recovery from disabilities which result from gun violence. Transitions is an amazing grassroots group, based in TransitionsAntigua, that I’ve supported for many years – since I first saw a film about their work in my film distributor days. Run almost entirely by people with disabilities themselves, it began as a project to modify first-world wheelchairs for third world conditions (dirt roads and cobblestone streets, no curb cuts – you get the picture) but has expanded into other disability-related issues as well.

While the disabilities of many of those Transitions serves are the result of accidents, congenital birth defects, and other causes, gun violence is a huge contributor. This is, of course, true not just in Latin America but in many areas throughout the world − not least the United States. You can order a new book, Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery from the Surviving Gun Violence ProjectProceeds from sales of the book go to the Transitions Foundation, but it’s a bit pricy, so you may want to see if your university or local library will make the purchase.

Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery “has chapters on victims’ rights, traumatic injuries, rehabilitation and recovery, social protection, and case studies on Canada, India, Guatemala, Somalia, and South Africa. Shorter pieces highlight spinal cord injury in Haiti, the 2011 victims’ law in Colombia, the plight of a South African prisoner with gunshot-related paralysis, gun violence and masculinity, and much more. Profiles of survivors are woven through the book. An annex details 56 international standards relevant to a rights-based approach to respond to survivors of armed violence.

“This resource is directly relevant to anyone working in violence reduction, human rights, trauma, rehabilitation, social protection, gender justice, development, post-war recovery and associated concerns.”


Architects’ Campaign Takes on New Urgency

2014 August 12

Group expands efforts against complicity…

In tChair1he wake of the recent horribly botched executions in Arizona and Oklahoma, the campaign by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility to “prohibit the design of spaces for killing, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” has taken on new urgency. It has recently been endorsed by the Boston Society of Architects whose Ethics Committee, as the group notes, wrote most of the American Institute of Architects’ current National Code of Ethics. AIA chapters in Portland and San Francisco are also supporting the petition.

Chair2Unfortunately, as ADPSR’s newsletter notes, The AIA’s New York City chapter has declined to support the campaign. “Taking the lead from their chapter’s committee of jail/prison/courthouse designers, AIA New York does not want to see ethics drive potential correctional clients to non-AIA architecture firms.”

Non-architects’ organizations endorsing the campaign include the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the Center for Architecture and Human Rights, the Design Corps, and ARC-Peace (an international architects’ association.)

Architects participate in shaping the experience of people in detention…So-called “supermax” prisons (among other specialized prison environments) impose long-term solitary isolation that is well-known to cause a level of severe mental pain and suffering amounting to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or even torture. Accordingly, it is not appropriate for individuals or organizations that support human rights to participate in or condone the design or construction of supermax prisons (or other similar spaces). In addition, juvenile detention centers and secure mental health facilities should not be designed with spaces intended for any form of solitary isolation.

Juan E. Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

To Join the ADPSR Campaign, Sign on to the Petition here. You can join the group’s email list for further information, or view the current list of endorsers.

adpsr2In the meantime, the AIA’s National President has evidently agreed to convene a study group to consider the ADPSR platform. “Will AIA identify itself as a professional association distinguished by high standards,” the ADPSR newsletter asks, “or a pool of self-interested businessmen who like to draw?”

NOTE: I know that there are other professional organizations taking important stands against the involvement of their members in activities that violate human rights. Psychologists for Social Responsibility, for example, has struggled for years – so far unsuccessfully – to get the American Psychological Association to take a firm stance against its members’ involvement in military interrogation methods involving torture. I would welcome hearing about any similar campaigns, and will do my best to help spread the word about them.

If interested in following ADPSR’s campaign, see the link for its email list above. Also check out Nancy Kurshan’s Out of Control, a book-length attack reviewed previously here, on America’s shocking over-use of solitary confinement in “Control-Unit” or “Supermax” prisons.


