Empire of Lies and Torture

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

The Editors

THE PROHIBITION OF torture in international conventions is absolute.  There are no exceptions for so-called “ticking bombs,” for “high-value terrorists” or “illegal enemy combatants” or similar improvised fictions—or for extraterritorial prison camps (Guantanamo) where the jailers exercise absolute power but somehow disclaim the legal responsibilities of “sovereignty.”

Any experienced human rights worker or professional can explain why torture is banned absolutely and unconditionally.  Among other reasons, it can never be confined to the so-called exceptions.  Unlimited power within the confines of the prison cell creates, in miniature, the dynamics of the totalitarian torture state.

Whether used to “gain intelligences from terrorists” abroad or extract confessions in prisons at home, whether at Abu Ghraib under Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat or American military intelligence, torture also produces a rich harvest of misinformation—false confessions, statements against family members and innocent third parties—all based on the torture victim’s expectation of what the torturer wants to hear.

Let torture begin, and it spreads, logically and inevitably: from Afghanistan to Guantanamo; from secret interrogation camps for real or alleged “al-Qaeda leaders” to Abu Ghraib.  And yes, it spreads from U.S. prisons where inmates suffer various forms of sleep and sensory abuse, beatings and sexual terror—some of it routine cruelty, some of it “experimental”—to the cells in Iraq where U.S. military police receive the authorization and direction to “soften up” detainees for questioning.

Some of the perpetrators of torture, in fact, are converted prison guards.  Others are untrained personnel taking their orders from unidentified intelligence operatives.  Amnesty International is absolutely correct when it calls U.S. practices in Iraqi prisons “bereft of vision and without moral compass.”

Let’s be 100% clear: Ever since 9/11 and the Afghanistan war if not earlier, the Bush administration and (officially or unofficially) allied states have opened a secret prison network, a real underground archipelago of torture.  Being secret and extraterritorial, it is entirely unregulated.  Only fragmentary information about this has so far dribbled out; here’s an investigative job for our great Free Press and Congressional investigators, if they choose to pursue it.

Facing the Consequences

Torture not only destroys the victims but degrades the practitioners, all the more so in the circumstances of the present war. The male and female U.S. soldiers videotaped in the act of brutalizing or humiliating naked Iraqis are not themselves professional torturers, but more or less normal human beings who sooner or later will be bringing their experiences home.

Have those torture photos recruited new anti-American suicide bombers?  Undoubtedly, but that’s not the main question.  Whatever the threat of another 9/11-style al-Qaeda strike might be, make no mistake that all of us run a much greater long-term risk: that the war in Iraq will produce our own new Timothy McVeigh—the Oklahoma City bomber and 1991 Gulf War veteran who became addicted to mass death after participating in a massacre of Iraqi conscripts fleeing on the road from Kuwait toward Basra.

From the issue of torture, move on to the broader consequences of this war. At the very least, it is a malarial breeding ground for a more violent U.S. society.  (If Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” didn’t get that message over, perhaps “Fahrenheit 911” will do the job.)  Violent domestic abuse; suicide; drug and alcohol addiction; all these will be major risks for returning soldiers, not only from Abu Ghraib but from the battles of which the prison torture cells were a logical extension.

It may be that these consequences for the troops, their families and communities will be well-hidden, like the thousands of already-returned troops with hideous wounds in military hospitals where the President and network television never go. But they won’t go away.

The Truth About the Lies

This war, billed “the liberation of the Iraqi people,” very soon became a war against most of the Iraqi people.  To be slightly more precise, it is an imperialist occupation, superimposed on an incipient Iraqi civil war resulting from decades of brutal dictatorship.  This reality will continue after an ostensibly “sovereign” Iraqi government has taken office under the “authorization” of a new United Nations resolution.  The irony is that Iraq’s people can achieve unity and democracy, and avoid civil war and disintegration, only if they can forge an effective anti-occupation resistance.

Ordinary American soldiers shipped into this cauldron with a message that they were “liberators” were soon the targets of resentment and hostile fire from the “liberated.”  In such circumstances paternalist and racist attitudes toward Arabs, never far below the surface anyway, soon found bitter expression: Either “the bad guys are hiding behind the civilians,” or Iraqis as a whole became “hajjis” fit for extermination.

What can the troops be expected to think, after the siege and massacre of civilians at Fallujah, when the only indigenous Iraqi force that commands loyalty from the population of that city is organized by an old Baathist general?

The torture cells at Abu Ghraib, and less publicized detention centers in Iraq, are in part a natural spontaneous outgrowth of the confusion and demoralization of U.S. soldiers fighting a war based on a lie—and also, of course, a deliberate method designed at high political levels for extracting “intelligence,” covered up with the absurd story that a handful of out-of-control low-level soldiers perpetrated the atrocities on their own.

