By Tom Engelhardt
“I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001 (quoted by Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies)
Nicholas Berg’s murder, grisly beyond imagining, was literally staged as the al-Qaeda equivalent of an MTV-style recruitment video or, as Matthew B. Stannard of the San Francisco Chronicle put it recently, an al-Qaeda “press release.” It makes me sick. We are now in the pissing contest from Hell. It’s bad enough that there’s one Osama bin Laden (and burgeoning associates) out there, but it’s starting to seem like al-Qaeda runs the White House as well. Certainly, when it comes to the Bush administration, the phrase “wish fulfillment” has gained new meaning. Evidently, our President only has to repeat the formula, “Iraq is the central battlefield in the war against terrorism,” and by God, it’s so. The next thing you know, one of the nastiest videos in history, with “made in Iraq” stamped on it, is passing around the Internet (though I couldn’t bear to look myself).
In fact, we seem to be in a worst-videos-on-Earth contest and here’s the horrible thing — if al-Qaeda’s are meant as recruitment videos (hard as that might be to imagine); ours, direct from Abu Ghraib prison, are likely to prove far more effective. Our President might as well get back on TV and insist that we’re in a “crusade” a few hundred more times. After all, what does it matter any more? Can Osama bin Laden’s belief that we are indeed in a war of religious civilizations be supported any more effectively?
I’d be curious to know just what playbook the Bush and his advisors are reading from these days. As I write this, Agence France Presse is reporting that coalition forces are driving the streets of Karbala with loudspeakers, urging residents to evacuate the city, while an American tank has just opened fire near the Imam Hussein Shrine there. The giant cemetery in the Shia holy city of Najaf has already been the scene of fighting and significant destruction.
In the meantime, our troops have moved ever further into Najaf and the dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali, Shia Iraq’s holiest site, has evidently been pitted with several bullet holes which General Kimmett, the American military spokesman in Baghdad, has blamed on the young radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. As if anyone in Iraq was likely to believe that, whether true or not. We’ve been told by the most moderate of Shiites, figures who would dearly like al-Sadr and his “army” out of Najaf and other cities, not to cross the “red line” and enter Shia’s holiest places, firing away. But the Bush administration or possibly our military high command in Iraq — for in the chaos of the present moment it’s impossible to know which Americans are ordering what — have no patience when things don’t go their way. They are almost incapable of playing a political game that doesn’t involve the wielding of brute force (which is why, one of these days, I won’t be surprised if we’re back fighting in Falluja). The Bushites are the occupation equivalent of junkies. They can’t help themselves, even when they know perfectly well that the acts they are ordering can only rebound on them in disastrous ways.
There’s a simple calculus here — and it applies whether you’re talking about abusing prisoners or sending tanks into holy neighborhoods in Shiite Iraq: In a political context, when nationalist feelings have been aroused, brute force widely and brutally applied, whether to get information from prisoners or to suppress visible enemies, is simply adds oil to the flames. The results are bound to be a wider rebellion. To take but an example, thousands of Iraqis, many Sunnis, have been kept in the coalition’s prisons under exceedingly oppressive conditions without charges or explanation. Between 60-90% of them were arrested “by mistake” (according to U.S. military authorities). Now, the new commandant of Iraq’s prisons (and former commandant of our Guantanamo prison complex) Gen. Geoffrey Miller has decided, given the uproar over Abu Ghraib, that significant numbers of them are to be dumped out onto the street, hardened, embittered, angry, oppositional. Well done, coalition forces!
This is, in fact, the most essential principle of any asymmetric rebellion against a force of overwhelming power. It’s exactly the principle of all Asian self-defense techniques from Tai Chi to Judo. Use your opponent’s power against him. Instead of blocking it with whatever you have, simply toss him further in the direction he lunged. Thus, al-Sadr cleverly holed up with his forces in Iraq’s two holiest cities, and his “army” (really an ill-organized militia, a pottage of armed, angry, unemployed young men) in turn set up camp in or near holy sites, mixing in with the local populace.
