George Walker Bush and the Torture of the Innocent

(I just discovered this essay on an obsolete blog that I’d forgotten I’d ever had. Seems I wrote it on May 20, 2005. I’m proud of this piece. So I’m going to resurrect it.)

In February 2002, President Bush announced that the Geneva Conventions would not apply to prisoners associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In December of that year, an innocent Afghan taxi driver was tortured to death, mostly for the sake of entertainment, in an American detention center.

Many will argue that these facts are not connected. After all, what does the Commander in Chief have to do with the behavior of a handful of sadistic underlings thousands of miles away? The answer, of course, is: everything.

Soldiers are killers, by definition, and a good soldier is a good killer. On the battlefield, this is a virtue; in the prison system, it is a recipe for barbarism. History tells us, again and again, that the only reliable way in which trained killers can be prevented from abusing captive enemies, is through rigorous and responsible leadership.

The sad truth is that unsupervised prison guards — even if they are not professional killers — tend to become sadistic, very quickly. This was demonstrated by the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971, in which ordinary university students — mostly peaceniks, in fact — were given the opportunity to run a mock prison. Within days they were abusing their wards to such an extent that the experiment had to be called to a halt. (The process was dramatized to stunning effect in Das Experiment, a German film released in 2001.)

What does this mean? Well, apart from everything else, it means that many of the unspeakably brutal prison guards in Afghanistan — and yes, there were many — became sadists as a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s failure of leadership. And this failure can be linked, directly, to the president’s own public renunciation of basic principles of decency: specifically those outlined by the Third Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of prisoners of war.

Tim Golden in the New York Times reported at length today (May 20) on the torture which was daily fare at the US detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan. If you can read this article without experiencing palpable nausea, then I suspect you would be very much at home in the ranks of those prison guards.

The details are appalling. They make Abu Ghraib seem a minor infraction by comparison.

The taxi driver’s was the second death by torture in December 2002. It was distinguished, however, by the fact that the victim, known by the single name Dilawar, was widely assumed by his torturers to be innocent. Dilawar was 5′ 9″. He weighed 122 pounds. To take this man to the extremes of excruciating pain, it was hardly necessary to bring in Specialist Damien M. Corsetti – a tall guard known generally as “Monster,” and affectionately referred to, by his superior officer, as “the King of Torture.” It’s a reasonable bet that even the sadistic woman assigned to interrogate Dilawar weighed more than her victim. He was described as “shy” and “unadventurous.” His family had bought him a used Toyota sedan only a few weeks before, which he was driving as a taxi. He made the fatal error of driving three passengers past an American base which had been targeted by a rocket earlier that day.

Even though there was scant reason to believe that he or his passengers had anything whatsoever to do with that assault, the three fares were shipped to Guantánamo, where they spent over a year before it was decided that they would not be charged; and Dilawar was tortured to death.

The favorite technique at Bagram seems to have been the “common peroneal strike.” This common practice – clearly outlawed by the Geneva Conventions (which were deemed not to apply) involved striking a prisoner on the side of the leg, in a particular place above the knee. Golden reports: “The M.P.’s said they were never told that peroneal strikes were not part of Army doctrine. Nor did most of them hear one of the former police officers tell a fellow soldier during the training that he would never use such strikes because they would ‘tear up’ a prisoner’s legs.” Surely they must have got some sense of this, however, when Dilawar’s orange prison pants repeatedly fell down while he was chained: one guard noticed, for instance, that the bruise on his leg was “the size of a fist.”

Why would guards torture a man they considered innocent? At first it was all in fun: M.P.’s would drop by to give him common peroneal strikes just to hear him scream, “Allah! Allah! Allah!” This was done to him perhaps 100 times, according to one of his tormentors, Specialist Corey E. Jones: “My first reaction was that he was crying out to his god… Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.”

It gradually progressed to something I don’t particularly want to detail. However miserable it will make you, it’s every American’s civic duty to read Tim Golden’s exhaustive treatment of this in the Times.

I hope that explicit pictures from Bagram surface, even though they are bound to fill the Afghan streets with anguished fury… because perhaps they’ll bring out Americans in equal numbers. Even Republicans. I do not expect Bush to take any responsibility for this — which is very much the low point in a uniformly wretched administration — but perhaps the public will at last hold him responsible.

America is filled with absolutists. Some of them are admirable; some plagued by hobgoblins; but they are everywhere, on both the right and the left. If you’re an economist, chances are you have a religious allegiance to the free market. If you’re a civil libertarian, you’re not likely to countenance a single instance in which free speech is abridged.

Yet none of these absolutes — these supposed bottom lines — have anything like the moral urgency of the absolute proscription against torture. Decent men can disagree with aspects of free market theory, or certain applications of the First Amendment; but no decent human being can endorse torture. It is what separates good from evil. A good person from an evil person. If anything constitutes the line which should not be crossed — which cannot be crossed, for the sake of our collective conscience — it is this.

And yet one of the most vocal defendants of the First Amendment, Alan Dershowitz, has notoriously outlined circumstances in which torture would be permissible. God help you if you silence a man; but to make him scream is negotiable.

I have a great deal of sympathy for free speech absolutists — I am close to one myself. But to worship at this altar, yet shrug off the prohibition — the absolute prohibition — against torture, is beyond shallow. One is an important practical necessity: insurance against tyranny. The other, however, is so much more than this: it is the litmus test of the soul.

George Walker Bush — the man elected to embody the soul of the nation — has personally endorsed torture as an acceptable American practice. Personally, and more than once. It is President Bush personally who insisted upon denying prisoners rights under the Geneva Conventions. It is President Bush personally who insisted that the next Attorney General be Alberto R. Gonzales: the administration’s most prominent advocate of torture. This was a hugely symbolic act, as Gonzales was known by the public for almost nothing but his advocacy of torture.

Alberto Gonzales famously wrote to Bush, in January 2002, that the current war should be considered unique when it is necessary to “quickly obtain information” from captured combatants: “In my judgment this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners.” It is a historical fact — perhaps the central moral fact of his presidency — that President Bush weighed this judgment, and came out unambiguously in favor.

And by the end of that year, a shy, innocent taxi driver would be tortured to death in an American dungeon, solely for the pleasure of hearing him cry out to God.


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