On the Necessity of Torture

While 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 broom stick.”

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 death.”

The 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.”

How 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 military and political 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 ubiquitous.

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 surprise.”

We 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.

MARK ENGLER, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.


MARK ENGLER is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, April 2008). He can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com