December 11, 2005

ON TORTURE, III: Brutality and Sadism as National Policy, and the Monsters of Our Time

Before proceeding to some crucial truths about torture, why torture is always, absolutely wrong, and why torture must never be affirmatively condoned -- directly or indirectly and even in the slightest degree, if an individual or a nation wishes to remain civilized in any meaningful manner -- we should briefly review where we find ourselves today. Among the many crimes and immoralities that can be placed directly at the feet of the Bush administration, the fact that we have now crossed a critical line and begun the descent into a moral abyss that may destroy us in time is undoubtedly the worst. What the Bush administration has done in this respect can be accurately described in only one way: their actions are profoundly and unforgivably evil.

Evil is a word from which we tend to recoil, both in our personal dealings and when we consider issues of national policy. My reasons for applying the word to the Bush administration -- and to all those who support the administration's position on the question of torture -- will become clearer in the final two parts of this series (which will follow this installment, later today). For the moment, only one key fact needs to be remembered, and we must never, ever forget it: Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever. As we shall see, the rationalizations used to make torture "acceptable" on even one occasion are only that: rationalizations for other motives and other concerns. The excuses used to justify the practice of torture are the lies that serve only to disguise the nature and extent of the evil being committed.

In an article first published in Salon, Mark Follman provides some necessary background:
Five days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney instructed the nation that the U.S. government would begin working "the dark side" to defeat its enemies in a new global war. "A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion," Cheney declared on NBC's "Meet the Press." He added, "It's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal."

More than four years later, the Bush administration has delivered on Cheney's vow to wage war in the shadows, free from oversight and accountability. Policies for seizing and interrogating suspects - conceived and commanded at the highest levels of the White House - have permitted numerous acts of torture and even murder at the hands of American soldiers and interrogators.

The grim acts unleashed by those policies are no secret today. Cruel and wanton abuses have been exposed at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and other lesser known U.S. military bases and prisons around the world. In November, the Washington Post uncovered a global network of covert CIA prisons known as "black sites," top-secret interrogation facilities reportedly operating in far-flung locations from Eastern Europe to Thailand. Still, many dark details remain unknown.

"There is no instance in American history where we've been exposed as being so deeply involved in actually conducting torture on a routine and regular basis," says Thomas Powers, an expert on national security and the author of two books on the CIA.

In recent months, a fierce backlash against the abuses has not only been rising in Washington, but well beyond. Many Americans on the front lines of national security are demoralized and angered by the fact that only a few foot soldiers have been punished - such as Pvt. Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib infamy - while commanders in the field and policymakers have remained untouched. A growing number of military and CIA personnel, according to officers from both realms, admit that the Bush policies, hatched in the fearful weeks and months after 9/11, have deeply corrupted military and intelligence operations over four years of war.


Following the revelation of the black sites, President Bush stated: "We do not do torture." Much evidence proves otherwise, but what else could the president of the United States say? Torturing prisoners is both illegal and morally reprehensible. Committed by Americans, it has undermined the mission to bring democratic reform to Afghanistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East. It has done profound damage to America's image at home and worldwide. And most intelligence experts, including CIA director Porter Goss, agree that when it comes to gathering useful information, torture simply doesn't work.


[E]vidence of widespread use of torture by the United States under the Bush administration is indisputable, including the policy of rendition, or the handing over of prisoners to foreign allies like Jordan and Egypt who are known to torture. European leaders have been in an uproar as further evidence emerges that the CIA has secretly used European airports to transport prisoners for interrogation.

The numbers alone tell a chilling story. According to recent reports by the Associated Press, the United States has held more than 83,000 prisoners since the war on terror began, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, more than 14,000 remain in U.S. custody, mostly in Iraq, where U.S. military officials have acknowledged in the past that many prisoners were of little or no intelligence value. Military officials have said the same of the majority of prisoners held in Guantánamo Bay; yet from Guantánamo to the war zones, more than 4,000 prisoners have been held for a year or longer, with several hundred held for multiple years.

