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JM Coetzee on Torture and Empire

Photo by Poster Boy | CC BY 2.0

As Gina Haspel goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, I have been reading J. M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians.  Coetzee’s depiction of torture and empire is startlingly relevant to Haspel’s nomination to be the next Director of Central Intelligence.

Coetzee’s story takes place in a remote outpost of the British Empire.  The unnamed narrator is a low level functionary of the Empire, a “magistrate” who presides over a small settlement and attached garrison far from the capital. Although Coetzee does not say, the setting is presumably in Africa (Coetzee grew up in Apartheid-era South Africa).  The narrator’s uneventful life is interrupted by the appearance of Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard.  It is Colonel Joll’s duty to torture the indigenous population.

Gina Haspel is the Colonel Joll of the American Empire.  During her years at the CIA, Haspel has been a proponent of torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation”).  Haspel oversaw an illegal “black site” prison in Thailand where torture took place.  Later, she drafted a cable ordering that videotapes of torture sessions be destroyed.  Destroying the tapes defied court orders, White House Counsels, and CIA lawyers.  A 2011 CIA memorandum absolves Haspel of blame for the tapes’ destruction, saying that Haspel was following the orders of her then chief, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., who received an Agency reprimand.  The question nonetheless remains whether Haspel knew that she was executing an illegal order.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration employed torture frequently, despite its pious assurances to the public that “The United States does not torture.”  Sometimes the Bush Administration farmed out torture to other countries, such as Egypt or Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic.  This outsourcing of torture received the coy name “extraordinary rendition.” According to Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst and national security columnist for CounterPunch, Gina Haspel was “a leading voice for extraordinary renditions.”

Most of the US torturers from the Bush period have escaped justice.  They can thank President Barack Obama for that.  President Obama announced early on that there would be no prosecutions of members of the Bush Administration; that included CIA officials implicated in torture.  Obama banned enhanced interrogation in January 2009, just days after taking office.

There were, however, few occasions when Obama’s administration could have used torture.  Despite Obama’s stated preference for capture, suspected members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were more often killed.  This spared Obama much of the agita Bush had experienced from the US Supreme Court’s ceaseless kvetching about due process and habeas corpus.

I was going to say that Candidate Trump proposed that the US torture terrorists’ families, but that’s not correct.  What Trump suggested on the campaign trail was that the US kill (“take out”) terrorists’ families, not torture them. I’m glad I checked that; I wouldn’t want to malign Mr. Trump.

Trump later went back on this statement, not a bad idea when you’ve proposed committing war crimes.  Trump has, however, endorsed torture. “[T]orture works,” Trump has said.  As both candidate and president, Trump has said that he would bring back waterboarding “and a hell of a lot worse.”

*     *    *     *     *

Early in Coetzee’s novel, a handful of prisoners are brought into the settlement.  One by one, they are taken away to be interrogated by Colonel Joll and his men. The narrator is excluded from these sessions.  He stands outside the interrogation room and listens to the prisoners’ screams.  Two of the prisoners affect him the most deeply: an old man who is beaten to death, and his young daughter who is beaten to the point where she loses most of her sight. The barbarians are eventually freed. The narrator forms an odd romantic liaison with the young woman.  She, her father, and the other prisoners have been tortured by Joll on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, just like many of the detainees who the US has groundlessly tortured since 9/11.

Later, Joll returns from a military expedition with more prisoners. The narrator sees that the prisoners are “holding their hands up to their faces in an odd way as though one and all are suffering from toothache.”  He is sickened when he learns the reason.

A simple loop of wire runs through the flesh of each man’s hands and through holes pierced in his cheeks.  “It makes them meek as lambs,” I remember being told by a soldier who had once seen the trick: “they think of nothing but how to keep very still.”

Their captors lead the prisoners to a long horizontal pole. A cord is threaded through the wires piercing the prisoners’ hands and cheeks and then wrapped around the pole.  The pole is close to the ground, forcing the prisoners to stoop far down.

Next, Joll rubs dust onto the backs of the row of prisoners and writes the word “ENEMY” in charcoal.  Joll’s soldiers then beat the prisoners with “stout green cane staves” until blood and sweat are pouring down their backs.  The narrator realizes that the object of the “game” is to keep beating the prisoners until the dust and charcoal are washed off the men’s backs by their own blood and sweat.

They played torture games at Abu Ghraib, too.

Coetzee’s point is that the true “barbarians” are the British colonizers.  Today’s barbarians include President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and, soon perhaps, Gina Haspel as CIA Director. All are devoted to torture and war. The barbarians don’t have to get past America’s defenses; they are here already.

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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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