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Imperialist Ball and Chain

August 11, 2004


June 1, 2004

The media is full of revelations lately about torture and gratuitous treatment of prisoners by U.S. occupation forces in the U.S. Gulag Archipelago’s newest outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Virtually every new story pushes the beginning of the brutality farther back and expands the scope of its victimization. It is now apparent that from the time the U.S. proxy forces –accompanied by U.S. ‘special’ forces –began taking turf –and prisoners –from the Taliban in Afghanistan and even before the U.S. army entered Baghdad, U.S. captives were carried viciously. ‘Liberation’ for prisoners of the conquerors meant humiliation, long periods chained in “stress” positions, subject to heat, cold, noise, hunger, sleep deprivation, beating, sexual assault, dog bites and death. Further stories will undoubtedly expose more, more perverse and more severe use of torture as an instrument of U.S. policy in the name of “freedom and democracy.” The mechanisms and consequences of the policy have not and will not be made so apparent.

The initial spin on the torture story was that it was just “a few bad apples” among the low level national guard (read: not real) soldiers only recently succumbing to the pressures of war. Their immediate officers were only culpable to the extent of not knowing about it, a peccadillo warranting only reprimands. Higher officers and civilian officials were not culpable at all. But that spin has become another casualty of war as the scandal spins out of control. Not just “a few bad apples” but military police and intelligence units from California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and elsewhere, in addition to the Maryland unit whose torture photos front the scandal, have now been revealed as participants. And denials, buck passing and damage control notwithstanding, various intelligence agencies and upper echelon officers and officials, both military and “civilian” have been exposed as setting the conditions for and instigating the widespread use of torture, knowing about it, and at least condoning it.

The Red Cross has complained about the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq since at least last fall, and longer about Afghanistan. As the accommodation that allows it entrée into various prisons requires, it notifies and seeks reforms through the governments operating the prisons. Even the mainstream press has reported that the Red Cross has done so voluminously that even the highest and most removed officials claims that they didn’t know at all lack credibility. The U.S. army’s own investigations –and not just those launched after torture erupted in to public consciousness –greatly expand the length and breadth of terrorism of prisoners. And that is in addition to the testimony now beginning to emerge of the few soldiers to refuse and resist the abuse and that of the victims themselves.

The incessant pressure to at least appear to be getting “intelligence” from captives, most of whom have none to give and some of whom have strong reasons for not giving it, and U.S. agencies’ response to that pressure further betray the fact that torture is resurgent as official U.S. policy. Many circumstances illustrate that fact: the construction of a “law free” prison in Guantanamo Bay; the loosening of CIA’s and FBI’s interrogation rules; secret and incommunicado prisons; “jurisdiction shopping” for torture friendly countries in which to hold “detainees” for interrogation; and the dispatch of Guantanamo Bay’s commanding general to Iraq to improve intelligence gathering not long before the current crop of abuses got rolling, for example. But a policy of torture cannot be openly acknowledged –verily, it must be denied. And such a policy requires the proverbial boots on the ground to implement. The two requirements are mutually exclusive unless the “boots” can be set up to take the beef for the policy.

To do that, the ruling class needs to induce largely young, working class soldiers –who are, for the most part, decent human beings frequently searching only for a way out of poverty and lives limited otherwise by the economic, social, and political tides of late capitalism –to commit anti-human atrocities, to terrorize in the name of fighting terrorism. It must do so without leaving a public trail of encouraging and condoning such behaviour, or a paper trail of written orders, field manuals or requisitions of tools of torture, prisoner records, etc. And it must take the plan and practice of self-executing –i.e. not require visible command and control. The now obviously wide scale of torture and absence of “smoking guns” incriminating policy level officials or officers not only show that the ruling class is doing this, but that it is succeeding at it.

People not pathological do not easily commit atrocities against other people, especially up close and personal. To get them to do so requires that their “people” status be magnified and that of their victims be withdrawn. The military does this by recruiting people who are socially and economically isolated and insecure to some degree and instilling in them a belief that they are valued members of a community and of a team at least, and more like a mythological family. Who has not heard the bombastic and ubiquitous radio ads hawking the military as “ YOUR team” (HU-AH!) in which you can be your best (HU-AH!), all you can be (HU-AH!), a leader (HU-AH!), an army in the company of heroes, etc.

