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American’s Prisons: Factory Farms for Humans

2015 November 2
by Ben Achtenberg

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 onPrisonEco1 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.”

PrisonEco2Groups 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.


Ongoing Case of the Guantanamo Nurse

2015 September 18
by Ben Achtenberg

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.

nurse-3Asked 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 treatmennurese-2t 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 reaNurse-1Rding,” 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 AssociatiNavy Nurseon, 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.


Critical Praise for Torture Documentary

2015 August 11
by Ben Achtenberg

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

Catching up

2015 August 5
by Ben Achtenberg

I’m Back…

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 ofTork-1 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.)


Just Security
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:

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.


Passings: 2014-2015

2015 April 2

Helen BBamberamber: “I vowed
never to be a bystander…”

Historically, throughout much of the world, torture has been thought of as a perhaps regrettable but necessary form of interrogation and discipline. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the British Bill of Rights of 1689 – reaffirmed a century later in the U.S. Constitution – was its prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The reality is that torture was far from unusual then, and that both countries continue to be complicit in acts of torture today, both within and outside their borders.

I’m not sure if there was such a thing as a torture treatment movement before Helen Bamber. In a 2011 piece in the Toronto Star, Heather Mallick wrote that “interviewing Helen Bamber is like interviewing the 20th century, but only the worst bits …” She goes on to describe “the fresh cookies that Bamber, 86, serves me in her comfy office in London, where she counsels people who had electrodes attached to their tongues and spines and then convulsed and screamed for death.”

The anti-torture and torture treatment movements, as we know them today, arguably began during and after World War II, in the world’s revulsion at the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps, as well as the creation of huge numbers of displaced persons, many of them survivors of torture needing resettlement and relief.

“BambeBamber-2r, who is Jewish, has spent her life listening to victims, thousands of them, and coping with the aftermath of human viciousness,” Mallick wrote. “As a 20-year-old aid volunteer in post-surrender Germany in 1945, she saw camps thick with fetid scraps of corpses and near-corpses and looked into the eyes of the Germans, all the while wearing a Jewish Relief Unit badge – not an easy thing when returning Jews were still being quietly murdered.”

After her return to Britain, in addition to helping to found Amnesty International, Bamber, who trained as a psychotherapist, formed the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now known as the Freedom From Torture Foundation) and her own Helen Bamber Foundation, where she continued to offer therapy to clients almost until her death this past August. The most important thing, she was quoted as saying, was not to be one of those people who let torture happen as they watch. She swore “never to be a bystander.”

In her obituary in The London Economic, Ben Gelblum quotes holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, one of 732 children cared for by Bamber after the end of the Second World War: “We had reached the limit of our endurance. We were liberated in a state of exhaustion and emaciation…The vast majority of us survivors had lost our parents and had nobody left. It was to Helen that we turned.”

“She helped the orphans of the Holocaust rebuild their lives, Gelblum wrote. “Then later, the tortured, broken survivors of Pinochet, the Argentinian junta, African and Middle Eastern conflicts, and of a modern British approach to refugees that ‘disbelieves, destitutes and detains’ them.”

Actor Emma Thompson, Bamber’s friend and now President of the Helen Bamber Foundation, said “Entering Bergen Belsen concentration camp with the allied forces that liberated it had a profound impact on Helen Bamber…She dedicated her life to the weakest, most vulnerable in society.”

Robert E. White: “A diplomat in opposition…”

“I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally, definitely dismissed by Alexander Haig for opposing a military solution in El Salvador.” That’s Robert E. White’s own quick summary of his diplomatic career. It’s humorous and not exactly inaccurate, but doesn’t do justice to his enormous accomplishments as a “diplomat in opposition.”

RobertWhiteAs his New York Times obituary noted, Robert E. White “lived just long enough to witness his criticism of the Cuban embargo vindicated, when President Obama announced on December 17 that it would be lifted.” “For a half-century,” he had written in an earlier Times op-ed, “our policies toward our southern neighbors have alternated between intervention and neglect, inappropriate meddling and missed opportunities.”

I had the opportunity to meet White when the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund, of which I was then a board member, invited him to speak at our annual event commemorating the murders of six Jesuit Priests who were faculty members at the University of Central America, in El Salvador.

White’s career as a United States diplomat was cut short, at least in part as the result of two earlier political murders: Melvin A. Goodman writes in Counterpunch that, in early 1980, “Ambassador White informed the State Department that El Salvador’s leading right-wing politician, Roberto D’Aubuisson had ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero…The CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Robert Gates, suppressed all intelligence on the killing, part of the Agency’s effort to bury many of the truths of American policy toward Latin America in the 1980s.”

In December of that same year, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, churchwomen working for human rights in the country, had been White’s guests at the American Embassy in San Salvador. The following day, they and two other nuns were kidnapped, and later found raped and murdered. White believed – accurately – that the Salvadoran death squads responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero had carried out these murders as well. “This time,” White was quoted as saying at their grave site, “the bastards won’t get away with it.” But the State Department refused to take action. Instead, when Reagan took office the following January, White was forced out of the Foreign Service.

“I regard it as an honor to join a small group of officers who have gone out of the service because they refused to betray their principles,” White said at the time. His suspicions of a cover-up were confirmed by declassified State Department documents, and he later testified in a suit brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability against two retired Salvadoran generals – by then living safely in Florida – who were accused of covering up the murders. (NOTE: See the CJA website for a listing of the organization’s many ongoing legal actions against the Salvadoran government and other violators of human rights. Also note The National Catholic Reporter’s moving tribute to White, in its January 21 edition.)

After leaving government, White continued to be a critic of government policy, serving as president of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. He died of cancer this past January at the age of eighty-eight.

Margaret Van Duyne: One With One

As I was finishing up tVanDuynehis post, I happened to come across the obituary, in the Boston Globe, of Boston-area activist, Margaret Van Duyne, at 79.

As a filmmaker, I was interested – and may have felt a special kinship – when I read that she first became engaged in immigration issues through a filmmaking class, where she made a documentary, Room For All, on the problems new immigrants face in accessing services. She told the Boston Globe in a 1987 interview that the refugees she met while making the film were “thrilled to be here…but my film’s audiences were not thrilled to see them, even on film. I was unprepared for the prejudice.” A 1988 Globe editorial quoted Mrs. Van Duyne as saying many Americans believe “that because my grandparents had it tough, so should the new wave of immigrants.”

Her work is a reminder that, like Van Duyne, there is a small army of volunteers and non-profit staff workers around the country who have mobilized to supplement the pitifully inadequate support offered by our federal and state governments to survivors of torture and other immigrants. Her nonprofit, One With One, paired volunteer guides with nearly 2,000 immigrants from more than 70 countries and, according to the Globe, helped more than 500 immigrants to secure jobs. Self-sufficiency for immigrants was a central goal, and the group achieved, according to one of her associates, a 100 percent job placement rate. (NOTE: The Globe’s obituary was written by Kathleen McKenna, who can be reached at

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.