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The camp X-Files
Thumbs down for Joe Klein, thumbs up for Larry Flynt and a high five for the atheists
Eamonn McCann, 27 Feb 2002
Long ago in a faraway place I spent years learning how to torture people. Or studying psychology, as we called it at the time. Our key text was by a chap called Hebb who in the 1950s had famously beguiled scores of cash-strapped students at Montreal University into helping him investigate the effects of sensory deprivation on the human mind.
Volunteers were paid about E200 a day to lounge about in a grey, warm dim-lit room empty of sound except for an ambient hum. That’s all they had to do. Nothing. But half pressed a panic button within 24 hours. A few lasted 48 hours. No-one lingered longer than 100 hours.
The problem wasn’t boredom but a gathering sense of being insane. Many reported it impossible to distinguish between crazy dreams and waking consciousness. Most experienced wild hallucinations. The line between inner thought and objective reality shimmied and blurred.
Hebb’s work was adapted by British Army strategists dealing with insurgency in Malaya and, later, by spooks in Northern Ireland, so as to develop the methods of torture (“inhuman and degrading treatment” in the European Court of Human Rights’ formulation) used against men interned without trial in August 1971.
By and large, it didn’t work. Mulch was made of the victims’ minds. But they tended not to cough up hard facts but to dribble fantastical nonsense. Maybe the Americans have improved on the technique since.
Torture by sensory deprivation is what’s going on at Guantanamo Bay. Those who believe the US Defence Department when it says that the prisoners are being treated “appropriately and humanely” provide touching tribute to the resilience of credulity in a cynical world.
Around the time I was studying Hebb, another experiment was being conducted in the US to determine how much pain a subject put in a position of authority might be willing to inflict before rebelling against the demands of the experimental model. Told to use an escalating series of electric shocks to punish a fellow student for failing to carry out allotted impossible tasks, many listened unmoved to screams of agony and howls for release.
The experiment is widely regarded as throwing light on the process whereby, for example, hitherto decent individuals came to carry out unspeakable acts in the service of the Third Reich and many German intellectuals, identifying with authority, came to provide moral and ideological cover for atrocity.
What called this back to mind was a Guardian article by Joe Klein about Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo. Klein is a heavy hitter in the mainstream media, author of the political roman á clef Primary Colours, liberal in the US sense – a vocal opponent of capital punishment, for example.
On this one, though, he’s on-side with the Department of Defence. “I do not believe that the aggressive interrogation of sociopaths does any damage to our glorious legal system, or to our moral values as a society”. The tendency of Europeans “to inflate such issues as Camp X-Ray” indicates moral weakness in Europe, not in the US.
Searching for the source of European commentators’ concern about X-Ray, Klein hits on national trauma arising from fear of immigration. “Ancient inbred cultures are being asked to surrender their sovereignty... It is far easier for Italians to think about American executions than about all those Albanians storming the beaches. It is far easier for Brits to screech about the race bias implicit in the X-Ray controversy than to confront their real feelings about the enterprising people who tried to charge the Chunnel”.
So it’s those who are concerned about the treatment of the prisoners who are morally deficient...
It would be wrong to portray Klein in the position of writers in Germany in the 1930s who provided the intellectual mood-music for the advance of Nazism. But his comments do help us understand the thought processes by which normally kindly people can come to rationalise acceptance of evil.
Nein to Klein, then. But Ja to the porn king of America. Hustler boss Larry Flynt has stepped in where the liberal media fear to tread and launched a suit against Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for denying the people access to information about the “War Against Terrorism”.
Flynt is demanding that Hustler correspondents be allowed to accompany American troops as they go about the campaign in Afghanistan and wherever else Washington decides to extend the war.
He has picked up a case left hanging in 1991. Then, the liberal journal The Nation charged the Defence Department with unconstitutionally barring reporters from the battlefields of the Gulf War. Before a federal judge could rule, however, the war was over and the case was abandoned.
It is a sign of the ominously changed times that it’s Flynt who’s picking up where The Nation left off. And this despite the fact that censorship of news about the current war has made far deeper inroads into freedom of the press than anything experienced in the Gulf War.
Flynt is no stranger to the territory. Back in 1988, he went to the Supreme Court for the right to ridicule the fundamentalist zealot, Jerry Falwell. The ruling made parody “protected speech”. Whether his current case reverberates similarly remains to be seen. What’s certain is that the issues involved are vital for the health of journalism in the US and, therefore, of journalism everywhere.
The lead article in the current edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, based on interviews with more than a score of foreign editors, Pentagon correspondents, Washington bureau chiefs, news executives and media critics, backs Flynt’s contention that censorship is being imposed “in a fashion unimagined in Vietnam, and... more restrictive even than the burdensome constraints in the Persian Gulf.”
The Journal concludes that the clamp-down has arisen from “a concern that images and descriptions of civilian bomb casualties – people already the victims of famine, poverty, drought, oppression, and brutality – would erode public support in the US and elsewhere in the world”.
It’s not only images but also hard facts which are being hidden. When Marc Herold, a professor at the University of New Hampshire’s School of Business and Economics, calculated that by December 6th last more innocent civilians had already been killed by the US in Afghanistan than had died in America on September 11th, he was rubbished by the usual suspect commentators here for accepting local and Arabic as well as Western sources of information. But the US (and Britain), to the extent that they could, had blocked journalists from access to the information.
There has been virtually no reporting of the effects of the bombing of populated areas from 30,000 feet. The Pentagon is able to maintain that it has no estimate of the numbers of innocent deaths.
What’s depressing is not that a government should so try to shackle journalism but that many in US journalism, like Klein, seem to wear the chains with pride. No major US outlet has been willing to back Flynt’s suit.