This, of course, has driven the American occupiers completely nuts (and since they’re already reasonably crazed, that says a good deal). Our President spoke of this just the other day when he took his national security “team” to the Pentagon to give Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld a “vote of confidence.” He began that endorsement oddly indeed: “Mr. Secretary,” he said, “thank you for your hospitality, and thank you for your leadership. You are courageously leading our nation in the war against terror…” I’m sorry… but courageously? From the Pentagon? I could think of a lot of adjectives that a President might use in support of his secretary of defense, but it tells us something indeed that George imagines Don’s acts as “courageous.” Or perhaps he was just impressed by his appearance before a congressional committee not completely cowed for the first time in years.
In any case, with the courage of his Pentagon chief under his belt, it wasn’t long before the President was complaining that “the enemy in Fallujah is hiding behind an innocent civilian population, and calculating that our coalition’s use of force will alienate ordinary Iraqis.” It’s a fascinating statement actually, because it suggests a certain understanding of how the dynamic in Iraq is unfolding. As was true of American officials in Vietnam, he and his advisors clearly consider the enemy cowardly for acting in this way. Far more logical and “courageous” — from an American point of view — would be for the Iraqi rebels to step out into the open and fight “like men”; and, as in the brief war last year, be slaughtered like so many dogs from the air and at long range by our overwhelming firepower. Instead — as our leaders see it — the rebels hide behind women and shrines. And so they do. Most effectively. The President then concludes — and here’s where we move from at least a whining grasp of the situation into the world of fantasy: “Yet every day our troops are responding with precision and discipline and restraint.”
Well, no, actually, we’ve killed a lot of civilians, destroyed numerous buildings, including in the last few days hotels in Karbala, and alienated tons of Iraqis. The results of the latest poll from Iraq (taken before both the recent upsurge of violence and the release of the Abu Ghraib photos) are staggering. 82% of Iraqis “disapprove of the U.S. and allied military forces in Iraq.” This was characterized by a senior CPA official thusly in one of the great understatements of recent times: “Generally speaking, the trend is downward.” However approximate such polls may be in Iraq, you can’t normally get 80+% of anybody anywhere to agree on anything (and, I suspect, that if you were to remove the Kurds, who for obvious reasons want us to stay, from the equation, the figures might be beyond belief). In short, we’ve created the base for and the makings of a widespread rebellion in a land where most people might, not so long ago, have been willing to settle up for a life unencumbered by major oppression and a promise of the return of real sovereignty in a foreseeable future.
Not only are the Sunnis who oppose us, unlike Donald Rumsfeld, cowards, but the Shias turn out to be no better. General Kimmett — shades, again, of Vietnam — complained bitterly the other day that “Moqtada’s militia is attempting to use those religious shrines and red lines much like human shields.” And, of course, like so many Pavlovian military rats, what does our military do but begin to take out religious turf. Here’s just a tiny taste of this via the Washington Post:
“In images broadcast across the Middle East on Arabic satellite channels, two U.S Army Kiowa helicopters fluttered above the sea of ochre and tan tombs on the edge of the city. Olive-green Abrams tanks, part of the 1st Armored Division, appeared to fire into the tombs. Plumes of gray and black smoke puffed up from between the grave markers.”
The Bush administration has, it seems, managed to turn a minor player in Iraq into a major figure. Juan Cole writes of this most recent fiasco:
“My own view is that Muqtada has now won politically and morally. He keeps throwing Abu Ghuraib in the faces of the Americans. He had his men take refuge in Najaf and Karbala because he knew only two outcomes were possible. Either the Americans would back off and cease trying to destroy him, out of fear of fighting in the holy cities and alienating the Shiites. Or they would come in after Muqtada and his militia, in which case the Americans would probably turn the Shiites in general against themselves. The latter is now happening.
“The Americans will be left with a handful of ambitious collaborators at the top, but the masses won’t be with them. And in Iraq, unlike the US, the masses matter. The US political elite is used to being able to discount American urban ghettos as politically a cipher. What they don’t realize is that in third world countries the urban poor are a key political actor and resource, and wise rulers go out of their way not to anger them.”
