More Waterboarding

As you can tell, I feel pretty strongly about this whole waterboarding thing.  What is frustrating is that you have an administration trying to pretend that this is not torture, just “harsh interrogation” and pretending like there's an actual debate on the issue (with which the media tend to generally go along) despite the fact that there is simply no debate.  In recent days, I've actually learned (not from TV or newspaper News stories, mind you) that not only has waterboarding long been considered a gold standard of torture, the United State has actually 1) court martialed US Soldiers involved in waterboarding; and 2) successfully tried as war criminals Japanese commanders who ordered the torture used against Americans in WWII.  From NPR:

In the war crimes tribunals that followed Japan's defeat in World
War II, the issue of waterboarding was sometimes raised. In 1947, the
U.S. charged a Japanese officer, Yukio Asano, with war crimes for
waterboarding a U.S. civilian. Asano was sentenced to 15 years of hard
labor.

“All of these trials elicited
compelling descriptions of water torture from its victims, and resulted
in severe punishment for its perpetrators,” writes Evan Wallach in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law.

On Jan. 21, 1968, The Washington Post
ran a front-page photo of a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding
of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption said the technique
induced “a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make
him talk.” The picture led to an Army investigation and, two months
later, the court martial of the soldier.

And here's attorney Evan Wallach in a powerful Op-Ed in Sunday's Post:

That term is used to describe several interrogation techniques. The
victim may be immersed in water, have water forced into the nose and
mouth, or have water poured onto material placed over the face so that
the liquid is inhaled or swallowed. The media usually characterize the
practice as “simulated drowning.” That's incorrect. To be effective,
waterboarding is usually real drowning that simulates death. That is,

the victim experiences the sensations of drowning: struggle, panic,
breath-holding, swallowing, vomiting, taking water into the lungs and,
eventually, the same feeling of not being able to breathe that one
experiences after being punched in the gut. The main difference is that
the drowning process is halted…

After World War II, we convicted several Japanese soldiers for
waterboarding American and Allied prisoners of war. At the trial of his
captors, then-Lt. Chase J. Nielsen, one of the 1942 Army Air Forces
officers who flew in the Doolittle Raid and was captured by the
Japanese, testified: “I was given several types of torture. . . . I was
given what they call the water cure.” He was asked what he felt when
the Japanese soldiers poured the water. “Well, I felt more or less like
I was drowning,” he replied, “just gasping between life and death.”

Nielsen's experience was not unique. Nor was the prosecution of his captors. After Japan surrendered, the United States organized and participated in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, generally called the Tokyo
War Crimes Trials. Leading members of Japan's military and government
elite were charged, among their many other crimes, with torturing
Allied military personnel and civilians. The principal proof upon which
their torture convictions were based was conduct that we would now call
waterboarding.

So, just so you are clear on the big picture here… Not only is George W. Bush attempting to claim that waterboarding is not torture completely morally repugnant, it is somewhat akin to claiming the sky is not blue.

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Mirror Neurons

Somehow, I have shamefully failed to educate my readers on mirror neurons up to this point.  Well, today is a good mirror neuron day as Salon has an interesting story about how neuroscientists have directly identified mirror neurons in humans for the first time and NPR ran a very interesting story this morning (only 4 minutes of your time) on the role of mirror neurons in autism.  Mirror neurons are theorized to be a special type of neuron in your brain that actually responds to what you see in other individuals, i.e., see someone else move their arm and you fire the same mirror neuron as when you move your own arm.  First, from Salon:

A young woman sat on the subway and sobbed. Her mascara-stained cheeks
were wet and blotchy. Her eyes were red. Her shoulders shook. She was
hopeless, completely forlorn. When I got off the train, I stood on the
platform, paralyzed by emotions. Hers. I'd taken them with me. I stood
there, tears streaming down my cheeks. But I had no death in the
family. No breakup. No terminal diagnosis. And I didn't even know her
or why she cried. But the emotional pain, her pain, now my pain, was as
real as day.

Enthusiasm among scientists has been spreading as growing evidence
suggests that “mirrors” may explain the roots of human empathy and
altruism as well as provide insight into such disorders as autism and
even schizophrenia. But that's not all. In the past few years, dozens
of studies have linked mirror neurons to the emergence of language,
abstract reasoning and even self-awareness or consciousness. “The self
and the other are just two sides of the same coin. To understand
myself, I must recognize myself in other people,” says Marco Iacoboni.

Sound like Marin County, Calif., Buddhism? Maybe so. But it's also
SoCal neurobiology. Iacoboni is a neuroscientist and professor of
psychiatry at UCLA, where he directs the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center.
“We are hard-wired to feel what others experience as if it were
happening to us,” he says. Down the road in San Diego, Vilayanur
Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition
at UCSD, offers, “We used to say, metaphorically, that 'I can feel
another's pain.' But now we know that my mirror neurons can literally
feel your pain.”

Iacoboni's “hard-wiring” is a network of ordinary-looking neurons
distributed throughout the brain. Unlike other kinds of brain cells,
such as motor neurons, which control muscles, mirror neurons fire both
when a person is in action, and when he or she observes someone else
engaged in the same action. Before the discovery of mirror neurons,
cognitive scientists assumed that we gained access to the feelings of
others by theorizing about them. Now we know that a direct experience
is responsible for much of what we thought was computation,
speculation, memory or inference. Through my mirror neurons, the young
woman cries in the same part of my brain where I do…

Like many of science's great accomplishments, mirror neurons were
discovered by accident. In the early 1990s, neuroscientist Giacomo
Rizzolatti and his research team at the University of Parma were
studying motor neurons in the frontal cortex of macaques and had
attached tiny electrodes to individual cells in the monkeys so they
could watch how very specific hand movements were initiated in the
brain. When a wired-up monkey picked up a peanut, the neuron fired. But
to Rizzolatti's surprise, the same motor neuron also fired when a
perfectly still monkey was watching a lab assistant pick up the peanut.

Not surprisingly, mirror neurons are theorized to be working at a significant deficit in individuals with autism.  Today's NPR story discusses research by scientists who are working with people with autism to actually train their mirror neurons to be more effective.  Its very preliminary, but certainly suggests interesting new directions for addressing autism.

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