America’s Dirty Secret

The now famous picture of the hooded Iraqi prisoner standing precariously on a box with electrical wires dangling from both hands is affixed to my refrigerator with the bold subtext; “Join the Bush War on Terror.” There’s something otherworldly about the skeletal figure draped in sackcloth, something eerily symbolic in his pose. For many, this spectral image will undoubtedly be the foremost reminder of the ill-fated Iraqi crusade.

The victim in the picture is obviously engaged in his first seminar in American foreign policy. Other graduates of the program can be found in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and virtually any other region of the world where America’s corporate interests require an advanced studies curricula for dissidents.

The suspicion of torture at Abu Ghraib prison is really not a surprise to anyone who has reviewed the human rights reports produced by Amnesty International. American violations of treaties against physical coercion have been suspected for some time now, with a plethora of anecdotal evidence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the pictorial proof in this case goes well beyond the norm and is already causing tremors around the world.

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who formally presided over Abu Ghraib prison, has been reassigned and may be charged under military justice. She has accepted responsibility for the misbehavior of her subordinates but is refusing to be made the scapegoat for the activities beyond her control.

Those activities (torture) were allegedly carried out routinely ever since the prison was reopened under US control. As Karpinski admitted, agents from the CIA, private contractors and Military Intelligence carried on “sessions” with prisoners at all hours of the day and night in restricted cellblock 1A.

“This was no 9 to 5 job,” said Karpinski.

The six enlisted soldiers under her command, all members of the 372nd Military Police Company, who were photographed with the prisoners, are all facing charges and possibly courts-martial. They have, however, defended themselves by suggesting that they were encouraged in their behavior by Army Intelligence.

Sergeant Ivan Frederick is quoted as saying, “This is how the military wants it.” Their belief was that they were “softening up” the prisoners so they would break down faster during interrogation. (Or, as the Army report puts it, “They were setting the physical and mental conditions for the favorable interrogation of witnesses.”)

It’s clear that we are not dealing with an isolated situation, but “systemic and illegal abuse” that goes right up the chain of command and involves many higher-ups in the intelligence-security apparatus. Already, the CIA, independent contractors and Military Intelligence have been implicated in the allegations of sponsoring torture, which suggests that the practices were sanctioned at much higher levels then military bigwigs are currently willing to admit.

Torturers are not free agents operating on their own authority. They are the custodian’s of state power, applying their heinous art to anyone who may even vaguely resemble a threat to their authority.

What is so compelling about this case is the fact that there is a photographic record of the crimes and humiliations, which will dispel any doubt that the US engages in the inhumane treatment of prisoners.

The “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant and wanton criminal abuse…inflicted on several detainees,” strongly suggest that these are not isolated incidents, but a widely accepted methodology for dealing with potential threats. This is not an issue of six rogue enlisted men going haywire. It is a red flag signaling the broader policy decisions that have been made at the upper reaches of the military and government establishments.

Americans who still want to believe the best about themselves, will want to accept the media narrative that these abuses are not the norm but simply the aberrant behavior of sick soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. America has perfected the culture of murder and torture under the rubric of National security. How else do we explain 3 decades of SOA (School of the Americas) which operates quite openly, teaching the lethal arts of psy-ops, counterinsurgency, repression and torture? They’ve even produced a manual that details how to successfully apply all of these nefarious skills. This can hardly be regarded as mere aberration. It is a concerted effort by the state to employ whatever criminal tools are at its disposal to assert its dominance around the world.

The “School of the Assassins” (as it is known) is the brightest flower in the American garland; and one that is forever nurtured by the blood of innocent third world men and women. It functions as an adjunct to the conventional institutions of economic and military power, but is no less a part of that basic structure of domination. Its primary function is to remove whatever obstacles may appear in the path of American corporations and to insure their continued preeminence throughout the world.

Like everything else in the National security apparatus, torture is an institution that is invoked to protect the interests of the few from the foul grasp of the many.

Torture is the empire’s dirty little secret. Behind the facade of respectability and commitment to human rights the practice has been going on for decades almost in full view of the American public. Counterinsurgency, assassination and torture have all become integral parts of maintaining a global system that functions in the interests of American industry. It’s puzzling that many appear to be “shocked” by this transparent reality.

The real damage to America’s prestige is the photographs themselves, not the reality behind them. It is like the serial “wife beater” who is well respected about town until he undiplomatically brings his battered spouse a public gathering. They all knew his secret already, but the reality leaves them shaken.

Americans, steeped in denial, are now equally shaken.

America is that “wife beater” and can no longer hide behind the illusion of moral superiority. That superiority has served us well and will be missed a great deal. We now find ourselves stretched out in the mud and looking eye to eye with those who we condemned just weeks earlier.

It’s a view of the world that Bush and Co. are making sure that we get used to.


MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at