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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Familiarity Breeds Indifference

corporal punishment, strong patrol, & harsh interrogation

May 2, 2009. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that a survey conducted April 14-21, 2009, among 742 American adults, found that over the past two years American adults, and American men and women, have remained about evenly divided on the justification of using torture on suspected terrorists to gain information. (I don't think anyone has ever polled people for their opinion on torturing people to coerce them into assenting to the reasons given by the Bush/Cheney regime for invading Iraq.) The Pew folks didn't bother trying to skew the survey by using euphemisms like 'enhanced interrogation' for 'torture.' They don't need to. The emotive effect of 'torture' or even 'waterboarding' or 'sleep deprivation' seem to evoke little negative response these days. We've heard and seen (in movies and TV programs, or on YouTube) depictions of torture or actual torture to the point where many of us have become desensitized not just to words depicting inhumane acts, but to the acts themselves.

It may come as a surprise to some, however, that the Pew folks found some evidence that people who attend religious services regularly are more likely to support torture of suspected terrorists than are people who rarely or never attend religious services.  Republicans and Independents are each twice as likely as Democrats to support torture, though for this subgroup the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points.

"This world is ruled by violence, though that's better left unsaid," said Bob Dylan in "Union Sundown." One wonders if the continued familiarity with torture words and images will soften attitudes on other forms of physical torment. Are police departments engaging in more forceful policing and interrogation techniques? Recently, we've had three citizens shot to death by local police in nearby towns: In Woodland, California, a mentally ill man was killed by multiple taser shots last year. Another man had a 4-inch knife when he was stopped in broad daylight by several plainclothes officers who put four bullets into him. He must have been deluded if he thought a knife could protect him against three armed men. (Three officers aren't trained to take down one man with a knife without killing him?) In Folsom, California, another mentally disturbed man with a knife was shot to death by officers in his bedroom. I may be imagining things, but I seem to be reading more and more stories about police who shoot first and ask questions later. Black men already know that they had better not go for their wallets when an officer with a gun is nearby, but lately it seems like anybody might be shot to death if he makes the wrong move or says the wrong thing to an officer of the law. I hope my perception is just an availability error or confirmation bias.

Are school officials spanking or slapping kids more frequently and with greater enthusiasm for its alleged effectiveness as a behavioral modification technique? Our courts have ruled many times on the illegality of using torture, or physical or psychological coercion in interrogations. In all the southern states, and in Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Wyoming corporal punishment of students is legal. Newsweek recently ran a couple of stories on corporal punishment. (By the way, if you don't know what 'corporal punishment' means, it could mean hitting children with sticks, a belt, or your hand, making them eat soap, isolating them in a dark closet, or the like. What some people call 'child abuse' others call 'corporal punishment.' Richard Dawkins considers some forms of religious indoctrination of children to be child abuse. Religious indoctrination of children, however, is legal in all states, as far as I know.)

CNN claimed last October that more than 200,000 kids were spanked at school during the previous school year. Their source for this number was the U.S. Department of Education, which claims to have evidence of 223,190 students receiving corporal punishment in 2006-07. Texas allegedly reported that its disciplinarians whacked 48,197 kids (though this number probably doesn't account for those kids who received multiple smacks). Mississippi was the leader in child whacking, however: 7.5 percent of all students in Mississippi public schools were smacked by their educational guardians in one year. This is America, so the data keepers note which gender and which races get whacked more often than others. It's no surprise that boys get hit by their educators more often than girls do, but it's a bit disconcerting to find that black girls get smacked twice as often as non-black girls.

After listening to Dick Cheney and Karl Rove defend torture as effective, I am convinced that there is no justification for keeping the methods used by the CIA and FBI on terrorists out of our schools. I watched and listened with increasing curiosity as the level of public discourse went from we don't torture to we don't call that torture to our new definition of torture excludes those things to these methods work to these methods are little more than college frat stunts and aren't that dangerous. The next step might as well be, let's extend the usage of these pranks and jovial techniques. Studies will show that people actually feel better after being tortured, and their behavior becomes admirable after waterboarding. Rather than feeling like victims, the sleep-deprived and those who've been forced to listen to loud, obnoxious music 24 hours a day for weeks on end are more likely to volunteer to sit in water tanks at fundraisers and MC Christian rock concerts aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of atheism.

There's a silver lining in every cloud. Why would torture be any different?

Disclosure statement: I've never been abused by any police officer or priest. I was regularly whacked with rulers, paddles, and hands in parochial schools, however. My earliest recollection of a nun hitting me is of Sister Maura Padre making me place my hand palm down so she could hit my knuckles with the side of her yardstick.  That was in third grade, my last year at Catholic school in Illinois. At Sacred Heart Academy in San Diego, a nun forced me and several of my comrades to eat soap for singing "the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout." I still have a vivid memory of Sharon Duffy being pulled by the hair across the room and out into the hallway to be whacked by Sister Rita Clare. Ronnie Green, when slapped by Sister Rita Clare, slapped her back. We never saw Ronnie again. I wish you well, Ronnie, wherever you are, unless you've become a pedophile priest. I forgive Fr. Ray Hutchinson for bonking me under the chin in high school. I probably deserved it, but making us learn 20 new words a week for four years gave me a head start over my freshmen counterparts at Notre Dame. I've often thought that the two best things about University High School were Fr. Hutchinson's English classes and Fr. Lanphier recruiting me to play Lachlan  MacLachlan in The Hasty Heart when I was a sophomore and between football and baseball seasons. I then played Macbeth and Marc Antony. The acting experience made it possible for a shy guy to become a teacher.

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