By Lawrence DiStasi
Let it be said up front: I am ashamed of America. In my opinion, every American should be similarly ashamed.
The PBS show Frontline aired a powerful documentary last night called “The Torture Question,” and despite the fact that I have read extensively about Abu Ghraib and seen the photos and followed the show trial of Pvt. Lynddie England for her part in those abuses, I was still shocked and ashamed. And outraged.
There is no longer any question about this major fact: torture has been an established policy of the United States since the so-called War on Terror began. It has been considered at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. It has been the subject of new executive orders and Justice Department memos by administration lawyers, especially John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales (the latter having famously termed the Geneva Conventions “quaint”)—memos designed to bypass the Geneva Conventions and redefine torture to make it harder to violate strictures against it. And it has been aggressively pushed on reluctant generals and military lawyers by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Since torture is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, the administration was quick to label prisoners captured in Afghanistan “enemy combatants.” This meant that they were not protected as POWs, but inhabited some other category of captivity supposedly incurred by their ‘outlaw’ status as ‘terrorists.’ But the vindictiveness of this administration was still not satisfied, and so it formulated its plan to ship all captives from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. This supposedly put them beyond not only the constraints of the Geneva Conventions, but also the Constitution’s guarantees of due process.
The Torture Question makes plain that Guantanamo Bay was fully intended to be torture central. Its first commander, General Baccus of the Rhode Island National Guard, was soon judged to be too lenient, precisely because he insisted that his MPs respect the Geneva Conventions. He was replaced by General Geoffrey Miller, a no-nonsense disciplinarian who immediately tightened things up. Insisting on mickey-mouse routines such as the fact that every time soldiers saluted, they were required to utter a formulaic “Honor Bound,” General Miller instituted such “honorable” practices as the terrifying of prisoners with dogs, humiliating them with sexual contact and nudity, employing psychological techniques and medical records to break and intimidate prisoners, using hypothermic isolation, and countless other horrors. The code for this was “the gloves have come off,” as if what had been imposed on hapless prisoners before this had been wimp torture by Marquis of Queensbury rules. Significantly, instances of attempted suicide immediately spiked under Miller’s reign. Also significantly, the FBI personnel who visited and worked at Guantanamo began to keep logs of all interrogations to document what they clearly saw as potential war crimes. To a viewer of this, the sight and accounts of prisoners hooded, chained to the floor in their own excrement, and pulling their hair out in despair, was enough to induce rage, revulsion, and nausea.
With the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the resultant accumulation of massive numbers of prisoners, the need for a large internment site led inevitably to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison where Saddam Hussein had held and tortured his victims. One might have thought that American leaders would have avoided this huge and desolate and accursed place, hard by one of the most dangerous neigihborhoods in Baghdad where it was subject to routine shelling. But despite the protests of the eventual commander of Abu Ghraib, the female General Janis Karpinski, that the place was inadequate to its task, the prison soon filled to capacity with Iraquis captured by the American occupiers. Like those at Guantanamo, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib were a collection of suspected insurgents and hapless civilians caught up in the confusion of war. Little seems to have been done to verify that such detainees were dangerous or in any position to know more than their names. The working assumption was simple: ‘they are Iraquis, “ragheads,” and so they probably know things that can help us find Saddam Hussein and pacify the country.’ The fact that such captives were, in fact, war prisoners and hence covered by the Geneva Conventions, seemed to make no difference. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, in a repeat of his procedure at Guantanamo, is portrayed as almost immediately haranguing the Commanding General in Iraq, General Sanchez, to stop pussyfooting around and produce more information. To implement this second “removal of the gloves,” Rumsfeld sent General Miller of Guantanamo Bay to Iraq. Soon thereafter, the horrors that the world would soon see in vivid color commenced at Abu Ghraib. Dogs, electric shock, beatings, bone breakings, sexual humiliation all became part of the interrogators’ arsenal.
Besides the shame and horror, one conclusion emerges from “The Torture Queston.” Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, is responsible for implementing and insisting on practices that reach the level of war crimes. If the tortures documented in this film were to be adduced in a legal tribunal, he would likely be judged, plainly and simply, a war criminal. All the generals beneath him, including the joint chiefs of staff and the commanding generals in Iraq, would likewise be guilty of war crimes. For it is not only those who actually inflict torture who are guilty. The Nuremberg Trials, which the United States initiated to try the Nazis who inflicted such horror on Europe in World War II, established the legal procedure for responsibility: those who command and control forces which commit war crimes are themselves guilty of war crimes. Though Hitler and Goering and Goebbels and Himmler may never have tortured or murdered anyone personally, they were judged to be war criminals nonetheless. Under this standard, the Commander in Chief of American Forces, George W. Bush, would also be vulnerable to charges as a war criminal.
The defense by these leaders, so far, has been that terrorism justifies any means to get information useful in protecting the American people. The claim has also been made that the torture documented at Abu Ghraib was unusual, carried out only by the “night crew” at that prison, and the responsibility of a few privates and sergeants and other “rogue elements” in that one prison at one short period of time. Those few people, like Lynddie England and General Janis Karpinski, have been tried and/or dismissed and demoted. The problem is therefore solved.
However, recent allegations by current troops in the 82nd Airborne Division have raised new suspicions that torture by American troops is far more common than the administration would have us believe. Again, Secretary Rumsfeld has tried to refute such allegations by asserting that the person who made them was simply repeating stories he had heard. In other words, this was not an eyewitness account. But one interviewee on “The Torture Question” gives the lie to these defenses. Spc. Tony Lagouranis, identified as a U.S. Army interrogator, recently retired, insisted time and again that torture is still going on in Iraq, and is routine policy among Army personnel. Finding a “culture of abuse” in Iraq, Lagouranis states plainly that he has witnessed American troops on raids regularly beating and torturing Iraquis in their own homes, and/or in shipping containers found throughout Iraq. They “smash people’s feet with the back of an axe-head,” and regularly break bones and ribs. He attests to his own use of working dogs to intimidate prisoners (being blindfolded, the prisoners cannot know the dogs are muzzled; terrified, they often wet themselves). He attributes such practices to the confusion inspired by the doubts about whether prisoners in Iraq deserve the protection of the Geneva Conventions, by the ever-present danger, and by constant urging from higher-ups to produce actionable intelligence.
“The Torture Question” does not conclude with a judgment about the guilt of the Bush Administration and the United States Armed Forces regarding torture. But it makes a strong case for the presumption that torture has been approved for use against Iraquis and any others captured in the war on terror at the highest levels of the U.S. Government. This in itself should be enough for all citizens to demand of their elected representatives a thorough accounting. The Secretary of Defense, the Commanding Generals in Iraq, the officers in charge of interrogations both at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the legal advisers who presented the case justifying the discarding of Geneva’s contraints, and the President who issued executive orders and who, as Commander in Chief, holds the ultimate responsibility—all should be required to stand before the bar of justice and explain how what has been inflicted on the prisoners taken in this most recent war, as well as on civilian populations, accords with both U.S. and international law. Nor would it be unwarranted, if they refuse, to use the instrument of impeachment to compel this accounting.
The shame, the suffering, and the death that has been brought upon this nation and those it has abused, demands it.