Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Why torture is OK

About the author
Maura Stephens has been a professional journalist and editor since 1977.

Imagine that you are on your way to work, coffee in hand, one December morning when three men in United States military uniforms, armed with guns, approach you. They say your name; you acknowledge it.

One of them slams you in the chest, knocking your briefcase and coffee to the ground, but not before the hot beverage spills on your hand, burning you. The men throw a heavy plastic black hood over your head. You can see nothing. It is very hard to breathe. You are confused and scared out of your mind. You do not have any idea what these men might want. What happened to the quiet day you were expecting? How can you get word to your family? Nobody knows where you are. They will be paralysed with worry.

Also on issues of torture at Abu Ghraib, and detention without trial at Guantánamo, in openDemocracy:

David Rose, “Guantánamo, America’s war on human rights” (September 2004)

“After image: the meanings of Abu Ghraib” – a debate with contributions by Hazel Carby, Allen Feldman, Rami Khouri, Rouzbeh Pirouz, and others (May-October 2004)

Mariano Aguirre, “Exporting democracy, revising terror: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff” (July 2005)

Clive Stafford Smith, “Torture: an idea for our time” (August 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Guantánamo: land without law” (September 2005)

Brandt Goldstein, “Storming the Supreme Court: a students’ odyssey” (September 2005)

Harold Hongju Koh, Captured by Guantánamo (September 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

You are helpless: this cannot be. This is a free country, not a totalitarian state. This is “the greatest country in the world.” Things like this happen in other places, not here. Innocent people are protected here; innocent people are not jailed and abused for no reason, not here.

You are thrown into the back of a pickup truck with a lot of other people. Even through the hood you can smell the fear of others bound and hooded like you. You call out: “This is a mistake! Why am I here? I have done nothing!” You are punched hard in the stomach; it knocks the wind out of you. The truck moves; you are jostled against those next to you.

Eventually the truck stops and you are hauled off, stumbling. You go down hard on one knee because your arms are tied behind you. You are hauled up, twisted by the elbow on your already swollen arm, then herded along with the others; all are quiet except for the occasional cough or sneeze as you shuffle along, prodded in the side occasionally by something sharp and metal, and eventually you hear a huge metal door open. You are tossed inside a room, your hood removed. Your handcuffs are still very tight. Your scalded hand and your bruised knee are throbbing. The other people in the room look as terrified as you are; you count at least thirty-five other prisoners. There is no sink or running water other than one toilet, which already reeks of human excrement and urine.

Soon you are brought in front of a gang of armed men in an office sitting behind a desk. You are made to strip completely naked while being asked questions you don’t understand about people you do know and care about. You cannot answer; you don’t have a clue what the questioners are getting at. They hood and handcuff you again without letting you don even your underwear. Next they force you to crawl a hundred yards and then climb a set of stairs on your knees, naked, your arms behind you, unable to see, struggling for breath the entire time. Your panic is rising, you see no way out.

There is no way out. Over the next five and a half months you are kicked, beaten, stomped, punched, hung backward by your hands, made to go days without sleep, starved, left uncovered in the cold, sprayed with freezing cold water, your teeth chattering so hard you think your brains will simply turn to pulp. Men take turns pissing on you. They poke the barrel of a gun up your anus. They electrocute you. They gleefully pummel your infected hand. They take your photograph as they mock you. Not one of them treats you in any way like a human being. You hold onto your sanity by a thread.

No protection

Put yourself in the position of this prisoner. It could very easily have been you. If you’re a United States citizen, it could still be you in the not-too-distant future. Or it could be someone you love with all your heart, someone you would die to protect.

There is no protection in the current US law for any innocent person who undergoes such treatment. You could be treated thus just for sport, really, and your abusers could claim they “suspect” you of some sort of terrorism, thus leaving them free to do as they will with you, without oversight or accounting.

The story just touched on above is that of at least one man in Abu Ghraib – an innocent man who was tortured and abused at the hands of US military personnel in such unimaginable ways it makes me sick to contemplate them.

His abusers, remember, were liberating his country from an evil dictator. Their commander-in-chief claims to be on the side of good versus evil.

I have spoken to other victims of abuse at the hands of US military in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. They have similar ghastly tales, and by now there has been enough irrefutable evidence aired in the media that even most US people, with their over-reliance on a few poor “news” sources, are aware that the stories of torture are very real and unspeakably horrifying.

No accountability

I have also spoken to US citizens who think along the same lines as one reader who wrote in response to a brief article I published on a talk by Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist. The reader stated: “I don’t really have much of a problem with the ‘torture’ [Hersh] uncovered at Abu Ghraib. Throwing hoods over their heads and only letting them sleep a couple of hours at a time is nothing, compared to the fate the victims of 9/11 suffered. Do critics of the military really think you just nicely ask suspected terrorists for information, and they’ll tell you?”

