Book Review: American Torture by Michael Otterman

The doctor sits in the cold empty room, the colorless walls, desk and chair lit by the pale yellow window from behind bars. The place is coated in the memories of sweat and fear, and yet he stands undaunted. He knows the system. He knows the right words to say, and when to say them. He knows not to flinch or let down his guard. He knows the law.

And so he stands, the camera observing him from a tucked away recess in the corner of his eye, endlessly recording the waves of indignance that float off of him. And why shouldn’t he be indignant? He’s a doctor. A respected member of the community. He has no business being here.

The door to the room opens with a heavy creak and a rock of a man stalks in carrying a brown paper bag and a phone book. The black metal door shuts behind him and he sets his items on the table, his bald head, thick neck, and stone cut eyes giving the illusion that this was not a man to be trifled with.

Despite the slow curl of fear rising up in the doctor’s abdomen, he watches with interest as the newcomer empties the bag, his barrel like arms removing a bottle of booze, a lighter, a pair of pliers.

“What’s this?” the doctor asks in feigned amusement.

“This is the stuff I’m going to use to get me to tell you where the little girl is,” the cop answers in a calm gravelly voice. He’s calm, calm as a gentle spring day.

“I get it,” the doctor quips. “You’re the bad cop!” He teases as he silently feels his chest loosen. He knows the law, he sees the camera. This gorilla of a man will do nothing more than try to intimidate him, and if he does otherwise, well, that’s what lawyers are for.

“Good cop, bad cop left for the day,” the cop answers with a clever half grin on his face. “I’m a different kind of cop.”

Still, the doctor is not frightened. If anything, this will be fun, like being in a movie.

The cop begins asking the same questions the cop before him asked. Where’s the girl? What has he done to her? The doctor, well aware of his rights, well aware that all he has to do is keep his mouth shut for long enough and they will have to let him go or bring him up on charges everyone knows he can beat.

And so he sits there, shunning the questions, putting on his excellent act of being above this circus interrogation. Then the cop reaches into his back pocket and pulls out his wallet. His thick, calloused fingers flip it open and rifle through the worn plastic picture holder until he finds what he wants.

He shows the doctor a picture of who he claims is his daughter. Asks the doctor if he wants her. “You want to stick your dick in her?”

“What? NO!” the doctor protests, affronted.

The cop looks dissappointed. “Why not? What’s that little girl you got have that my Cassie doesn’t?”

He presses harder. Where’s the girl? He wants to see what’s so special, and the doctor can feel his control over the situation slipping away. The face. The face in the wallet, it’s pretty to him. He does want it, he wants to take it and lock it away with the other pretty face he has currently imprisoned in his basement.

“I’m bored now!” he declares, staring not at the cop, but directly into the camera, privately hoping that whoever is watching is more sane than the sicko standing before him. “Charge me, or release me…”

He only barely finishes his sentence before the beast of a man launches after him, the telephone book in hand. It rips through the air, it’s pages rustling for just a moment before its mass slams into him with horrific force. He feels himself fall from the chair and hit the ground hard.

The cop doesn’t even slow down. Before the stars in his head even have a chance to start exploding, the telephone book is brought down on him again and again, whimpers escape his throat as the bludgeoning continues.

Pain, he’s not used to pain. He inflicts much, but he is rarely subjected to it, and only so many blows are needed before the doctor is telling the cop everything he wants.

In another room, the Captain is watching a television set. With two other detectives, he watches as the hulking mass of the violent cop leaves the room, the doctor left lying in a crumpled heap, a trail of urine trickling across the floor.

Within moments a swarm of cops bust through a quiet LA home, the bald cop leading the way. The wind through its hallways and find the door with the padlock, pop it off with a pair of bolt cutters, and the cop gently opens the door.

She sits there, eyes hollowed, body emaciated, her dress tattered and dirty. She flinches when the flashlight comes into view and for a brief second she tries to pull away, thinking its her tormentor. But the cop, like a latter day, gun toting savior, reaches out a hand.

Everything’s going to be okay now.


The above is fiction. A novelization of a scene from the popular television show The Shield. There are countless scenes like the one above in dozens of widely viewed programs from 24 to Alias. It is a concept branded into the popular culture of a nation, sometimes you have to get tough, sometimes you have to step around the law to save people.