Bullying: Its Impact Can be Lifelong

2014 August 5

Bullying’s Impact Can be Profound,
and Can Persist Well Into Adulthood

As regular readers may be aware, one of the underlying assumptions of this blog is that state-sponsored torture is not an isolated phenomenon, but lies at one end of a spectrum that includes spousal and child abuse, workplace humiliation, childhood bullying, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. All involve relationships of impunity. Bullies and abusers do not operate in situations where they would fear reprisal.

I’m not a very big guy – a little on the nerdy/intellectual side, and I’ve always worn glasses – so if schoolyard bullying was to be done, I was more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator. Sometime in high school, though – freshman, or maybe sophomore year – I switched roles. There was this really nasty kid in some of my classes, even smaller than I was, the first open racist and anti-Semite I’d ever had to deal with, and an acolyte of Ayn Rand to boot.

One day at the end of gym class he made some comment that finally got to me. I shoved him into an open locker and slammed the door. It felt great, briefly, but I was almost immediately overwhelmed by guilt. Before I could open the locker door, though, one of the genuine bullies of the class – bigger and way tougher, and with the black leather jacket and ducktail haircut to go with the rumors that he might be “connected” – pushed in front of the locker and said, “Leave him in there asshole. He had it coming.”  The resulting shoving match escalated, and I ended up with my first black eye and an undeserved, and very short-lived, reputation for courage.

A couple of recent academic articles on bullying shed some light for me both on what happened back then, and on why I still remember it. They suggest that the impact of being a victim of bullying and of bullying itself can last well into adulthood, and one paper raises the disturbing possibility that bullies, on the whole, fare better psychologically than their victims. Moreover – and here’s where my story comes in – it suggests that people who have both bullied and been bullied are troubled the most of all.

ImpunityIn their recent study, Childhood Bullying Involvement Predicts Low-grade Systemic Inflamation into Adulthood, William E. Copland, et al, note that bullying “is the most frequent form of violence experienced outside the home, although it is still considered by many to be a harmless rite of passage and by others a modest, time-limited stressor. Our findings suggest this childhood social adversity may disrupt levels of inflammation well into adulthood, similar to what is seen for early traumatic events such as child maltreatment.”

As summarized in the Washington Post’s article on the study, “researchers asked 1,420 youngsters between the ages of 9 and 16 whether and how often they had been bullied or had bullied others. Interviewers asked participants whether they felt more teased, bullied or treated meanly by siblings, friends and peers than other children and whether they had upset or hurt other people on purpose, tried to get others in trouble, or forced people to do something by threatening or hurting them.”

The group’s research used levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of low-grade systemic inflammation, as “a physiological marker” for ongoing stress. (See the original article for a more detailed explanation of the science behind this.) The researchers found significantly higher than average levels of CRP in children who reported being bullied, as compared to those with no involvement in bullying, and the increase was greater still in those who reported being bullied more often. Moreover, this effect continued well into adulthood. The New York Times coverage of the study quoted lead author William E. Copeland as saying, “the only other kind of social adversity where we see this kind of long-term effect is in children who are physically abused or neglected. We don’t think about bullying the same way, but I’m moving toward the position that we should. This kind of social defeat is more potent and long-lasting than we previously thought.”

On the other hand, habitual bullies, children and teens who reported bullying others multiple times, had the lowest CRP levels of all – or less stress – even compared to children who were not involved in bullying one way or the other.

In its most interesting finding, for me – and where the above anecdote comes in – the study found that children who reported both bullying others and being bullied themselves had the highest CRP levels of all.

In the second study, Adult Health Outcomes of Childhood Bullying Victimization, Ryu Takizawa and co-authors report on research indicating that the impact of schoolyard bullying may persist long after childhood: “Increasing evidence now confirms that being a target of bullying in childhood jeopardizes young victims’ well-being and contributes to the development of mental health problems early in life. Not only do victims of bullying have elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression in childhood and adolescence, they also show increased rates of self-harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, and psychotic symptoms.” Longer-term effects observed included “lack of social relationships, economic hardship, and poor perceived quality of life at age 50.”

The study notes that such effects of bullying persist “at least to middle adulthood…[and were] also associated with poor social relationships, economic difficulties, and lower perceived quality of life.”

