A Different Perspective on
our Overblown Prison System
I’ve written before about conditions in our nation’s prison system – particularly in relation to our deeply disturbing over-use of solitary confinement.
I wasn’t expecting to find a new angle on this problem in the magazine of the Sierra Club – a publication I might not be reading at all except that I get it as a contributor to the organization. But, as an article in a recent issue notes, in addition to locking up a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation, “our prisons are a continual source of environmental degradation.”
As prison populations increase – with many institutions criminally overcrowded (small pun here) problems resulting from the waste they generate have in some cases become overwhelming. In her Sierra article, Dashka Slater describes a 2005 hearing in Alabama, where citizens came to protest prison sewage releases that were degrading the rivers where they swam, boated and fished:
The source was the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which held some 1,500 inmates even though it had been built to house fewer than half that many. “Rest assured that if any one of us was dumping raw sewage into the river, we would be heavily fined and locked up in the very prison we’re discussing,” observed Buddy Vines, described in the next day’s Birmingham News as “a lifelong resident of property along the river.”
Groups cited in the article who are responding to this issue include the Prison Ecology Project, whose director, Panagioti Tsolkas, says “In some ways a prison is a factory farm for humans and, sadly, it has the equivalent output.”
“In prison you don’t have any choice…”
In addition to looking at the polluting impact of prisons on their surroundings, the article cites a number of correctional institutions where inmates themselves are at risk from chemicals in nearby waste dumps, landfills and other sources. Dashka notes that “inmates in many of these facilities report health problems consistent with toxic exposure, but their options are limited.” She quotes Paul Wright, founder of the Prison Ecology Project’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, who says “They can’t say ‘Hey, I don’t like it here, so I’m going to move.’ In prison you don’t have any choice.”
Note: the Human Rights Defense Center publishes its own newsletter, Prison Legal News. Illustrations in this post are from the original Sierra article.
Navy nurse who refused to
force-feed prisoners may lose pension…
The case of the “Guantanamo Nurse” has faded from the headlines, but it’s not over. Despite widespread U.S. and international condemnation of the Navy’s practice of force-feeding prisoners who are on hunger strike, the sole prison staffer who has refused to participate in this controversial procedure remains at risk.
The nurse’s attorney, Ronald W. Meister, confirmed today that the Department of Defense has instituted proceedings to revoke the nurse’s security clearance, and is then expected to attempt to discharge him from the Navy. Meister noted that military pensions do not vest until twenty years of service, so If the military has its way, he could lose all of the pension benefits he has earned over almost nineteen years of loyal service.
Meister expects to submit the nurse’s response in October or November, for a decision by the DOD’s Consolidated Adjudication Facility. An adverse decision by that body could be appealed.
Asked whether other health care professionals at the prison have taken positions against force-feeding, the attorney indicated that he’s not aware of any such cases. “It was the practice in past years to allow physicians who objected to force-feeding to decline assignment to Guantanamo,” he noted, “and to allow nurses who objected to be assigned to other duties. Those policies apparently are no longer in effect.” Meister was himself a Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Navy (which describes itself on its website as “the best law firm in the world”) so can claim some familiarity with and even sympathy for the legitimate needs of the military. He clearly feels it has overstepped in this case.
The American Medical Association and World Medical Association both consider the forced feeding of an unwilling person to be a violation of medical ethics. The groups have insisted that professionals be allowed to refuse to participate in such actions, though it’s not clear to me that they would impose any sanctions on a member who did choose to participate. Similarly, retired Naval Captain Al Shimkus, who commanded the Guantanamo medical facility from 2002-2003 stated that “force-feeding constitutes ill treatment and the continued practice at Guantanamo should not be allowed to occur.” But he went on to say that “equally important is to allow medical professionals to recuse themselves.” Evidently medical professionals should be able to keep their hands clean – without having to rock the boat.
In a 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Columnist Joe Nocera cited the positions of the International Red Cross, the World Medical Association, and the United Nations in saying that “put simply, force-feeding violates international law.” He also referenced a devastating expose by Al Jazeera, which had uncovered a military document headed “Standard Operating Procedure: Medical Management of Detainees on Hunger Strike.” (Note that the photo included below is a re-enactment.)
“The document makes for gruesome reading,” Nocera wrote. “The detainee shackled to a special chair (which looks like the electric chair); the head restraints if he resists; the tube pushed painfully down his nose; the half-hour or so of ingestion of nutritional supplements; the transfer of the detainee to a “dry cell,” where, if he vomits, he is strapped back into the chair until the food is digested. Detainees are also apparently given an anti-nausea drug called Reglan, which has a horrible potential side effect if given for more than three months: a disease called tardive dyskinesia, which causes twitching and other uncontrollable movements.”
As a long time supporter and chronicler of nurses’ crucial roles in the healthcare system, I was disappointed by the American Nurses Association’s public position on this case. Like the American Medical Association, the ANA focuses on the nurse’s right to refuse to participate in so-called enteral feeding. I would have hoped that nurses would feel not just a right but an obligation to refuse to feed an unwilling prisoner, and that the ANA would be prepared to back them up when they do so.
