Here’s a flashback that may help to explain how we got to where we are: the day was April 30, 2004. Alexander Cockburn and I were sitting by the pool having a gin and tonic at the old Richelieu Hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The concierge, an elegant black man from Haiti named Jean-Claud, dropped a sheaf of papers on our table. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, Mr. Cockburn,” he said. “These just came through for you by fax with a note marked ‘Urgent.’”
Alex looked at the first page. It was the cover of The New Yorker magazine. He turned to me and said with a grin, “Can anything from the New Yorker ever truly be considered ‘urgent’?” He paused. “Unless, they’ve libeled you again.” He was referring to a story written by the late Michael Kelley a few years earlier which had accused me of consorting with eco-terrorists. “Let’s call a cab. Otherwise, we risk missing Allen Toussaint.” We were in New Orleans to attend JazzFest, one of the world’s greatest musical festival, especially for lovers of the blues. I walked backed to my room. As I opened the door, the phone began to ring. It was Alex. “Jeffrey, I don’t know if the fax qualifies as urgent, but I think it spells the end of the Bush administration. Perhaps we should have another drink and go over it.”
The fax was a copy of a 4,000 story by Seymour Hersh titled “Torture at Abu Ghraib.” Hersh’s exposé described in harrowing detailed the torture, humiliation and sadistic abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad by US prison guards and military police. Hersh’s story was based on a secret internal report made by the Army’s own investigator, Major General Anthony Taguba. The report described Iraqi prisoners being stripped naked, bound and gagged, beaten with clubs, confronted with guard dogs, sexually assaulted with wires, nightsticks and a phosphorous tube. Some detainees were dragged across the prison floor by a rope tied to their penises. Others had phosphoric acid poured over their bodies. The horrors of Abu Ghraib weren’t news. Reports of detainee abuse had been circulating in the press for nearly a year. Two lawsuits against the Army had already been filed. What was new in Hersh’s story, what both Alex and I believed would doom the Bush administration and probably land Donald Rumsfeld in prison, was the photos. The sadistic guards had taken selfies, one with the corpse of a man who they’d tortured to death. Others of bound naked men stacked into a pyramid. Others of hooded men with electrical wires rigged to their bodies. Photos that couldn’t be talked away.
We were wrong. Hersh’s story, and the damning photos that illustrated it, didn’t doom the Bush administration. Rumsfeld wasn’t indicted. The real architects of torture almost escaped any notice at all. The blame was laid on guards and low-level officers. A rogue operation we were told. In fact, it didn’t even stop the Bush administration’s torture program. The public was numb. Congress was impotent. The CIA and its murderous henchmen and shrinks continued their dirty work at black sites around the world with a sense of impunity: beating, prodding, stress-positioning, electro-shocking, starving, sleep-depriving and waterboarding detainees at will, for weeks and months at a time, regardless of whether they had any information at all to spill.
Flashforward to Trumptime: Trump may well be the first presidential candidate to publicly advocate torture on the campaign trail. He won’t be the last. Torture has finally found its demographic in the American electorate. It’s a wedge issue. And not just for the FoxNews crowd.
When it came time to replace Mike Pompeo (another holy roller torture advocate) at the CIA, Trump knew just who to call: Gina Haspel, who had overseen the CIA’s torture operations at a black site in Thailand and later played a role in destroying 92 tapes relating to the agency’s torture program. Haspel is a grade-A war criminal and as such is the kind of woman who both excites and terrifies Trump.
Enter Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, known as “Blade” to his co-conspirators in Navy SEAL Team 7. During the Battle of Mosul in 2017, Gallagher noticed a heavily sedated teenage detainee, thought to be a member of ISIS, being treated by a medic. Gallagher radioed to his squad, “He’s mine.” Gallagher then walked over to the immobilized boy, repeatedly stabbed him in the throat with his hunting knife and then posed for a selfie with the child’s corpse, holding its head up by the hair. Blade then texted the photo to friends back in the states, noting: “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.” When two other SEALs reported the murder to their superiors, Gallagher threatened to kill them. In the end, Gallagher escaped the most serious charges of murder, but was convicted of posing with a corpse. Then Trump intervened, ordering that Gallagher’s demotion be overturned and that he remain a member of the SEALs. Trump brayed that he had “defended a great warrior against the Deep State” and vowed to bring along Gallagher to his reelection campaign rallies.
The missing link between the depraved crimes of Abu Ghraib and the depredations of Edward Gallagher is, of course, Barack Obama. Obama’s fatal decision not to fully expose and prosecute the torturers of the Bush administration transformed their crimes into US policy. With nothing to restrain him, Trump was free to turn torture and murder into a political spectacle, using the Oval Office to recruit a few good sadists to serve the thirsts of the empire.
What I’m reading this week…
American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God & Public Lands in the West
Betsy Gaines Quammen
(Torrey House Press)
Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: the President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies
Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo & Meg Kelly
Extra Innings: My Life in Baseball
(Blue River Books)
What I’m listening to this week…
Ghosts of West Virginia
Steve Earle and the Dukes
The Piano Equation
A Formula for Cruelty
“What I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.” (James Baldwin, A Report From Occupied Territory)