Friday, February 1, 2008

Our inner Eichmann

The following is a guest entry from Trent Toulouse which addresses his experience and the lessons learned as the torturer in the now infamous waterboarding video.

In 1961 the Israeli government tried Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the holocaust, for crimes against humanity. The trial was broadcast by all the worlds major news stations live and the world tuned in en masse to see what had to be one of the most monstrous humans receive justice. However, rather than revealing a demon the trial revealed a man. Eichmann did not deny any of the facts of the case or the holocaust but insisted repeatedly again and again that he was merely following orders and signing paper work. “Just following orders” has become known as the Eichmann defense and it brings up disturbing questions about what humans might be capable of under the right conditions. Was it possible that the monster in Eichmann is in all of us?

This question was put to the test in 1963 by Stanley Milgram in the now infamous Milgram's obedience study. Milgram was a social psychologist at Yale who wanted to explore more deeply the implications of the Eichmann defense. A series of randomly selected subjects were instructed in administrating a basic learning task to another participant. The task included giving a progressively more severe shock for wrong answers.

The subject was under the impression a real electric shock was given each time. But in reality no shock was ever administered. Instead an audio clip was played that gave more and more distraught responses. The participant that was suppose to be receiving the shocks was behind a screen and was actually a member of the research team. They would, after a few shocks, pound on the wall and complain about a heart condition. Then a few shocks later they would cease all communications.

Many people when they first hear about the experiment predict few people will proceed to the maximum voltage. In fact, Milgram asked a group of psychology majors before the experiment what they thought would happen. It was predicted that barely over one percent would go all the way.

The results are often surprising the first time you see them: 26 out of the 40 participants (65 percent) administered the full shock, and not a single subject stopped before 300 volts. All the subjects, at one point at least, expressed concern, many offering to give back their compensation if they could quit, but with the single sentence prod from the researcher they continued. Of the subjects that did stop early, none checked on the learner, or inquired about their welfare.

Milgram's work forces us to realize that Eichmann is human just like any of us, and all of us are capable of horrific acts when following those we see as authority figures. But how is this possible? What is the psychology that allows people to perform these heinous acts? I had personally never been in a situation like the subjects of Milgram's experiment and so any of my guesses were academic. Enter the waterboarding experiment.

There are clearly differences in the circumstances of what I did and the others that I have illustrated but there are also strong similarities. When all the planning was done and everything setup I stood above one of my best friends prepared to administer what has been labeled again and again as psychological torture. What were my thoughts? What was the internal conflict this produced? Not much to tell the truth. I simply switched gears into what I call a procedural mode. I had things to monitor, such as water level, flow rate, response of my friend, etc. The in-the-moment needs to measure and manipulate the situation allowed me to completely divorce myself from any of the higher questions and problems about what I was going to do. I had no major internal struggle because I wasn't focused on the questions or issues that would create it. I found it very easy to switch into this psychological state. Humans are animals and animals are primarily designed to be able to accomplish goal-directed tasks. While we maybe capable of setting up a much wider variety of goals once they are set we just fall back into getting from point A to point B.

Ever driven home after a long day arriving in your driveway with no real memory about how you got there? All of us should be able to come up with examples of using procedural goal-directed behavior that is relatively divorced from any sort of higher order moral or ethical element of our psyche. When I decided that the goal was to administer the waterboarding treatment for the video camera I was able to move smoothly into my goal-directed neural pathways and didn't have to worry about the wider questions until the goal was accomplished. The subjects of Milgram's experiment, while occasionally expressing concern over what they were doing, were essentially just headed towards an assigned goal and moving through motions and actions needed to get there. Perhaps this is what Eichmann faced. Every day he woke up and had to perform a series of actions to accomplish a set goal. Rather than tapping into a dark evil psychological state Eichmann was simply using the same part of the brain that allows us to drive through a yellow light without an intense moral debate about whether we should have stopped or not.

These same questions of what we are as humans has come forward once again as questions arise about treatment of prisoners in the war on terror and the war in Iraq. In 1971 Philip Zimbardo from Stanford did an experiment where a group of randomly selected undergraduates were split into groups of prisoners and prison guards. For several weeks the basement of the psychology department was to be a prison while Zimbardo studied the psychological dynamics of what occurred. Instead the experiment revealed how quickly out of control humans can get in the right circumstances. Zimbardo has created a great on-line resource to study just how bad things got but suffice it to say that the experiment was halted early and once more it was demonstrated how easily we as humans can fall into the traps of committing heinous acts in the our goal-directed behavior. Zimbardo's work hit the forefront of attention once more after the Abu Ghraib prison disaster. Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident it is the by-product of our basic human nature.

What is the take home message from all of this? I have learned through my studies and now first hand experience that the psychology that allows us to do terrible things is not the exception but the rule. Rather than needing just the right circumstances, or some terrible random act, each of us is inclined to fall back on it rather than rise above it. But I also know that most of us manage to live our lives as good people. We are perfectly capable of rising above our evil but we can give ourselves no excuse and no lee way. The question of whether waterboarding is torture misses the point. Maybe it is a gray area maybe it is not, but if we allow ourselves this one exception we will loose control of ourselves. We must stand firm and give no opportunity for the monster in each of us to emerge. We must always be the better person we must always be prepared to rise above. Rather then seeing how far we can push things till we become the next Nazi Germany and finding the line to walk between war crimes and interrogation we should push ourselves to be more humane than ever. We as a people must stand up and say that things like waterboarding will not be tolerated there is no gray area in torture.

