So there were WMDs in Iraq after all. They’re called digital cameras. Partly because of them, the United States faces one of the most humiliating defeats in imperial history. But there’s also a clear paper trail. Not just the long and copiously documented record of US torture, with many of its refinements acquired by the CIA from the Nazis after World War II, but the more recent lineage of encouragement.
Within a few days of the Trade Towers going down in September 2001, a vacationing FBI agent told an acquaintance of mine in Puerto Vallarta that detainees in the United States were being tortured. On May 3, 2004, two such detainees, a Pakistani called Javaid Iqbal and an Egyptian, Ehab Elmaghraby, filed a civil complaint with a US court describing their beatings in the Brooklyn Detention Center, one of them sodomized with a flashlight and put in a tiny cell lit twenty-four hours a day without blanket, mattress or toilet paper. Both were expelled from the country, pleading guilty to minor charges unrelated to terrorism. The center was harshly criticized in a 2003 Justice Department report for serious maltreatment of inmates.
By October of 2001, public opinion here was being softened up for the use of torture. The Washington Post published a piece by Walter Pincus citing FBI and Justice Department investigators as saying that “traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans.” Jonathan Alter, Newsweek‘s liberal pundit, told readers in November that something was needed to “jump-start the stalled investigation.” His tone was facetiously upbeat, in line with the “just hazing” approach now promoted by the pain-averse Rush Limbaugh: “Couldn’t we at least subject [detainees] to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap?” Alter also made respectful reference to Alan Dershowitz–then running around the country promoting the idea of “torture warrants” issued by judges–and to Israel, where “until 1999 an interrogation technique called ‘shaking’ was legal.”
It was not far into the Afghan war that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made plain his views on prisoners, after horrifying accounts began to surface of the treatment of Taliban POWs. He first said the United States was “not inclined to negotiate surrenders.” He then amended this to say that the Taliban should be let out of the net but that foreign fighters should expect no mercy: “My hope is that they will either be killed or taken prisoner.”
It turned out they endured both Rumsfeld’s options. A year later, Jamie Doran, a British television producer, aired his documentary establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that hundreds of these prisoners–with no distinction between Taliban and foreign fighters–died either by suffocation in the container trucks used to transport them to prison, or by outright execution.
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On the basis of interviews with eyewitnesses, Doran said US soldiers were present when the containers were opened, and that “a mess of urine, blood, faeces, vomit and rotting flesh was all that remained…. As the containers were lined up outside the prison, a [US] soldier accompanying the convoy was present when the prison commanders received orders to dispose of the evidence quickly.” Newsweek’s investigation into the Afghan atrocities said, “American forces were working intimately with ‘allies’ who committed what could well qualify as war crimes.”
Witnesses also stated that “600 Taliban PoWs…were taken to a spot in the desert and executed in the presence of about 30 to 40 U.S. special forces soldiers” (Toronto Globe and Mail, December 19, 2002). Other US soldiers are said to have been directly involved in prisoner torture and disposal of corpses. “The Americans did whatever they wanted,” said one Afghan witness. “We had no power to stop them. Everything was under the control of the American commander.”
From spring 2003, the Red Cross was complaining to US Army commanders in Iraq, and later to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Washington, about frightful treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. “The elements we found were tantamount to torture,” Pierre Kraehenbuehl, Red Cross operations director, told reporters this May after the Wall Street Journal disclosed the contents of a major Red Cross report. “There were clearly incidents of degrading and inhuman treatment.” Kraehenbuehl said the investigations showed “a pattern, a broad system,” rather than “isolated acts of individual members of the coalition forces.” The report said suspects were “beaten severely by [coalition forces] personnel” and that one man, 28-year-old Baha Daoud Salim, died. In the words of the report, “His co-arrestees heard him screaming and asking for assistance.”
The Red Cross began making its complaints just about the time the United States was on a full-press diplomatic campaign to compel other countries to sign bilateral agreements exempting US citizens, whether military or civilian, from potential jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court in The Hague.
What’s clear enough is that the quality of US leadership from the very top down, both civilian and military, is rancid. Accountability has long gone out the window. The venality and corruption of Bremer’s coalition officials and many of Lieut. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s officers have allowed discipline in the armed forces to degenerate into criminal thuggery. Iraqi families complain that after US troops have searched and smashed up their homes, the occupants return to find their safes broken open and their savings and valuables stolen.
It’s ironic how the great moral crusade for freedom and democracy has foundered on a photo of Pfc. Lynndie England hauling around The Other on a dog leash. Even the images of torture degrade one’s moral instincts with appalling speed. I’d love to see a photo of Ann Coulter clipping the leash on Rush Limbaugh–though not being Muslim, he probably wouldn’t care. Remember, being forced to strip naked and have one’s genitals menaced by savage dogs is something Muslims find abhorrent. Those Others are a bunch of ninnies, aren’t they? Not like us Christians.