Opinion » Ted Rall

Who Did You Torture During The War, Daddy?

Or, we are all torturers now

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NEW YORK--Never miss the Saturday paper. Because it's the skimpiest and least-circulated edition of the week, it's the venue of choice for lowballing the stories the government can't completely cover up. September 24's New York Times, for example, contained the bombshell revelation that the U.S. government continues to torture innocent men, women and children in Iraq.

An army captain and two sergeants from the elite 82nd Airborne Division confirm previous reports that Bagram and other concentration camps in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan are a kind of Torture University where American troops are taught how to abuse prisoners who have neither been charged with nor found guilty of any crime. "The soldiers told Human Rights Watch that while they were serving in Afghanistan," reports The Times, "they learned the stress techniques [sic] from watching Central Intelligence Agency operatives interrogating prisoners." Veterans who served as prison guards in Afghanistan went on to apply their newfound knowledge at Abu Ghraib and other facilities in U.S.-occupied Iraq.

One of the sergeants, his name withheld to protect him from Pentagon reprisals, confirms that torture continued even after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. "We still did it, but we were careful," he told HRW.

The latest sordid revelations concern Tiger Base on the border with Syria, and Camp Mercury, near Fallujah, the Iraqi city leveled by U.S. bombs in a campaign that officials claimed would finish off the insurgent movement. After the army told him to shut up over the course of 17 months--tacit proof that the top brass condones torture--a frustrated Captain Ian Fishback wrote to two conservative Republican senators to tell them about the "death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment" carried out against Afghans and Iraqis unlucky enough to fall into American hands.

"We would give them blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, and pull them down, kick dirt on them," one sergeant said. "This happened every day...We did it for amusement." Another soldier says detainees were beaten with a broken chemical light stick: "That made them glow in the dark, which was real funny, but it burned their eyes, and their skin was irritated real bad." An off-duty cook told an Iraqi prisoner "to bend over and broke the guy's leg with a ... metal bat." The sergeant continues: "I know that now. It was wrong. There are a set of standards. But you gotta understand, this was the norm."

Torture, condemned by civilized nations and their citizens since the Renaissance, has continued to be carried out in prisons and internment camps in every nation. But save for a few exceptions, such as France's overt torture of Algerian independence fighters during the late 1950s, it has been hidden away, lied about and condemned when exposed. Torture is shameful. It is never official policy.

That changed in the U.S. after 9/11. Current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales authored a convoluted legal memo to George W. Bush justifying torture. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joked about forcing prisoners to stand all day and officially sanctioned keeping them naked and threatening them with vicious dogs. Ultimately, Bush declared that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would ignore the Geneva Conventions. By 2004, a third of Americans told pollsters that they didn't have a problem with torture.

Torture has been normalized.

By Monday, September 26, the story of torture at Camps Tiger and Mercury to which New York Times editors had granted page one treatment two days earlier had vanished entirely. Only a few papers, such as the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times, ran follow-ups.

In his 2000 book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, John Conroy presciently describes the surprising means by which democracies are actually more susceptible to becoming "torture societies" than dictatorships: Where "notorious regimes have fallen, there has been a public acknowledgement that people were tortured. In democracies of long standing in which torture has taken place, however, denial takes hold and official acknowledgement is extremely slow in coming, if it appears at all." Conroy goes on to describe the "fairly predictable" stages of governmental response:

First, writes Conroy, comes "absolute and complete denial." Rumsfeld told Congress in 2004 that the U.S. had followed Geneva "to the letter" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The second stage," he says, is "to minimize the abuse." Republican mouthpiece Rush Limbaugh compared the murder and mayhem at Abu Ghraib to fraternity hazing rituals.

Next is "to disparage the victims." Bush Administration officials and right-wing pundits call the victims of torture in U.S. custody "terrorists," implying that detainees--who are not charged because there is no evidence against them--deserve whatever they get. Dick Cheney called victims of torture at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (who, under U.S. law, are presumed innocent) "the worst of a very bad lot." Rumsfeld called them "the worst of the worst."

Other government tactics include charging "that those who take up the cause of those tortured are aiding the enemies of the state" (Right-wing bloggers have smeared me as a "terrorist sympathizer" because I argue against torture); denying that torture is still occurring (numerous Bush Administration officials claimed that Abu Ghraib marked the end of the practice); placing "the blame on a few bad apples" (the classic Fox News-Bush trope); and pointing out that "someone else does or has done much worse things" (the beheadings of Western hostages by Iraqi jihadi organizations was used to justify torturing Iraqis who didn't belong to those groups).

Bear in mind: Conroy wrote his book in 2000, before Bush seized power and more than a year before 9/11 was given as a pretext for legalizing torture.

Citing the case of widespread and proven torture of arrestees by Chicago cops, Conroy noted: "It wasn't a case of five people ... doing nothing or acting slowly, it was a case of millions of people knowing of an emergency and doing nothing. People looked about, saw no great crusade forming, saw protests only from the usual agitators, and assumed there was no cause for alarm. Responsibility was diffused. Citizens offended by torture could easily retreat into the notion that they lived in a just world, that the experts would sort things out."