This man, no doubt, loves his parents and his wife and children, and donates to his church and to hurricane victims’ funds. I imagine that in September 2001 he gave money to New York City relief efforts. His friends probably say about him: “He’s a great guy – he’d give you the shirt off his back.”

I wonder how the people of a nation that considers itself the epitome of enlightenment and education, a so-called “civilised society,” can draw such bizarre distinctions and tolerate the inhumane treatment endured by the people in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay and other US – and probably UK – prisons.

I wonder how. But I must point out that we could not have expected otherwise.

Any time transparency and accountability are eliminated, horrific abuses such as those that finally came to light are absolutely inevitable. The public should not have been so shocked at the revelations of torture by US soldiers. Every soldier I have spoken with quietly attests to the fact that military training by its very nature turns the enemy into subhumans in the minds of those being trained. The problem with this is that it also subverts the humanity of the soldiers.

The US congress and citizenry basically shrugged at the news nearly four years ago that people were being held completely incommunicado, without charges, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. They were equally unresponsive to subsequent reports of inhumane treatment of the detainees, who still were not charged. Habeas corpus is the most fundamental of rights, yet nobody seemed to mind that it was being tossed aside “in the interests of national security.”

There was barely a blip in the US media when Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Committee of the Red Cross reported in the summer of 2003, while my husband and I were in Iraq and speaking to representatives of these groups who were monitoring prisons, that abuses and torture were going on in that country. So we should not have been the least bit surprised at the revelations of gross torture – and murder – at Abu Ghraib.

Yet this kind of abuse of human rights goes against everything I thought the United States stood for, and I believe most Americans still think the United States stands for. Most Americans have been rather meek and accepting as the Bush administration has made such abuse of human rights and hostility toward international treaties into standard operating procedure.

This administration has answered to nobody – not even the American people, its ostensible boss. It has done business as it sees fit, ignoring solemn international agreements with impunity while demanding compliance by other countries, and putting itself above every law, including many that were crafted by the United States in partnership with other nations. And this administration is not guilty of benign neglect in the mistreatment of its prisoners; it actually institutionalised such abuse and endorsed torture as a preferred protocol.

But what kind of “civilised society” could allow such systemised abuse of human beings? What kind of society does the United States want to be? This abhorrent, arrogant abuse of power must be stopped. There is no moral or ethical justification for it. We ourselves are made victims when our government so incapacitates us with terror that we lose our own decency and compassion. We cannot allow such blind, incoherent fear and cold-heartedness to take us over. We cannot allow hatred and ignorance to destroy all the good that we claim to have in abundance. We cannot devolve into beasts. Yet that is what happens when we allow ourselves to behave in such subhuman ways.

How can it be that the members of congress of the United States do not have the most basic, decent humanity to realise that the abuse our military personnel have perpetrated against prisoners is an abomination when it is carried out on anyone, including “other” (non-US) people? At the very least US lawmakers can justify eliminating such practices because they put their “own” soldiers and citizens in harm’s way. Ignoring the carefully conceived Geneva Conventions and ducking possibly legitimate accusations of war crimes is the kind of behaviour that the USA would normally point to as an indication of tyranny under someone else’s rule. And without a doubt the US administration’s disdain and disregard for international treaties that protect prisoners of war places captured US soldiers and civilians in both current and future wars at much greater risk: if we don’t protect their human rights and dignity, why should they give a damn about ours?

Also by Maura Stephens in openDemocracy:

“Broken links in Iraq” (August 2005)

“The heart of Burma” (September 2005)

No defence

The man at the top of this story is Hajji Ali, whose image is in the photos we’ve all seen by now of a hooded prisoner standing on a box attached to electrocution wires. He insists that he is innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever, and he believes that “99% of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib” with him are also innocent of any connection to attacks against US military personnel. He is now telling his story and working to help other abused prisoners.

His story took place in Baghdad, at the time a protectorate of the United States, but it could just as easily have happened in Miami, Florida, or Hoboken, New Jersey, or Flagstaff, Arizona. Similar stories do happen daily in US prisons, where nobody suffers consequences for abusing inmates.

Torturers torture because they can, because they see nothing wrong with it. Just like abusive men find nothing wrong with beating their women and children. Torture is tolerated because the majority of US society seems to believe, like the reader who “doesn’t really have much of a problem with the ‘torture’”, that such actions are acceptable and necessary to weed out the “evil ones.”

The United States is being ruled by a man who believes that he is on a divine mission, and he cannot be held accountable to anyone. Apparently the abuse and torture of any number of innocents is a forgivable offence in the eyes of his God and the God of his fellow believers.

------------------------------

Special thanks to Hajji Ali and to Jon Brown and Raid Abdul-Jabar for their reporting.

Please visit and sign up for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center's Anti-Torture Campaign


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.