Recently, I wrote once again about the spread
of torture as a way of life in the Bush administration's offshore imperium.
I offered my version of a national "self-portrait" for the New Year ("American
Gothic") and considered the latest torture news, now practically pouring
through leaks in the Washington and Pentagon bureaucracy. While I was at it,
I made a partial listing of some of the grisly tortures reported in the news
as 2004 was ending. As now often happens (especially when right-wing blogs comment
– disparagingly, of course – on TomDispatch material), I received an abusive
letter. It called me "disgusting" and a "coward"; wondered whether I wasn't
a "pervert" as well as a godless sot; suggested I get help; complained that
I ignored "beheadings" (in a portrait of America) – and suggested, as proof
that something was "wrong" with me, that I worried instead "about someone put
Most of this text was, as I've learned, pretty much the norm for such abusive
letters, but that last little comment stuck in my mind. The letter writer had
clearly read my accounting of recently reported tortures (many contained in
e-mails sent back to the U.S. by outraged or unnerved FBI agents observing interrogation
tactics at our Guantanamo detention camp) and picked from a horrific list that
included beating people to death, dousing hands in alcohol and lighting them,
administering electric shocks, and putting lit cigarettes in ears, the least
horrific sounding – "paraded naked around a courtyard while photos were being
snapped." But – and here's what caught my attention – my outraged correspondent
found even that too much to bear and so, undoubtedly quite unconsciously, put
those naked, humiliated prisoners in a courtyard at Guantanamo back in their
That spoke to me of the power of denial in the "homeland" that the loosing
of torture in the imperium seems to have set free. That somehow speaks to me
as well of the fact that not a single senator, Democratic or Republican, has
announced the intention to filibuster the nomination of White House Legal Counsel
Alberto Gonzales, thus assuring that the face of legalized torture is attached
to the position of attorney general of the United States. Most of them would
evidently prefer, like so many other Americans, to put underpants back on the
president's legal counsel and confidant when, thanks to leakers in the administration,
he has been photographed naked in legally compromising positions.
Much media attention was paid last week to the conviction of Abu Ghraib prison
guard (and former U.S. prison guard) Charles A. Graner Jr. and his sentencing
to a military brig. (My hometown paper headlined the Sunday story about Graner's
in Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Is Sentenced to 10 Years," and as is the news style
of our moment, wrote of "the abuse scandal"; but to give credit where it's due,
elsewhere the paper had a bold, blazing headline, "Torture
From Above" – it lead off the Times' Real Estate section with the
subhead, "A Neighbor's Renovation Can Be a Nightmare.") Graner was a cruel man
who evidently took pleasure in horrific acts. But his obvious enthusiasm for
torture, as related by witnesses, his desire to hear prisoners scream, to add
just one extra punch, to inflict just one more ounce of pain, that enthusiasm
wasn't restricted to the low-level guards of Abu Ghraib or others like them
elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and at stops in-between; that spirit
of enthusiasm for torture was evident at the very top of the administration
as the war on terror began; it permeated the legal documents that came out of
the office of the White House counsel; it can be felt in Donald Rumsfeld's scrawled
comments on torture memos sent to his office.
We should all stop putting the underpants back on the men in the courtyard.
It's time to assess what's happening for exactly what it is. So, when next you
write me an angry, abusive letter, at least be honest and keep the underpants
As Jonathan Schell says in the piece below (which the editors of the Nation
magazine have kindly allowed TomDispatch to publish online), with the upcoming
vote on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general, the Senate
is preparing, in our name, to cross a line of no return – and that's something
we shouldn't fool ourselves about. Tom
What Is Wrong With Torture
by Jonathan Schell
The war in Iraq has given birth to an issue that
may one day be seen as more important than the war, the question of torture.
Just as H.J. Res. 114, by which Congress authorized the war, was the key vote
for that conflict, so now the vote whether to confirm White House Counsel Alberto
Gonzales as attorney general will very likely be the key vote in regard to torture.
At the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination, the senators
seemed almost as interested in flattering one another as in examining the nominee.
The former committee chair, Senator Orrin Hatch, did not thrust a lighted cigarette
into the ear of Senator Patrick Leahy. Senator Joseph Biden did not "waterboard"
Senator John Cornyn – that is, he did not strap Senator Cornyn to a board and
thrust his head under water, holding him there until he believed he was being
drowned. Senator Arlen Specter did not force Senator Russ Feingold to eat his
lunch from a toilet. Senator Biden did not strip Senator Mike DeWine naked,
attach a leash to his neck and force him to crawl around the hearing-room floor.