Much has been written about how this administration didn’t plan for the post-war moment in Iraq; what few mention is that they didn’t plan for the post-war moment at home either. They seem never to have given a thought to be possibility that Iraqis, who were to be sidelined in their own country — this was “democracy” as imagined by men whose inclinations are completely undemocratic — might be in the driver’s seat in a car loaded with explosives headed straight for November 2. As it happens, this was not such a hard possibility to anticipate — it was predicted here in fact not long after the war ended — but Rove and associates seem to have given it no thought. They evidently imagined Iraq only as the ultimate Hellfire missile in the President’s campaign arsenal. Rove’s playbook from the moment the president landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln (“Mission accomplished!”) was of quite a different nature. And now the greatest and least responsible gamblers in our history (since, at least, the South seceded from the Union) are frozen like so many deer in the Iraqi headlights as the situation continues to deteriorate.
“‘Iraq is sucking the life out of other issue deliberations among the voters in the campaign,’ said political scientist Douglas Strand of the University of California-Berkeley. Strand and Merrill Shanks, also a political scientist at the school, have conducted public-opinion research on how various issues are affecting the campaign. They found Iraq has had a more dominant effect on the campaign since April 1. Gay marriage and other domestic issues have faded from voters’ concerns as problems mount in Iraq, Strand said.”
The latest Newsweek poll is nothing short of startling: The President’s approval rating has fallen to 42% and he’s heading for the territory his father occupied in 1992 at about this time. When you consider the pattern of a group of polls over the last three-plus years — and we can do so thanks to Stephen Ruggles of the University of Minnesota’s department of history — the slippage seems nothing short of inexorable. The only question is: When exactly will George break into the 30% range? If this continues, it may not matter much what Kerry does. A sitting president can’t win this way and already we see the first pieces in the press suggesting that, despite all the predictions of a squeaker election, he might get walloped.
In the meantime, he himself seems literally frozen in place. In his bizarre (and much underreported) Oedipal struggles, he seems to have concluded long ago not just that he’s in an opposites game with his one term father, but that Dad was that most dangerous of all creatures, a cut-and-runner. Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post reported this week:
“In today’s Washington Times, Sammon, who is also a political analyst for Fox News, uncorks the first of a series of reports based on his book. ‘President Bush is resolved not to repeat what he thinks were the two fundamental blunders of his father’s one-term presidency: abandoning Iraq and failing to vanquish the Democrats,’ Sammon writes.
“‘Freedom will prevail, so long as the United States and allies don’t give the people of Iraq mixed signals, so long as we don’t cower in the face of suiciders, or do what many Iraqis still suspect might happen, and that is cut and run early, like what happened in ’91,’ Bush told Sammon.”
Frozen in the headlights, the President is evidently starting to look increasingly uncomfortable to voters. He and his advisors are clearly incapable of imagining a plan for tossing Iraq overboard. In this sense, the Kerry position, hardly discernable from Bush’s, is starting to look like a stroke of inadvertent genius, hemming the President in as it does. Even a modest move on George’s part and the next thing you know, he’s accepted that cut-and-run DNA from Dad.
At the same time, his administration is beginning to fragment under him. The State Department is leaking information like a sieve meant to undermine the neocons over at the Pentagon; the military is in a state of dissension over the Pentagon civilians; officials at the CIA is panicking over its systematic torture policies; both Secretary of State Powell (the man who always believed you shouldn’t enter a war without an “exit strategy”) and CPA head Bremer have been running up the flagpole pathetic statements indicating that if some as-yet-undetermined Iraqi government were ever foolish enough to ask us to leave, why, improbable as that might be, we just might have to honor their wishes — and Pentagon officials (and the President) have been shooting the suggestion down. In short, the chaos in Iraq is spreading to Washington. Expect soon to see gridlock inside the beltway — and keep in mind that out there somewhere are things-waiting-to-happen: the Valerie Plame grand jury, various Supreme Court decisions, the 9/11 commission report, and who knows what else. Call me Ishmael, but I think this ship of state might just be leaking a tad much. Let’s see who jumps (or is pushed) overboard first.