As of March this year, 108 detainees were known to have died in U.S. military and CIA custody. Of those, 22 died when insurgents attacked Abu Ghraib prison, while others reportedly died of natural causes. At least 26 deaths have been deemed criminal homicides.
And the warhawks who refuse to question any aspect of Bush's foreign policy -- except to insist that the administration is not brutal enough and has failed to kill sufficient numbers of people -- and who simultaneously insist that they and only they care for the welfare of our own troops should note the following:
Army Capt. Ray Kimball is among the growing number who say that interrogation by torture is anti-American, ineffective and categorically wrong. In an interview with Salon, he said it also causes severe harm to U.S. soldiers themselves.

"Torture not only degrades the victim, it also ultimately degrades the torturer," said Kimball, who served in Iraq and now teaches history at West Point. "We already have enough soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after legitimate combat experiences. But now you're talking about adding the burden of willfully inflicting wanton pain on another human being. You tell a soldier to go out there and 'waterboard' someone" - strap a prisoner to a board, bind his face in cloth, and pour water over his face until he fears death by drowning - "or mock-execute someone, but nobody is thinking about what that's going to do to that soldier months or years later, when it comes to dealing with the rationalizations and internal consequences. We're talking about serious psychic trauma."
Follman provides these further details:
More soldiers are starting to come forward with the support of groups like Human Rights Watch, which conducts leading research on torture in the war on terror. Although unwilling to talk on the record for fear of retribution by the military, a number of active-duty soldiers who've spoken with Human Rights Watch are increasingly angry about the torture scandals, according to researcher John Sifton. While some soldiers are wary that media and human rights groups are out to make the military look bad, Sifton says most of them realize that they are taking the sole blame for the abuses.

A number of soldiers we've talked to have told us they were ordered by military intelligence to torture," Sifton told Salon. "And not just at Abu Ghraib but at forward operating bases across Iraq." According to Sifton, several soldiers who tried to report misconduct say their superiors told them to take a hike.

One of them was Army Spc. Tony Lagouranis, who worked as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison and in a special intelligence unit that operated across Iraq in 2004. After multiple attempts to report wrongdoing, he became frustrated by stonewalling inside the military and took his knowledge of abuses to the media.

"It's all over Iraq," Lagouranis, now retired, told the PBS show "Frontline" in late September. "The worst stuff I saw was from the detaining units who would torture people in their homes. They were using things like ... burns. They would smash people's feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs." At the root of the abuses, he said, was a lot of "frustration that we weren't getting good intel," and murky directives regarding the treatment of prisoners. Inevitably, Lagouranis said, those conditions gave rise to instances of "pure sadism," like the ones at Abu Ghraib.


Beginning almost immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, policies crafted inside the Bush White House set the conditions for rampant abuses by the military and CIA. In the first fearful weeks and months after the attacks, top administration lawyers in the White House and Justice Department drew up a series of secret legal memos that recast the rules for the treatment of so-called enemy combatants, those considered terrorist suspects from no easily identifiable army or nation. The memos argued that captured enemy combatants were not entitled to fundamental protections of U.S. or international law, including the obligations of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, a treaty the United States ratified in 1994 explicitly outlawing "torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" of prisoners.

The administration also relied on a classified document known as a "presidential finding," authorizing broad covert action by the CIA to capture, detain or kill members of al-Qaida anywhere in the world. The finding, which administration legal advisors apparently ruled lawful, was signed by Bush on Sept. 17, 2001. A day later, Congress granted the administration additional power by authorizing the use of "all necessary and appropriate" military force at the discretion of the president.

This November, in response to the torture scandals, the Pentagon issued a new high-level directive requiring that interrogations be conducted using "humane" treatment. That term replaced language in an earlier draft of the directive modeled after the international rules against torture - a change that was made following intense pressure from Cheney's office.

According to one senior Army officer, a judge advocate general who has been involved in discussions with Pentagon officials on the issue, reaching a consensus on what constitutes "humane" treatment can be exceedingly difficult - and vague language remains precisely the strategy of the Bush administration's legal maneuverings on detention and interrogation.


