Torture is Merely the Symptom

“the painful but ineluctable truth [is] that the limits to the cure of man’s soul are set by the illness of the society in which he lives.”

– Paul Baran

Our politicians and pundits have all viewed the latest batch of photographs and videos depicting US soldiers cruelly humiliating, beating, and torturing their Iraqi prisoners. Their purported–perhaps even genuine–outrage and revulsion has been duly noted and conveyed time and again to the whole world; domestically the same professed horror has been repeated endlessly in the press, mostly at the expense of thoughts from the victims themselves. Yet even as our elite line up to express their outrage at soldiers grinning next to leashed and chained detainees, their own criticism is leashed and chained to an extremely narrow ideological spectrum, one in which deeper questions about the torture scandal are safely locked away in the dark corners of that Abu-Ghraib-like entity known as “mainstream” debate.

Within this limited spectrum, the only acceptable questions concern the degree to which higher-level military officials are responsible for the depraved acts carried out by lowly military police. Since internal army and government reports show that both sickening sadism on part of the accused soldiers and a friendly nod from higher-ups contributed to the cruelty at Abu Ghraib, each group commands some amount of evidence to fling blame across the table to save their own skins. But all this intrigue does nothing to further our understanding of why and in what social context torture was carried out. It only lends the event the sensationalistic hue of an unfolding Hollywood drama, obscuring pressing realities beyond the cameras and behind the set.

Moving past superficialities, several crucial questions immediately emerge: What is so “scandalous” about the torture? What ideological rhetoric laid the groundwork for treating Iraqis as sub-human? What modern examples lent such attitudes an air of credibility? Which reservoirs of American hatred and prejudice were tapped into to unleash such a flood of pain upon the victims of our ‘liberation’?

The first question may appear strange at face value: the torture is scandalous because torture itself is cruel and horrific. But it turns out that this is no explanation at all, since many other aspects of the Iraq war and the ‘war on terror’ in general fall into this category–at least by the standards of any rational society. Countless incidents of US soldiers raiding and breaking into homes, spraying gunfire in all directions during guerrilla attacks and gunning down demonstrators have been recorded since Iraq came under occupation. The siege of Fallujah left about 600 people dead, half of them civilian, as US forces wrought havoc on the city of 300,000 with massive shelling and bombardment.

The military does not even bother to conduct body counts of its many victims, regardless of whether they are civilians or militants. Nor does it care if the victims are civilians or militants, as illustrated by the pathetic and surreal denials issued over the recent aerial bombardment of an Iraqi tribal wedding which left dozens dead. Moreover, the kind of treatment displayed in the Abu Ghraib photos has long been reported by lawyers, survivors, and eye-witnesses not only from Iraq but also Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan.

But there is one crucial difference between all these crimes and the ones committed at Abu Ghraib: the latter have been clearly captured in hundreds of damning photographs, and therefore cannot be dismissed with an arrogant sleight of hand. Thus for our leaders and commentators, it is not the crime itself which is scandalous but rather the fact that the US has been caught red-handed in committing them. Rumsfeld provided us a resounding confirmation of this when he recently issued an order banning all mobile phones equipped with digital cameras from military installations in Iraq–the source of many of the torture photos. (AFP, May 24, 2004)

If it is not the actual torture, killing, and oppression of Iraqis or Arabs and Muslims in general which pierces America’s collective conscience, but rather the reality of being caught in the act, we must assume that some kind of ideological apparatus has been pumping out a deluge of hate, prejudice and disinformation to justify the dehumanization of these groups in the first place. To find this apparatus, we need look no further than those who authored this war–the neoconservatives. Here are a few choice quotes from the leading ideologues of neo-conservatism, quotes which in and of themselves do more to reveal the trajectory of American imperialism than any outside analysis:

“We should have no misgivings about our ability to destroy tyrannies. It is what we do best. It comes naturally to us, for we are the one truly revolutionary country in the world, as we have been for more than 200 years. Creative destruction is our middle name. We do it automatically, and that is precisely why the tyrants hate us and are driven to attack us.”

­ Michael Ledeen

“By total war, I mean the kind of warfare that not only destroys the enemy’s military forces, but also brings the enemy society to an extremely personal point of decision, so that they are willing to accept a reversal of the cultural trends that spawned the war in the first place.

“A total war strategy does not have to include the intentional targeting of civilians, but the sparing of civilian lives cannot be its first priority … The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto another people group.

“Limited war pits combatants against combatants, while total war pits nation against nation, and even culture against culture.”

­Adam Mersereau

‘”Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.”

”In centuries past, the wild and unruly passions of the Islamic world were kept within tight confines by firm, often ruthless imperial authorityThese distant masters [British and French] did not always rule wisely or well, but they generally prevented the region from menacing the security of the outside world.”

