In November 2003, Manadel al Jamadi, one of the CIA’s so-called “ghost detainees,” died at Abu Ghraib prison. Military authorities classified his death as a “homicide.” The world learned of his existence last year, when photographs surfaced of prison guards giving the thumbs-up sign over his swollen corpse then preserved in ice.
Fortunately, thanks to newly released military records and interviews with personnel who were present, there is no further reason to speculate over what might have killed al Jamadi. We now know that he died as a result of something called “Palestinian hanging.” During an interrogation session, his arms were shackled to a window in a position that allowed him to stand up comfortably, but which would force his arms to stretch above and behind his head if he ever attempted to lower his body. In time, the pressure on his torso became so great that some of his ribs broke, he began to bleed internally, and he finally stopped breathing.
For some time after al Jamadi’s death, the interrogators and guards in the shower room (the CIA likes to conduct interrogations in shower rooms) assumed that the motionless prisoner was “playing possum.” The reports do not indicate precisely when they realized that his lifelessness was very real, but they might have been tipped off when, according to Sgt. Jeffrey Frost, al Jamadi’s shackles were removed and blood issued from his mouth “as if a faucet had been turned on.” Frost himself became suspicious somewhat earlier; he told interviewers that al Jamadi’s body had been contorted by the shackles into a position he had never seen before, and which was so severe he expected the arms to “pop out of their sockets.”
In CIA and military parlance, al Jamadi’s fatal ordeal was subjection to a “stress position.” It belongs to the larger family of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These, in turn, fall under the umbrella of “coercive interrogation.” I can’t imagine I’m the only one who finds something lacking in this sort of terminology. The principle behind Palestinian hanging — gradual asphyxiation though pressure to the body’s breathing apparatus — comes straight out of the diseased imaginations of Roman executioners. The jailers of Saddam Hussein’s dungeons could scarcely have devised a greater cruelty.
Spokesmen for the Bush administration refer to what al Jamadi and a significant number of other prisoners were put through in a jargon completely void of descriptive content. This is no coincidence. Using bloodless technical vocabulary to describe such practices is the first step toward excusing them. It intentionally serves to obscure our understanding of what has been done under the auspices of the American government. The president himself has said many times that he does not, never has, and never will condone “torture” — which I daresay has given many people the impression that the administration has never condoned torture.
Sadly, the reality is that internal administration memoranda, most notably the infamous Aug. 1, 2002, memo from the Office of Legal Counsel, provided the entire executive branch with a definition of torture constrained beyond any comprehensible usage in natural language. For a physical act to amount to torture, claimed the OLC, it had to produce pain “equivalent in intensity to [that] accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Heinous practices like the removal of fingernails or genital electrocution could fail to be considered torture if they did not entail permanent physical disability. And there was a further catch: For torture to have taken place, the “severe pain and suffering” in alleged instances of torture “must be inflicted with specific intent … expressly intend[ed] to achieve the forbidden act.” And in case any doubt arises over whether such intent was present in a particular case, an alleged torturer’s sincere affirmation that he did not act with specific intent is enough to settle the matter.
The government was forced to invalidate these findings due to public outcry almost as soon as the relevant documents were uncovered in 2004. As far as we know, at the time of al Jamadi’s death in 2003, the so-called “torture memo” was still the executive branch’s operative interpretation of the sections of U.S. Code and international treaties concerning torture. In other words, as long as al Jamadi’s interrogators could claim not to have specifically intended to crucify him to death, they would not, according to our government, have been guilty of torture. Given their cynical restrictions on what the term “torture” can apply to, the administration’s claims that the OLC memo was never used to enable torture or immunize interrogators against prosecution for it are hardly reassuring.
Another set of memoranda is now in place delineating what intelligence officials are permitted to do in interrogations. The administration refuses to release them. As citizens of a republic, we have a right to know whether acts of such extreme malice and evil as Palestinian hangings continue to be committed in our name, and whether they bear the approbation of the highest levels of our government. Overcoming the administration’s obvious contempt for any notion of public accountability will require defending the ordinary uses of words. We must insist that our media do not act as an echo chamber for official neologisms, do not use “coercive interrogation” to refer to torture and do not use “stress position” to refer to an ersatz crucifixion. The stakes could not be higher: If we allow the government to wage an internal war against natural language, our nation’s external war of moral principles is already lost.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.