Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability of Torture-A Conversation with Olga Talamante

By Thomas, Suzie Dod | Social Justice, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Dirty Wars: On the Unacceptability of Torture-A Conversation with Olga Talamante


Thomas, Suzie Dod, Social Justice


"THE BURLAP BAG FELT ROUGH AND SCRATCHY AGAINST MY CHEEK, BUT IT ALSO smelled earthy and deceptively comforting. Thick bandages already covered my eyes so the bag's only purpose was to frighten me. And it worked. I knew I had entered another dimension. "Are these words from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison? From the detention center at Guantanamo? From Afghanistan? They very well could be, but these are the words" of Olga Talamante, a 55-year-old Chicana activist from California, describing her experience as a torture victim 32 years ago in an Argentina prison in 1974.

Talamante's memories of when she was tortured are never far from the surface. The publication of the long-suppressed pictures of Abu Ghraib victims last year and the report from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights finding that practices conducted at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo amounted to torture (Brecher and Smith, 2006) lifted the curtain on the uses of torture in President Bush's war on terrorism and rekindled memories of Talamante's horror. "'Every time I read a new story about U.S. forces participating in similar acts, it takes me back to that secret torture room," she says. The fact that a debate has arisen and even exists" regarding the use of torture outraged her and prompted to speak out about her experiences again after over 30years. It is our hope that this interview contributes to strengthening the human rights and social justice perspective within the present discourse on torture, in addition to denouncing the current increased U.S. practice of using and legitimating torture to ostensibly obtain a greater benefit or good.

In May 2006, a U.N. anti-torture panel of nine experts in Geneva charged with monitoring U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture ratified in 1994 by President Clinton (see Box 1) rebuked the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies and recommended closing the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and stopping the transfer of suspected terrorists" to countries where they may face torture. Acknowledging that there had been mistreatment of detainees, the U.S. made a commitment that all government agencies, including contractors, were to be prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places, and that suspects would not be transferred to countries where they were more likely to endure torture. However, the U.N. committee was skeptical about the sincerity of the U.S. in complying with such pledges and challenged its assertion that some parts of the 1994 anti-torture convention do not apply in times of war (Lynch, 2006). Their skepticism is understandable, given that the Bush administration has usurped the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution (Savage, 2006). Among those he can ignore are military rules and regulations, which would cover the treatment of detainees and torture. The week before, the Council of Europe issued a separate investigative report that said that the U.S. had created a "reprehensible network" of dealing with terror suspects, highlighted by secrete prisons believed to be in Eastern Europe and other nations around the world.

Box 1 : CIA's Hidden History of Torture

Despite claims to the contrary by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and others that "we don't torture," the fact is that torture is neither
a recent nor an aberrant U.S. practice. Alfred W. McCoy (2006b) points
out that the U.S. has long relied on a psychological, not physical,
form of torture, which is masked by the absence of any visible scars,
complicating any legal definition of torture.

A closer examination reveals a hidden history of CIA torture. From 1950
to 1962, the agency led a costly effort to crack the code of human
consciousness, an endeavor that culminated in the creation of
psychological torture--the first revolution of this cruel science in
centuries. … 

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