Thinking About Torture

By Rebecca Gordon
Oct 18, 2010

Welcome to my weekly blog about United States involvement in torture. It’s not a happy subject, and I don’t really like thinking or writing about it. But I’ve spent the last nine years studying torture, beginning with the first disappearances of people inside the United States in the days after September 11, 2001.

Disappearances? In the United States? Yes.

Torture in the prosecution of the “war on terror” did not begin in Afghanistan, in Guantánamo, or in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. The first abuses actually took place on U.S. soil, at the hands of local police and prison guards, along with federal officials. Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, immigrant men were rounded up across the United States. Eighty-four of them were held incommunicado, some for many months, in Brooklyn, New York.  Here they were subjected to 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight. The New York Daily News reported on February 20, 2005:

The detainees—none of whom were ultimately charged with anything related to terrorism— alleged in sworn affidavits and in interviews with Justice Department officials that correction officers:

Humiliated them by making fun of—and sometimes painfully squeezing—their genitals.

Deprived them of regular sleep for weeks or months.

Shackled their hands and feet before smashing them repeatedly face-first into concrete walls—within sight of the Statue of Liberty.

Forced them in winter to stand outdoors at dawn while dressed in light cotton prison garb and no shoes, sometimes for hours. 

Sound familiar? These are among the so-called “interrogation” techniques that have become famous in the years since the September 11 attacks.

These methods have a long history in this country. Exposure to extremes of heat and cold, sexual humiliation, and sleep deprivation are among the approaches the authors of the CIA’s “KUBARK” interrogation manual described as a means of producing “psychological regression” and emotional helplessness in captives. (More about the KUBARK manual in later posts.) These methods also appear on the list of “Counter-Resistance Techniques” approved in December 2002 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for use at Guantánamo.

Why does torture matter? The U.S. “War on Terror” has destroyed one country and made another’s wretchedness even worse than it already was. It has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and made refugees of millions. In the context of so much murder and misery, why focus on the torture of a few hundred, or at most, a few thousand people?

I think torture matters. First – and we must never forget this - it matters beyond imagining to those who are tortured. But I think it also matters to the people of a country that engages in torture. In some ways, what the United States has done (and I believe is still doing) represents a continuity with our past. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. government has supported research on torture techniques and has trained foreign personnel in their use. In the years after September 11, however, something changed. U.S. involvement in torture shifted from covert support for torture by other governments to direct and quasi-overt use of torture by its own agents.

In the process, the people of this country have been encouraged to believe that anything our government does is permissible – as long as it might make us feel safer and less afraid. There is a word a person who responds to danger by thinking only of his or her own safety: “coward.” Is accepting torture as the price of feeling safe turning us into a nation of cowards?

Unfortunately, U.S. involvement in torture did not end with the Bush regime. Each week I’ll be using this space to follow developments in efforts to get a full accounting of U.S. torture past and present – and to hold those responsible accountable.

I’ll also be exploring a number of more general topics:

  • What is institutionalized state torture? What is it for and how does it work? 
  • How are race and racism implicated in U.S. torture, historically and today?
  • What about torture in U.S. prisons?
  • What can we do to confront torture and torturers?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Rebecca Gordon is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras organizing committee. She has been a political activist for more years than she cares to remember, working on issues of feminism, war and peace, economic and racial justice, and specifically torture in the post-9/11 United States. Rebecca's new book, Mainstreaming Torture comes out in May 2014 from Oxford University Press. She's also the author of Letters From Nicaragua, a record of six months spent in the war zones during the contra war.

More by Rebecca Gordon:

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