Torture, Racism, & the Sovereign President


P resident George W. Bush has embedded murder, assassination, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners into the structure of the U.S. system of global domination. Many U.S. citizens, rightly outraged, want to know why this sort of barbaric, sadistic violence has become an integral part of U.S. security policy, and what the Administration’s justification of torture means institutionally for the future governance of this country. Above all, they want to know how Bush has been able to avoid impeachment for committing high crimes. 

Here is a select list of typical tortures, abuses, and “outrages against human dignity” inflicted by U.S. forces and mercenaries on enemy captives in the course of their arrest, detention and interrogation: 

  • Beating, kicking, and treading on bodies 
  • Sleep deprivation and forced injection of drugs 
  • Rape and sodomy 
  • Water torture, a traditional U.S. Army practice since at least the Indian wars and the Philippines insurrection at the end of the 19th century 
  • Hanging prisoners whose arms are bound behind their back by shackles or handcuffs until their limbs pop from their sockets—a new U.S. form of lynching 
  • Tight handcuffing, close-shackling, and blindfolding or “hooding” for extended periods; sometimes the hoods are marked in order to alert the U.S. torturer to the particular crime that the prisoner is suspected of having committed 
  • Forced stripping of Muslim prisoners and keeping them naked for long periods 
  • Religious humiliation 
  • Sexual humiliation, insult, and debasement, including smearing with feces, urine, and what appears to be menstrual blood 
  • Screaming racial insults before, during, and after unleashing violence against captives 
  • Shocking with electrical instruments, another method of torture commonly used by U.S. troops in Vietnam 
  • Exposure for prolonged periods to extremes of light and dark, heat and cold, and noise so deafening as to rupture the eardrums 
  • Extraction of nails, burning skin with cigarettes, stabbing or cutting the bodies of prisoners 
  • Threatening prisoners or their relatives with death or by having them watch other victims being tortured 
  • Threatening with dogs or allowing dogs to actually assault prisoners during or before interrogation 
  • Forcing prisoners to stand or to remain in painful positions for extended periods 
  • Isolation in cells, cages, wooden boxes, and barbed wire-enclosed trailers for prolonged periods 
  • Depriving prisoners of food, water, drink, and toilet facilities 
  • Extreme or enforced rendition, i.e., torture by proxy in foreign countries 

These acts were performed both before and after the Bush administration had unilaterally exempted itself from legal liabilities under international and domestic law. Some members of the U.S. military abused prisoners because senior military commanders such as Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez had explicitly authorized them to do so; some tortured the enemy because they found it to be “fun”; but most seem to have acted in the belief that their conduct was condoned because the White House and the Department of Defense had adopted a policy of fighting terror with terror.

In the U.S. mass media the routine, sometimes bone-shattering beating of prisoners in U.S. custody receives relatively little attention except as a public relations problem. Moral and legal concern seems to be reserved for the less common, more secretive practice of “rendition,” in which officials of the executive branch are protected because the abuse takes place outside the U.S., avoiding monitoring by the Red Cross and due process. More so than other modes of torture, this type of contract crime may be ordered mainly for reasons of deterrence—i.e., to teach an object lesson to all people who fall afoul of the U.S., regardless of their national origin. European governments rightly consider it to be a blatant violation of their local sovereignty and are investigating. 

 

A Total War Strategy 

T he Bush administration’s increasing reliance on imprisonment, torture, and assassination as elements in its “war on terror,” needs to be explained from multiple angles, as part of a total war strategy for eliminating new challenges to the U.S. global empire. Fear, racism, and colonial wars in poverty-stricken Afghanistan and Iraq are historical frames that highlight the scope and complexity of the problem. The collapse of separation of powers, the decay of democratic processes and values, Congress’s unwillingness to destroy the perception of presidential impunity, and the increasingly secret nature of government combine to constitute a fourth frame. Let me touch briefly on each. 

