it has been over a week since the scandal concerning abuses of
Iraqi prisoners erupted, our country is only beginning to reckon
with the issue of torture. By now, most Americans have seen at
least some of the horrific photos from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
We know that more are yet to come.
In his testimony before Congress, Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld warned that the government holds pictures and video of
a "sadistic, cruel and inhuman" nature. Senator Lindsey Graham
(R-SC), who has seen this material, warns that "We're not just
talking about giving people a humiliating experience--we're
talking about rape and murder and some very serious charges."
This is sad news. But perhaps it is for the best that such
evidence is coming to light. Based on our domestic news
coverage, many Americans have been persuaded that the present
scandal is "just" a matter of sexual humiliation. This
perception allows Rush Limbaugh to liken the abuse to a
fraternity prank, to argue that the jailers' actions were
"understandable" given the stresses of the Iraqi situation.
"You know," Limbaugh said in the soldiers' defense, "these
people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people
having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional
release? You heard of need to blow some steam off?" Limbaugh's
prescription is to "move on."
The US army's internal report, authored by General Antonio M.
Taguba, is not as cavalier. It describes "sadistic, blatant and
wanton" abuses of our country's captives, acts such as "Breaking
chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees,"
and "sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a
In the now-famous series of ten photos posted on-line by the
New Yorker magazine, the ninth image--which has received far
less attention than the depictions of sexual humiliation--shows
the dead body of an "abused" prisoner, packed in ice, which
Taguba's report suggests may have been killed during
interrogation. At least ten incidences of Iraqi prisoners dying
while in US custody are currently under investigation, according
to the Pentagon.
Much has already been said about how the abuses in Iraq are not
unique in the post-9/11 context--about how human rights monitors
have long decried acts of torture taking place in US facilities
in Guantanamo Bay, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Likewise, it
is increasingly well-known that our country, in lieu of
conducting its own torturous interrogations, has grown
accustomed in past years to "rendering" detainees to countries
like Syria and Egypt, countries that will perform torture for us
and that we can continue to regard as moral backwaters.
Our elected officials' long-overdue denunciation of these
practices is vital, and may result in significant reforms in the
short term. But they are unlikely to address the root of
torture--the policies of military control that have sustained
the practice in the past, and that make it necessary today.
Two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, columnist Ann
Coulter famously argued in an article for the National Review
that "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and
convert them to Christianity." Two and a half years later, the
rhetoric has cooled only slightly. In the newest fundraising
letter from the Heritage Foundation, trustee Steve Forbes
decries a survey showing that "79% of students do not believe
that Western culture is superior to Arab culture." He champions
the Foundation's mission of "standing up for Western
civilization and proclaiming it superior to a culture that
allows no dissent, that represses its women, and that worships
Department of Defense is only somewhat less explicit in its
calls for a new crusade. Its strategy papers call for
"full-spectrum dominance" over any foreign adversary, real or
potential. Its neoconservative staffers promote a world order of
"unquestioned US military preeminence."
is our country's unquestioned dominance to be maintained, if not
for torture? How would Coulter's conversions be accomplished
without the coercion and the humiliation unleashed in all
previous crusades? Why are we to believe that the occupation of
Iraq will be uniquely clean and humane, that it will not at all
resemble our nation's sins from the Cold War, committed in
places like El Salvador and Vietnam? The abuses Abu Ghraib take
place in a historical context in which government officials have
tacitly acknowledged the use of torture, yet we have preferred
to remember their official denials.
Perhaps it is not surprising,
amidst a new war, that Vietnam haunts the current Presidential
campaigns. In 1971, John Kerry, then a young Vietnam veteran,
testified before a Senate hearing about a veteran's initiative
called the "Winter Soldier" investigation. Kerry explained that
fellow soldiers "told stories that at times they had personally
raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable
telephones to human genitals and turned up the power... razed
villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle
and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the
countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of
war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by
the applied bombing power of this country."
In past months, this speech has become a liability to candidate
Kerry. His critics have suggested that this testimony reflects
poorly on the Senator's patriotism and that the soldiers were
lying. When Kerry appeared recently on Meet the Press,
interviewer Tim Russert echoed these criticisms when charging
that many of the allegations had been "discredited."
There is no arguing this point. It is self-denial. Any person,
any news organization, that cares to examine the record will
find that the charges are not only credible, they are
In the wake of terrorist attacks on the United States, there
came a moment where torture could again come to light as public
policy. "After 9/11 the gloves come off," Cofer Black, former
head of CIA Counterterrorism Center, ominously warned. A CIA
official speaking anonymously to the Washington Post in
2002 said, "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of
the time, you probably aren't doing your job." That same year
the US unsuccessfully tried to block UN amendments to the
Convention Against Torture. These aimed to strengthen the
original 1987 treaty by establishing an international regime of
random inspections of prisons and other facilities.
Even in his Friday testimony Secretary Rumsfeld seemed to
express frustration at operating "with peace time restraints,
with legal requirements in a wartime situation." He bemoaned a
situation in which "people are running around with digital
cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then
passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our
will not end abuses by handing out court-martials and "moving
on." At base, a foreign policy that necessitates torture exists
because we refuse to conceive of a role for the United States in
the world that is not based on indisputable military might, nor
on using this power to pursue our country's economic interests.
Change will come only by challenging the central assumptions
behind this imperial conception of national purpose; it will
happen only if we act in the knowledge that there is more
torture to come.
"They did not know or participate in any crimes," a senior U.S.
officer in Baghdad said of the officers responsible for running
the prison in Iraq. "They should have known, but they did not."
Applied to the commanding officers about whom they were spoken,
these words are implausible. Applied to ourselves, they ring
true: We did not know. We should have known.