Many thanks to Ken Pope‘s invaluable news alerts for making me aware of this article. The graphic is from IFEX “the global network defending free expression,” and was encountered on the site of Sampsonia Way, a website of City of Asylum/Pittsburg.)

NOTE: If any of my readers are aware of comparable or related research on torturers – those who order it or those who carry it out – I would be very interested in knowing more. You can add a comment to this post or, if you prefer, contact me directly:


Death on the Border

2014 August 5

One of the worst places for immigrants to die…

The July 27, 2014, Boston Sunday Globe has an outstanding multi-page (and multi-layered) report by staff reporter Maria Sacchetti and photographer Jessica Rinaldi on border crossers from Central America. The story focuses on Brooks County, Texas, “one of the worst places for immigrants to die…a vast, sun-baked expanse of cattle ranches an hour north of the border.” 129 bodies of migrants were discovered in the county in 2012, twice the number found the year before.

rin1Sacchetti bookends her piece with the story of Salvadoran migrant Santos Interiano and his sister Maria, who lives in East Boston, Massachusetts. Santos had first crossed into the U.S. illegally in 1998, but had been given temporary legal status because of his country’s devastating earthquakes in 2001. After a series of setbacks, he asked for permission to make a visit to El Salvador to see family, but made the mistake of leaving before the letter of permission arrived, thereby losing the right to return legally. He chose to swim the Rio Grande – into Brooks County.

The text messages Maria received from him after that told of being packed by “coyotes” into a crowded, stifling warehouse with over a hundred others, without food or water – and fearing that the smugglers were going to confiscate everyone’s cellphones. His last message warned “If you don’t hear from me don’t send anyone money, OK?”

rin3Threaded through the article as well are the stories of a group of Baylor University forensic anthropology students working as part of the Reuniting Families Project to recover and identify the remains of migrants who have died on the journey and been buried in unmarked graves. “We’re trying to remember that they had a life and we want to get them back to their families,” one student says. “We’re going to give them back their identity.” In too many cases, though, that’s not possible.

Some weeks later, Santo’s father got an anonymous call telling him that his son was dead, but Maria still dreams that he is alive. “The problem,” she says, “is when you wake up.”
(photos by Jessica Rinaldi)


Parents Who Torture

2014 July 24

JaiDoctor Waterboardl Sentence for Doctor Who Waterboarded his Daughter

In mid-April, author and former pediatrician Melvin Morse was finally convicted and sentenced for waterboarding his young daughter. He will serve three years in prison, with two years of probation to follow. Morse, whose medical license had previously been suspended, repeatedly held his young daughter’s head under a faucet as punishment (though his defense counsel unsuccessfully tried to pass it off as washing her hair.) In July of 2012, neighbors had seen him grab her by the ankle and drag her home across a driveway, after she had tried to escape to a neighbor’s house. It was during the investigation that followed that his use of water torture came out.

Morse’s abuse of his daughter had apparently gone on for some time with the knowledge of her mother, who pled guilty to misdemeanor endangerment. The court is allowing her to have supervised visits with her daughter, who is in foster care.

Morse had become a best-selling author with his research and writing on “near death” and “paranormal” experiences. He has been interviewed on television by Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, as well as profiled on PBS and in Rolling Stone. His books have included reports of near death experiences by children, though he claims that he was “merely disciplining” his daughter, not experimenting on her.

I’ve also posted previously about the 2010 case oTaborf Washington state Iraq veteran Joshua Ryan Tabor, who was arrested for waterboarding his 4-year-old daughter “because she refused to recite the alphabet.” According to neighbors Tabor had “anger management issues.” Police had been called out when he was reported walking around the neighborhood wearing battle gear and threatening to break neighbors’ windows. Tabor received a two-month slap-on-the-wrist sentence.

In a more recent incident that I have so far only found reported in the New York Daily News, a couple in Belgium have repeatedly been accused of imprisoning and waterboarding their four children, beating them with iron bars, and subjecting them to a variety of other horrors over a period of several years. The story notes that teachers became alarmed at the condition of the children and their clothes and notified authorities, who placed the children in foster care — but evidently only for two months.