From the earliest days of the U.S., fear and racism have been striking features of U.S. culture. Although closely related, they are distinguishable. By fear I mean the inordinate susceptibility of the U.S. public to fits of real panic, during which fear and extremism override reason. Usually fear spreads when political elites sound the alarm and rally the country to fight some unbelievably powerful force that is out to destroy the world they inhabit. The threat can come from within or from outside, from a modern or a “failed state,” or from a social movement. But once defined, U.S. citizens imagine that only extraordinary leaders, willing to ignore the law, can protect them from the menace. Under strong presidents, citizens fight back in self-defense against the insidious enemy, using catastrophic weapons created by their technological genius. The enemy can be Indians, Blacks, or Chinese; it can be Britain in one period, Spain, Japan, the Soviet Union, or international terrorists in another. In almost every case, the enemy that their leaders exhorted them to hate later turns out to be whoever had something we wanted. The pattern is old and recurs throughout the history of U.S. empire. The most spectacular case of “punishing an aggressor” with an unprecedented new super weapon was President Truman’s nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

By racism I mean attitudes of hatred and contempt directed toward those who are unlike us, mainly for reasons of color. In multicultural, allegedly color-blind U.S., with its many racial minorities, racism and de facto segregation continues. When Bush declared his “war on terror,” this old dynamic assumed forms suited to 21st century conditions. Racial profiling returned; civil rights for minorities and immigrants eroded; and both developments went hand in hand with war atrocities committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo, Cuba. 

The effects of racial bias can be seen in the world’s largest, expanding prison system, where the percentage of Blacks, Latinos, and Hispanics remains high and racial violence and mistreatment of minority inmates occurs frequently. Not surprisingly, in the atmosphere of revenge galvanized by the 9/11 attacks, racial violence quickly spread from the domestic prisons and police departments to U.S. military prisons abroad. Abusive jailers and police officers from the U.S. volunteered to fight and ended up torturing prisoners at camps in Kandahar, Baghram, Guantanamo Bay, Mosul, Bucca in southern Iraq, and Abu Ghraib near Baghdad. 

The Pentagon also recruited patrol officers and officials from the federal and state prisons for its war on terror and sent them to the U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. state prison system is far larger than the federal system and in 2003 held nearly 1.2 million inmates, most of them ethnic minorities. Local jails contained 700,000 inmates; juvenile facilities over 100,000. Racial violence and mistreatment of inmates by guards is more likely to occur in the state prisons and local jails where the level of discipline is lower, the use of force greater. But from the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, where hundreds of Muslim detainees were recently abused, to the U.S. military prisons spread throughout the world, wherever prisoners of color have been tortured by guards, racism usually lies close to the surface. 

Furthermore, race rather than national origin fundamentally shapes the U.S. soldiers’ image of the terrorist. The Army sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq was “whiter” than it had been since 2000 as a result of five straight years of declining Army recruitment of black Americans. The 17,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan reportedly turned virtually the entire country into one huge secret prison in which military guards and CIA interrogators inflicted gratuitous pain on the bodies of individual Afghani captives who are held incommunicado without charge or trial, according to a March 19, 2005 report in the Guardian . Whenever this happens the likelihood is great that they are exercising “racially-informed,” irrational violence against both their victims and the entire society to which they belong. The same phenomenon can be seen in Iraq where U.S. soldiers call the inhabitants “sand niggers” and “ragheads.” 

A third framework for understanding the torture scandal is the regressive, colonial-like character of the current U.S. wars. Nothing illustrates this better than the bloody struggle to control Fallujah, a Sunni city located west of Baghdad on the edge of the Iraq desert, which before the U.S. invasion had a population estimated at 300,000. 

The initial skirmish in what became the first battle of Fallujah (March and early April 2004) was fought after four U.S. military contractors were brutally murdered by young Iraqis. The killings were in revenge for the murder in Gaza of the paraplegic Sheik Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, by Israelis who were flying U.S. helicopters. Marines went into Fallujah allegedly searching for the killers of the civilian mercenaries but were forced out by its residents. To redeem their honor they mounted a full-scale assault. After three weeks of rebellion the casualty figures ranged from a low of 600 combatant and non-combatants killed and over 1,200 injured to estimates ranging upward from 1,000. 