A Torture System (updated)
In the meantime, the story of torture, abuse, beating, sexual humiliation, murder, and all the rest only spreads outward and upward. This week teams of journalists were on the larger story and two superb reports appeared in major papers on the nature of our offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice. Dana Priest and Joe Stephens of the Washington Post wrote Secret World of U.S. Interrogation, Long History of Tactics in Overseas Prisons Is Coming to Light, the best account I’ve yet seen of our country’s layered military/CIA planetary system of information extraction. They lay it out in some detail, from the U.S. interrogation center in Kabul (known “for its despairing conditions” by the CIA and Special Forces people who run it as “The Pit”) to Guantanamo, with an emphasis on the CIA’s super-secret global system of imprisonment and its “ghost detainees,” whose very existences, no less locations, often remain secret to almost everyone. They write in no uncertain terms of its essential nature:
“None of the arrangements that permit U.S. personnel to kidnap, transport, interrogate and hold foreigners are ad hoc or unauthorized, including the so-called renditions [the turning over of prisoners to foreign governments, often for torture]. ‘People tend to regard it as an extra-judicial kidnapping; it’s not,’ former CIA officer Peter Probst said… In fact, every aspect of this new universe — including maintenance of covert airlines to fly prisoners from place to place, interrogation rules and the legal justification for holding foreigners without due process afforded most U.S. citizens — has been developed by military or CIA lawyers, vetted by Justice Department’s office of legal counsel and, depending on the particular issue, approved by White House general counsel’s office or the president himself.”
James Risen, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis of the New York Times wrote this week of the CIA’s detention system and methods in Harsh C.I.A. Methods Cited In Top Qaeda Interrogations. They included both the CIA’s twisted legal justifications and evasions (“One set of legal memorandums, the officials said, advises government officials that if they are contemplating procedures that may put them in violation of American statutes that prohibit torture, degrading treatment or the Geneva Conventions, they will not be responsible if it can be argued that the detainees are formally in the custody of another country.”) and a description of the kinds of things that were being discussed at the highest levels of government at the earliest stages of setting up the system (“‘There was a debate after 9/11 about how to make people disappear,’ a former intelligence official said.”)
Talk about extremes. One moment our press doesn’t know from abuses; the next, our papers are filled — pages and pages on Abu Ghraib; who was responsible; where the orders may have come from, and when, and why, and, and, and… Who could possibly take all this in? But here’s the question. Much of this was, at least in general outline, known long before now, and for enterprising teams of reporters, there was already enough disaffection in the system that far more could have been brought to light almost any time in the last year. As William Pfaff recently commented in the International Herald Tribune (Who ordered ‘shock and awe’?) “While the administration’s disregard for international, military and constitutional law was widely acknowledged at the time [of the Afghan war], there was little protest in the American press, and no effective challenge from Democratic Party leaders.”
To put the matter in a larger context, for over two years, while the Bush administration set up a global mini-gulag largely organized around the hundreds of military bases we’ve scattered across the globe, our media remained remarkably silent. Almost all darkness, no spotlights. Most of the time they simply looked the other way.
In fact, our major papers didn’t move even when they were handed some of this information on a platter. As we learned this week thanks to Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher magazine on-line (Where Was Press When First Iraq Prison Allegations Arose?), Pulitzer-Prize winning AP correspondent Charles J. Hanley did a series of stories from Iraq that culminated last November in an account of the experiences of six detainees at Abu Ghraib and two other American prisons). It included some of the charges of mistreatment that now rivet Americans, and yet it was picked up by not a single major paper in this country, nor did any of them, as far as he can tell, follow up on the piece.
Hanley’s modest comments, looking back:
“[T]he other thing is, there was no official structure to the story. It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source… But clearly there is a mindset in the U.S. media that slows the aggressive pursuit of stories that make the U.S. military look bad… I do think there’s often a disproportionate weight of credibility given to the statements of U.S. officials.”
“What do you think will happen now?” Mitchell asked and Hanley responded, “My gut tells me the story will spread outward to Guantanamo and Afghanistan and to other prisons in Iraq. I guess it already is.”