The rising backlash against torture today indicates more military and intelligence officers are realizing that the Bush administration is sinking the United States into an unprecedented moral quagmire - one that could lead to an especially dire end. "The problems with this are huge and they're hitting home now," Powers says. "How do you let these people go, especially the ones deemed to be of no intelligence value, after they've been treated so badly? Are you just going to hold them forever? You have to ask whether or not they will eventually reach the stage of just summarily killing them. It may have happened already. This policy isn't just ineffectual - it's complete madness."


While Durbin and fellow lawmakers responsible for oversight were kept in the dark on covert interrogation operations, before he left the committee he and others viewed hundreds of classified photos of torture from Abu Ghraib. According to Durbin, a number of the images they witnessed were even more horrific than the public has seen to date, though he declined to go into detail, because they remain classified. "In all of my years of public service, I'll never forget that day. I was standing there in a room with fellow senators, some of whom were in tears, as we watched brought up on a screen hundreds and hundreds of photos showing the most unimaginable treatment of prisoners."
The denial by the administration and its defenders has spread to another inevitable result of our embrace of sadism: our policies have now created our own monsters in Iraq. Bush and his fellow gang members mindlessly repeat that we are spreading the blessings of "freedom" and "democracy." But the Iraqis look at what we have actually done in their country and what we continue to do -- and they then unleash their own brand of cruelty, sadism and barbarism, knowing that the United States has no legitimate ground for complaint.

A story in the Christian Science Monitor provides some additional background on this part of our horror story:
Privately, half a dozen US officers have acknowledged to the Monitor that prisoner abuse by Iraqi police is common.

Now, one officer is speaking out. Major R. John Stukey, a US Army doctor who served in Baghdad from January to June, frequently visited Interior Ministry facilities on the east side of Baghdad to assess the health of prisoners. He says he personally treated about a dozen men who had been tortured and observed an environment of overcrowding and neglect.

Many more of his patients alleged torture, but in most cases this couldn't be verified, since he often saw them for the first time months after their initial arrests and interrogations.

In one east Baghdad facility run by Iraq's Interior Ministry, a few miles from the secret jail that was raided by US forces on Nov. 13, Major Stukey says about 220 men were held in filthy conditions in a space so crowded that many couldn't lie down to sleep.

Stukey visited the facilities with members of the 720th US Military Police Battalion. The MPs filed frequent reports to their commanders about the ill-treatment and, Stukey says, did what they could to prevent torture and improve the prisoners' conditions. They made a point of distributing soap, toothbrushes, and Korans whenever they visited.

"We did report what we saw, but it was like trying to put out a forest fire with a bucket of water,'' says Stukey by telephone at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where he is currently based. "The MPs submitted reports at least several times a week on detention issues. We knew about it, and we tried to change it, but it was just one of those things you had to deal with."

Officials from the 720th, now back at its base in Fort Hood, Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.

Coalition troops, fighting a deadly insurgency, say they don't have the manpower to compel better behavior from their Iraqi partners, and that to do so would require them to court frequent conflict with their closest allies inside the country.

The Bush Administration has sent mixed messages on the subject. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that the US "does not authorize or condone torture of detainees." The US has also signed the UN Convention Against Torture. But administration officials have also argued that the treaty rules on "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment do not apply outside US territory.
At the bottom of the first page of its article, the Monitor provides a graph containing information from a recent poll taken in several different countries. About 1,000 respondents in each country were asked this question: "Do you feel the use of torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism activities is justified?" Note that the question asks about suspected terrorists -- in other words, people who may be entirely innocent. And as the articles excerpted above and many others demonstrate, the great majority of individuals who have been subjected to such inhumane, intentionally sadistic treatment have turned out to be innocent.

In terms of the respondents' support for torture, the United States came in second -- behind only South Korea. In response to the question, 23% of Americans said torture should "rarely" be used, 27% said torture should "sometimes" be used, and 11% said torture should "often" be used. Only slightly more than a third of Americans, 36%, said torture should "never" be used. Keep the much larger figure in mind: 61% of Americans approve of using torture.

