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Torture and Disability Rights

By Lisa Blumberg

When I was growing up in the 1960s, most high school students read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. The book described victims of Stalin's purges being confined to cells far under ground and forced to sit in groups motionless and in complete silence for hours on end.

Now, in the post 9/ll era, Americans debate the legal definition of torture. President Bush has just signed the Military Commissions Act (S. 3930), dealing with the interrogation of suspected terrorists that allows him and future presidents to interpret the standards of the Geneva Convention. Vice President Cheney recently indicated that he believes that a "dunk in the water" to get a suspected terrorist to talk is a "no brainer."

Disabled people have had experience with what could be called torture. Indeed, there has always been a saying in the movement that torture can be justified by calling it a “corrective procedure."

This past summer, the Massachusetts legislature considered whether to react to claims that students with autism at a special school -- the Rotenberg Center -- were sometimes burned when they were given sharp electric shocks to deter what the staff deemed inappropriate behavior (see stories from Inclusion Daily and from the Boston Globe here and here).

People with orthopedic "deformities" who were clapped in casts with their muscles pulled in impossible directions know about "stress positions". People who as children were displayed and photographed in hospital amphitheaters for all to see may have had memories stirred when they read of the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison.

Disability rights activists should see torture as a matter that involves us -- regardless of whether it occurs here or in the context of the war on terror. Acts such as simulated drowning and induced hypothermia, which may invoke extreme stress and discomfort in a totally able-bodied person, may be lethal for a detainee with a disability or health problem. An interrogator could mistake a prisoner's inability to hear or process a question or communicate an answer for intransigence. Our concerns should encompass these types of specific disability related issues, but also go beyond them.

The right not to be tortured -- regardless of who one is, what group one belongs to or what one may have done -- is a human rights issue. The disability rights movement is a human rights movement. We insist that people who cannot imagine having functional limitations themselves nonetheless recognize that persons with disabilities are full and equal participants in society. By the same token, we must urge respect for the physical integrity of people whose actions and beliefs may be counter to all our ideals.

Torture is uncivilized. Only a country which aspires to be civilized would have enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act or indeed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Even a simple thing like curb cuts, which are essential to people with impaired mobility and parents pushing strollers, is a mark of a society's values.

The Geneva Convention prohibits prisoners of war from being subjected to physical or mental torture or other forms of coercion. Adopted in l949, it was one of the collective attempts by the international community to create a civilized world order in the wake of Nazi horrors. If in the 21st century, the United States is not exemplary in complying with the Geneva Convention, not only will our troops face greater dangers, asSen. John McCain, who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam, has pointed out; the impact at home will be pernicious.

It has been argued that force in interrogation may be needed to gain information to prevent future terrorism. However the Military Commissions Act itself implies that coerced statements may be worthless. It permits a coerced statement to be used as evidence only if it is determined to be "reliable and possessing·probative value."(Section 948R of S. 3930).

Apart from that, we have much to fear from the idea -- terrorist in and of itself -- that an individual can be considered a non-person in order to achieve a goal. This type of notion leads to acceptance of such views as those propounded by Professor Peter Singer, who believes that it should be lawful to kill children with noticeable physical disabilities within the first month after birth so that their parents, without adding to the population, can try for a "replacement baby" who might have more success in life and cost less too (Johnson, Harriet McBryde, "Unspeakable Conversations" New York Times Sunday Magazine, February 16, 2003).

People with disabilities have also had some familiarity with indefinite detention without charges or access to lawyers, a situation that inevitably produces so much despair that it amounts to torture. Thousands of persons who look different or need the assistance of others have disappeared into institutions.

The contexts and the rationales put forth for the treatment of detainees and the experiences of people with disabilities are obviously vastly different. The point is wholly that the history of people with disabilities should make disability rights activists more sensitive than many Americans seem to be right now to the imperative need to say "no" to the abuse of anyone held in United States' custody.

Although captured Nazi leaders were accused of the most ghastly crimes, the Nuremberg Trials were conducted in careful accordance with the standards of due process. As Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd recently said, "The test was of principle over power and we passed the test". ("Dodd Urges Nuremberg Fairness for Detainees," Hartford Courant, September 30, 2006).

We don't seem to be passing the test right now. As Garrison Keillor stated in a distinctly serious column, if the Military Commission Act is not overturned by the courts, "then our country has taken a step towards totalitarianism". Noting that the act was voted for by 65 Senators, he asserted, "go back to the Senate of 1964 and you won't find more than ten votes for it." (Keillor, Garrison, "Congress' Shameful Retreat from American Values," Tribune Media Service, October 4, 2006).

The country does seem to be at a crossroads. If the disability rights movement is to have credibility as a progressive force and catalyst for social good, it must take a public position against torture and the corruption of the country's principles. Our time -- and it may not come again -- is now.

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  • If as many people identifying themselves as disability rights activists wrote op-eds and letters to the editors against the use of torture in interrogation as wrote pieces on the Schiavo case, we could really get the attention of the country.

  • If you belong to a disability rights group, press it to pass a resolution against torture. Send a copy to the press and your Congresspeople and Senators.

  • Find out where Congresspeople and Senators stand on the issue and let them know that it will affect your vote. After the election, contact them again and insist that they pass legislation prohibiting the use of all types of torture of people held in United States custody. Say that you are a disability rights activist and are therefore concerned with human rights. Congress needs to know that not only is there a groundswell of opinion against torture, another group -- and a large one -- has it on their agenda.

  • Participate in demonstrations and other activities in your area against torture. Identify yourself as a disability right activist against torture.

  • Go online and sign Amnesty International’s petition against torture. Among other things, this will get you on their e-mail list.
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    Attorney Lisa Blumberg writes frequently for Ragged Edge. Read her most recent article, Life Support in Massachusetts.