The second battle to retake Fallujah from its inhabitants began five months later in November 2004, after Marines again cut off food, water, and electricity to the city in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Their illegal acts of collective retribution were designed to empty the city of its women, children, and elderly while preventing the departure of able-bodied Iraqi civilian males. When something similar happened in Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995 it was universally condemned in Europe and the U.S. as “genocide.” The main difference was that in Srebrenica the Serbs evacuated the women and children by truck while in Fallujah the U.S. bombed them out. 

As U.S. ground attacks on entrances to the besieged city of Fallujah increased, aerial bombardment—torture from the air—commenced. A U.S. specialty since 1945, the bombing of cities tends to take a primary toll on civilians while seeking to force both noncombatants and combatants to sue for peace. 

Iraqi popular resistance forces responded to these U.S. assaults by stepping up attacks in Baghdad, Samarra, Ramadi, and elsewhere, killing and wounding more foreign occupiers and their Iraqi collaborators by the week. Fallujah’s struggle to end U.S. occupation spread the nationalist resistance. 

The retaking of Fallujah during November and early December through ruthless air, tank, and artillery bombardment resulted in the city’s complete destruction. Under rules of engagement approved in Washington, U.S. forces reportedly used banned napalm and poison gas, killed civilians holding white flags or white clothes over their heads, murdered the wounded, killed unarmed Iraqis who had been taken prisoner, and destroyed mosques, hospitals, and health centers protected under international law. One of the most amazing, well reported scenes from this battle took place at the Fallujah General Hospital where U.S. forces kicked down doors, cut the telephone lines, molested doctors, forced patients from their beds, and manacled their hands behind their backs. The hospital, said U.S. military spokesperson, was releasing casualty figures useful for the propaganda of the resistance fighters. 

 

 

Fallujan residents were dispossessed of their homes and forced to live as refugees in surrounding towns and villages. To this day no one knows how many people died in the bloodbath. But a few months earlier, in September 2004, an Iraqi mortality researcher and his interviewer, working on a public health study jointly sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, managed to enter the city. What they discovered was such a high number of civilian deaths that they decided to exclude the Fallujah data from their final, conservative estimate of about 100,000 Iraqi civilians (mostly women and children) killed since the U.S. invaded. In a population estimated at 24 million, that is the U.S. proportional equivalent of 1.2 million deaths. 

When legal restraints are removed during a war, needless death and destruction occurs; invariably the main victims are highly vulnerable civilians. In World War II, the “kill ratio” was one civilian death (mostly children, women, and the elderly) for every soldier killed. The smaller wars fought after 1945 ran the civilian-soldier count up to 8:1. But in Iraq the kill ratio is conservatively estimated to be much higher. Why do tens of millions of Americans refuse to confront this reality? Perhaps because they never heard about the Lancet study, thanks to the U.S. corporate media. Or perhaps misguided patriotism and militarism, drummed into youth through film, television, and video games, lead them to consider the enormous civilian loss and suffering as unavoidable “collateral damage” or a product of military necessity. Whatever the reasons, not only the Administration, but the mainstream press and many citizens profess to care only about the lives of fellow Americans and remain unconcerned about the barbaric treatment their soldiers mete out to Iraqis and Afghanis. 

 

U.S. Assertion of Dominion 

T he problem of widespread, individualized interrogation-by-torture is inseparable from the pain and suffering inflicted on all those who resist U.S. assertion of dominion. In late April 2004, as the initial battle for Fallujah was winding down, the first photos appeared of uniformed, grinning U.S. soldiers torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison. Since then, the illegal acts of the Bush administration, its armed forces, and intelligence operatives have received relentless news media attention abroad and only desultory attention within the United States. 

