Since the highly publicized release of the US Senate Torture Report reactions have ranged from outrage, to shameless apologetics, to cold indifference. The New York Times, in an unusual display of adversarial journalism, decried the revelations as “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,” while the Washington Post declared “Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked.’” Both of these responses, while properly critical of state criminality, offer only a partial picture of the culture of power responsible for the atrocities detailed in the report. In order to grasp fully how the CIA constructed this global torture regime it’s necessary to explore the history of US policy, specifically when it comes to the treatment of “enemy” populations. Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture is essential reading in tracing this history, beginning with CIA experimentation with Soviet-inspired methods of “mind control” and culminating with the sensory deprivation, stress positions, and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape) of today’s agency. Contrary to myths that the barbaric actions of the CIA represented an assault on “American values”, McCoy demonstrates how torture has long been a key instrument of US policy throughout the Cold War period and in its aftermath. During the Vietnam War the US military enforced a national torture program drawing its tactics from a document called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Contained in this handbook were instructions for the implementation of “a revolutionary two-phase form of torture that relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical.” Alongside this embrace of psychological torture was the Phoenix Program, a highly complex assassination program that led to the deaths of 40,994 Vietcong guerillas (Saigon government figures).
Shortly after the inception of these policies, they were replicated in Latin America, first in US-backed South American dictatorships (Brazil for example) and, eventually, in Central American terror states like Honduras. This continuity between US policy in Vietnam and policy in Central America during the 1980s could be perceived most clearly in the Human Resources Manual that the Honduran state drew from in their torture of “communist” subversives. Among the methods relied upon in this manual were sensory deprivation, with an emphasis on forms of solitary confinement, and manipulation of the environment. In one particularly gruesome instance of this paradigm in action, the Caballero unit, named after Honduran Sergeant Florencio Caballero, brutally tortured a “young Marxist” named Ines Murillo. While in Honduran custody Murillo was “stripped naked and subjected to electrical shocks for thirty five days.” Afterwards, she was “moved to a second, secret prison near Tegucigalpa where her questioners … ‘gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner, threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate.”
Overshadowing all of these crimes, from those in Indochina to those in Central America, was a culture of impunity that shielded all responsible from even the slightest forms of legal accountability. In this respect, America followed the same path of its imperial predecessors in France and Britain. When colonial France was found to have committed heinous crimes against the Algerian resistance, crimes which included, among other things, the waterboarding of Algerians, a government organized inquiry (the Wuillaume Report) exonerated all high-ranking officials on the flimsy argument that the torture methods employed were “more psychological than physical and therefore [did] not constitute excessive cruelty.” Similarly, when it was exposed that British forces were engaged in torture in Northern Ireland—“five techniques” consisting of wall standing, sleep deprivation, starvation, subjection to noise, and hooding—a government-led investigation (The Compton Report) absolved the perpetrators arguing that the crimes were “necessary against terrorists because ‘information must be sought while it is still fresh … and thereby save members of the security forces and of the civil population.’”
It therefore should come as no surprise to any student of history that President Obama honored this disgraceful tradition when he responded to the Senate exposures of CIA torture by urging that we not “refight old arguments” by going after the culprits (a reasonable position if we internalize the worldview of a state terrorist). Aside from conforming to a societal pattern of callousness and disregard for human life, what MIT international relations scholar John Tirman calls “collective autism”, Obama’s statement evinces a deep-seated ignorance as it relates to the long-term psychological effects of torture. In historical terms, the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a human being via torture is well documented. In 1972 a selection of Danish medical professionals examined “Greek and Chilean refugees for ‘forensic medical evidence of the after-effects of torture,” and concluded “of the 200 victims examined … nearly 70 percent still had ‘mental symptoms at the time of examination.'” Symptoms included “nightmares, depression, panic attacks, and low energy”.
Contemporary cases of torture demonstrate a similar trend. The brutalization of Canadian national Maher Arar is a textbook example. In what’s euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” Arar was kidnapped by US agents at JFK Airport in New York, “loaded onto a CIA-chartered Gulfstream III jet”, and transferred to a Syrian prison “where he remained for a year being beaten and whipped so savagely that he confessed to anything his tormentors suggested.” Two years after his release Arar reported that he “still [had] nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, [and] being in jail.” Post-traumatic stress of this kind is a common experience for torture victims who are unable to casually dismiss these crimes against humanity as an “old argument.” For torture victims the “argument” is never truly “old.” It’s perpetually present.
Examining the enormous scope and level of coordination behind the Bush administration’s torture program it’s glaringly obvious that anything less than a criminal prosecution of top administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), apologists in the legal profession (John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez), and high-ranking military figures (General Sanchez) will ensure that worse atrocities will be committed in the future. Achieving this will require an honest look at not only the criminality embedded in institutions of power but an equally honest look at the social norms and mores that enabled the US public to silently acquiesce to these monumental crimes. In the words of a recent Washington Post article, “A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture …” Disengaging from this culture of indifference is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming this tradition of state sponsored terror. Only then can the American public help provide the psychological and moral closure, and significantly, legal justice, that the victims of these savage acts rightfully deserve.