Talking about torture

On Sunday afternoon, I marched in downtown D.C. behind rows of black-hooded figures in orange jumpsuits, holding a sign that read, “Torture is always wrong.”  I was part of a procession commemorating the “National Week of Action Against Torture, Guantanamo, and the NDAA,” and the mock-prisoners walking ahead of me represented the many victims of torture who have suffered at the hands of the US military.

June 24, 2012

Torture is not a new phenomenon in war and conflict, but in recent years, its use by the US military and government has increased tremendously.  As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has built prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan (e.g. Bagram), and Iraq, where many foreigners have been detained for years without trial and have little hope for release.  Even children, like Omar Khadr, an Afghan boy who was only fifteen when he was captured, have been imprisoned in Gitmo for the last ten years.

Despite promises that previous and current administrations have made to refrain from torture, those in Guantanamo and other US military facilities around the world have been subjected to electrocutions, beatings, sleep deprivation, and humiliation.

Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk studying in Pakistan who was detained by Americans at Bagram and eventually sent to Guantanamo, describes the torture techniques he endured after being interrogated about the “whereabouts of Osama bin Laden:”

During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.  At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable. (NYT)

For many of us, the immorality of torture is unquestionable.  Harming another human being, through physical torture or coercion, is morally disgusting.

But despite the immorality of torture, we must wonder, is it effective?  Doesn’t torture work to get information that will protect our country from terrorism, and don’t the ends often justify the means?

Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator in Iraq, answers this question in his must-read book, How to Break a Terrorist.  He writes how he used “brains, not brutality” while interrogating terror suspects in Iraq, and thus tracked down the most dangerous man in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He describes the tension that existed among his fellow interrogators—one group was convinced that the old ways of intimidation and humiliation (asserting power over and breaking down one’s detainee) would succeed in producing information; the other group, Alexander’s, was convinced otherwise.  By building rapport with detainees, and showing respect for their culture, religion, and background, Alexander could establish trust, and was consequently able to more easily pry for information.

Not only does Alexander’s book argue successfully for the effectiveness of avoiding torture and coercion in interrogation, but he also reminds us that even those guilty of horrific crimes are people, full of contradictions.  One detainee, who ultimately confesses to building bombs for al-Qaeda, writes a love letter to his wife from prison.  “You will always be the first star in the night sky, my love.  I would endure ten thousand lashes to just to see your face again,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for everything that I have done” (Alexander, 130 – 131).

Alexander writes that while terrorists can’t be excused from the violence they committed—no matter the circumstances, their actions were wrong and punishable—, their motives for embracing terrorism are often complicated.  Many of the Iraqi detainees, Alexander describes, were motivated to join al-Qaeda not because they shared the group’s ideals and goals, but “out of economic need and out of fear” that their families would face reprisals if they did not join (220).

How to Break a Terrorist shows Americans what interrogation could look like if we abandon torture and coercion in dealing with foreign “enemies.”  I put the word “enemies” in quotations because not all those detained by the US military are enemies of America.  More often than not, detainees, like Murat Kurnaz, are the victims of bogus detainment operations, driven more by racism and sweeping capture policy than sound intelligence.

And, in recent years, the “enemies” that the US has detained haven’t simply been foreign ones.  Increasingly, US citizens have been detained without initial charge or trial and tortured. Many of the victims’ crimes seem to have simply been the exercising of free speech, or being a convenient scapegoat in a post-9/11 era defined by paranoia and fear.  Sami al-Arian and Ahmed Abu Ali, who have both experienced torture and indefinite detainment in the US, are two Ameircan citizens who have suffered US-sanctioned injustice often tinged with the influences of Islamophobia.

I’ve written about other American victims in the past, in my post “Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act” in which I describe in detail a problem that former President Jimmy Carter explains so succinctly:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the [Constitution]. (NYT)

At the time al-Arian and Abu Ali were detained, these practices were illegal—but that didn’t stop the government from using them.  The legalizing of them, then, likely means that more al-Arians and Abu Alis will be subjected to these injustices.  At the rally, we were marching for the repeal of the NDAA’s clauses that violate our constitutional guarantees and, more importantly, our collective American conscience.

To me, what is almost more appalling than the injustice itself, is that Americans are virtually ignorant of the problem.  As we passed tourists at the rally, one onlooker said to me: “It [torture] happens to us too, you know.”

Her short statement implied a few things: 1) that we, the protestors, were only concerned about foreign torture victims at the hands of the US, and not about our own, who have endured harsh treatment all over the world, in places like Vietnam; and 2) that we should meet torture with torture—“Why should we stop torturing, if our enemies will continue torturing our people?”

I wanted to answer her, “Yes, I know torture happens to us, as Americans, too, and that’s why we’re marching.”  She didn’t know that many, many Americans suffer torture at the hands of our own institutions, which should uphold the values they claim to possess.

So, once again, I want to reiterate a message that seems to constantly reappear in my writings: that ignorance of injustice is our biggest enemy.  I hope the few words I’ve provided here about torture and America’s complicity in it begin to chip away at that ignorance, which is the first enemy that must be broken.

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2 thoughts on “Talking about torture

  1. I was talking with the other people who work here about human rights a few days ago and, because I was so fed up of hearing stories about police corruption from the migrants, I said that being in Mexico sometimes makes me appreciate the respect for human rights in the US. One of my fellow volunteers said, “and what about Guantanamo?” It is easy claim that we are better off than other countries but that is only if we selectively ignore issues like torture. A humbling realization.

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