Indeed as the pieces quoted above indicate, it’s already made it to Afghanistan, where all of a sudden we’re investigating cases of abuse, and it’s spreading toward Guantanamo, where, as the British Observer reveals today:
“Dozens of videotapes of American guards allegedly engaged in brutal attacks on Guantanamo Bay detainees have been stored and catalogued at the camp…The disclosures, made in an interview with Tarek Dergoul, the fifth British prisoner freed last March, who has been too traumatised to speak until now, prompted demands last night by senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to make the videos available immediately. They say that if the contents are as shocking as Dergoul claims, they will provide final proof that brutality against detainees has become an institutionalised feature of America’s war on terror…
“Lieutenant Colonel Leon Sumpter, the Guantanamo Joint Task Force spokesman, confirmed this last night, saying all ERF actions were filmed so they could be ‘reviewed’ by senior officers. All the tapes are kept in an archive there, he said. He refused to say how many times the ERF squads had been used and would not discuss their training or rules of engagement, saying: ‘We do not discuss operational aspects of the Joint Task Force mission.’ “
All this use of cameras, by the way, is evidence of something larger than simply the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners by individuals, or even teams of guards and low-level intelligence officials; it’s evidence of an atmosphere of impunity, a sense of being beyond all law in a situation where nothing done to another human being, however recorded, will ever rebound against the photographer or those photographed.
But, of course, it didn’t prove to be so, and now the charges are moving outward toward all corners of our dark imperium of mistreatment, and also upward toward the heights of the Bush administration where responsibility and accountability — words that previously only applied to those on welfare — naturally lie.
That is where this sense of impunity first took root among a group of men who believed that violence was history and power was a thing to be wielded out of the sight of and beyond the reach of the rest of humanity by a small group of men linked to each other in close kinship for years. They were secretive and harsh – and they didn’t hesitate to set the “rules.” Just Saturday, the New Yorker released the latest piece by Seymour Hersh, which fingers Rumsfeld for setting up a highly secret commando-style operation in the deepest secrecy (“‘We’re not going to read more people than necessary into our heart of darkness,’ [a former intelligence official] said. ‘The rules are “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.”‘”). The piece is sure to be another poll stuffer for the administration, and this time they are fighting back with denials. Hersh began his piece:
“The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focused on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.
“According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.”
So what do we know, other than from Hersh, about what went on at the highest reaches of government when it came to the organizing of a framework for torture at places like Abu Ghraib? We know, for instance, that some military lawyers felt they had been left so completely out of the loop and were so disturbed by what was being done (as were some CIA officials who could see future war-crimes charges heading toward them down the pike) that, in May and again October 2003, they secretly appealed to the New York Bar Association “to try to persuade the Pentagon to revise its practices.” Scott Horton, then head of the bar association’s committee on international law, commented: “‘They were quite blunt… They were extremely concerned about how the political appointees were dealing with interrogation issues. They said this was a disaster waiting to happen and that they felt shut out’ of the rules-drafting process.”
We know that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of our Iraqi military operations, put his own stamp on a series of torture methods (and — itself a form of confession — rescinded them just this week). These were to be used — “only with permission” — in Iraq and were posted in Abu Ghraib. Reserve Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski, who ran our prison system in that country last year, claims Sanchez said to her in the presence of a military lawyer, “I don’t care about the rules of engagement… If the rules of engagement are a problem, then change them.”
We know as well that the President was informed about much of this early on. This week, Secretary of State Colin Powell, perhaps in a desperate attempt to save his reputation — after all, an International Red Cross official spoke to him, too, about what was going on in our prisons abroad — fingered the President on this. According to Mark Matthews of the Baltimore Sun:
“Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that he and other top officials kept President Bush ‘fully informed … in general terms’ about complaints made by the Red Cross and others over ill-treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.’ Powell’s statement suggests Bush may have known earlier than the White House has acknowledged about complaints raised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups regarding abuse of detainees in Iraq.
“‘We kept the president informed of the concerns that were raised by the ICRC and other international organizations as part of my regular briefings of the president, and advised him that we had to follow these issues, and when we got notes sent to us or reports sent to us … we had to respond to them, and the president certainly made it clear that that’s what he expected us to do,’ Powell said.”
