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Truth, Torture, and the American Way


TEHRAN, IRAN - 01 June 2004: An Iranian couple walk past mural paintings depicting scenes from the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, on a major highway in the Iranian capital Tehran. 

Ten years ago, a series of horrific images started streaming across the internet, showing Iraqi internees at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in “various poses of shame and degradation,” as writer and former soldier Aidan Delgado put it, while US soldiers leered in the background. Delgado was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the scandal broke. “I am amazed to see the depravity and variety of the abuse but I am not surprised at all that it happened,” he writes in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, which tells the story of Delgado’s transformation from a young enlistee to conscientious objector after witnessing firsthand the brutality of the Iraq occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib:

Some dark and obscene atmosphere had built inside the prison camp, so much so that it had turned ordinary, decent men into ghoulish caricatures. Sergeant Toro’s prisoner-transport story had reinforced my impressions of the harsh and repressive environment. It was common knowledge that guards would threaten and manhandle the prisoners—such conduct was almost a badge of manhood. Being tough with the detainees was just part of being a “good soldier” and a team player. The way the younger MPs referred to the prisoners and to the Iraqis in general made this no secret. I had heard about the sexual nature of the photographs: the forcible nudity, the simulated homosexual acts, the videotaped sex between guards and prisoners, but I was taken aback by the particular intensity and sadism of the photographs. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hardship, the mortars and attacks, we had become oppressors. We had become sadists. We had become torturers.

The Abu Ghraib scandal shed light on a system of torture and abuse in the US military and CIA, the extent of which is just now being revealed with Tuesday’s release of the Senate Torture Report. The report confirms what many had feared, and what former US representative Elizabeth Holtzman had insisted in her book Cheating Justice (co-written with journalist Cynthia L. Cooper), which excoriates the Bush administration for human rights abuses in Iraq and the war on terror:

Across the globe, the Bush administration operated an international network of torture sites, a far-flung archipelago of cells and compounds hidden from the view of the American people. In them, the administration adopted the desperate methods of despots—the use of torture, the infliction of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, in flagrant abuse of long-held human rights principles....

The use of torture was not the action of just a few freewheeling soldiers or CIA agents. It was a policy adopted and approved by the Bush administration at the highest levels. Not all the details of the torture or all of the stories are known, but what is now known is that President Bush signed a memo that wiped away the restrictions against torture and cruel treatment of detainees. We know that the Bush administration drafted and approved harsh interrogation techniques based on those used against American prisoners of war in the most brutal detention situations. We know, without a doubt, that the techniques approved by President Bush were considered torture by governments worldwide, human rights organizations, UN monitoring organizations, and even the United States, which had in years prior prosecuted others for torture based on the same acts; at a minimum, the techniques were cruel, inhuman, or degrading.

Perhaps most damning, however, is the general assumption that the CIA’s torture program—or their “enhanced interrogation techniques,” as the program’s more Orwellian defenders are fond of calling them—is something relatively new, a tactic deployed specifically after 9/11 to fight a shadowy war against faceless agressors. In fact, according to human rights activist Jennifer K. Harbury, the extensive use of torture exposed in the Senate report existed long before 9/11. Harbury is the author of Truth, Torture, and the American Waya book that documents evidence of the CIA’s continuous involvement in torture tactics since the 1970s alongside personal testimony from many of the victims. Harbury’s expertise has a tragic personal source: her husband, Efraín Velásquez, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by Guatemalan soldiers working with the CIA. In her hunt for the truth about her husband, Harbury uncovers the full, chilling extent of the CIA’s involvement in the “disappeared” of Latin America:

Disturbing but clear patterns began to emerge. One by one, survivors began to surface and tell us that yes, strange North Americans had entered their torture cells, too. Yes, a “gringo” had observed the wounds inflicted during the “interrogations,” but no, he had not offered any help. In some cases the American spoke good Spanish, in some cases very poor, but always with a marked U.S. accent. Sometimes he asked the questions himself, and sometimes he even supervised the torture. Always he had authority over the torturers. Always he simply left the victim to his or her fate.

In the wake of the Senate report, Americans are again facing the specter of our own foreign policy. Though it was written a decade ago, just as the Abu Ghraib abuses were coming to light, Harbury’s recommendation for the future rings as true now as it did then, possibly even more so. We must stay vigilant, she writes, to hold our government—and ourselves—fully accountable:

While the American public has slowly grappled with ongoing injustices visible within our own borders; it has long failed to discover and correct our government’s abuses abroad. There are many reasons for this, including the obvious linguistic and geographical barriers. Moreover, many of the worst U.S. overseas practices are kept highly secret. Press investigations, so crucial in Vietnam, slowed in Central America and dropped off sharply with the policy of “embedded” journalists in Iraq. Meanwhile, we as a people have a great weakness for wishful thinking. If we are not confronted outright with clear evidence of U.S. human rights violations abroad, we tend to assume they do not exist. We ignore the warning signals. When we do see violations, we vociferously protest, but we allow ourselves to be lulled with light assurances that it was just a few bad apples.

It is precisely this national weakness that has permitted agencies like the CIA to long usurp powers never granted by Congress, and to routinely carry out illegal practices such as torture with full impunity. In turn, this has badly damaged our system of checks and balances, skewed our declared foreign policy, weakened our international treaties and alliances, and created enormous resentment against us throughout the world. This is no small amount of damage, and deal with it we must. In doing so we must finally recognize that the acts of torture we have witnessed are not merely matters of individual error or excess. Rather, they are evidence of a secret official policy carried out for decades by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Legal responsibility goes all the way to the top.

This is not a problem we can cure with a few quick courtmartials, a promised investigation, or even a change of administration. We must delve much deeper than that, and it will be a sad and difficult process. Yet as a nation we have faced many difficult challenges before, from slavery and the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to the civil rights movement and Vietnam. When it comes to torture abroad, the actions being taken in our name and paid for with our tax dollars are our own responsibility. We should take heart and do what we have always done: roll up our sleeves and get to work.