And Huffington Post carried a story from last year, of a Montana man who waterboarded not only his own two children (9 and 12 years old), but two neighbor kids as well. He claimed the abuse was not meant as punishment, but as “a learning experience.” Though he did spend a little over two months in custody pending trial, the man then made a deal with prosecutors for a suspended sentence on four counts – misdemeanor counts – of child endangerment. According to court documents, “His girlfriend at the time said he broke her wrist and some fingers when she tried to stop him from waterboarding his sons. She said the man straddled each boy with his hands over the child’s face and mouth, and dumped water on their faces to simulate drowning.”

So what is going on here? At one level, it’s no doubt true that there have always been some parents who abuse their children, and most of us agree that none of the explanations that have been advanced for such abuse make it in any way acceptable. What’s behind child abuse in general is a long discussion that I may revisit in future posts.

BuZD3-3t what “abuse” means has changed over time. It was not terribly long ago that “spare the rod, spoil the child” was widespread parenting gospel. Not every parent practiced it – maybe not even most – but few would have risked publically criticizing a neighbor who did, short of serious, visible injury to the child. Prosecution was rare and, as we have sadly come to realize, real damage, physical as well as psychological, was sometimes done.

ZD3-4Severe physical punishment by parents hasn’t disappeared, but it’s frowned upon and it’s less common. But the legitimization of waterboarding, by the Bush administration – not to mention its glamorization in the popular film Zero Dark Thirty – may, at least in the minds of some, have made it seem like this particular form of “discipline” is no big deal. The Bush administration did it…and defended doing it. The Obama administration doesn’t do it anymore, they say, but has announced that, though it’s perhaps regrettable that things like that occurred, no one should be prosecuted. For all practical purposes, waterboarding – and perhaps some other weapons in the arsenal of “enhanced interrogation” techniques – are still on the table for any future administration to dust off and put into practice for the next “existential conflict” that comes along.


Updates on Recent Posts

2014 May 7

ExecutionArchitects/planners call
for professionals to resist

This week’s horrifying reports on a botched execution in Oklahoma, gives new and more urgent meaning to the campaign by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (reported on here in January) which calls on members of those professions to refuse to participate in the design of “spaces intended for executions or prolonged solitary confinement.” A recent email from the group notes that their initial petition has now been endorsed by American Institute of Architects (AIA) chapters in San Francisco and Portland, as well as by a number of prominent architects. They’ve also launched another petition campaign targeting architecture professors and educators.

Taking the shackles off pregnant prisoners
An excellent recent article in the Boston Globe reported on efforts to ban the use of handcuffs or other shackles on women during delivery in Massachusetts − a national movement reported on in our previous post. Some of the comments received by the paper were, as usual, hostile and abusive, referring for example to “selfish criminals that give birth to addicted babies,” while others were supportive (“What total morons decided to have women in labor shackled? Did it ever occur to them what shackling might do to the fetus as it was placed under the same stress as the mother?”)


The Rights of Torture Survivors

2014 May 1

Video Focuses on Torture Survivors’
Right to Redress and Rehabilitation

Some of the internationally recognized rights of survivors of torture are outlined in a short video from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights,which litigates cases that seek to hold state and non-state actors accountable for violating the rights of the most vulnerable.  The program highlights some barriers to torture rehabilitation as well.

NovakThe video features former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak (at left), who discusses the rights torture survivors have under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. “Torture is one of the most serious human rights violations,” Nowak comments in the video: “Torture survivors are in need of whatever support and rehabilitation is available to overcome their experience.” Also interviewed in the video is Dr. Mechthild Wenk-Ansohn, of the Berlin Center for the Treatment of Torture Victims.

“Rehabilitation centers for the victims of torture often operate in an environment characterized by insecurity and violence. Their engagement with victims of torture, the provision of medical services, and particularly the documentation of torture cases make them frequent targets of those who inflicted the suffering. As a consequence, physicians, forensic experts, psychologists, administrative staff and volunteers all work under considerable personal risk and are often confronted with harassment, threats, assault or even killings.

