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`Never Before!´ The Amnesiac Torture Debate

It was the “Mission Accomplished” of George W. Bush’s second term, and an announcement of that magnitude called for a suitably dramatic location. But what was the right backdrop for the infamous “We do not torture” declaration? With characteristic audacity, the Bush team settled on downtown Panama City.

It was certainly bold. An hour and a half’s drive from where Bush stood, the US military ran the notorious School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a motto, might have been “We do torture.” It is here in Panama, and later, at the school’s new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the roots of the current torture scandals can be found.

According to declassified training manuals, SOA students—military and police officers from across the hemisphere—were instructed in many of the same “coercive interrogation” techniques that have since migrated to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: early morning capture to maximize shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food “manipulation,” humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions—and worse. In 1996 President Clinton’s Intelligence Oversight Board admitted that US-produced training materials condoned “execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment.”

Some of the Panama school’s graduates returned to their countries to commit the continent’s greatest war crimes of the past half-century: the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, the systematic theft of babies from Argentina’s “disappeared” prisoners, the massacre of 900 civilians in El Mozote in El Salvador and military coups too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that choosing Panama to declare “We do not torture” is a little like dropping by a slaughterhouse to pronounce the United States a nation of vegetarians.

And yet when covering the Bush announcement, not a single mainstream news outlet mentioned the sordid history of its location. How could they? To do so would require something totally absent from the current debate: an admission that the embrace of torture by US officials long predates the Bush Administration and has in fact been integral to US foreign policy since the Vietnam War.

It’s a history that has been exhaustively documented in an avalanche of books, declassified documents, CIA training manuals, court records and truth commissions. In his upcoming book, A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy synthesizes this unwieldy cache of evidence, producing an indispensable and riveting account of how monstrous CIA-funded experiments on psychiatric patients and prisoners in the 1950s turned into a template for what he calls “no-touch torture,” based on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. McCoy traces how these methods were field-tested by CIA agents in Vietnam as part of the Phoenix program and then imported to Latin America and Asia under the guise of police training programs.

It’s not only apologists for torture who ignore this history when they blame abuses on “a few bad apples”—so too do many of torture’s most prominent opponents. Apparently forgetting everything they once knew about US cold war misadventures, a startling number have begun to subscribe to an anti-historical narrative in which the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to US officials on September 11, 2001, at which point the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo apparently emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s brains. Up until that moment, we are told, America fought its enemies while keeping its humanity intact.

The principal propagator of this narrative (what Garry Wills termed “original sinlessness”) is Senator John McCain. Writing recently in Newsweek on the need for a ban on torture, McCain says that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, he held fast to the knowledge “that we were different from our enemies…that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them.” It is a stunning historical distortion. By the time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had already launched the Phoenix program and, as McCoy writes, “its agents were operating forty interrogation centers in South Vietnam that killed more than twenty thousand suspects and tortured thousands more,” a claim he backs up with pages of quotes from press reports as well as Congressional and Senate probes.

Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the US government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents—that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, closer to home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so. On November 8, Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that “America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now.” Molly Ivins, expressing her shock that the United States is running a prison gulag, wrote that “it’s just this one administration…and even at that, it seems to be mostly Vice President Dick Cheney.”

And in the November issue of Harper’s, William Pfaff argues that what truly sets the Bush Administration apart from its predecessors is “its installation of torture as integral to American military and clandestine operations.” Pfaff acknowledges that long before Abu Ghraib, there were those who claimed that the School of the Americas was a “torture school,” but he says that he was “inclined to doubt that it was really so.” Perhaps it’s time for Pfaff to have a look at the SOA textbooks coaching illegal torture techniques, all readily available in both Spanish and English, as well as the hair-raising list of SOA grads.

Other cultures deal with a legacy of torture by declaring “Never again!” Why do so many Americans insist on dealing with the current torture crisis by crying “Never Before”? I suspect it has to do with a sincere desire to convey the seriousness of this Administration’s crimes. And the Bush Administration’s open embrace of torture is indeed unprecedented—but let’s be clear about what is unprecedented about it: not the torture, but the openness. Past administrations tactfully kept their “black ops” secret; the crimes were sanctioned but they were practiced in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush Administration has broken this deal: post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new definitions and new laws.