It’s already clear that the seven charged guards at Abu Ghraib are but the film on the surface of a deep and far-reaching global event in which almost the complete leadership of our country is implicated. No, they didn’t take the photos, but they set a series of operations in motion that made everything possible and their only response, as Tony Judt wrote in the Washington Post last weekend, was a series of forced apologies and the pointing of fingers elsewhere. (“Given the president’s simultaneous and reiterated insistence that neither he nor his staff have done anything wrong and that there is nothing to change in his policies or goals, who will take seriously such an apology, extracted in extremis? Like confessions obtained under torture, it is worthless.”)
And we also know something of the deeper history of all this — everything in this world, after all, comes with a history — from Alfred W. McCoy, author of a Vietnam era book on the CIA, who published a must-read op-ed in the Boston Globe this week. He wrote in part (Torture at Abu Ghraib followed CIA’s manual):
“The photos from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison are snapshots not of simple brutality or a breakdown in discipline but of CIA torture techniques that have metastasized over the past 50 years like an undetected cancer inside the US intelligence community. From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led secret research into coercion and consciousness that reached a billion dollars at peak. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, this CIA research produced a new method of torture that was psychological, not physical — best described as ‘no touch’ torture.”
These techniques were codified in the CIA’s “Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation” manual in 1963, and then passed out to client militaries in Latin America and Asia in the 1960s and in Central America in the 1980s. Its methods have now resurfaced in a major way throughout our imperial penal system. McCoy concludes:
“For more than 50 years, the CIA’s no-touch methods have become so widely accepted that US interrogators seem unaware that they are, in fact, engaged in systematic torture. But now, through these photographs from Abu Ghraib, we can see the reality of these techniques. We have a chance to join fully with the international community in repudiating a practice that, more than any other, represents a denial of democracy.”
(Thanks to the diligence of a Tomdispatch reader, you can check out the grim Kubark manual and other U.S. documents on such torture techniques at the invaluable National Security Archive website)
We also know, thanks to the questioning of Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz and the Pentagon’s Gen. Peter Pace by Senator Jack Reed (“If you were shown a video of a United States Marine or an American citizen in control of a foreign power, in a cell block, naked with a bag over their head, squatting with their arms uplifted for 45 minutes, would you describe that as a good interrogation technique or a violation of the Geneva Convention?”) that both men, however grudgingly, consider such acts a violation. The Washington Post in an editorial this week commented: “Now Mr. Pace and Mr. Wolfowitz have said the techniques approved by Mr. Sanchez would be illegal if used on Americans; Mr. Rumsfeld and [Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard] Myers say they are fine as applied to Iraqis. But there are not separate Geneva Conventions for Americans and for the rest of the world.”
We know, in other words, just about everything we need to know to draw the obvious conclusions. Responsibility for the acts at Abu Ghraib flows to the top and rests there. If you set up a torture system to extract information, what you get is a torture system; and if images leak from its confines, they’re guaranteed to be no prettier than the system itself. The President, when taken to see the more than 1200 images from Abu Ghraib while on his visit to the Pentagon to commend his “courageous” secretary of defense, only managed to view “about twelve” of them (just, I suppose, as he only managed to read one page before September 11th about Osama bin Laden’s urge to attack America). More, I suppose, might jar that courageous and “resolute” constitution of his. Of course, I mean his mental constitution, not the U.S. Constitution which he’s already shaken to its core.
So this was distinctly a week from hell. And al-Qaeda contributed in its own typically murderous way (one quite recognizable not only from Daniel Pearl’s murder but, for those who remember, from the treatment of Russian prisoners by some of the Mujahedeen during the Afghan War of the 1980s). But my concerns are with us. As an American and a citizen — and this is distinctly a citizen’s, not a journalist’s, weblog — I care most about what happens right here in my own country where it’s possible to imagine having some impact, no matter how small.
Much attention in recent days, here as elsewhere, has finally been paid to the effects of abuse and torture on Iraqis, as well it should be. Much attention in the mainstream and on the political right has also been paid to isolating the perpetrators of the horrors at Abu Ghraib from the rest of our soldiers (and, I suppose, contractors) in Iraq. Their “good character” has been attested to over and over again in the last week, certainly by the President (“All Americans know that the actions of a few do not reflect the true character of the United States Armed Forces”) and his supporters, but also by John Kerry who said just the other day, “I know that what happened over there is not the behavior of 99.9 percent of our troops.”