“Furthermore, the recent global financial crisis has had a tangible impact on many centers, forcing them to cut back existing services because funding from private foundations has decreased.”

2010 report to the United Nations General Assembly
by then Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak

So what’s a rapporteur?

The word refers to someone who has been designated to investigate a particular issue and report back to a “deliberative body,” in this case, the United Nations Human Rights Council. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has been mandated to “examine, monitor, advise and publicly report” to the Council on human rights violations. Special Rapporteurs act independently of all governments. They are not members of the UN staff, and are expected to operate “impartially, honestly, and in good faith.” The current Special Rapporteur on Torture is Juan Mendez, a lawyer and human rights activist from Argentina who, early in his career, was arrested by his country’s military dictatorship and subjected to torture for 18 months.

The Special Rapporteurs do not receive any financial compensation for their work, but get staffing and logistical support from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Interestingly, at one time the code of conduct for Rapporteurs did not allow them to address the media about their findings and recommendations, but this is no longer the case.


Insanity is lurking on the other side…

2014 February 27

Rock Band Bills Pentagon for Use of Music as Torture

Just a couple of hours after uploading my recent post about music as a weapon of torture, I found out that a Canadian band has actually sent a bill to the Pentagon for using their music to torture prisoners. According to Steven Hsieh, writing for The Nation:

Skinny Puppy, an industrial rock band from Vancouver, wants $666,000 in royalties for the use of their music “as an actual weapon against somebody.” Keyboardist cEvin Key says the band learned that its songs were played at Guantánamo from a former prison guard, who happens to be a fan. “I am not only against the fact they’re using our music to inflict damage on somebody else but they are doing it without anybody’s permission.”

“We heard through a reliable grapevine that our music was being used to musically stun or torture people,” Key, the group’s founder, told The Independent, “so we thought it would be a good idea to SkinnyPuppyinvoice the US government for musical services.” The journal noted that “despite the band’s aggressive sound, they said they had never envisioned their music being used in such a way.” Skinny Puppy is also said to be thinking about suing the U.S. Defense Department.

“Asked how he felt about their songs allegedly being used in the detention camp, Key replied: ‘Not too good. We never supported those types of scenarios…Because we make unsettling music, we can see it being used in a weird way. But it doesn’t sit right with us.’”

Both the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights have banned the use of loud music for interrogation. In his Nation article, Hsieh cites a Der Spiegel  interview with Ruhal Ahmed, who was detained without trial at Guantánamo and says that he suffered extensive music torture there. Interrogators reportedly shackled his hands to his feet and his feet to the ground, forcing his body into a squat, while music blared for days. Describing that experience to Der Spiegel, he said, “You can’t concentrate on anything. Before that, when I was beaten, I could use my imagination to forget the pain. But the music makes you completely disoriented. It takes over your brain. You lose control and start to hallucinate. You’re pushed to a threshold, and you realize that insanity is lurking on the other side.”

Revelations about music as torture go back almost to the beginnings of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A CIA spokesperson at the time was quoted by as saying that the music was used only for “security purposes, not for punitive purposes — and at levels far below a live rock band.” According to an AP article in Today/Music, however, the tactic has been common in the U.S. so-called war on terror, musicand used on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. “Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, ‘to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock.’”  

Other artists who have objected in recent years to having their work appropriated by the military and CIA include groups like Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails, as well as Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf. Yes, even Sesame Street tunes have been deployed in Guantanamo interrogations by our military, not to mention that ultimate in high-tech weaponry, Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s “I love you, you love me,” also written by Cerf. A 2012 documentary by Al Jazeera follows Cerf “while he learns exactly how his music has been used to torture the men held in that infamous legal abyss.” See the trailer for the 52-minute documentary.

In a 2009-10 Reprieve campaign called “Zero dB,” some of these groups struck back. “Taking issue with their music reportedly being blasted at ear-bleeding levels in an attempt to break uncooperative terror suspects,” noted The Associated Press, “a diverse and growing coalition of musicians including R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Billy Bragg is demanding that Obama close down Guantánamo.” According to BBC News, R.E.M. announced their participation in the coalition, saying, “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of these torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”

…and nothing has changed.


