In 1997, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 26 as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a day to commemorate those who have suffered mercilessly at the hands of their captors. It serves as a reminder that, according to international law, torture is a crime. The act of torture, which is oftentimes associated with physical pain inflicted against one’s will, in reality, extends beyond the body and bears damaging consequences to the mind. The physical pain of torture may subside, but the mental effects, such as nightmares, panic attacks, and depression are lasting. The survivors of this inhumane physical coercion must endure the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Torture tactics are frequently used on prisoners of war (POWs) in an attempt to “break” the enemy. Among other perpetrators, governments employ torture tactics in order to obtain important intelligence that informs operations against their enemies. However, many governments fail to consider the ineffectuality of torture in extracting information. According to Shane O’Mara, a Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, torture stressors such as sleep deprivation, starvation, fear, etc. “create problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes even counterproductive.” In other words, torture is not only cruel but also inoperable. Therefore, it is imperative that governments be held accountable for their illegal actions and abstain from future abuses.
In 1965, Admiral James Bond Stockdale, one of the most famous United States prisoners of war, had his plane shot down in Vietnam and was captured by the Vietnamese army. From that day forward, he endured relentless physical and mental torture. The anguish proved so extreme that he attempted suicide to end his abuse. Upon his return home, Stockdale was returned home after eight grueling years in the prisoner camps. He opened up to the nation about the atrocities he and many others had to endure. He provided examples of Vietnamese torture techniques such as starvation, sleep deprivation, and demanding tasks which exhausted the body and the mind.
Stockdale was held with ten other prisoners. The group, called the “Alcatraz eleven” or the “Alcatraz gang”, suffered through years of solitary confinement. They were often forced against their will to sign false confessions, which were broadcasted to the American public. These forced confessions were designed to break the prisoners’ morale and aid the Vietnamese attempts to portray the American government as the enemy. Despite the odds, the group of prisoners bonded and encouraged one another to stay strong, and all but one survived and returned to the U.S. as heroes.
However, the United States is not innocent in this issue. Guantanamo Bay is seen as a highly contentious issue in the American discourse on torture. Some have deemed the detention camp a “stain on the moral fabric of America,” and many accounts of the events that have transpired there are further proof that torture is inhumane and should be eradicated. Former Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes stated, “There is no question that these tactics were entirely inconsistent with our values as Americans, and their consequences present lasting challenges for us as a country and for the individuals involved.”
Investigation into the practices utilized at Guantanamo Bay have revealed that prisoners were subjected to rectal feeding, waterboarding, stress positions, strict confinement, humiliation tactics such as the “human mop”, physical abuse, threats of sexual assault, and sleep deprivation. These tactics inflicted lasting psychological damage to the prisoners, some whom were wrongfully detained and tortured, and only later found innocent of wrongdoing. These lingering feelings of humiliation result in lasting mood disorders and living life in constant fear.
No person should endure inhumane treatment. At Grieboski Global Strategies we understand the gravity of national security and appreciate the importance of interrogation. Nonetheless, we believe that nations and foreign relations are stronger and more secure when individuals—regardless of the extent of a crime or perceived threat—are treated lawfully. Every human is entitled to certain rights as specified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes Article five, that states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The memoirs of the American POWs in Vietnam and the prisoners in Guantanamo serve as a reminder that a nation can play the role of oppressor as well as victim. June 26th prompts nations to stop this dangerous, degrading cycle. Torture strips the prisoners as well as the oppressors of their compassion and empathy, the very qualities that make us human. Let us remember today those who have suffered and continue to suffer because of the crimes of their tormentors. Let us continue to oppose the torturous treatment of our fellow neighbors.