Understanding the U.S. Torture State

By Gregory, Anthony | Independent Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Understanding the U.S. Torture State


Gregory, Anthony, Independent Review


When I was a child in Reagan's America, a common theme in Cold War rhetoric was that the Soviets tortured people and detained them without cause, extracted phony confessions through cruel violence, and did the unspeakable to detainees who were helpless against the full, heartless weight of the Communist state. As much as any other evil, torture differentiated the bad guys, the Commies, from the good guys, the American people and their government. However imperfect the U.S. system might be, it had civilized standards that the enemy rejected.

In April 2004, the world was shocked to see photos that exposed the torment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, one of Saddam Hussein's most infamous prisons, which had been taken over and used by U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Well, most of the world was shocked. Some people, mostly conservative commentators, dismissed or defended the barbarity, even comparing it to frat-boy hazing. Others were disgusted but shrugged it off as the work of a few bad apples, not something that should draw judgment down on the whole of U.S. policy and the brave men and women in uniform. Still others of us were horrified but did not see the mistreatment as an aberration--we expected such torture to occur in a war of aggression, supposed we had not seen the worst of it, and even argued that what goes on in America's domestic prisons easily compared with some of the milder photos that were dominating the nightly news.

A national debate arose out of that scandal. More than one question was pondered: Do these photos depict torture? Is this problem anomalous or systemic? Who should be held accountable? Should torture always be illegal?

Over the next few years, more torture controversies came up. The question of whether waterboarding actually constitutes torture was particularly disheartening. Some of the U.S. government's defenders said that the United States should not and does not torture, but also that waterboarding does not constitute torture. Others said that even if the United States does torture, it is doing so in service of a greater good.

We have come to the point where the rhetoric of Reagan's day no longer holds: American exceptionalists and conservatives no longer claim emphatically that the United States does not and never will torture, as they did previously (however disingenuously). An Associated Press poll in June 2009 found that 52 percent of Americans thought torture was justified in some situations--up from only 38 percent in 2005. In Barack Obama's America, torture is now normalized.

But Americans should recoil from torture absolutely; should recognize that it is not an anomaly of the George W. Bush war in Iraq, but a practice with decades of U.S. precedent; should understand that responsibility for the Bush-era torture went all the way to the top; should know that domestic and international laws have been unambiguously violated in the war on terrorism; should understand and oppose torture even when it is "only" psychological or used against domestic criminal convicts; and should recognize that Obama has not put a stop to the abuse. A single book will offer a crash course in all these elements of the U.S. torture state: The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse (Albany: New York University Press, 2011), a remarkable multidisciplinary collection of essays by scholars, lawyers, and journalists compiled by Marjorie Cohn, past president of the National Lawyers Guild and a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

Not Just Bush

It is crucial to recognize that torture is not a new policy that began with George W. Bush's war on terrorism. Despite the Cold War rhetoric, the U.S. government had already been responsible for torture for decades, particularly in Latin America. The preface to The United States and Torture was written by Dianna Ortiz, a nun who was raped, burned, beaten, and otherwise tortured in Guatemala in 1989, all under the auspices of a U. …

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