Military Commissions Act a ‘poisoned chalice,’ scholar warns during symposium

Photo by L.A. Cicero Humanity - Martinez

David Luban of Georgetown and Jenny Martinez of Stanford gave presentations Friday as part of the conference.

Photo by L.A. Cicero Humanity - Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, a psychology professor emeritus at Stanford, spoke at the conference about the abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Photo by L.A. Cicero Seymour Hersh

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh signed books and answered questions in Kresge Auditorium.

President George Bush's approval of the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which permits controversial practices expediting the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects, undermines the legal prohibition of torture and, in turn, degrades society itself, lawyer Jenny Martinez said Friday during a symposium, "Thinking Humanity After Abu Ghraib."

"The legalization of torture is a loaded gun," warned Martinez, an associate professor of law who in 2004 argued for the defense before the U.S. Supreme Court in Rumsfeld v. Padilla, a case centering on the power of the president to detain American citizens as enemy combatants. Techniques used by CIA interrogators such as extended sleep deprivation, hypothermia and "waterboarding," which simulates drowning, are now at the discretion of the president, she said. "As a result, countries around the world can point to the U.S. and say that torture is permitted," she added. "Legalization of torture degrades society and government in a way illegal torture does not. The existence of torture undermines the humanity of the state and ultimately undermines the security of the state."

Martinez joined ethicists, journalists and psychologists at the Oct. 20 symposium, cosponsored by Stanford Continuing Studies and held in Tresidder's Oak Lounge, to provide a disturbing glimpse into the evolution of an aspect of U.S. policy since the Bush administration launched the "war on terror" following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

According to conference organizers, public exposure of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, revelations of "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects to countries that practice torture, the ongoing detention of prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay and evidence of secret CIA prisons have had profound repercussions on how the United States is viewed abroad and by its citizens at home.

Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist for The New Yorker who was largely responsible for breaking the Abu Ghraib story in 2004, opened the conference with a keynote address Thursday in Kresge Auditorium. Hersh compared the psychological and reputational damage reverberating from the prison scandal to the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam, a story that he broke and that earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

On Friday, Mark Danner, who also writes for The New Yorker, provided graphic descriptions of the torture of Iraqi civilians by their American captors and detailed how the federal government has responded to allegations of abuse. "In this administration, officials lie in the full light of day," Danner said. If the American polity fails to confront this, he said, it will mean the people have accepted the government's actions. "This is not simply a partisan political issue," he continued. "This is what fear—used by politicians and accepted by the populace—does."

During the second half of the conference, Philip Zimbardo, psychology professor emeritus, presented shocking and gruesome images of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, and compared the scandal to his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. In the latter, Zimbardo explained, he randomly assigned normal, healthy college students to play either prisoners or guards in what was to be a two-week study. He called off the experiment after only six days because the "guards" quickly became sadistic and the "prisoners" broke down. Recently, Zimbardo acted as an expert witness in the trial of one of the accused military police officers at Abu Ghraib prison, Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, and he described how an all-American patriot could turn into a sadistic guard. Zimbardo's upcoming book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, details his findings. "We want to believe that good and evil are separate, that it's 'them, not me,'" he said. In fact, both characteristics are present in human nature and, rather than exclusively blaming a flawed character, attention also should be paid to the external situation or system within which people operate, he said. Instead of blaming the atrocities at Abu Ghraib on a few "bad apples," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did, Zimbardo pointed to the corruption of ordinary people within the context of powerful situational forces—the "bad barrel"—and the leaders who allow the situation to happen—the "bad barrel makers."

"The 'bad apple' theory is what every administration uses to protect itself," Zimbardo said. "Evil is intentionally behaving [badly], or having the power to cause others to act [badly]. Evil is knowing better and doing worse." In the face of overwhelming situational forces, Zimbardo said, it is rare for a person to resist publicly. He noted that Army Reserve Spc. Joe Darby, who exposed the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, did so at great personal risk.

According to Gerald Gray, a clinical social worker and former program manager of the Center for Survivors of Torture in San Jose, "Abu Ghraib is a speck on the panorama of abuse" that captured the world's attention because of its graphic images. "The U.S. government operates 16 other prisons in Iraq," he said. "No U.S. torture is accidental. It's all policy; it's all planned. Modern-day torture is political control."

To date, Gray said, lawyers and journalists have largely been responsible for exposing such broad abuses of government power. "As psychologists, I hope, beginning with this symposium, we can change this," he said. Gray called on attendees to support the 150 torture victim centers that operate worldwide. He said survivors need both clinical and legal assistance to recover from their physical and psychological wounds. "You only recover from torture if you feel safe," he said.

David Luban, a Georgetown Law School professor and a former Stanford visiting professor, noted that it was ironic that the Military Commissions Act was signed into law about the same time as the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of the first Nuremberg trial of Nazi leaders. Great Britain and Russia opposed the trials—Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin wanted the Nazi war criminals executed—but the United States insisted on due process to demonstrate its commitment to the rule of law. Luban described how Justice Robert H. Jackson, who took a leave from the U.S. Supreme Court to act as chief counsel for the United States, pushed for the trials. Quoting from Jackson's opening speech at the first Nuremberg trial, Luban said, "We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our lips as well." With the enactment of the Military Commissions Act, "every aspect of the Nuremberg vision has been reversed," Luban said. "President Bush has signed into law a poisoned chalice."