Earlier, there had been news reports coming out of Afghanistan about teams of U.S. Special Forces and their Northern Alliance allies committing war atrocities at Baghram, Kandahar, and other places in Afghanistan. UN officials had documented how uniformed U.S. officers connived in the mass killing of surrendered Taliban soldiers at Dash-E Leili. NGOs in many countries, including the International Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, had compiled massive dossiers documenting, from early 2002 onward, U.S. soldiers severely beating and kicking bound, helpless prisoners, and of Army medical personnel conniving in the abuse. Often recessed into the background of such reports was mention of U.S. forces treating Afghanis mercilessly, as subhuman, denigrating them through the use of racial epithets, demeaning their national culture. 

 

 

Many people in the U.S. took news of atrocity charges in stride. During 2003, stories broke of Israeli military advisers being invited into Iraq and to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to train U.S. assassination squads. Neither did video pictures of U.S. helicopter pilots murdering wounded Iraqis lying on the ground or the U.S. seizure without charge of foreign nationals and their shipment to prisons outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts for purposes of torture. Well before the obscene photos from Abu Ghraib and their broadcast on national television struck a spark, the foreign place-names for atrocities committed by U.S. forces were steadily increasing. But the U.S. chose either not to know or to passively accept the president’s disregard of international law. When Bush boasted in his State of the Union speech in 2003, “The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others,” apologists for his unilateralism chimed in that “lawful” and “unlawful” had ceased to be meaningful terms. 

By the time the torture scandal broke, Iraqi resistance against the U.S. presence had intensified and public support for the war was waning. The Bush administration rushed to deny that torture was intentionally ordered or widely practiced and blamed all abuses on a few rotten apples, acting on their own. Neither Bush nor Rumsfeld offered a public apology for torture nor admitted that they had prior knowledge of it. Congress and the public accepted the official White House/Pentagon version of events. 

Yet the daily routine of U.S. war crimes was too widespread to be covered up. The story of the prisons staffed with racists and sadists, just as in the U.S, kept deepening; the number of prisoners kept on increasing—in Iraq, 8,000 at the time of the Abu Ghraib pictures, 10,500 as of March 2005; and in Afghanistan 500 as of January 2005. 

Bush policy-makers had expressed from the outset a strong desire to inflict pain on enemy captives. They had denied the occupied peoples proper prisoner-of-war treatment, set aside the law of occupation, and ordered military strategies of indiscriminate violence against all who resisted their aims. Documents generated in the White House and the Departments of Justice and Defense appeared in the press after lawsuits were brought by the ACLU. They bore out that the president, by fiat, had set aside the Geneva Conventions, denied prisoner-of-war status to Taliban and Al Qaeda captives taken in Afghanistan, and sent them for indefinite detention to the naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba. This meant they would be interrogated without legal restriction under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s rules, which violated the Constitution, not to mention Bush’s worthless public promise to treat them humanely. 

The torture documents reveal a mindset within the White House and Pentagon intent on destroying what remains of democratic processes. Right after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Bush issued a secret directive authorizing the torture by proxy in foreign jails of those suspected of having information about terrorist operations. Thereafter he used the “war on terror” and his commander-in-chief authority to expand the little known “state-secrets privilege,” for which no constitutional foundation exists, in order to prevent the courts from discovering what crimes he has directed the CIA to commit. 

