THOLOS OF ATHENA

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TORTURE

Back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, the infamous Torquemada didn't have to bother producing the "metrics" or data that would prove the productiveness of torture. This is because the confessions of so-called heretics had no intrinsic significance. Nearly everyone confesses under torture, regardless of whether they have anything important to confess. Torture, after all, is an instrument of terror. Former Vice-President Cheney was an advocate of torturing prisoners in US military custody. He still crows about it; he is still quoted on cable news, saying that we need more waterboarding, more criminal mistreatment of our prisoners, more and more of the inhumanity--and only then will we be safe as a nation.

Whatever it is that makes civilization so civilized went missing during the Bush and Cheney administration. Admittedly, there have been crimes tucked away from sight by this National Security State, since the Vietnam War ended; but the vulgarisms and the crimes committed wantonly by the past administration have represented such a break with traditions and law, as to leave most of us dumbfounded or in a state of shock. With torture policy released through the chain of command, these leaders severed all ties with decency, soiling themselves and their country.

It was frankly disconcerting to see how wildly the staff at Langley, CIA Headquarters, cheered President Obama, when he paid them a visit recently, and gave assurance that none of their interrogators would be brought up on charges for "following orders". On the other hand, our new president, to his credit, has signaled his willingness to let justice take its course, if evidence points toward the architects, major figures in the former administration. Those who manipulated and subverted the law, and the decision makers who threw in their lot with the torturers, will need lawyers if they hope to make a defense in court.

The Bush White House was at war with law, against both US law and international legal norms, which were the law of the land under treaty obligations the US government had supported and signed.

Sam Stark's 2007 February essay in Harper's, Flaming Bitumen, Romancing the Algerian War, builds upon Alistair Horne's historical account of the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s.
[Historian Alistair Horne] shows the psychological trauma [torture] imposes on those ordered to commit it, as well as the corrosion of military discipline and morale that spreads as exceptions to the laws of war become the norm. Donald Rumsfeld, it is reassuring to know, received a personal copy of A Savage War of Peace, alerting him to such relevant passages as the chilling words of Paul Teitgen, a former hero of the Resistance, who, as secretary-general of Algiers, recognized in Algerian prisoners "profound traces of the cruelties and tortures that I personally suffered fourteen years ago in the Gestapo cellars." "Once you get into the torture business,' Teitgen told Horne in an interview, "you're lost...All our so-called civilization is covered with a varnish. Scratch it, and underneath you find fear." " (my bold)
Fear, wearing a mask of bravado and daring, could be seen on the faces of those French colons who were proud to have their pictures taken for the bloody news stories, standing in front of heaps of Arab corpses, men whom they had tortured and executed. French men and women reading the stories, absorbed in the photos, were horrified at the cost of "victory" in Algiers. How could they live in a world with their Arab brothers, those who presumably belonged to the same culture, the same language, after such crimes had been committed? The conclusion, the consensus in metropolitan France, was that such a victory could never be worth the cost.

Americans still have to live in the same world with populations its military is regularly mutilating and killing. This is a war in which no end is predicted. A war that has included torture of captives: waterboarding, beatings, extreme sensory deprivation for men in solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, stress positions, terrorizing with dogs, sexual humiliation, anal rape with broomsticks and other objects;...and the list goes on.

America's leaders have yet to explain how a war waged at such a cost, a war that is never contained, but always expanding, can either be won, or end.

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