While, if you are only talking about the extreme acts in one prison, this may literally be true, it is, in effect, simply an American fantasy — perhaps an understandable election year one, but a dangerous one nonetheless. It holds within it both a deep untruth and a willful self-deception. Obviously, neither the reserves at Abu Ghraib, nor any of our troops throughout Iraq made the policies that have left them in an impossible situation. They are, in a sense, the prisoners of the greatest and grimmest gamblers in our history.
If you send troops in to occupy a country that you plan to control forever and a day — and for those who think that we mean to turn “sovereignty” over to the Iraqis, just check out a recent Wall Street Journal piece on the subject, or consider that, according to Robert Schlesinger of Salon.com, “the number of mercenaries is expected to double after the June 30th hand-over of ‘limited sovereignty’ to an Iraqi government.” In our world you simply can’t fight a guerrilla war like this to control another country and remain “of good character.” Let me just assure both the President and Senator Kerry that when those troops return home, many of them won’t feel of good character. The fact is: The longer we keep our troops in Iraq the more we assure their brutalization. The truth is: We do them no favor by praising them unrealistically to the skies in order to keep them in Iraq till Hell freezes over. The favor we could do them, of course, would be to bring them home and fast.
Earlier I made the case for the practical dangers of torture — it simply stokes the future flames of resistance, creating more opposition in the long run. It is also generally agreed that it produces lots of information, but little of it reliable because people tend to say whatever is necessary to stop horrible things from happening to them. But what, then, of the torture of high level al-Qaeda detainees who refuse to talk. I simply want to be clear on this. I’m against torture at any time under any circumstances against anyone, including the heinous murderers of Nicholas Berg.
As Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton writes in the most recent Nation magazine (Conditions of Atrocity), torture tends to be a “group activity”; while under the pressure of the “atrocity producing situation” prospective torturers “undergo a type of dissociation I call ‘doubling’ — the formation of a second self… The individual psyche can adapt to an atrocity-producing environment by means of a subself that behaves as if autonomous and thereby joins in activities that would otherwise seem repugnant. Ironically and sadly, this is an expression of the same genius for adaptation that has so well served Homo sapiens in the evolutionary process.”
Assumedly, when those torturers leave the field, they will bring that “subself” home with them. In the long run, if you torture throughout the imperium, what you create is a corps of torturers who have become inured to the normal employment of such methods. Sooner or later both they and their methods must come home. To put this another way, those who favor the use of torture out there in Iraq or Cuba or Afghanistan really must also defend torture here at home. Just as we crossed the “red line” in Najaf, so our torturers will naturally cross Constitutional “red lines” at home, no matter how supposedly “holy” they may be. It’s in the nature of the beast.
Already, given the news pouring out here and in England, as Isabel Hilton wrote in the Guardian recently, we can no longer rebuke the Chinese for their treatment of the Tibetans, just as the State Department the other week couldn’t bring itself to issue a report on human rights violations around the world. Just too embarrassing. This week, in a fine piece in the Nation magazine, “Empire Without Law,” Jonathan Schell discussed abuses in American and Iraqi prisons:
“Many of the guards at Abu Ghraib,” he writes, “were chosen precisely because they had ‘worked as prison guards or corrections officials in their civilian jobs,’ in the words of the report on Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Two had been charged with abusing prisoners. Also, many of those swept up in the detentions in the United States after September 11 were abused, as a Justice Department report by the Inspector General has shown. The metastasizing offshore gulag (yet another form of ‘globalization’) and the onshore one, with its 2 million inmates are cross-fertilizing. It would be as deluded as it would be shameful to hope that when the executive branch unleashes its torturers, foreigners alone will be its victims.”
Indeed, “globalization” was a fine thing until all those jobs started escaping the environs of the United States for places barely known. Don’t imagine that when it comes to the methods of the Bush administration abroad we will long remain immune either.
Additional dispatches from Tom Engelhardt can be read throughout the week at TomDispatch.com, a web log of The Nation Institute.