­Max Boot

“”This [Arab land] is a region characterised by paranoia, apocalypticism, tyranny, and violence, a region where differences are settled by the sword.”

­Joshua Muravchik

”The elementary truth that seems to elude the experts again and again–Gulf War, Afghan war, next war–is that power is its own reward. Victory changes everything, psychology above all. The psychology in the region is now one of fear and deep respect for American power.”

­Charles Krauthammer

These are not the kinds of statements with which one can argue with or even begin to approach with any hope of rational discourse: every word is soaked in the blood of colonialism; every phrase drenched in the arrogance of empire; every sentence spitting upon the darker hues of humanity. So deeply rooted in the most ahistorical assumptions bizarre caricatures, these positions perfectly exemplify the power of the dictum that the bigger the lie, the harder it is to refute; one can only look upon the neoconservative proclamations with the awe reserved for natural disasters or nuclear explosions.

And let there be no confusion about the role of neo-conservatism in American foreign policy: it constitutes the intellectual, political, and military vanguard of the movement to project, deepen, and entrench American power into every corner of the globe. We were assured of this fact not too long ago by the most highly revered dispenser of wisdom in the liberal media, Thomas Friedman, according to Ari Shavit’s account of his interview with him:

“Is the Iraq war the great neoconservative war? It’s the war the neoconservatives wanted, Friedman says. It’s the war the neoconservatives marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when September 11 came, and they sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. So this is not a war that the masses demanded. This is a war of an elite. Friedman laughs: I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five-block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”

True to pompous form, Friedman exaggerates here, and then retracts a bit later on. But the point is well-taken. More illuminating, however, is “liberal” Friedman’s understanding of the Iraq war (again as described by Shavit):

“Turning to me, he says that democracies look soft until they’re threatened. When threatened, they become very hard. Actually, the Iraq war is a kind of Jenin on a huge scale. Because in Jenin, too, what happened was that the Israelis told the Palestinians, We left you here alone and you played with matches until suddenly you blew up a Passover seder in Netanya. And therefore we are not going to leave you alone any longer. We will go from house to house in the Casbah. And from America’s point of view, Saddam’s Iraq is Jenin.”

The analysis itself contains all the hallmarks of neoconservative rhetoric, particularly in retaining the defining characteristic of being a collection of lies neatly arranged on top of more lies hastily thrown on top of the victims they are meant to crush and bury. But the larger point is that even the “non-neoconservative” mainstream has been infected with the most basic tenet held dear by all neoconservatives–we are like Israel, fighting a war like Israel, fighting the same enemy, and therefore locked in the same struggle with a common purpose.

The result is that Israel is seen as the main model, example, and inspiration for how the United States should perceive and treat the Arabs once all the syrupy songs about liberating and freeing them have fizzled and faded from increasingly bellicose throats that now cry out for perpetual war. To rely on a racist settler-state indicted by its own historians as guilty on the counts of ethnic cleansing, rape, massacre, and large-scale theft of land and property is bound to produce disastrous consequences. Immediately it becomes clear that if torturing, disposessing, and mowing down Palestinians defending the last few scraps of their own land with massive weaponry is justified and acceptable for Israel, then similar measures are perfectly alright for America in Iraq.

Perhaps more poisonous than the adoption of Israeli tactics and methods is the absorption of the racist and arrogant attitudes necessary to justify them. Identifying with a brutal colonial state requires America to look toward the darker and more shameful elements of its past for comfort and reassurance. Undoubtedly this includes a celebration of its own early aggressive and expansionist past: the extermination of the Indians, subjugation of the blacks, bullying of Latin America, and in general a “muscular internationalism” to borrow the words of our “liberal” presidential candidate. The drift toward reactionary attitudes in society and the power elite is further evidenced by the alliance of neoconservatives with Christian fundamentalism, represented by the approximately 90 million American Christian evangelists who are viciously anti-gay, anti-women, anti-black, and anti-Islamic.

By now it should be painfully clear that the torture at Abu Ghraib is not an isolated or bizarre incident disconnected from the increasingly reactionary atmosphere we find ourselves in. For it is the powerful set of right-wing political and social forces whose battle cry has always been “Two, Three, Many Abu Ghraibs!” that has allowed and applauded all kinds of atrocities so long as they can be kept more or less out of sight. If we do not act in a concerted and principled manner to confront and battle these forces now, we may soon find that even the worst crimes will not have to be hidden from view; rather they will be paraded and celebrated as shining examples of national greatness.

M. JUNAID ALAM, 21, Boston, co-editor of radical youth journal Left Hook.

First published in Left Hook


M. JUNAID ALAM, 21, Boston, co-editor of radical youth journal Left Hook (, feedback: , first published in Left Hook