Shackled During Childbirth

2014 February 23

What Would You Call it if Not Torture?

My email inbox today included an online petition campaign from the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is trying to get legislation out of committee to end the practice of shackling women during labor and delivery. While several jurisdictions have already outlawed this practice, in at least 30 states including NoShacklesMassachusetts, women may be – and often are – handcuffed, shackled, or otherwise restrained during childbirth. An article by Christina Costantini on the digital network, Fusion, notes that the American Medical Association has called the practice “unsafe, medically hazardous, and barbaric.”

While none of the sources I checked referred to this practice as torture, I don’t know what else you would call a procedure that causes severe psychological distress, physical pain, and emotional humiliation – and has no rational necessity.

As Pat Nolan writes on the website of the Justice Fellowship, “In the case of pregnant inmates, there is little chance of escape…women in labor are hardly capable of leaping off the bed and escaping.” She cites the video testimony of an Arkansas inmate, Shawanna Nelson, incarcerated for passing a bad check. Nelson’s attorney, Cathleen Compton, describes the scene like this: “The officer is in there the whole time, with a gun, OK? So now you have a woman who’s delivered a nearly ten-pound baby, and there’s an officer with a gun standing by…What’s the chain for? Why’d they need to chain her? I just can’t wrap my mind around that.” (See the video at the bottom of this post.)

Costantini writes that “cases involving immigrant detainees are particularly controversial, since some detainees haven’t committed any crime beyond being in the country without status, or crossing the border without authorization.” She cites the cases of two women in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Arizona:

“Both women, who were in jail for immigration-related offenses, say that they were shackled to their hospital beds with a leg restraint before and after they gave birth, without their husbands and in the presence of a prison guard. Chacon says that she was restrained even as she gave birth.

“Mothers in some jails are permitted ongoing access to their newborns in the days and months after they’ve given birth, but both Mendiola-Martinez and Chacon say they that was not the case for them. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.”

You might be inclined to discount this story, given Maricopa County’s reputation for extreme insensitivity to human rights, but there are countless similar accounts, from all sections of the country including – as noted in the first paragraph above – liberal, progressive Massachusetts.

(Poster image from the website of the Strong Families Movement via ACLU of Massachusetts.)


Refuge Documentary Now Available

2014 February 17

REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture

The public launch of our hour-long documentary, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture, has taken longer than planned, but it is NOW AVAILABLE. Take a look at the trailer below, then visit our newly-redesigned website for more information and to order copies of the film.

Over the past several months, Refuge has been “premiered” at the UNSPOKEN Human Rights Film Festival, and featured at the national conferences of the American Public Health Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. It will be shown in May, 2014, at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture, and is also scheduled for an upcoming symposium on “The New Immigration,” in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Check out two recent reviews of the documentary by Video Librarian and World Without Torture (an online publication of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.)



New Resources: January 29, 2014

2014 January 30

Music as Torture

The latest issue of Torture, the quarterly journal of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, has an unusual focus: music as a means of torture — yet sometimes also as a strategy of resistance.

“Despite the tendency to focus on music’s benign and positive role, we are confronted today with clear disclosures of its role in torture and human rights violations. Recent revelations of music’s use in the detention and interrogation centres of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have underlined music’s potential to wound and cause suffering…Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib have attracted global media attention, but by no means are they unique cases. Is it music in itself or the high volume and repetition that transform it into torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment…?”

“Can the use of music in detention be beneficial for the prisoners,” ask the edition’s editors, Anna Papaeti and M.J. Grant, in their introduction, “or is it always aligned with an intention to subdue, break, and often ridicule them?”

wall-1All but one of the articles in the journal focus on uses of music for purposes of punishment or torture. The exception, by Johann Buis, looks at the positive use of song and dance by Nelson Mandela and other prisoners in South Africa’s Robben Island prison during the apartheid period. “He suggests that music and dance formed an internal cultural grounding for the political prisoners,” write the editors, “which not only enabled their survival in prison, but was also instrumental in shaping public policy later on when Mandela chose forgiveness instead of retribution during his term as president.”

