Friday, September 12, 2008

The ghost of Jeffrey Benzien lives

One of the most chilling moments during the South African Truth and Reconciliation process was when Jeffrey Benzien, an apartheid era torturer, was asked by one of his victims to re-enact, without doing harm, the torture he had administered. The image of Benzien clutching a bag over the volunteer’s face while sitting on his back will stick in my mind forever.

Benzien, who eventually received amnesty, was the infamous master of the ‘wet bag’ torture technique. This form of torture involves placing a wet bag over a victim’s head, which results in suffocation and the sensation of drowning. Benzien claimed he could break most prisoners in 30 minutes.

Disturbingly, variations of this technique, euphemistically called ‘waterboarding’, have been used in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay by the US military. It was, at least in part, the condemnation of the practice of waterboarding that led me to take part in my first protest on US soil.

In August, while at the American Psychological Asso-ciation (APA) conference, in Boston, I joined fellow psychologists to protest against the APA’s current refusal to ban its members from participating in or observing interrogations in any capacity whatsoever.

So how does this relate to waterboarding?

To cut a long story short, two years ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross raised the alarm about the involvement of health professionals in US interrogations. The APA set up a committee to investigate this. The committee endorsed the use of psychologists “in consultative roles” in interrogation processes “for national security-related purposes”. It transpired that six of the nine members of the committee were military psycho- logists.

This caused an outcry. In late 2007, the APA issued a statement condemning the role of psychologists in torture and said it was unethical to participate in 19 coercive procedures, including waterboarding. However, the APA did not forbid psychologists from being involved in interrogations; rather it felt their presence could ensure ethical interrogations took place, safeguarding the welfare of detainees.

But is it possible to be an ethical observer in an interrogation? Why are ‘safety officers’ needed, in the first place? Clearly, there is a systematic problem in the US military if they are worried about potential torture.

Apathy clearly runs rife. At the APA protest, there were only 200 people out of the possible 14 000 delegates attending the conference. Most psychologists do not seem bothered that their profession is being associated with torture, or that individuals may be harmed.

This links to a second point: why and how certain sectors been vested with so much power? And why, when the mantra of national security or a threat against the country is touted, whether in the US or any country, for that matter, it seems that most of us just sit back and let governments do the thinking for us? Or we end up debating technicalities rather than taking action.

For example, in the APA case, is the bigger issue not the condemnation of centres such as Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the disciplining of psychologists who have partici- pated in torture so far?

The sad truth is that torture and abuse are happening around us all the time, and should never be tolerated.

Every day, across Europe and Africa, immigrants are abused and robbed of rights, often detained in asylum centres, prisons or worse. Torture of criminal suspects still happens routinely in South Africa. So-called terror- ists continue to be kept in hidden ‘black sites’ across the world by the US with the tacit agreement of other governments.

We all seem to have explanations for such abuses. After all, asylum seekers need to be properly vetted. Criminals and terrorists will ultimately reap what they sow. Or a psychologist being present during an interrogation is ethical. But these are fantasies, and each time we think such thoughts, another part of our humanity dies and with that another Jeffrey Benzien is born.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, September 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 5 September 2008.