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." 
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." 
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," 
and had he lived "both legs would have had to be amputated." 
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 ..." 
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.'" 
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." 
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." 
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
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
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," 
even though "most of us were convinced the detainee was innocent."
Ultimately, 85 percent of the prisoners at Bagram were released.
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. 
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
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, .
6. "Losing Hearts and Minds," Derrick Z. Jackson, The Boston
7. "Without a Doubt," Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine,
8. "Torture's Dirty Secret: It Works," Naomi Klein, The Nation,
9. Ibid, .
10. Ibid, .
11. Ibid .
12. Ibid .