Our Torture Problem

For Fred Pfeil, comrade and colleague.

Rreathe a sign of relief. The US has now begun to monitor the jails in Iraq run by the Interior Minister Bayan Jabr. US Viceroy in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, informs us that torture is “unacceptable” and that the Iraqi people should be comforted to know that “we are very committed to looking at all other facilities.”

Poor Zal. The New York Times reported his comments on the 1000th day of the US War on Iraq. In the column next to this article, the Times reported that the Army has completed a new manual on interrogation techniques that, in the land of legalese, asks interrogators to comply with the Geneva Conventions, but allows for wide latitude in their definition of “form of coercion” or “physical or mental torture.” One defense official told the reporter, “This is a stick in [Senator John] McCain’s eye.” The stick is also in Zal’s eye, which is already being battered by mud-slings for the hypocrisy of US policy. Even Saddam Hussein’s lawyers got into the act, asking a victim of Dujail whether the atrocities against her had been photographed, or whether dogs had been set loose on her. Visions of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade and their shenanigans will make it hard to show Saddam as evil incarnate; others, in absentia, share the stand with him.

Bayan Jabr, a senior official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, followed Bush in the defense of his ministry (and his Wolf Brigade militia). The Iraqi state, he said, does not torture. The logic is impeccable. “Democracy,” as a concept, is antithetical to torture. If anything that resembles torture exists in a democracy, then it cannot be torture. It must be something else, such as the work of one or two “bad apples.” Tyrannical regimes torture as part of their inner logic, whereas torture can only occur within a democratic system by deranged individual action.

It is perhaps this amnesia sanctioned by our belief in the power of democracy that makes us forget “incidents” like the US complicity at Con Son Island in Vietnam, and in the “dirty wars” of Central America in the 1980s.

A US Congressional delegation visited the Con Son Island prison in 1970, and thanks to the camera of then Congressional aide Tom Harkin, pictures of the atrocities filled Life Magazine (July 17, 1970). The barbaric images of prisoners in “Tiger Cages” encouraged the Republican Congressman Philip Crane to defend America by deploying racism, “The Tiger Cages are cleaner than the average Vietnamese home.” When the US decided to tear down the prison, Brown and Root (an ancestor of Halliburton) won the contract to rebuild the new, improved cages.

Don Luce, who went with the Congressional team as a translator, fought off intimidation to publish Hostages of War, a fine account of the savagery. Confronted with the suggestion that all this has to do with Vietnamese culture or what not, Luce wrote, “The US must share responsibility for the nature of the Saigon government itself. It is a government of limited scope whose very essence is dictated by American policy, not Vietnamese reality.” Much the same could be said of the Iraqi government, whose ambit is circumscribed by its lack of responsibility for important matters (control over revenue, armed force, and all that amounts to state sovereignty these days).

I’ve just finished reading Jennfier Harbury’s powerful Truth, Torture and the American Way (Beacon, 2005). The book traces the widespread use of torture by US proxies in Central America through the 1980s. She retells the stories of survivors and victims of the torture, often conducted by cut-outs in the security forces of various governments (mainly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) who had been trained by both the Argentinean military intelligence and by the US (at the School for the Americas). Harbury documents the (sometimes active) presence of “gringos” in the room during the tortures, men with names such as “Mr. Mike” (who Harbury shows is probably a Navy SEAL, Lieutenant Commander Michael Walsh). “Sometimes the [CIA] agents merely observed,” writes Harbury, “sometimes they did the questioning, sometimes they advised, and sometimes they supervised. But they were there. Often.” Ghost prisoners, sexual violence, harsh torture techniques (including “The Vietnam,” the hooded man on the box at Abu Ghraib) ­ these are all well-known to the survivors of the Latin American torture cells. The similarity between the horrific techniques leads Harbury to conclude that there is a long-standing policy within the US government on how best to use violence as state policy.

Bush says, “We do not torture.” He’s right. How can America torture, when America is democracy incarnate? I am reminded of the arrogance of the French authorities, as they awaited the entry of the Cholera in 1832. As the Cholera ravaged Russia and then Germany, the authorities of the post-Revolutionary state remarked that the cause of the disease, “the subject of so much alarm, will have difficulty gaining a hold over people animated by such great emotions,” emotions such as liberty, equality and fraternity. “Hence throughout France the choleraic humor will naturally be eliminated by all the emunctories without endangering life.” 18,000 people died in Paris alone. But, nonetheless, the conceptual separation between civilized France and tyrannical Russia-India had been established. The latter could have such an unkind thing as an epidemic scourge, while the former would defeat it in its essence. So much the same nowadays for torture ­ it exists only in tyrannies, and democracies are incapable of torture. In America, torture is only legible if it is the act of “bad apples.” The state cannot, because it is not tyrannical, sanction torture.

To believe that the state tortures would mean to renounce the idea that this is a democracy.

VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).