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American Pie: Who Are The Torturers?

…Recently, I read an article stating that an Al Qaida prisoner, held by the US, had been subjected to water boarding 184 times! Wouldn’t you think that if the prisoner had anything to tell he would have poured out his secrets after the first, or at most the second session?...

John Merchant points out that present day torture didn’t begin or end with Abu Ghraib. 'We still have no insights into the shadowy individuals who devise and supervise the programs... Only a few members of this higher echelon have been identified, and none brought to trial.'

Much has been written, and will continue to be written about the USA’s use of torture in its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in other terrorist hot spots. To me, the very idea that torture in this day and age is still a news item, is bizarre. Whatever happened to the Geneva Convention, and the mountain of psychological and other data that shows torture is an ineffective tool in getting prisoners to reveal their most valuable secrets?

Prior to the George W. Bush government, mention of torture evoked the Spanish inquisition, medieval Europe, the Opium Wars, or the Russian KGB in the Stalinist era. It was reasonable to think, therefore, that the practice of deliberately inflicting controlled pain and suffering on prisoners, in these supposedly enlightened times, was a thing of the dark and cruel past, at least in the western world. It debases not just the institutions involved, but also the nation that condones it.

Recently, I read an article stating that an Al Qaida prisoner, held by the US, had been subjected to water boarding 184 times! Wouldn’t you think that if the prisoner had anything to tell he would have poured out his secrets after the first, or at most the second session? Fanatics are by nature, mentally tough, but simulated drowning after days of sleep deprivation, insults and physical abuse, would, I think, break the most determined will.

But as much as has been written about torture, very little has been revealed about the practitioners, other than the infamous US military crew that reveled in ridiculing, taunting, attacking and sodomizing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. These acts were committed by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company of the United States Army, together with other US agencies, ostensibly the CIA. Some of them loved their work so much that they photographed each other in the process, so for the first time we can put a face on the torturers.

Seven soldiers were convicted in courts martial, sentenced to federal prison, and dishonorably discharged from the Service. Two soldiers, Specialist Charles Graner, and his former fiancée, Specialist Lynndie England, were sentenced to ten years and three years in prison, respectively. Ms. England initially characterized her photographed behavior as “Just a fun thing.”

The commanding officer at the prison, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, was demoted to the rank of Colonel on May 5, 2005. Col. Karpinski has denied knowledge of the abuses, claiming that the interrogations were authorized by her superiors and performed by “subcontractors,” and that she was not even allowed entry into the interrogation rooms. Do I hear echoes of Nazi disclaimers at the Nuremburg trials?

So now we have some profiles of torturers, but hardly definitive characterizations. Based on interviews and trial evidence, the Abu Ghraib crew was a typical cohort, made up of the leaders and the led. The leaders exhibited all the psychopathic behavior one might expect, much as is found sprinkled amongst custodial workers and the civilian and military police everywhere. The followers were largely dim-witted, amoral, compliant drones, willing to do anything to please.

But they all were just the foot soldiers, and we still have no insights into the shadowy individuals who devise and supervise the programs. Present day torture didn’t begin or end with Abu Ghraib. Only a few members of this higher echelon have been identified, and none brought to trial. They are cloaked in the dark obscurity of the world in which they operate. So one is left to speculate about who they are, and why they are drawn to such an abhorrent career.

Did they set out to be torturers, or simply drift into it when they found that less degrading opportunities were not open to them? Where did they get their start? Perhaps they were the schoolyard bullies; or the farm kids I knew who got their thrills swinging the farmyard cats around by their tails and slamming them into the barn sides.

What do they do for relaxation – read books by the Marquis de Sade and watch “Snuff” movies? And what do they do when they their careers end? What do they tell their children and grandchildren about their working life? Do they sleep soundly? I suspect that they do.

And what of the people in the last US government administration who authorized torture? Some of the names are just those you would expect to see on such a list: George W. Bush, Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, and past Attorney General John Ashcroft. However, there are three surprises: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Nancy Pelosi. Powell, the distinguished military man who’s high principles apparently wilted in the heat of the Bush Whitehouse; Rice, the cultured and highly educated academic; and Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House.

The authorization is a curious turnabout, since the US government has a history of prosecuting torturers dating to before World War II. In a November 2007, article in the Washington Post, Evan Wallach states the following: “The United States knows quite a bit about water boarding. The U.S. government - whether acting alone before domestic courts, commissions and courts-martial, or as part of the world community - has not only condemned the use of water torture but has severely punished those who applied it.”

The Obama Administration, as part of its policy to clean out the skeletons that the Bush Administration left behind in the cupboard, is building up to a formal inquiry into the government’s authorization of torture. The move is well intentioned, but I suspect it will reveal little of substance. Nevertheless, it will be hard for the names at the top of the heap to claim they were just obeying orders.


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