All articles in the current issue of Torture, are available free online, as are back issues from the journal’s archive. You can also sign up to receive email notices of each new issue, or to subscribe to the print edition.

While you’re on the IRCT website, check out the Testimonies Wall for first-hand stories from survivors of torture around the world.

wall-2Psychological Assessment

“Torture is widely prohibited — and widely practiced,” writes Kenneth S. Pope in his valuable article, Psychological Assessment of Torture Survivors.  “Those who conduct psychological assessments of people who have been tortured face complex challenges in reaching conclusions that are valid and useful.” The essay sets out to provide guidelines to achieving accurate assessments, that can lead to appropriate and effective treatment. I suspect that I’ve mentioned this resource before, but it has been updated somewhat, so is worth bringing to your attention again. Ken offers the article free online, but notes that it has also been published in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Volume 35.

(The photos in this post are from the IRCT Testimonies wall – see above.)


Code Name: Caesar

2014 January 26

Smuggled Photos Document
Torture and Murder of 11,000 Syrians

A recently revealed trove of more than 55,000 photographs, smuggled at great risk out of Syria, documents the torture and murder of thousands of defenseless prisoners under President Bashar al-Assad. The images are particularly chilling because – like the photos documenting the  crimes of the Nazi concentration camps or of the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng prison – they seem so coldly bureaucratic. You can almost imagine the instruction sheet:

  • Ensure that all ID numbers are in proper sequence
  • Arrange the subject with all marks of torture clearly visible
  • Take five photos from different angles (time est. 15-30 minutes)
  • Repeat 11,000 times

The location and identity of the photographer himself, currently living under the code name “Caesar,” are secret – although the Syrian president and his agents clearly know who he is. Caesar’s former responsibilities had been documenting crime scenes and accidents for the military police but, as reported by the online magazine, “when the revolution started in 2011, Caesar-1he was entrusted with a whole new task: take photographs of real or supposed opponents who had been tortured to death or executed in cold blood in the government’s prisons.”

When he could no longer stomach the assignment, the magazine reports, Caesar joined the rebellion. It took almost a year before he and his family – and the photos – could be smuggled out of the country, but the devastating pictures have now been authenticated by an internationally recognized panel of legal and forensic experts, who have also attested to Caesar’s reliability as a witness.

Often naked or covered with rags, the bodies bear traces of different types of torture: laceration, strangulation, electrocution, mutilation. On most of the chests, numbers written with a marker identify the victims. For others, it’s a piece of cardboard placed at their feet: “It’s the number that’s given to the detainees when they’re arrested and when they’re pronounced dead,” explains Emadeddin Rachid. “The numbers follow each other,” he says. “It’s assembly-line killing.”

Rachid is one of the Syrian opponents of al-Assad’s regime who were instrumental in getting the roughly 55,000 photos – as well as the photographer and his family – out of the country. “Killing its opponents is the regime’s routine,” explains Rachid. “Registering torture is nothing more than the continued pursuit of the routine.”

According to CNN, the images “paint a horrific scene. Stomachs, faces and even legs are concave – sunken, rather than convex. On some torsos, bruising and bleeding is so severe that the victim’s skin is a Caesar-2mosaic of black, red, purple and pink. Oblong and parallel wounds, a mix of bruises and torn skin, line one man’s chest and torso, covering every inch of the victim’s body from neck to pelvis.”

The British newspaper, The Guardian, suggests that the report’s publication “appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week’s UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.” Any firm action resulting from the already divided and acrimonious conference, however, seems unlikely.

“The evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity, without any shadow of a doubt,” said Sir Desmond de Silva, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and one of the authors of the report. Unfortunately, as the CNN article also notes, “Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The only way the Court could prosecute someone from Syria would be through a referral from the United Nations Security Council.” But as long as Russia — which has veto power over Security Council decisions — continues to support Assad, that’s not going to happen.