For reasons I will explain further, especially in the final part of this series, you should not take comfort from the fact that a lie is built into the question. With very rare exceptions, these are the terms in which torture is debated today -- and our criminally irresponsible media do nothing to correct the lies for the most part. The question asks if torture is "justified" "to obtain information about terrorism activities." Actually, the phrasing represents a double lie: obviously the question assumes that such "information" is accurate information, although it does not state that explicitly. As the Follman article indicates, and as I will be examining in much more detail, that is one of the central indisputable facts about torture -- the point on which every knowledgeable expert agrees. As Follman puts it: "when it comes to gathering useful information, torture simply doesn't work."

I would certainly be very interested to know how people would answer the question if it were asked truthfully: "Do you feel the use of torture against suspected terrorists to obtain information about terrorism activities is justified -- even though almost every expert on the subject agrees that torture never results in obtaining accurate information and that it simply doesn't work?" A blunter version of the question would come considerably closer to the truth: "Do you approve of the use of brutal, unimaginably sadistic treatment of our enemies -- and even of those who are only suspected of being enemies -- to show the world that we mean business, that we are real sons of bitches, and that if you fail to do as we tell you, we will make your life an unbearable hell on earth?"

In the middle of its article, the Monitor offers a passage which I find almost impossible to grasp, so horrifying is it in its continued denial of truths that can no longer be denied by any honest observer:
Pat Lang, a retired colonel and former head of Middle East Intelligence for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, says it's important for the US to have a zero-tolerance policy toward torture.

"We know that left to their own devices the Iraqis are going to do these kinds of things, and there's no chance of stopping it all over the country,'' he says. "But to me, this is more about us than it is about them. We can't tolerate this when we see it. I don't want our standards eroded any further."
"Left to their own devices..." This is the sickening condescension of the most disgusting kind of white imperialist -- who is infinitely worse than the alleged barbarians he claims he seeks to "civilize," and who continues to regard those poor, non-white natives as subhuman. The genuine monster involved is the vicious colonialist himself -- but he has intentionally broken the mirror that would insist that he contemplate his own reflection.

So this is where we are today: even though the administration continues to peddle its pathetic lies -- lies that everyone knows are lies, including those who repeat them every day -- the United States has now officially implemented the use of torture. We have done so in a manner that is systematic and comprehensive. We know that torture "simply doesn't work," and that it produces no useful intelligence that in fact helps us in this war -- and yet we insist that we must continue to do it anyway.

We are now a barbarian nation. What we do is infinitely worse in one crucial respect: we insist that we must behave like sadistic monsters precisely so that we can uphold the values of civilization, of "democracy," and of the rule of law. We are not even honest monsters, if "honest" is a word that can be meaningfully used in this context.

But if we continue much farther on this path, that day too will come: the day when we announce our barbarity and inhumanity proudly to the world, and no longer engage in the pretense of making apologies or excuses for it. In fact, and as we shall see in the concluding part of this essay, some of the administration's most fervent defenders already do this. The final excuse they employ is the most pathetic one of all: we must act like monsters, they say, because our enemies have made us do it. These repellent, vile frauds, who trumpet their own strength of character and "manliness" because they enthusiastically embrace what ought to repel any person who is remotely civilized to any degree at all, are revealed by their own words to be the most contemptible of weaklings: they are helpless to resist evil because the enemies they identify as the essence of evil compel them to do so.

This is the final defense of the coward who has placed himself beyond redemption for all time: the coward who renounces the last remnants and protections of civilization and joyfully reduces himself to the level of the beasts of the jungle. But that does a disservice to those actual beasts: animals do not regularly engage in the cruelties that human beings commit so routinely throughout their history and, when they do so, they do not lie about it.

Barbarism and sadism are now the official policy of our government. And the defenders of that policy still tell the world that we, and only we, can ensure that the values of civilization are transmitted to the future. They seek to destroy the unique value of human life, and they have rendered themselves incapable of understanding the nature of the destruction upon which they have embarked.

Can there ever be forgiveness for choosing a course that is evil to this extent? History will make the final judgment. But I am entirely confident that if humanity does survive this catastrophe, as it has miraculously managed to survive other catastrophes of the past, its judgment will be simple, final and absolute: No. We do not forgive the monsters of the past -- and we should not forgive the monsters of our own time.

And if you support these policies of the administration to any extent at all, you are one of them.