The torture debate is about the Pentagon’s and the White House’s cover-up of the massive war crimes committed by members of the U.S. armed forces and CIA against Afghanis and Iraqis. But at a deeper level it is part of a larger debate in which the issues at stake are: 

  • Bush’s usurpation of power and his attempt to elevate the myth of presidential sovereignty 
  • Bush’s illegal attempt to exempt the U.S. from the Geneva Conventions and his Administration’s invention of the false category of “unlawful combatants” as a way of legitimating indefinite confinement and torture 
  • The evocation of “presidential secrecy” by executive officials to prevent the federal courts from prying into matters of national security both as they concern the Pentagon’s and the CIA’s global prison systems and Bush’s dereliction in the performance of his duties 
  • The federal Constitution’s modeling of the presidency on monarchy and its failure to protect from periodic presidential usurpations of power, which is exactly what its chief author, James Madison, intended 

Turning to government memoranda, we see the most senior-level bureaucrats, lawyers, politicians, and soldiers—all of whom had sworn oaths to uphold the Constitution—debating, over a two-year period, (a) how to justify Bush’s decision to use interrogation techniques that were explicitly banned by international and domestic law; (b) how to limit the president’s legal exposure in the event that a federal district court tried to block him from getting around the law by issuing a writ of habeas corpus; and (c) how to prevent a court from assessing whether U.S. conduct in Afghanistan violated the norms of international law. 

Another little known finding is that the U.S. may never have ratified any human rights convention without adding reservations that exempted itself—not the 1949 Geneva Conventions, not the subsequent protocols to it, and not even the 1948 Genocide Convention, which is the first of the post-World War II human rights treaties. Technically the Senate ratified the 1984 Torture Convention in 1994, but only after changing the definition of torture to make it more restrictive “than that set out in the Convention,” and thus more “interrogator-friendly.”

The torture documents show President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld using the legal opinions of their lawyers—including the now notorious August 1, 2002 memo written by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee—to assert a right to order the torture, maiming, and even murder of prisoners. Drawing on his commander-in-chief authority and the advice of his counsel, Alberto Gonzales, Bush suspended the Geneva Conventions, but later, in order to protect himself, issued a written directive cautioning all military interrogators to treat detainees “humanely.” At the same time, he allowed CIA interrogators to continue using cruel and unusual methods of interrogation. Bush also authorized the use of torture techniques against prisoners detained in the war on Iraq, which initially had nothing to do with the war against the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld took charge and turned the Pentagon into the “nerve center for directing torture and conducting secret missions.”  

Over the years since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan and later attacked and occupied Iraq, U.S. soldiers have scoured villages, towns, and cities in both countries, searching for “insurgents.” Overall, they succeeded mainly in creating chaos and lawlessness, spreading armed resistance to their presence, and generating a keen desire for future revenge against the United States. The more U.S. forces have devastated Iraq, contaminated its land, destroyed its cities, and mistreated the Iraqi people in their local communities and inside their homes, the more resistance to U.S. presence has grown. 

Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, as well as al-Qaeda suspects and Taliban fighters, have been rounded up and imprisoned under medieval conditions. U.S. soldiers, CIA agents (“case officers”), and mercenaries (“civilians”) working for privatized military firms under contract to the Pentagon, are known to have sadistically tortured large numbers of them while having their deeds photographed and filmed so that they could be seen by friends back home. 

 

The Logic of Torture 

A fourth frame for understanding why torture became just another weapon in the U.S. arsenal relates to the long decline in the spirit of democratic government that preceded 9/11. The growing immunity of the military from Congressional oversight is but an aspect of this phenomenon. At its heart is the corruption of the Congress under one-party control and the connivance of Senators and House members in shielding the president and his advisers from criminal liability for waging wars of aggression in which they themselves were complicit. The U.S. was already out of step with the rest of the world and sliding into an anti-democratic mode of governance long before the rise of the religious right and the neo-cons hastened this process. When a group of fundamentally dishonest ideological extremists took control of the presidency and the Congress, the corrupt condition of the U.S. political system began to be revealed in all sorts of criminal acts. 