I was also disturbed by a sentence in the ANA statement that says “Individuals in critical care units, psychiatric settings, or who are incarcerated might have diminished capacity for decision-making…” Diminished capacity is a term usually applied to those with a cognitive or psychiatric disability, not the “disability” of being locked up in a military prison.
Guantanamo’s detainees do not have diminished capacity. They are in despair. Maybe they still have some vestige of hope that their protest will finally move us to demand their release, or maybe they’ve just given up.
No one can be entirely comfortable with the idea of someone starving him or herself to death for a principle.
But principles matter.
Following up on my last post updating information about distribution of my film, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture — and continuing on the theme of semi-shameless self-promotion — here are some outstanding academic and other reviews of the film. Refuge has also been featured at the White Sands International Film Festival and UNSPOKEN/Human Rights Film Festival and Conference.
“A powerful film, telling the stories of courageous survivors of unspeakable acts of torture from around the world, and of the doctors, psychiatrists, counselors and others in the United States doing their best to care for and help them…A ‘must see’ that will also help lawyers understand the experiences of clients who are torture survivors.”
— Kevin R. Johnson, Dean, UC Davis School of Law
Co-Editor of “ImmigrationProf” blog
“A true gift to viewers. This remarkable and useful documentary identifies refugee survivors as resilient, empowered, and organized communities rather than victims. State terrorism’s impacts on individuals, families, and communities come alive in the stories by survivors, their advocates, and clinicians…Despite the horrific stories, this is a calm film. Dignity is at the core.”
— Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Professor of Counseling
Director of Family Therapy Program, UMass-Boston
“First-hand accounts of the effects of torture, as told by men and women now living in the United States, deepen our understanding of the devastating effects of torture for the victims and their surviving families. A must-see for all who seek a greater awareness of the newcomers who arrive on our shores after having experienced the horrific trauma of torture.”
— Nestor Rodriguez, Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin
“Beautifully highlights and humanizes the issues faced by both torture survivors and those treating them. We are reminded that a grant of asylum is only one step in a long journey of healing, and our healthcare system is woefully deficient in identifying victims and providing necessary and proper care..”
— Christie Fujio, JD, MA, Physicians for Human Rights
It’s been quite a while since my last posts – I hope that some of you out there have been missing them. Actually, maybe I should just be hoping that there are some readers out there. Let me know. All feedback will be welcome!
One of the things that’s kept me preoccupied has been finding the right “home” (i.e., distributor) for my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture. As you may know, I have been handling the distribution of the film myself since it was completed toward the end of 2013. However, as a one-person, one-film operation, I simply haven’t had the time or resources to manage the level of outreach the film needs and deserves.
So, as of a few months ago, REFUGE is now represented by my old friends and distributor colleagues, John Hoskyns-Abrahall and Winnie Sherrer at BULLFROG FILMS.
A few of my earlier films – as well as others distributed by my former company Fanlight Productions – continue to be distributed by Icarus Films. This includes my Academy Award nominee, Code Gray: Ethical Dilemmas in Nursing (at this point an oldie, but hopefully still useful).
(Please note also that the old Refuge Media Project website still offers a wealth of information and access to documents and other resources dealing with the issue of torture worldwide. My apologies for the fact that a few entries on that site may be out of date or no longer available.)
In the meantime, I’ve come across some intriguing resources that I want to pass along. Here’s one, and I’ll cite more in future posts:
Based at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice of New York University’s School of Law, Just Security describes itself as “an online forum for the rigorous analysis of U.S. national security law and policy. We aim to promote principled and pragmatic solutions to national security problems that decision-makers face.” Here are a few examples of articles relating to U.S. policy on torture:
- America’s “Unequivocal Yes” to the Torture Ban by Harold Hongju Koh, the group’s founding editor
- The United States and the Torture Convention, Part I: Extraterritoriality, and The United States and the Torture Convention, Part II: Armed Conflict, both by Sarah Cleveland.
Clearly intended primarily for human rights lawyers and law students, others (including me) may find it a bit difficult to browse within the site itself, but worthwhile if you know what you’re looking for. A good place to start is the comprehensive listing of article topics in the organization’s archives. Click on the link under “Archives by Topic” in the right-hand column.
Human Rights Photo Competition – August 15 Deadline
Sorry for the late notice on this, but I just noticed it on the Center’s website. They’re holding a photo competition, Images of Inequality, “to explore the myriad ways in which people witness, interpret, and experience inequalities…illustrating through photographs the links between inequality and human rights.” For more information, click on the link above.
“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.
According 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: OpenTheGovernment.org, 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: “
“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.
The 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.”
When 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:
The 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.
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 its 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.
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.
When 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 Antigua, 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 Project. Proceeds 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.”
Jail 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 of 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.
But 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.
Severe 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.