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Repetitive administration

The calculus of legitimacy

When is it okay to beat a man to death? Why, when that beating consists in “the repetitive administration of legitimate force”.

In December 2002, two detainees at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan, died after trauma to the legs of such severity that the coroners compared it to being run over by a bus.

The subsequent official legal investigation has been nothing if not creative. As the New York Times reports:

“No one blow could be determined to have caused the death,” the former senior staff lawyer at Bagram, Col. David L. Hayden, said he had been told by the Army’s lead investigator. “It was reasonable to conclude at the time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw.”

The logic of this is startling. You may compare it in some ways to the Chinese method of execution, used until 1905, known as “death by a thousand cuts”. Since no one cut can be determined to cause death, no one is responsible for the killing. Similar is the principle behind the firing squad: everyone fires at the same time, so no one soldier can be sure that he killed his comrade. But at least in these two cases the intention is avowedly to cause death.

To use this argument as an excuse for “accidental” extrajudicial killing is different. It is perhaps more like a sophistic application of Zeno’s paradox of motion. Since at every place in the flight of an arrow it can be considered at rest, an infinite number of such points of rest cannot possibly add up to travel, so the arrow does not actually move, and can never reach its target. Similarly, no number of “legitimate” things can ever add up to something that is illegitimate. It’s just one of those unfortunate things . . .

But this is deliberate linguistic misdirection. The insertion of the word “legitimate” before “force” aims exactly to pre-empt the question of legitimacy. Even if one allows that some force might be legitimate, one is dissuaded from wondering whether a repetitive sequence of legitimate blows can be illegitimate. That principle is common in other areas of law: a repetitive sequence of non-criminal acts can add up to the crime of harrassment; repetitively playing your music too loud can add up to a disturbance of the peace.

The argument is malignantly bogus on a more physical level, too. If I tap you lightly on the head a hundred times, you may become very annoyed, but this will not add up to crushing your skull. Similarly, repeated light blows to the thighs will not add up to crushing them as though you had been run over by a bus. The “legitimate force” in these blows must in fact be fierce. And so the whole defence does nothing but beg the question of legitimacy itself, the redefinition of which has been attempted in the torture memos and elsewhere.

In fact the blows to the legs were not mild slaps but “peroneal strikes”, a deliberately disabling strike to the side of the leg, just above the knee, which targets the peroneal nerve. One of the former police officers who trained the guards in this technique said that it would “tear up” a prisoner’s legs if used repeatedly. An M.P. at the base, Specialist Jones, testified as to how entertaining it was to brutalize a detainee in this way and hear him cry out to his god:

It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out ‘Allah,’ ” he said. “It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.”

Inflicting pain for its comic value to the torturers might not be many people’s idea of “legitimate force”.

Finally, the word “administration” is another heinous example of the bureaucratization of the language of violence. Medicine is administered; civil government is administration. Punishment is administered only after due process. To call the beating of an unconvicted prisoner the “administration” of force is already to approve of it, by describing in the language of official sanction. In the end, the best translation of Colonel Hayden’s words is: “Yes, we beat these men to death, but we have determined that we had the right to do so.”

By the time the man who so amused Specialist Jones and his friends died, most interrogators at the base had concluded that he was an innocent taxi driver.

Newsweek’s retraction of its unconfirmed report that US interrogators abused copies of the Koran has become a bigger media story than the continued widespread evidence that the US military tortures and kills some of its prisoners. One might suppose that somebody in PsyOps is doing his job rather well.

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