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Torture: Knowing/Not Knowing

June 2, 2005
By Patricia Goldsmith

Torture is the ultimate act of bad faith on the part of the state, and it is, therefore, credible evidence that a state is illegitimate. Torture strips individuals of all rights, and very often their lives. When George W. Bush determined in 2002 that the Geneva Conventions no longer apply, he departed from clear, specific, and well-established norms of civilized conduct, and left military personnel on the ground to decide what is and is not humane treatment.

There was one overriding reason why George Bush renounced the Geneva Conventions: he wanted to torture "terrorists." Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House Counsel, called the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete." Gonzales wrote a memo justifying torture by arguing, "In light of the President's complete authority over the conduct of war ... we will not read a criminal statute as infringing on the President's ultimate authority in these areas" - presto chango, no more law! - and then he defined torture as "equivalent in intensity" to the pain associated with "organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." [1]

Remember 2002? The stratospheric approval ratings? I remember George Bush sitting with Kofi Annan and saying that Saddam wouldn't let the inspectors in - what could he do? When someone called out a question about violations of international law, Bush laughed his Renfield laugh and quipped, "Oh, do I need an international lawyer?"

In Afghanistan in 2002, prisoners were being taken to Bagram Collection Point, a field detention center. We now know from Army records that prisoners were beaten and died there, including one man who died from repeated, brutal kicks to his legs while he hung from the ceiling of his cell. Colonel David Hayden, a former Army senior staff lawyer at Bagram, gave his opinion that the beatings were administered in small enough doses that no one was responsible. "No one blow could be determined to have caused the death," he said. "It was reasonable to conclude at that time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw." [2]

Reasonable to conclude? Legitimate force?

The man in question, Mr. Dilawar, was 22 years old, weighed 122 pounds, and stood 5 feet 9 inches tall. At the time of his death, according to the coroner Lt. Colonel Elizabeth Rouse, the tissue in Dilawar's legs "had basically been pulpified." She said, "I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus," [3] and had he lived "both legs would have had to be amputated." [4]

If the above description of the human result of the "repetitive administration of legitimate force" doesn't show that the force wasn't legitimate, nothing ever will.

This is the same mindset that devised the nuclear option to unilaterally change the 217-year-old basic ground rules of the Senate. Both Gonzales' Torture Memo and the Nuclear Option are intended to make the rule of law and our very Constitution seem just that: optional.

Legitimate governments exist to protect the rights of citizens and to punish those who violate the rights of others. Where there is no concern for human rights, the concern is to protect the state and the privileges of those in power. Power is the all-important motive, force is the means, and the result is gang mentality.

According to The New York Times, "One captain nicknamed members of the Third Platoon 'the Testosterone Gang.' Several were devout bodybuilders. Upon arriving in Afghanistan, a group of the soldiers decorated their tent with a Confederate flag ..." [5]

The gang mentality is even more explicit in Iraq, according to a story in last week's Boston Globe. The soldier in charge of a squad in Mosul told the reporter: "If you look on the walls here, you can see all this graffiti. We've really taken to the streets here kind of like a gang unit would in, say, LA. It's a giant gang war, and we've got the biggest gang, so every time we see graffiti, we mark it out, we tag it with 'US Forces,' and we say, 'Hey look, this is our block.'" [6]

The U.S. as the world's biggest gang - that's pretty much what Bush & Co. say about themselves. A senior advisor to George Bush told journalist Ron Suskind (off the record) in late 2004: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too ... We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." [7]

Creating reality - a situation where what you say goes, in defiance of, well, reality - requires total control over the actions, if not the thoughts, of a large number of people. In that sense, as Naomi Klein writes in The Nation, torture works. "As an interrogation tool, torture is a bust. But when it comes to social control, nothing works quite like torture." [8] Torture is a bad source of information precisely because it does break the will. That is its true purpose.

But, Klein explains, the fear "has to be finely calibrated. The people being intimidated need to know enough to be afraid but not so much that they demand justice. ... This strategic leaking of information, combined with official denials, induces a state of mind that Argentines describe as 'knowing/not knowing' ..."

The recent Newsweek imbroglio perfectly illustrates the technique and uses of knowing/not knowing, which is the art of making reality seem very elastic. In spite of the fact that information about desecration of the Koran at US detention centers has been in the media since 2003 - or because of it - and in spite of the fact that Newsweek had shown the story to the Department of Defense before publishing it - or because of it - reality had to change. Pouncing on a technical error, the administration climbed into its bully pulpit and demanded a retraction. They rained hellfire and damnation down on Newsweek's recklessness.

By doing so, they immediately accomplished their first and most important objective, which was to create a controversy. If a controversy exists, there are necessarily two sides to the event - or, if you will, two versions of the event. (Even the word "event" becomes suspect. Is Newsweek the story, or is torture the story?) We can react to this controversy as patriots, respect the state, and stop asking questions that cost lives. Or we can focus on disputed facts.

In the official government version of events, news coverage - the very existence of news coverage, in point of fact - amounts to little more than reckless gossip. In the other view, where evidence matters and rights exist, we know, beyond a reasonable doubt, that prisoners held by the U.S. have been tortured and killed, that this torture is categorically illegal, and that it has, moreover, a distinctly religious character.

In reality - because there is such a thing - there is no choice. The truth is the truth, whether we like it or not, no matter who wins the first day of spin.

Here's the truth about Mr. Dilawar. He was a shy Afghani man who made the mistake of driving his cab past the Bagram Collection Point that day. He was imprisoned and shackled to the ceiling of his cell, where he hung hour after hour with the full weight of his body on his wrists, his arms, his shoulders. He was especially frightened of the black hood he had to wear; he couldn't breathe.

But most of all he was kicked, often just for the fun of hearing him scream "Allah!" which he did every time someone booted him. "It became a running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal [side of the knee] strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah'. ... It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes," [9] even though "most of us were convinced the detainee was innocent." [10]

Ultimately, 85 percent of the prisoners at Bagram were released. [11] Hundreds have been released from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib as well. They go home and tell their stories to local TV and news organizations. One released detainee is a middle-class Canadian software engineer named Maher Arar, who was snatched off a plane and "rendered" to Syria where he was kept in a cell only slightly larger than a coffin and tortured for ten months. The Canadian government finally got him out, and in 2004 Time magazine in Canada made him their man of the year. [12]

In spite of his vindication and the accolades for his courage, people are afraid to be seen with Mr. Arar. If people aren't more outraged by depredations on the press, I believe it's because they instinctively feel that maybe it's better not to know certain things right now. Through all the noise, the Bush government's underlying message is loud and clear; the familiar subtext reappears: you are with us or against us. Be careful what you say; be careful what you do.


FOOTNOTES:

1. "Bush's Kingmaker: Alberto Gonzales," David Corn, LA Weekly, 1-14-20-05
2. "Army Faltered in Investigating Detainee Abuse," Tim Golden, The New York Times, 5-22-05.
3. "In US Report, Brutal Details of 2 Afghan Inmates' Deaths," Tim Golden, The New York Times, 5-20-05.
4. "Army Details Scale of Abuse of Prisoners in an Afghan Jail," Douglas Jehl, The New York Times, 3-12-05.
5. Ibid, [2].
6. "Losing Hearts and Minds," Derrick Z. Jackson, The Boston Globe, 5-13-05.
7. "Without a Doubt," Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine, 10-17-04.
8. "Torture's Dirty Secret: It Works," Naomi Klein, The Nation, 5-30-05.
9. Ibid, [2].
10. Ibid, [2].
11. Ibid [2].
12. Ibid [8].

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