Steven Poole – author of unspeak posts at Troppo

(Well not really). I heard an excellent talk by him on ABC radio perspective last Friday and emailed him requesting the text – since the ABC only had the audio when I looked. (It’s there now) He indicated that it was from his book and sent me the link.

It’s a good short peice so either go check it out or check out my editing of it over the fold.   Nice to hear someone with some passion on a subject which, so it seems to me, is as important as any we face in the peculiar world that we’ve engineered for ourselves in response to the bizare outrages of September 11.

In December 2002, two prisoners at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan, died after trauma to their legs of such severity that the coroners compared it to the results of being run over by a bus. The subsequent official investigation was nothing if not creative. The death of one was explained in this way:

‘No one blow could be determined to have caused the death,’ the former senior staff lawyer at Bagram, Col. David L. Hayden, said he had been told by the Army’s lead investigator. ‘It was reasonable to conclude at the time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw’. i

The logic of this is startling. You may compare it in some ways to the Chinese method of execution, used until 1905, known as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Since no one cut can be determined to cause death, no one is responsible for the killing. Similar is the principle behind the firing squad: everyone fires at the same time and one soldier has a blank, so no one soldier can be sure that he killed his comrade. But at least in these two cases the intention is avowedly to cause death. To use the argument as an excuse for ‘accidental’ extrajudicial killing is different. It is perhaps more like a sophistic application of Zeno’s paradox of motion. Since at every place in the flight of an arrow it can be considered at rest, an infinite number of such points of rest cannot possibly add up to travel, so the arrow does not actually move and can never reach its target. Similarly, no number of ‘legitimate’ things can ever add up to something that is illegitimate. It’s just one of those unfortunate things.

But this is deliberate linguistic misdirection. The insertion of the word ‘legitimate’ before ‘force’ aims exactly to pre-empt the question of legitimacy. Even if one allows that some force might be legitimate, you’re dissuaded from wondering whether a repetitive sequence of legitimate blows can be illegitimate. . . . ‘Legitimate’ force also implies that the victim had been found guilty of a crime deserving of violent punishment; but the dead prisoners had never had a trial.

The argument is weak on a more physical level, too. If I tap you lightly on the head a hundred times, you may become very annoyed, but this will not add up to crushing your skull. Equally, repeated light blows to the thighs will not add up to crushing them as though you had been run over by a bus. The ‘legitimate force’ in these blows must in truth be fierce. And so the whole defence does nothing but beg the question of legitimacy itself.

In fact the blows to the legs were not mild slaps but what’s called ‘peroneal strikes’, a deliberately disabling strike to the side of the leg, just above the knee, which targets the peroneal nerve. One of the former police officers who trained the guards in this technique said that it would ‘tear up’ a prisoner’s legs if used repeatedly. A military policeman at the base, Specialist Jones, testified as to how entertaining it was to brutalise a detainee in this way and hear him cry out to his god: ‘It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out “Allah,” he said. ‘It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.’

Inflicting pain for its comic value might not be many people’s idea of ‘legitimate force’. By the time the man who so amused the Military Police died, most interrogators at the base had concluded that he was an innocent taxi driver.

The word ‘administration’, meanwhile, is another example of the bureaucratisation of the language of violence. Medicine is administered; civil government is administration. Punishment is administered only after due process. To call the beating of an unconvicted prisoner the ‘administration’ of force is already to approve of it, by describing it in the language of official sanction. The very phrase ‘repetitive administration’ is designed to coat the mind in grey cotton-wool, to conjure vistas of endless similar days in fluorescent-lit offices, and thus to mask the reality of brutal violence inflicted for sadistic enjoyment. In the end, the best translation of Colonel Hayden’s words is: ‘Yes, we beat these men to death, but we have determined that we had the right to do so.’

Well, I didn’t get much editing done.   Just one sentence in fact. Ie – it’s a great fierce piece of writing and advocacy.

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Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

Interesting. I give a writing course for economists, called ‘Optimal Obfuscation’ naturally. I might use this as another example.