Senator Specter did not kill Senator Edward Kennedy and then pose for a photograph
next to his corpse, making a thumbs-up sign.
On the contrary, the senators showered one another with compliments.
Senator Hatch held up Senator Specter, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee,
as "one of the best lawyers we've had serve in the United States Senate."
Senator Biden agreed, calling Senator Specter "the finest constitutional lawyer
in the country – maybe not the country, but in the Senate (laughter)." Senator
Leahy called Senator Hatch "one of the most experienced lawyers ever to serve."
The senators praised Gonzales, too. His "beautiful family" (Specter), including
his mother-in-law, was introduced and feted.
And yet the acts mentioned above, all performed by U.S. forces upon prisoners
in Iraq or elsewhere, were the actual substance of the hearing. Under the president
served by Gonzales, torture has become endemic, and the lines of connection
between the nominee's advice and those acts were clear and undeniable. In a
memo to the president, Gonzales advised that the Geneva Conventions did not
apply either to al-Qaeda or Taliban soldiers in Afghanistan. He opined that
if the conventions were set aside by the president, any soldiers accused under
the U.S. War Crimes Act might defend themselves against the charges of having
committed war crimes under U.S. Code Section 2441 of American law. He wrote
the president, "Your determination [that the Conventions didn't apply] would
create a reasonable basis in law that Section 2441 does not apply, which would
provide a solid defense to any future prosecution."
In other words, his advice was to throw out international law so that torturers
could escape the consequences of U.S. law. He solicited and participated in
the preparation of a memo in the Justice Department that redefined torture only
as the kind that might destroy bodily organs or kill the victim. That same memo
stated that the president alone has the power to make rules for the treatment
of prisoners, although the Constitution declares that "Congress shall have power
to make rules concerning captures on land and water." He oversaw an interdepartmental
discussion in which waterboarding and other forms of torture were condoned.
The senators' language regarding torture reflected, with exceptions,
the horror of the matter as dimly as their flowery praise of one another.
None, it is true, went as far as to suggest that restrictions on the abuse
of prisoners were "unilateral disarmament," as a recent Wall Street Journal
editorial did. Most of the senatorial defenders of Gonzales' record concentrated
on denying his responsibility for one or another of the damning memos. More
striking were the arguments against torture by those skeptical of the nomination.
Two dominated. One was that torture hurts the image of the United States in
the world. In the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, "I can tell you that it
is a club that our enemies use, and we need to take that club out of their
hand." Or in the words of Senator Herb Kohl, "winning the hearts and minds
of the Arab world is vital to our success in the war on terror," and "Photographs
that have come out of Abu Ghraib have undoubtedly hurt those efforts." The
second argument was that enemy forces would torture U.S. forces in retaliation.
In Biden's words, "This is about the safety and security of American forces."
Even Gonzales, who declined at every opportunity to repudiate the policies
that had led to the torture, was ready to agree that Abu Ghraib had harmed
the image of the United States.
But are these the fundamental reasons that torture is unacceptable?
Can this nation now understand pain only if it is experienced by Americans
or, through some chain of consequences, it rebounds upon the United States?
Have all the people in the world but Americans become invisible to Americans?
Torture is not wrong because someone else thinks it is wrong or
because others, in retaliation for torture by Americans, may torture Americans.
It is the torture that is wrong. Torture is wrong because it inflicts
unspeakable pain upon the body of a fellow human being who is entirely at
our mercy. The tortured person is bound and helpless. The torturer stands
over him with his instruments. There is no question of "unilateral disarmament,"
because the victim bears no arms, lacking even the use of the two arms he
was born with. The inequality is total. To abuse or kill a person in such
a circumstance is as radical a denial of common humanity as is possible. It
is repugnant to learn that one's country's military forces are engaging in
torture. It is worse to learn that the torture is widespread. It is worse
still to learn that the torture was rationalized and sanctioned in long memorandums
written by people at the highest level of the government. But worst of all
would be ratification of this record by a vote to confirm one of its chief
authors to the highest legal office in the executive branch of the government.
Torture destroys the soul of the torturer even as it destroys the
body of his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and
torture is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization
and barbarism. Whether the elected representatives of the people of the United
States are now ready to cross that line is the deepest question before the
Senate as it votes on the nomination of Alberto Gonzales.
Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute.
His most recent book is The
Unconquerable World. This article will appear in the upcoming issue of The Nation magazine.