This fact is reflected in today’s political debate, from Bush and Cheney making their arguments to not tie the hands of intelligence agencies in their efforts to draw out “time sensitive” information from detainees to Rudy Giuliani mentioning in the most recent Republican debate that when it came to terrorists, he would rather have 24‘s Jack Bauer.

But the problem with this is that now we’re talking about non-fiction. We’re not talking about romanticized, novelized conjured occurences, we’re talking about real life, and real people, and the use of torture and phycially coerced information is not what the movies and tv shows makes it out to be.

Given recent events, the recent release of classified CIA documents, talk about closing Gitmo, etc., the subject of torture and inhumane treatment of detainees, Michael Otterman’s work, American Torture, is of particular significance.

It not only catalogues the abuses of Abu Ghraib, nor the abuses of Guantanamo, but takes a long and hard look at how we got there, reaching back to the beginning of the cold war. Through gripping narrative, Otterman recounts the early days, when westerners turned up in Communist courts, “brainwashed”, confessing to crimes no sane person would believe they committed.

He shows this as the catalyst, an American public living in fear, and the CIA experiments that sought to reverse engineer exactly what the Communists were doing.

And what began as an experiment spread like a plague. SERE was developed, essentially torture methods we used on our own military personnel to prepare them should they be sent out into the field, captured, and tortured. But SERE was not to be limited to this dubious purpose, and soon found its usage in the field:

According to one 1950 directive: ‘the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world’. These fears trickled down to CIA agents in the field. Hugh Cunningham, an early agency official, later recalled: ‘What you were made to feel was that the country was in desperate peril and we had to do whatever it took to save it.’

SERE was soon used not only to innoculate soldiers against torture tactics, but filtered through to Vietnam, and South America. And if you think these are just hardline tactics, take a look at how we treated one of our own:

The Lieutenant was young and frail. There had been a time when he had eaten, washed, and slept, but that had been in some other life many nightmares ago. Stripped to his shorts, he stood on the crude wooden floor with his knees slightly bent. It did not look like an uncomfortable position, but the pain in his legs became worse and worse. he began trembling. it was difficult to estimate the temperature in the windowless wooden shack. it might ahve been 110 degrees. It might have been 130. The lieutenent couldn’t see his surroundings because three powerful spotlights flooded his grimy face from three feet away. he kept staring at his arms. They were tretched forward with a thin, naked wire looped around each forefinger. Whenever somebody behind the lights felt like it, the wires pumped an electric shock through the lieutenant’s body…

And in learning of the history of torture, we learn the nature of it. Forced standing. It doesn’t sound that bad, does it? But Otterman destroys that myth, documenting the physical and psychological effects:

the ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference… The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum. The accumulation of the body fluid in the legs produces impairment of circulation. The heart rate increases, and fainting may occur. Eventually there is a renal shutdown and urine production ceases… ultimately [victims] usually develop a delirious state, characterized by disorientation, fear, delusions and visual hallucinations.

Hinkle and Wolff also discovered a cruel psychological aspect of forced standing. At first prisoners attempt to ‘stick it out’ and assume a feeling of moral superiority against their captor. Over time, ‘there develops a conflict within the individual between his moral determination and his desire to collapse and discontinue the pain’. According to Hinkle and Wolff, ‘It is this extra internal conflict that tends to make this method of torture so effective in the breakdown of the individual’.

There is little question that Otterman’s work is a must read, particularly in todays day in age. His non-fiction is more entertaining than most fiction out there that glamorizes and makes a false case for torture.

By putting it in context, we see how the photos from Abu Ghraib came about, as well as the atrocities in Gitmo. By going into such detail, we can easily see that the methods that the administration tries to shrug off as merely just taking a tough stance are in fact torture. And Otterman goes in depth into the legal wrangling Bush had his lawyers go through to make torture first not torture, and then legal.

The book is at once fascinating, entertaining, and terrifying, it pulls no punches, and is constantly putting itself in context. If you are against torture, buy it to learn more about what you are against. If you think that what we did in Abu Ghraib and continue to do in Gitmo is okay, you MUST read this book to find out why you are wrong.

Perhaps the simplest, sweetest, and most basic argument the book provides for those who can’t see what is wrong with what we are doing comes towards the end:

‘If he [was] a good guy… now hes a bad guy because of the way we treated him.’

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