Despite all the talk of outsourced torture, the Bush Administration’s real innovation has been its in-sourcing, with prisoners now being abused by US citizens in US-run prisons and transported to third countries in US planes. It is this departure from clandestine etiquette, more than the actual crimes, that has so much of the military and intelligence community up in arms: by daring to torture unapologetically and out in the open, Bush has robbed everyone of plausible deniability.

For those nervously wondering if it is time to start using alarmist words like totalitarianism, this shift is of huge significance. When torture is covertly practiced but officially and legally repudiated, there is still the hope that if atrocities are exposed, justice could prevail. When torture is pseudo-legal and when those responsible merely deny that it is torture, what dies is what Hannah Arendt called “the juridical person in man”; soon enough, victims no longer bother to search for justice, so sure are they of the futility (and danger) of that quest. This impunity is a mass version of what happens inside the torture chamber, when prisoners are told they can scream all they want because no one can hear them and no one is going to save them.

In Latin America the revelations of US torture in Iraq have not been met with shock and disbelief but with powerful déjà vu and reawakened fears. Hector Mondragon, a Colombian activist who was tortured in the 1970s by an officer trained at the School of the Americas, wrote: “It was hard to see the photos of the torture in Iraq because I too was tortured. I saw myself naked with my feet fastened together and my hands tied behind my back. I saw my own head covered with a cloth bag. I remembered my feelings—the humiliation, pain.” Dianna Ortiz, the American nun who was brutally tortured in a Guatemalan jail, said, “I could not even stand to look at those photographs…so many of the things in the photographs had also been done to me. I was tortured with a frightening dog and also rats. And they were always filming.”

Ortiz has testified that the men who raped her and burned her with cigarettes more than 100 times deferred to a man who spoke Spanish with an American accent whom they called “Boss.” It is one of many stories told by prisoners in Latin America of mysterious English-speaking men walking in and out of their torture cells, proposing questions, offering tips. Several of these cases are documented in Jennifer Harbury’s powerful new book, Truth, Torture, and the American Way.

Some of the countries that were mauled by US-sponsored torture regimes have tried to repair their social fabric through truth commissions and war crimes trials. In most cases, justice has been elusive, but past abuses have been entered into the official record and entire societies have asked themselves questions not only about individual responsibility but collective complicity. The United States, though an active participant in these “dirty wars,” has gone through no parallel process of national soul-searching.

The result is that the memory of US complicity in far-away crimes remains fragile, living on in old newspaper articles, out-of-print books and tenacious grassroots initiatives like the annual protests outside the School of the Americas (which has been renamed but remains largely unchanged). The terrible irony of the anti-historicism of the current torture debate is that in the name of eradicating future abuses, these past crimes are being erased from the record. Every time Americans repeat the fairy tale about their pre-Cheney innocence, these already hazy memories fade even further. The hard evidence still exists, of course, carefully archived in the tens of thousands of declassified documents available from the National Security Archive. But inside US collective memory, the disappeared are being disappeared all over again.

This casual amnesia does a profound disservice not only to the victims of these crimes but also to the cause of trying to remove torture from the US policy arsenal once and for all. Already there are signs that the Administration will deal with the current torture uproar by returning to the Cold War model of plausible deniability. The McCain amendment protects every “individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government”; it says nothing about torture training or buying information from the exploding industry of for-profit interrogators.

And in Iraq the dirty work is already being handed over to Iraqi death squads, trained by US commanders like Jim Steele, who prepared for the job by setting up similarly lawless units in El Salvador. The US role in training and supervising Iraq’s Interior Ministry was forgotten, moreover, when 173 prisoners were recently discovered in a Ministry dungeon, some tortured so badly that their skin was falling off. “Look, it’s a sovereign country. The Iraqi government exists,” Rumsfeld said. He sounded just like the CIA’s William Colby, who when asked in a 1971 Congressional probe about the thousands killed under Phoenix—a program he helped launch—replied that it was now “entirely a South Vietnamese program.”

And that’s the problem with pretending that the Bush administration invented torture. “If you don’t understand the history and the depths of the institutional and public complicity,” says McCoy, “then you can’t begin to undertake meaningful reforms.” Lawmakers will respond to pressure by eliminating one small piece of the torture apparatus—closing a prison, shutting down a program, even demanding the resignation of a really bad apple like Rumsfeld. But, McCoy says, “they will preserve the prerogative to torture.”

Anti-Bush groups in the US have just launched an advertising campaign called “Torture is not US.” The more difficult truth is that for at least five decades, it has been. But it doesn’t have to be.

This article was first published in The Nation.

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