The Logic of Torture: Abu Ghraib

Mark Danner, The Logic of Torture. The New York Review of Books, 24 June 2004. The second of two articles. (The first of the two articles is here.) “Behind the exotic brutality so painstakingly recorded in Abu Ghraib, and the multiple tangled plotlines that will be teased out in the coming weeks and months about responsibility, knowledge, and culpability, lies a simple truth, well known but not yet publicly admitted in Washington: that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, officials of the United States, at various locations around the world, from Bagram in Afghanistan to Guantanamo in Cuba to Abu Ghraib in Iraq, have been torturing prisoners. They did this, in the felicitous phrasing of General Taguba’s report, in order to “exploit [them] for actionable intelligence” and they did it, insofar as this is possible, with the institutional approval of the United States government, complete with memoranda from the President’s counsel and officially promulgated decisions, in the case of Afghanistan and Guantanamo, about the nonapplicability of the Geneva Conventions and, in the case of Iraq, about at least three different sets of interrogation policies, two of them modeled on earlier practice in Afghanistan and Cuba.”

Excerpts from story:

It has long since become clear that President Bush and his highest officials, as they confronted the world on September 11, 2001, and the days after, made a series of decisions about methods of warfare and interrogation that General Aussaresses [Algeria], the practical soldier, would have well understood. The effect of those decisions—among them, the decision to imprison indefinitely those seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the war on terror, the decision to designate those prisoners as “unlawful combatants” and to withhold from them the protections of the Geneva Convention, and finally the decision to employ “high pressure methods” to extract “actionable intelligence” from them—was officially to transform the United States from a nation that did not torture to one that did. And the decisions were not, at least in their broad outlines, kept secret. They were known to officials of the other branches of the government, and to the public.

The direct consequences of those decisions, including details of the methods of interrogation applied in Guantanamo and at Bagram Air Base, began to emerge more than a year ago. It took the Abu Ghraib photographs, however, set against the violence and chaos of an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, to bring Americans’ torture of prisoners up for public discussion. And just as General Aussaresses would recognize some of the methods Americans are employing in their secret interrogation rooms—notably, the practice of “water-boarding,” strapping prisoners down and submerging them until they are on the point of drowning, long a favorite not only of the French in Algeria but of the Argentines, Uruguayans, and others in Latin America20—the general would smile disdainfully at the contradictions and hypocrisies of America’s current scandal over Abu Ghraib: the senior American officers in their ribbons prevaricating before the senators, the “disgust” expressed by high officials over what the Abu Ghraib photographs reveal, and the continuing insistence that what went on in Abu Ghraib was only, as President Bush told the nation, “disgraceful conduct by a few American troops, who dishonored our country and disregarded our values.” General Aussaresses argued frankly for the necessity of torture but did not reckon on its political cost to what was, in the end, a political war. The general justified torture, as so many do, on the “ticking bomb” theory, as a means to protect lives immediately at risk; but in Algeria, as now in Iraq, torture, once sanctioned, is inevitably used much more broadly; and finally it becomes impossible to weigh what the practice gains militarily in “actionable intelligence” against what it loses politically, in an increasingly estranged population and an outraged world….

What is clear is that the Abu Ghraib photographs and the terrible story they tell have done great damage to what was left of America’s moral power in the world, and thus its power to inspire hope rather than hatred among Muslims. The photographs “do not represent America,” or so the President asserts, and we nod our heads and agree. But what exactly does this mean? As so often, it took a comic, Rob Corddry on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to point out the grim contradiction in this:

There’s no question what took place in that prison was horrible. But the Arab world has to realize that the US shouldn’t be judged on the actions of a … well, we shouldn’t be judged on actions. It’s our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: Just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn’t mean it’s something we would do.