Politics & Prose May 2005

Fighting Terrorism With Torture

On September 12, 2001, we merited the world's sympathy. Now we deserve its scorn

"What has happened to us?"

Reverend Robert Close, Locust Valley, N.Y., from his letter to the editor of The New York Times, 5/21/05

President Bush announces that prisoners in the war on terror will not be protected by the Geneva Conventions. His counsel, Alberto Gonzales, requests a memo approving torture from the Justice Department. At his January 2005 confirmation hearing Gonzales says that U.S. forces abroad may employ cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment in interrogating foreign nationals. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sanctions interrogation techniques offensive to many Muslim men. These include, according to a Pentagon directive, "forced grooming (shaving facial hair, etc.)," "removal of all comfort items (including religious items)," "removal of clothes," and "using detainees' individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress." Directives "reportedly signed by President Bush," according to Human Rights Watch, permit the CIA to "render suspects to countries where torture is used." Human Rights Watch estimates that the CIA has sent between 100 and 150 people to Muslim countries that practice torture. One of these countries is Uzbekistan. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador there, told CBS that American planes were flying in prisoners from Afghanistan to be tortured. "Techniques of drowning and suffocation" were used, Murray said. "[R]ape was used quite commonly, and also immersion of limbs in boiling liquid." When President Bush told The New York Times that the U.S. does not "hand people over to other countries that do torture," he was lying.

Nine detainees are known to have died in U.S custody in Afghanistan. Scores of released Afghans testify to being tortured. At Guantanamo Bay in Cuba the FBI found chained prisoners forced to sit for hours in their own excrement. Released prisoners from Britain, Kuwait, and Russia say U.S. personnel at Guantanamo have defiled Korans. A translator describes a U.S. servicewoman smearing fake menstrual blood on a detainee. In Iraq twenty detainees in U.S. custody have died. General Anthony Taguba's report speaks of "numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuse" of the sort depicted in the photographs from Abu Ghraib. "At least eleven Al Qaeda suspects [held by the CIA], and most likely more," according to Human Rights Watch, have "disappeared."

Who is responsible for these crimes? Until last week it was (barely) possible to believe that the yellow light given torture in Washington did not reach the torturers in the field. Last week The New York Times ran horrifying details from a leaked 2,000-page Army investigation into torture and murder at the Bagram Collection Point in Afghanistan. Mixed with accounts of the beatings dealt out by the "King of Torture," a sadistic twenty-three year old, and others, the story included a statement from an interrogator drawing a straight moral line from White House policy to torture. Sergeant James A. Leahy, a Utah reservist who served at Bagram, told Army investigators that President Bush's February 2002 "determination" that detainees in the war on terror were not protected by the Geneva Conventions suggested to the Bagram interrogators that they "could deviate slightly from the rules" for handling prisoners laid down in the Army Field Manual. "There was the Geneva Convention for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for terrorists." The "slight" deviation included "pulpifying" the legs of a taxi-driver named Dilawar with over one hundred disabling "peroneal strikes," hanging him by handcuffs from the ceiling of his cell, and continuing to torture him after most knew he was innocent of the charges that had put him in their merciless hands, beating him until he was dead.

These soldiers got the message. George W. Bush sent it. Fighting terrorism with torture, the President is destroying the moral foundations of the "war on terror." What do we stand for in the Muslim world, where our war aims must be legitimized if we are to escape another 9/11? Asked last week by a New York Times reporter what Guantanamo Bay meant to her, a woman in an Islamabad bookshop answered, "Torture. The first word that comes to my mind is … torture‚ a place where Americans lock up and torture Muslims in the name of terrorism." Guantanamo, The Times concluded in a second article tracing how Bush's torture war has defiled America in Muslim eyes, "provides rhetorical fodder for politicians seeking to bring down United States-allied rulers in their own countries, and it offers a ready rallying point against American dominance, even in countries whose own police and military have been known for severe violations of human rights." Little wonder that among our allies in the Arab world, 98 percent of Egyptians, 94 percent of Saudis, and 88 percent of Jordanians view the U.S. unfavorably. "Even illiterate people," a Pakistani journalist writes, "pronounce it [Guantanamo] in a perfect manner." Is it necessary to add that, in the words of a former CIA counterterrorism expert interviewed by CBS, torture is "pretty useless," because victims wind up "telling you what you want to hear"? On September 12, 2001, we merited the world's sympathy. Now we deserve its scorn.

"What has happened to us?"

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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