Revolution #72, December 10, 2006


Nation of Torturers?

A few weeks ago on Fox News, a man appeared in an orange jumpsuit flailing and gasping for air as his head was repeatedly pushed under water by hooded men in black screaming, “Are you ready to talk now??!”

Watchers soon learned that the victim was a Fox News reporter who willingly subjected himself to water boarding. This is a torture technique “that induces the effects of being killed by drowning.” (1) It’s widely known the CIA has used water boarding. (2)

Moments later, the Fox reporter returned to camera, hair blown dry and ready to chat: “It’s more about fear than pain, just seeing them tearing that saran wrap off when they’re about to put it over your face, it really gets you scared. Just imagine people who go through this day-in day-out. You really learn you can crack pretty quickly… But the thing that really impressed me is how just fast you can recover. They took me to the brink where I was ready to tell them anything within minutes. And then just minutes later I was standing by the side of that pool feeling fine. So as far as torture goes… this seemed like a pretty efficient mechanism to get someone to talk and then have them alive and healthy within minutes.”

There is a public training going on. A grotesque new ethos is being forged in America: it is okay to methodically, repeatedly, and violently torment a person, even to death. It is fine to be cruel—even a source of civic pride if you do it for the homeland. (And I have to add, as horrifying as the footage was, Fox’s “it’s-not-so-bad” reporter never experienced torture for-real—unlike actual prisoners who know at any moment their lives can be snuffed out.)

We are becoming a nation of torturers—indeed, efficient torturers. With the passage of the Military Commissions Act in October, it is official. The pictures from Abu Ghraib we could barely look at a few years ago? All legal now.  

Even normal. Fox’s instructional video goes right along with a society-wide acclimation process that includes discussion of the ethics/efficacy of water boarding by U.S. Senators, the Vice President dubbing it a “no-brainer” (part of a “robust interrogation program” [3]), and network TV force-feeding the whole torture topic to the nation. From Harpers Index:

This is not even counting reality shows like Cops where Black people are routinely humiliated and hog-tied like animals, or Fear Factor, a “fun” show where ordinary people force each other to lie with snakes and eat maggots—all part of inuring people to the use of extreme coercion to maintain a fraying public order, or just to “show grit.”

It is apparently not enough to pass the laws and hire the mercenaries (or soldiers) to terrorize other people into compliance with the needs of this superpower. It’s also necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of a section of the U.S. populace to cheer on the formal establishment of medieval practices, and join in—or at the very least maintain an indifferent silence.  

This is having an effect. A few weeks ago, millions witnessed the seven-minute cell phone videotape of UCLA security guards taser-gunning an Iranian-American student in a crowded university library.

He shrieks in pain, then yells, “This is your Patriot Act!” only to interrupt himself with a chilling, almost primeval, howl when he is tasered again—and again. You see people rise from their laptops. But as the screams and minutes tick by, the students—with a few exceptions—just stand there, in horror but inert, watching their first public torturing.  

It will likely not be the last. Are you asking yourself yet—what would I do?  

Then there’s Alyssa Peterson. She was a 27-year-old U.S. soldier from a Mormon family in Salt Lake City. She found herself at Abu Ghraib in August 2003, assigned to a prison interrogation team. Three weeks later, she was dead by non-combat bullet wound. Recently, it’s come to light that after taking part in two of these interrogations, she refused to carry out any more. Sergeant James D. Hamilton told army investigators, “It was hard for her to be aggressive to prisoners/detainees, as she felt that we were being cruel to them.” Records of the interrogations Peterson was part of have been destroyed.

If Alyssa was not killed by army personnel, a disquieting thought itself, she may have committed suicide. It is certain she said no to becoming a torturer. But she was isolated. It was not until seven months after her death that the Abu Ghraib pictures showed up on the Internet.  

Now we all know.  


1. From an Open Letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, signed by over 100 U.S. law professors [back]

2. From ABC News, Nov. 18, 2005, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito Report:
“Water Boarding: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt. According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said al Qaeda’s toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two-and-a-half minutes before begging to confess. ‘The person believes they are being killed, and as such, it really amounts to a mock execution, which is illegal under international law,’ said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.” [back]

3. From the office of the Vice President, October 24, 2006:
Scott Hennen, WDAY: Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the Vice President “for torture.” We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that. [back]

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