yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal
judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs
and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
The photographs will elicit what has become a
predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be
shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such
abuses from happening again. But imagine, for a moment, if events followed a
different script. Imagine if Rumsfeld responded like Col. Mathieu in "Battle of
Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's famed 1965 film about the National Liberation
Front's attempt to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. In one of the
film's key scenes, Mathieu finds himself in a situation familiar to top
officials in the Bush administration: He is being grilled by a room filled with
journalists about allegations that French paratroopers are torturing Algerian
Based on real-life French commander Gen. Jacques Massu, Mathieu neither denies
the abuse nor claims that those responsible will be punished. Instead, he flips
the tables on the scandalized reporters, most of whom work for newspapers that
overwhelmingly support France's continued occupation of Algeria. Torture "isn't
the problem," he says calmly. "The problem is the FLN wants to throw us out of
Algeria and we want to stay…. It's my turn to ask a question. Should France stay
in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the
His point, as relevant in Iraq today as it was in Algeria in 1957, is that there
is no nice, humanitarian way to occupy a nation against the will of its people.
Those who support such an occupation don't have the right to morally separate
themselves from the brutality it requires.
Now, as then, there are only two ways to govern: with consent or with fear.
Most Iraqis do not consent to the open-ended military occupation they have been
living under for more than two years. On Jan. 30, a clear majority voted for
political parties promising to demand a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
Washington may have succeeded in persuading Iraq's political class to abandon
that demand, but the fact remains that U.S. troops are on Iraqi soil in open
defiance of the express wishes of the population.
Lacking consent, the current U.S.-Iraqi regime relies heavily on fear, including
the most terrifying tactics of them all: disappearances, indefinite detention
without charge and torture. And despite official reassurances, it's only getting
worse. A year ago, President Bush pledged to erase the stain of Abu Ghraib by
razing the prison to the ground. There has been a change of plans. Abu Ghraib
and two other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq are being expanded, and a new
2,000-person detention facility is being built, with a price tag of $50 million.
In the last seven months alone, the prison population has doubled to a
The U.S. military may indeed be cracking down on prisoner abuse, but torture in
Iraq is not in decline -- it has simply been outsourced. In January, Human
Rights Watch found that torture within Iraqi-run (and U.S.-supervised) jails and
detention facilities was "systematic," including the use of electroshock.
An internal report from the 1st Cavalry Division, obtained by the Washington
Post, states that "electrical shock and choking" are "consistently used to
achieve confessions" by Iraqi police and soldiers. So open is the use of torture
that it has given rise to a hit television show: Every night on the TV station
Al Iraqiya -- run by a U.S. contractor -- prisoners with swollen faces and black
eyes "confess" to their crimes.
Rumsfeld claims that the wave of recent suicide bombings in Iraq is "a sign of
desperation." In fact, it is the proliferation of torture under Rumsfeld's watch
that is the true sign of panic.
In Algeria, the French used torture not because they were sadistic but because
they were fighting a battle they could not win against the forces of
decolonization and Third World nationalism. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's use of
torture surged immediately after the Shiite uprising in 1991: The weaker his
hold on power, the more he terrorized his people. Unwanted regimes, whether
domestic dictatorships or foreign occupations, rely on torture precisely because
they are unwanted.
When the next batch of photographs from Abu Ghraib appear, many Americans will
be morally outraged, and rightly so. But perhaps some brave official will take a
lesson from Col. Mathieu and dare to turn the tables: Should the United States
stay in Iraq? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the
is a leading anti-sweatshop activist, and author of
Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate?
(Picador, 2002) and
No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 2000). Visit the No
www.nologo.org. This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
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