A culture of torture… or of suppression?

Politics | Accountability
What does the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities mean? Reading through the news, I came upon a couple of damning questions. Is there a culture of permissiveness in the government? Or of suppression of truth? And which is worse?

The first necessary question may well be: how could this be? In the Washington Post Anne Applebaum examines how it could be that American soldiers can turn into Willing Torturers: “Those responsible did not commit these acts because they were Americans, although some will surely say so. But nor did being American stop them.” This is just the beginning of the horror.

Salon interviews Kenneth Roth, executive director of the Human Rights Watch, which had prepared a report two months ago abuses in Afghanistan. Now Roth is able to connect the dots with Iraq:

“There has been a culture of permissiveness with respect to interrogations that goes all the way to the top, including to Donald Rumsfeld. You see it first of all at Guantánamo, where the Bush administration basically ripped up the Geneva Conventions — simply refused to apply absolutely straightforward provisions of the Geneva Convention with respect to who is a prisoner of war, what kind of hearing are they entitled to, things that were followed in other wars with enemies who were comparably hated.”

What’s first interesting about the apparent interrorgations is how they tended towards in the cruel and unusual, instead of towards the effective. Mark Bowden’s excellent 16,000-word article in the October 2003 Atlantic Monthly, The Dark Art of Interrogation, thoroughly examines the the techniques and ethics of coercion. He reports that crude physical abuse which leave permanent marks are generally avoided, as the marks serve as manifest evidence. Sexual humiliation isn’t even mentioned. In the case of Abu Ghraib, it is the photographs which serve as the “marks” for evidence (and the smiling GI’s makes it even more sickening). Nonetheless, the top interrogators interviewed by Bowden all reveal that their tricks are just a matter of finesse and deception; thus there is not even a utilitarian argument to support the type of interrogations that have been reported on.

This should not undermine Roth’s central point: that the United States is morally wrong when it flouts the rule of law. Later in the interview he describes the consequences:

“One has rules because they apply around the world. The United States should be very reluctant to lower the bar on international standards. Imagine a future war with, say, China over Taiwan. The Chinese government is already beginning to question whether the laws of armed conflict are really just Western impositions, whether these are things that should bind China as well.”

William Saletan’s Chronology of the scandal is even more telling. Saletan’s retrieves a dozen quotes from Bush, Bremer, Rumsfeld, and Rice, from September up until April 30th— a date which is two days after the story was broken on 60 Minutes II, and three months after the internal investigation– “There are no more rape rooms and torture chambers in Iraq.” Saletan leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions. The obvious one, resonating through the Arab world, is that the liberating forces of the United States (and their contractor-generals, the so-called “coalition of the billing”) apparently exhibited no better morals than the Baathist regime.

But domestically, the investigative lag is important. It reveals the rotten-to-the-core methods of the Bush government, where: (a) facts are suppressed, (b) government employees are uniformly threatened and punished if they disclose any facts which would harm the administration, and (c) the President’s lack of curiosity and absurdist optimism allows this to happen. The New York Times reports that the President Bush has chastised Rumsfeld for sitting on this for months. Why was he not similarly interested in the faking of intelligence before the Iraq war, the lack of planning for postwar? “With each setback and blunder in Iraq, the administration has reacted this way, cheerfully denying that anything happened,” The Times editorialized today. Josh Marshall reached a similar point yesterday: “It is another example of how this president is a passive commander-in-chief, how he demands no accountability and, because of that, allows problems to fester and grow.”

Thirty-three years ago, a Vietnam veteran testified before Congress about the progress of the war, and mentioned that American GI’s were committing atrocities against civilians. His political opponents have found offense in this deposition and have attacked him throughout his political career. Perhaps these veterans would have preferred that Lt. John Kerry had kept silent instead. Just last week, former Bush advisor Karen Hughes asked whether Kerry could clarify his comments– about thirty-three years too late. Proving that as always, the Bush team is interested in getting to the facts– only when it suits them.

Many Americans, myself included, may have acquiesced as to the plight of the al-Queda remnants rounded up in Afghanistan and Guantanamo– they were “terrorists”, after all, in the American mindset. But no longer. The fish stinks from the top. Human Rights Watch has urged the Bush administration to End Abuse of Detainees in U.S. Custody. Americans, if we want to begin to restore the moral standing of our country, should demand similarly. And if Bush doesn’t take the leadership to fire Rumsfeld or Rice, we’ll just have to fire them all come November.

May 10th update: The Kerry campaign waited a day before launching a petition to have Rumsfeld fired.
some reasons for the hesitation are suggested by Lawrence Kaplan in article Blame Worthy The New Republic online, posted on May 7th.
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    The English Language Richard_Bennett May 12 ’04 9:07PM
    . Others have used the term: Larry Craig (R-ID) Jon Garfunkel May 13 ’04 1:11AM