The torture debate in the U.S. has highlighted a key paradox in American ideology: We value human rights, but we also fear outside threats, enough that we’re willing to put the rights issue aside when we want to wring truth out of a suspected Al Qaeda operative.
But what about the medical side of torture? Search magazine has a fascinating article on how doctors are specializing in torture detection, and researching how torture affects the body and mind. Specifically, writer Jina Moore profiles Rajeev Bais and Lars Beattie, two doctors at the Libertas Human Rights Clinic in Queens who provide medical affidavits for U.S. asylum-seekers who claim they were tortured in their home countries.
These affidavits hold a ton of weight with judges, and play a key role in determining whether or not asylum is granted. The reason is that Bai and Beattie can tell with relative certainty if an applicant is telling the truth about being tortured, first by interviewing and observing him, and then doing a physical exam to look for corroborating evidence—in effect, using the patient’s body to check out his story.
And there’s plenty of evidence to look for, such as scar tissue, ligament or muscle tears, popped ear drums, and poorly-healed bones. Some methods, like burning with cigarettes or brands, leave easily identifiable scars, while others are usually mark-free—falanga, a practice in which victims are beaten on the bottoms of their feet with rods, causes excrutiating pain but leaves little to no permanent damage.
The dichotomy, as Moore notes, is interesting: Rather than the methodology of torture, which is to inflict pain on the body in order to wring truth from the mouth, these investigators use the body to corroborate the victim’s already-told story. As Moore puts it:
Bodies, in other words, can expose a lie. One doctor in Manhattan interviewed a man who claimed the scars above his nipples were the result of torture he suffered in Liberia under Charles Taylor’s regime. But the scars were symmetrical and equidistant, implying a precision which raised the doctor’s suspicion. A Liberian culture organization to which he described the markings told him the scars were more likely evidence of a tribal ritual ceremony.
This mix of psychology and forensic medicine can have gray areas, and Beattie admits he makes plenty of judgment calls:
Beattie never doubted his story, but he did wonder about the moral equivalence of pain: Who’s to say, he wondered, that [a tortured patient] never inflicted brutality on someone else?
“I decided, look, I believe him as a human being. I believe he was victimized there,” Beattie says. “And I believe I’m doing the right thing by writing the affidavit. But you know, I’m sure—” He paused. “Other people might feel otherwise.”
Moral judgments aside, the increased doctor attention on torture has led to a necessary ramp-up in research—as well as investigative reporting. Dr. Steven Miles even searched through 35,000 pages of government documents outlining the role medical personnel played in military interrogations in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, resulting in the book, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity and the War on Terror. Among his most alarming findings was this:
Miles also found more than two hundred military studies, by his count, that concluded the intelligence elicited by torture is usually faulty.
Which leads to a different conversation entirely.