Now all the lies pour out. Donald Rumsfeld knew nothing of the interrogation methods at Abu Ghraib.  Yeah. General Richard Sanchez was never present in the facility while torture was going on. Right.  The replacement of Sanchez as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq has nothing to do with any of this. Sure.

The culture of lying has reached truly dysfunctional levels when the U.S. military, after wiping out a village wedding party in western Iraq—including the bride and groom, the musician who performed and the camera man who filmed the party, and dozens of guests—continued to insist that it was a “military target” even after the recovered video was all over Middle Eastern television.

Whom is any of this supposed to fool?  Iraqis who are living this nightmare?  American soldiers whose tours of duty are extended through a second Iraqi summer—who now know that 138,000 will remain “indefinitely” after the partial transition to limited Iraqi “sovereignty” on June 30?

Probably, none of the above.  Bush and Company need to fool one and only one group: enough of the American electorate to win or steal the November election.  How many Iraqis or Americans die; what it costs; whether the United States’ former best friend Ahmad Chalabi is a great liberal Democrat or an Iranian government agent; whether Iraq is ultimately governed by Chalabi, Islamists or recycled Baathists—all that is secondary.  All that really matters is somehow convincing U.S. “swing voters” of the double absurdity that “Iraq is the central front in the world war against terror,” and that Iraq is moving under U.S. guidance toward democratic stability.

Could there be anything more shameful, and shameless, than this?  There could be, and there is: Consider the spectacle of John Kerry pimping for this war, then claiming he was “deceived” by Bush on the Weapons of Mass Destruction scam, and now promoting the impossible scheme of putting a United Nations face on an open-ended U.S. occupation.

John Kerry was once an honorable antiwar organizer of Vietnam veterans.  He could have chosen to be the candidate who said: I saw the lies up close in the Vietnam war, and I’m seeing it happen all over again.  Instead, he and his party have chosen to tell tens of millions of Americans horrified by this war: Vote for the Presidential candidate who was fooled by George Bush.

Kerry’s stance is as cynically calculated as Bush’s.  And what if this pro-war, pro-occupation Democratic Party campaign fails to secure the votes of the antiwar population?  There’s a ready villain to blame, of course: It’s all Ralph Nader’s fault.

Lessons from Israel/Palestine

Speaking of Kerry, he has followed lock-step with the Bush administration in endorsing every recent atrocity of Ariel Sharon: the apartheid wall, the assassination of Ahmed Yassin and Abdul- Aziz Rantisi, the massive destruction of the town of Rafah.  (These issues are discussed elsewhere in this issue of ATC.)

The leading U.S. politicians of both parties fall all over each other in praise of Israel’s “special partnership against terror” with the United States.  Israeli tactics in the April, 2002 destruction of the Jenin refugee camp were carefully studied by U.S. military commanders for the assault on Fallujah and Najaf, among others.

But there are more important lessons of Israel’s experience that might be profitably studied by our political and military elites:

  • Violence against women and domestic abuse are notoriously high in Israeli society, a direct consequence of the brutalization of its soldiers in the war against the Palestinians.
  • Poverty, inequality and social injustice have exploded to record levels in Israel as social service and education budgets are shredded by right-wing ideologues to pay for the costs of occupation, the settlements and Ariel Sharon’s Wall.
  • Atrocities against the occupied population have enormously escalated since 2000, as revealed by the high numbers of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, shot in the head (which indicates target practice, not self-defense shootings).

All these echo the U.S. experience in Iraq. But returning to our initial theme, the Israeli occupation illustrates the inevitable spread of torture from “exception” to routine.

It was during the era of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s, after Israeli torture (hoodings, severe shakings, beatings, freezing water showers, sleep deprivation, etc.) of Palestinian detainees had become public knowledge, that Israel’s highest court issued a fateful ruling.  Marty Rosenbluth of Amnesty International USA explained in an interview with this magazine (ATC 96, January-February 2002):

In 1994, after years in which so-called ‘moderate physical pressure’ had been accepted, methods of ‘exceptional pressure’ were authorized for interrogators ‘under extreme circumstances.’  This including violent physical shaking (causing) the prisoner’s brain literally to bang back and forth inside the skull.  This caused the death of at least one Palestinian detainee.  When Prime Minister Rabin was interviewed after that death, he defended the practice by saying that 8000 prisoners had been subjected to shaking and only one had died. So he gave away the fact that eight thousand people were tortured, all ‘under exceptional circumstances.’

That is the universal lesson of torture.  And in this matter as well as broader ones, the same costs that Israelis pay for the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza—violence, poverty, terrorism, hatred, the loss of freedom and self-respect—are becoming familiar to the people of the United States as the price of “our” empire.

ATC 111, July-August 2004