Monday, April 27, 2009

It Was Torture When Practiced on Americans 60 Years Ago; It's Not Torture Now

I recently read Shawn C. Smallman's excellent Fear & Memory in the Brazilian Army & Society, 1889-1954. Smallman does a great job of tracing shifts in military politics and memory, and the implications for the 1964-1985 dictatorship (though it is outside of his focus). One of the recurring themes is military leadership's use of torture against opposing factions or uprisings. One of these uprisings, the 1935 uprising of communists in the Brazilian Northeast, resulted in extreme repression and the establishment of the Estado Novo dictatorship, and many participants and leaders were tortured when the uprising failed. One of the participants was an American, Victor Allan Barron. Smallman writes of Barron's fate on page 53:

Victor Allan Barron, an American who had formerly been a member of the Communist Youth, underwent horrible tortures after his arrest. [...] A naval captain (and doctor) supervised Barron's torture, as he was beaten, shocked, and had his testicles squeezed until he fainted. [...] According to Brazilian authorities, Barron committed suicide by jumping from the second floor of the central police station. It is unclear if he was dead before he went through the window or if he died in the hospital after the fall. In the U.S., Congressman Vito Marcantonio denounced Barron's torture and murder before the house of representatives. He read a statement from Joseph R. Brodsky, Barron's lawyer, who claimed personal knowledge of his client's torture: 'They beat him with belts and rubber hose; they burned and shocked him with live electric wires; they punched and kicked him around constantly and did not let him sleep for days." (emphasis mine)

It's worth pointing out here that, when an American was forced to sleep deprivation (among other horrors) in another country, a U.S. Congressman took to the floor to denounce the actions. Yet 67 years later, Bush administration legal counsels suggested that "sleep deprivation does not constitute" torture when we were using it on foreigners.

Many other people (including myself) have commented already on the double-standard of the U.S. under Bush, as acts that other countries previously committed that we called "torture" suddenly became legal when we were employing the same methods. Smallman's study (published in 2001, well before we'd even begun torturing people) offers just one more documentary piece of evidence into the hypocrisy of making "legal" the torture methods for which we have previously condemned others.