On June 1st 1962 Adolf Eichmann was executed by hanging. His ashes were spread over international water so that no nation could build a monument to his passing. No tears will be wept as the man clearly exemplified the horror that we are capable of as humans. But that's the lesson, as much as we would wish to deny it, Eichmann was human and each of us must choose not to be like him. Each of us must actively work to rise above the inner monster or it will win and what happens next I don't want to know.

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Torture 2.0

Yesterday, my waterboarding video caught the attention of the Wall Street Journal and a pointilized rendition of my face wound up on the front page. Good Morning America called at 9 AM wondering if I was interested in an all expense paid trip to New York. The media circus continued throughout the day and night and I basked in my 15 minutes of fame. If you haven’t seen the video here is a repost:

In my original blog I was only interested in the experience of waterboarding. In this post I would like to discuss whether or not this is in fact torture.

Is waterboarding torture? Yes. While it doesn’t cause any lasting, physical damage in a controlled setting, it does trick the brain into having the sensation of drowning. I conducted my experiment in a controlled environment. It was my priority to foresee any health risks and minimize the endangerment to my body. The outcome of any waterboarding session is subject to the demeanor of the interrogator . He or she could potentially abuse the method and cause real drowning.
Even if the interrogation only simulates drowning it still causes psychological stress on the victim. Therefore, according to International Humanitarian Law, waterboarding falls under the category of torture.

No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

What did it feel like when I was waterboarding? I felt blind panic to breath followed by an even higher state of panic when I tried to inhale and realized I could not.

Would I do it again? No! It’s torture. I’m not some fat guy in the circus taking live cannon balls in the gut every night for applause. This isn’t a freak show. I created a spectacle to gather attention to a point. I’m satisfied that the point has been made. It’s torture.

Would I ever suggest using waterboarding to prevent a future 9/11, terrorist type of attack? I’m not a policy maker. I am only a layman who has subjected himself to the experience, but I've been getting this question a lot. My answer has been, "No."
Torture is a technique of warfare. I believe that warfare is only wise if diplomacy fails. Even a brilliant military strategist like Sun Tzu hints at this:

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

If one comes into a position where torture is a necessary option, the problem is not whether the victim will suffer in that moment. That is just a horrible symptom of a deeper rooted, endemic issue of human relations that has previously gone unchecked. There will always be conflict between parties. The solution to the torture debate lies in how we address our initial discord with one another.

Why did I do it? I was tired of hearing politicians and pundits argue about whether or not it was torture when the materials were so accessible that they could do it without leaving home. I did it to show that it could be done. I wanted to add a visceral component to an otherwise abstract debate on the nature of human suffering.

Why did I make a waterboarding video and post it on the Internet? I wanted to document my experience as well as build awareness. The purpose of this blog is to create social change using media. I hope that by subjecting myself to waterboarding it has added a fresh perspective to the dialogue. What follows is a list of links that react to my video.

Military correspondent Yochi Dreazen's Front Page Wall Street Journal article started it all. I think that it's articulately written and the most true to my feelings on the subject of waterboarding.

My friend Trent Toulouse was the guy who poured the water on me. He's posted a guest blog on my site that looks at the experience from the point of view of the torturer.

As things heated up last night I was a guest on Brian Suits show on KFI 640 AM Los Angeles. It lasted about ten minutes and climaxed when Brian asked me, "Would you use waterboarding against me if I locked up your mother in a conex box in the middle of the desert and wouldn't tell you where she was?" My mom was standing right next to me shaking her head. She didn't think that I should torture anyone. I told him "No."

Albuquerque's local CBS affiliate KRQE 13 ran Taste of Torture as the top story on their 10 PM news program. It was a classic, "If it Bleeds it Leads" story. The reporter Kim Holland's angle on the phenomenon was that we were just three dudes, kicking back eating pizza, drinking beer and looking for some fun. Fun that could've cost one local Rio Rancho man his life.

There are also a lot of blogs out there carrying my video. Reading some of the feedback coverage is like walking through a hall of mirrors. Dreazin's WSJ article was an analysis of my blog, the pro bloggers wrote a reaction to his piece, the amateur bloggers respond to the pro bloggers critique and the meaning of the story slowly gets diffused until eventually all that's left is a green image of me spitting up water and some troll in the comment section remarking, "Dumbass." That said, my favorite blog thus far has been's Waterboarding... So Hot Right Now (The headline was probably inspired by a comment my sister made about puggles on my myspace acount). The comment section of the Gawker article is hilarious. I think they might've pioneered the inevitable waterboarding subculture.

Here are some of the other blogs that picked my video up.
Abu Muqawama
Chinese Edition of the Wall Street Journal
Deal Breaker
The Feminist Bloggers Network
The Mahablog
Psyche, Science, and Society
Rite Wing Technopagan
White Coat Underground

Web 2.0 made this possible. My video is only a minute long. It took minimum production to construct and yet brought the issue to the interest of thousands of people. It just goes to show that anyone with a video camera and a free account to Blogger and Youtube can advocate a cause to a mass audience. This is a powerful medium.
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