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Torture's Part of the Territory

Brace yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The photographs will elicit what has become a predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such abuses from happening again. But imagine, for a moment, if events followed a different script. Imagine if Rumsfeld responded like Col. Mathieu in "Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's famed 1965 film about the National Liberation Front's attempt to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. In one of the film's key scenes, Mathieu finds himself in a situation familiar to top officials in the Bush administration: He is being grilled by a room filled with journalists about allegations that French paratroopers are torturing Algerian prisoners.

Based on real-life French commander Gen. Jacques Massu, Mathieu neither denies the abuse nor claims that those responsible will be punished. Instead, he flips the tables on the scandalized reporters, most of whom work for newspapers that overwhelmingly support France's continued occupation of Algeria. Torture "isn't the problem," he says calmly. "The problem is the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay…. It's my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences."

His point, as relevant in Iraq today as it was in Algeria in 1957, is that there is no nice, humanitarian way to occupy a nation against the will of its people. Those who support such an occupation don't have the right to morally separate themselves from the brutality it requires.

Now, as then, there are only two ways to govern: with consent or with fear.

Most Iraqis do not consent to the open-ended military occupation they have been living under for more than two years. On Jan. 30, a clear majority voted for political parties promising to demand a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. Washington may have succeeded in persuading Iraq's political class to abandon that demand, but the fact remains that U.S. troops are on Iraqi soil in open defiance of the express wishes of the population.

Lacking consent, the current U.S.-Iraqi regime relies heavily on fear, including the most terrifying tactics of them all: disappearances, indefinite detention without charge and torture. And despite official reassurances, it's only getting worse. A year ago, President Bush pledged to erase the stain of Abu Ghraib by razing the prison to the ground. There has been a change of plans. Abu Ghraib and two other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq are being expanded, and a new 2,000-person detention facility is being built, with a price tag of $50 million. In the last seven months alone, the prison population has doubled to a staggering 11,350.

The U.S. military may indeed be cracking down on prisoner abuse, but torture in Iraq is not in decline — it has simply been outsourced. In January, Human Rights Watch found that torture within Iraqi-run (and U.S.-supervised) jails and detention facilities was "systematic," including the use of electroshock.

An internal report from the 1st Cavalry Division, obtained by the Washington Post, states that "electrical shock and choking" are "consistently used to achieve confessions" by Iraqi police and soldiers. So open is the use of torture that it has given rise to a hit television show: Every night on the TV station Al Iraqiya — run by a U.S. contractor — prisoners with swollen faces and black eyes "confess" to their crimes.

Rumsfeld claims that the wave of recent suicide bombings in Iraq is "a sign of desperation." In fact, it is the proliferation of torture under Rumsfeld's watch that is the true sign of panic.

In Algeria, the French used torture not because they were sadistic but because they were fighting a battle they could not win against the forces of decolonization and Third World nationalism. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's use of torture surged immediately after the Shiite uprising in 1991: The weaker his hold on power, the more he terrorized his people. Unwanted regimes, whether domestic dictatorships or foreign occupations, rely on torture precisely because they are unwanted.

When the next batch of photographs from Abu Ghraib appear, many Americans will be morally outraged, and rightly so. But perhaps some brave official will take a lesson from Col. Mathieu and dare to turn the tables: Should the United States stay in Iraq? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.

This article was first published in the L.A. Times.

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