The only thing worse than seeing endless news
stories about the torture of "detainees" at U.S. prison camps like
Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is seeing the word "shocking" in relation
to something that we all, in our heart of hearts, knew was happening from the
That is, unless I'm the only person in the world with eyes to see and ears
to hear. From the moment I saw this
picture and read
these words, along with Donald
Rumsfeld's reassurances, I knew that those poor men dressed in flimsy short-sleeved
orange jumpsuits (their backs are exposed to the cold air in the photo) were
about to experience some old-fashioned American-style "discipline."
Stories about the "shocking" torture in these camps – in which women
and children have also been imprisoned – suggest that we had no idea they were
being maltreated these last three years.
However much we may express shock at the particulars, we knew. We all knew.
When I lived in Germany, my landlady was so sweet, so kind – I just couldn't
imagine her having known what went on in the concentration camps. I talked with
her and with other Germans, who explained that the truth did come out rather
early on but sounded too horrible to be true. It's not surprising that average
people, who by the late 1930s were afraid of being branded as unpatriotic or
worse for questioning their leaders, were all too willing to believe that these
reports were just rumors, exaggerated as rumors always are.
But what about the existence of the camps and the secrecy surrounding them – wouldn't
that have been a tip-off that terrible things were happening there? When I toured
Dachau, it was clear that the surrounding community had to have known about
its existence, if not the torture that went on inside. The truth is, human beings
can "know but not know" – especially when we're powerless to intervene.
Like the old adage, "never watch sausage being made," one learns to
avert one's eyes, to subconsciously or consciously dampen one's natural curiosity:
"'We knew there were concentration camps,' she went on. 'But you must
picture they were so camouflaged, people who lived in nearby villages hardly
knew anything of them. Our tour guide … said, "Here you see the prison
and there was horrible torture and beheadings and who knows what else, but think,
I lived right over there and we didn't know anything about it." If she
says that, how should we in Bremen or Hanover know what was going on?'"
Frauen: German Woman Recall the Third Reich
What does it mean to be "shocked" that maltreatment has occurred
in prisons so foul legally, ethically, and morally that they couldn't be built
inside the U.S.? What did it mean, for example, when we learned that even reporters
for the then-untamed BBC were denied access to prisoners at Camp Delta?
Can we seriously claim to know nothing at all, when signs such as this tell
us that something is being hidden, and for good reason?
Having grieved over all the children and families killed in the "justified"
attack on Afghanistan, in early 2003 I flew to New York and Boston to learn
what could be done to protect the children of Iraq. I talked with UNICEF and
other international agencies devoted to protecting children, thinking that moral
citizens might prevail upon President Bush to avoid bombing near or in residential
neighborhoods, and to
keep children, at the very least, out of brutal adult prisons.
What a fool believes. I soon learned that even the most accomplished people
at our most high-profile humanitarian and human rights agencies (including Doctors
Without Borders, Amnesty International, and others) have no influence whatsoever
on the White House or the Pentagon.
I should have known better – Mr. Bush never was one to pull punches about his
gleeful enthusiasm for punishment. His permissive attitude toward violence
and torture, without concern for "irrelevant" things like international
law, was given the Good
White House Seal of Approval and has turned out to be quite contagious.
This and every form of abuse is presented, of course, as a necessary means
(hurting the body, humiliating the soul, and terrifying the mind) to a noble
end (preventing terrorist attacks). But another end, of course, is punishment.
Anybody who thinks this
is designed to somehow "prevent terrorist attacks," rather than simply
inflict punishment, "give them something to cry about," and get
a sadistic rush, is living in a dream world.
Let's get something straight: Most Americans firmly believe in violence.
In fact, we're crazy about it. Violence is the cure for every problem, from
infancy on up. Violence instills something called "respect," and it
feels so good when we can strike out at others. Violence begins in the
home, but it doesn't end there.
From Belts to Bombs: The American Passion for Punishment
The majority of Americans firmly believe in smacking
people around, especially babies, children, and prisoners who can't defend themselves.
We've been conditioned to believe that we must assault the body to save the
soul. Anyway, it feels so good to be the boss in at least one sphere of our
see others jump to our commands.
It's not that we don't have a multitude of books teaching nonviolent methods
for helping children develop self-discipline and learn right from wrong, it's
that we don't want to read them. We'd much rather learn
how to use religious ends to justify whatever we feel like doing to our
kids. Why, we couldn't raise children without hitting them, especially in this
violent age when we bear a grave responsibility to teach them that hitting and
other forms of violence are wrong!
Humiliating and hurting those who are powerless is what we need if we're going
to get our fix of respect. It's not that we want to cause misery and
breed hate, it's just that the look of fear, that wondrous sound of submissiveness
in the voice, the unquestioning obedience to our every whim, well, you could
say we're addicted to the stuff.
So it comes as no surprise that the U.S. military has been encouraged to torture
and bomb and humiliate those that our president calls "evildoers."
Of course, we try hard to hide the fact that the
military is only following the lead of its civilian command by scapegoating
young troops and older contractors who got caught doing as they were told or
"wink-wink, nudge-nudge" suggested to do.
The Bush administration and its fundamentalist advisors continually imply or
state outright that the U.S. is a "Christian" nation, committed to
human rights and opposed to torture by "brutal dictators." This would
be funny, were it not so tragic.
Torture of prisoners, particularly in the name of punishment, "preventing
terrorist attacks," or extracting confessions, is in no way contrary to
contemporary American culture; it goes right along with our passion for violence
from the cradle to the grave. After all, where else but in America can you buy
for use on little children, a
book teaching parents to force Tabasco sauce and other burning liquids down
young throats, or this
fiberglass rod, the better to whip your infants and toddlers with?
It's good that the world is waking up to the torture, sometimes leading to
death, that our troops and our contractors have inflicted on people who've never
even been convicted of any crime. It's high time we cried out for an end to
unspeakable humiliations and depravity in the name of "the War on Terror"
or giving people the punishment they "deserve."
Perhaps we stifled our curiosity about what was going on in the camps because
we knew we were powerless to stop it. Perhaps we were all too eager to buy into
the mainstream media's reassurances that the torture camps are necessary, justified,
and humane. Maybe we've convinced ourselves that the fresh-faced American torturers
weren't at all influenced from above, that they were "bad apples"
from the start.
But please – let's not pretend we didn't know.