Saturday, October 15, 2005

Torture and the American Way


On October 5 the Senate voted 90-9 to add John McCain's anti-torture amendment to the defense appropriations bill. The list of senators who voted against it, and for torture can be found here. Bush has threatened to veto the bill and it might not come out of the House-Senate conference committee intact, but still, it is a beginning. It is at least an acknowledgement that torture is wrong and that is a starting point for the discussion that needs to begin. It is a welcome change from the horrifyingly brazen attempts to normalize torture by unprincipled lawyers like Alan Dershowitz and Alberto Gonzales, using ridiculous hypothetical ticking time bomb scenarios drawn from television fantasty.

Ever since 9/11, torture has been a hot topic of discussion in the US. After Abu Ghraib, it could hardly be ignored. But the crucial role of torture as an instrument of US foreign policy has a much longer history that tends to get forgotten in the face of the horrifying images from Abu Ghraib. The reality is the US has consistently backed torture for a very long time, under Democrats as well as Republicans. See for example Alfred W. McCoy's essay The Hidden History of CIA Torture: America's Road to Abu Ghraib.
    Looked at historically, the Abu Ghraib scandal is the product of a deeply contradictory U.S. policy toward torture since the start of the Cold War. At the UN and other international forums, Washington has long officially opposed torture and advocated a universal standard for human rights. Simultaneously, the CIA has propagated ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions, a number of which the U.S has ratified. In battling communism, the United States adopted some of its most objectionable practices -- subversion abroad, repression at home, and most significantly torture itself.
Jennifer Harbury has good reason to know this history, as her husband was tortured to death in Guatemala with the knowedge and complicity of the US government. Now she has a new book out on the history of torture in US foreign policy Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture. She was interviewed at length on Democracy Now this week. The program also included a report on a mock trial of the US in Washington D.C. which featured all too real testimony from people, like Sister Dianna Otriz, who had been tortured by US trained and supervised clients. The trial was organized by the Stop Torture Permanently (STOP) Campaign.

For another brief account of history of US complicity in torture see Edward Herman's The United States as Torture Central.

The real change with the Bush regime is that we have moved from a policy of implausible denial to a policy of justification, from a preference for outsourcing to a willingness to cut out the middleman.

On a related topic, the London Review of Books has an extended review of Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.

And from today's Sunday Herald:
    The argument that this is a necessary evil in a war against Islamic terrorists who want to blow you and your children to bits does not bear scrutiny. When the US arrests these people, it has no proof that they are terrorists. It is working on suspicion. No court will ever hear the accusations or test the evidence. These people are being “disappeared” by Western democracies.

    To make the matter even more Orwellian, many of those taken captive come under suspicion only because some poor soul in a Middle-Eastern torture chamber named them to stop the beating they were enduring.

    What we are engaged in is a 21st-century version of the mediaeval witch-hunt. When a suspected witch was being tortured, she’d be asked who her co-conspirators were. Of course, there were no co-conspirators, but just to stop the torture, the woman would have named someone, anyone ...

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