 

 

The conclusions I draw from this are, first, that in Europe during two world wars the United States seems not to have stooped to officially ordering the torture and mistreatment of prisoners of war, though only because arrayed against it were fighting forces that held U.S. prisoners and could retaliate. But in three Asian-Pacific wars—against Japan, North Korea, and the peoples of Indochina—the greater capabilities of U.S. forces made the fighting far more one-sided. In World War II, victorious U.S. troops in the Pacific confronted an enemy equipped with inferior weapons, usually took no prisoners, and often mutilated and murdered the wounded with impunity. The Japanese army too mistreated Allied prisoners and civilians on the battlefield and in occupied territories, but they alone were held criminally accountable for their actions. Vietnam and later interventions were unprovoked colonial wars against much weaker enemies. When going against the weak, the U.S. military has invariably used torture tactics on a wide scale. 

Bush built on the legacy of war crimes and atrocities ordered by past presidents, including his own father and Bill Clinton, both of whom had issued presidential directives authorizing “extraordinary rendition.” In 2001 Bush expanded this practice without furnishing any meaningful guidelines. He is not the first president who ever turned his back on the fundamental principles that underpin the international order; but he and his top officials are certainly the first to have shattered the torture taboo while openly and repeatedly expressing contempt for international law. They are also the first to threaten the use of nuclear weapons even against non-nuclear states. 

Today in the United States no strong public pressure exists for upholding the laws against torture of persons considered “enemy.” In 2002 a poll indicated “that one-third of Americans favored the use of torture on terrorist suspects.” The most recent Gallup poll, released March 1, 2005, suggested that 39 percent would support torturing “known terrorists if they know details about future terrorist attacks.” Clearly a large minority, whose views this Administration represents, believes that it is acceptable, if not wholly justified, to employ the tactics of torture in the fight against terrorist suspects in order to extract information that might save innocent lives. What this surely reflects is the passionate denial of the educated classes that the U.S. has been deeply involved in the gravest of international crimes. 

To intentionally inflict pain and suffering on helpless detainees, whether or not they engaged in combat, is illegal and morally wrong, besides being cowardly and counterproductive. The legal prohibition on torture is absolute and unambiguous and can never be justified under any conditions. The only problem is that the U.S. government never actually ratified any humanitarian law without inserting loopholes that would allow it to make a claim of exemption. 

The best available evidence suggests that torturing defenseless captives to obtain information doesn’t deter terrorist attacks. The information extracted under White House and Pentagon torture policy has proven singularly ineffective in defeating a popular resistance movement that has the support of the local population. In Iraq, Bush policies have only succeeded in creating terrorists, fueling the flames of resistance to the U.S. presence, and breaking up the coalition of governments that unwisely sent troops to Iraq. Furthermore, the history of modern warfare shows that guerilla resistance movements do not depend on hierarchical chains of command that can be broken by such interrogation methods. To stop their pain, prisoners will say anything, rendering what they say unreliable. 

Secretary of State Colin Powell found this out when he delivered his infamous address to the UN Security Council in February 2003, “which argued the case for a preemptive war against Iraq.” In his speech, Powell drew on the testimony of an unnamed “senior terrorist operative” who had told his interrogators that Saddam Hussein had offered to train Al-Qaeda operatives in the use of ‘chemical or biological weapons.’” After the U.S. invasion, it turned out that the terrorist, one Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, had been tortured by his CIA and Egyptian interrogators. Later, at Guantanomo, Libi recanted and admitted that he had lied. So much for evidence obtained through torture and the spin master who relied on it to justify aggression. 

U.S. leaders have been intent on controlling the world ever since the Truman administration ended the war with Japan in a five-month orgy of conventional bombing before destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs. Their greed, ambition, and lack of foresight have left them with no solution but to pit themselves against the nationalism and desire for self-determination of weaker states throughout the world. Presidents and generals solved the problem of discovering who the enemy is by defining the entire population as enemy. When the “enemy” is the civilian population who won’t do our bidding, not only do the kill ratios have to be high, but reliance on torture, murder, and assassination also becomes vital. This is why Afghanistan and Iraq are in the same class as Korea and Vietnam: imperialism produces the logic of torture.


Herbert Bix, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins 2000), is professor of history and sociology at Binghamton University. He has written extensively on problems of war and empire.