Notes From the Margins…

Feasting in the Torture Gardens

  • April 04, 2011
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In a  fine piece for TomDispatch, Karen Greenberg, director of  the Center for Law and Security at NYU analyses a recurring theme in post-9/11 rightwing discourse in the United States; namely the idea that liberal “political correctness” and “excessive tolerance” of Islam have combined to undermine the “war on terror.”

Greenberg relates a recent speech by Michael Mukasey, Bush’s last attorney general, in which he argued that

We were very much on guard and still are against a repetition of our treatment of the Japanese during World War II and of fomenting religious and ethnic tension in this country. We are also a society that is reluctant to examine other folks’ religions. For those two reasons, we shun the notion of a war on any movement that is or claims to be inspired by a religion.

Though Mukasey  has reservations about the Bush administration’s insistence that Islam is a “religion of peace” he nevertheless believes that Bush’s approval of a CIA interrogation program  “ which involved questioning [detainees] vigorously” was crucial to preventing further al-Qaeda attacks on the United States since 911.

Defenders of the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques often make this argument, which is flawed on various counts.  For one thing there is no serious evidence that al Qaeda intended 9/11 to be the first of a wave of similar attacks.  Why would they, when the September 11 attacks had already achieved what they wanted by drawing America deeper into the Middle East the better to bring about a great radicalising conflagration in the Muslim world?

The ‘we took the gloves off’ argument also ignores the radicalising impact of the ‘porno-interrogations’ used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and other countries,  which undoubtedly contributed to the ferocity of the anti-occupation insurgency in Iraq and created a legacy of hatred and bitterness toward the United States which may well last for many years.

Lastly, the idea that America finally got tough enough to treat its terrorist enemies the way they deserve ignores the fact that American use of torture as an instrument of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism is not new.   On the contrary, as Alfred McCoy, Jane Mayer and others have shown,  torture has a long tradition that goes back to the early Cold War, when the CIA and the military began to investigate communist ‘mind control’ techniques for the purposes of their own counterintelligence interrogations and also to enable their own captured personnel to resist interrogation.

What has changed since 9/11 is that torture has become a respectable and legitimate topic for discussion in societies that should know better.   The endless invocation of catastrophic ‘ticking bomb scenarios’  coupled with the depiction of jihadists as uniquely fanatical and evil have combined to create a fantasy enemy to whom anything can and should be done.

The normalisation of cruelty, as Greenberg notes, is not limited to ‘terrorists’  and other  ‘enemy combatants’ who fall into the black hole of extra-legality.  What she calls “enemy creep” can also be extended to anyone considered to be an enemy of the state, from Khalid Sheikh Muhammed to  the whistleblower Bradley Manning.   As Greenberg puts it:

Thanks to Mukasey, Kaplan, King, those overseeing the treatment of Manning, and others, the embrace of cruel standards when it comes to alleged enemies of the state is gaining traction.   These officials and former officials seem to be part of a process, remarkably uncommented upon, that is turning previously unthinkable rhetoric into normal discourse and intolerance into a rationale for challenging the rights of anyone accused of violating the country”s security.

Too right.    Faced with this dynamic of cruelty and vengeance, it is salutary to recall the US World War II veterans who  rejected the use of torture in 2009.   One 90-year-old veteran who was once assigned to play chess with Rudolf Hess recalled how  “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture.”

Another veteran interrogator rejected the methods used at Guantanamo Bay,  remembered,  “During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone.  We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”

Something that cannot be said of the new inquisitors of the ‘war on terror’ and their fervent supporters, for whom revenge is always a dish served cold, and is usually served by others at a very great distance away from them.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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