Intensive indoctrination of recruits (ironically often involving physical “stress”) convinces them that they are part of a great institution (Army, Navy, America, etc), that they are effective, potent, skilled, valuable to a tight knit group of comrades within the institution with whom they share more than is possible than with people outside the gang –oops! institution –as well as reciprocal loyalty impliedly to the death (for what else is the military about?). Identity is thus inculcated with the organization, with its goals, and fellow members that transcends previous socialization and even former “by the book” rules.

At the same time, the enemy must be diminished, depreciated, disparaged and demonized. The people even possibly on enemy status must be reduced to non-persons, to unlawful combatants, creatures of no or evil values, rag heads, useless eaters. They must be changed from workers and parents and people protecting home and hearth from greedy domestic and imperialist exploiters and oppressors into terrorists, dead enders, remnants of defected and discredited dictatorship, enemies of freedom and democracy and inherently vicious and violent. Beyond legitimizing the “shock and awe” of modern techno-war, that makes it okay to kick in people’s doors in the dead of night, brutalize and threaten them, ransack their meager and already war ravaged homes, drag thousands of them off to oppressive dungeons. And it makes it okay to torture them. They are, after all, not real people like good Amerikans, might harbour ill intent towards fellow Amerikans, and are dangerous because they are cunning, wily and sly.

With this conditioning and the muddy chain of command over detention operations, unwritten extortions about the importance of“intelligence” and that the “scum bag” prisoners must be “prepared” for interrogation –physically and emotionally weakened to blackmail with photos of their humiliation –find fertile psycho ground. That this pressure is applied in isolation from the larger society — friends, family, outside involvement –impedes the reality check of social context and conscience. That the pressure comes from superiors and cogniscenti within the organization’s shadowy byways, people “in the know,” privy to secrets of the interrogation room, closer to the inner circle of the gang –organization, I mean! –makes acceding to it attractive. The implication that much worse than what the rank-and-file is being asked to perform is occurring elsewhere in the system that makes the following program acceptable. The dark concrete corners of small hours dungeons and faceless, transient, powerless, isolated sub-human prisoners held against real and imagined needs of the organization makes the opportunity to implement illegal policy.

Throw into the mixture a few “old hands” with the requisite inclinations from the military and civilian police and prison apparatus and the stage is set for scenes like those in the torture scandal pictures. The main movers were former civilian prison guards. Junior guards are further pressured to “do the needful” because they confuse the military and social authority of such seemingly superior participants. They do not want to be seen as unwilling to do the right thing by their organization or comrades or as weak or lame. Being seen thusly is uncomfortable in any situation and especially the relative isolation of a military unit in a foreign occupation. In a war zone, the consequence of resisting peer pressure can be deadly.

Seeing that torturers are made and not born does not absolve those who were made from the responsibility of their actions; it is merely ameliorative. Most soldiers do not and did not succumb to pressures to commit atrocities. Some demanded specific written orders to commit torture, perhaps recognizing they would not be forthcoming. Others undoubtedly acted directly against the abuses. Still other reported the abuses, which went nowhere within the military; it was not until the whistleblower’s photographs became public that the scandal broke. He said the action was compelled because what the pictures showed was “unchristian.” This rejection of torture shows that education and social belief systems are armor –not perfect, but some protection– against the psychological conditioning that allows torturers to be made. Understanding that they are made, however, shows it is the ruling class that bears the lion’s share of responsibility through its deliberate creation of a plausibly deniable policy of torture. Its manipulations took advantage of the system’s failure of socialization that denied the weak and ignorant the intellectual tools to avoid being duped into atrocious behavior. The existence of such scapegoats, whatever their capability, does not absolve the ruling class of this responsibility –and magnifies it rather than ameliorates it.

These dynamics underlying the torture scandal and more broadly, making the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations so draconian have their analogue in the apparatus of repression. Police agencies create the same increasingly exclusive identification using the same psycho-conditioning tactics the military used to create its torturers. These agencies of repression have become authoritarian structures that increasingly see themselves as “the thin blue line” outside which everyone is a potential “perp,” comparable to the military’s “green line” in Iraq, outside of which everyone is a potential terrorist. Police hierarchies demand and assume that ever greater powers to spy on (ie. gather “intelligence”), search and impose limitations on and imprison the very people they are supposed to protect, and treat their rights to resist these encroachments as impediments to “fighting crime.” The military similarly devolved from bringing Iraqis and Afghanis “freedom and democracy” to curtailing them as impediments to fighting terrorism. The police apparatus increasingly divorces itself from the society it is supposed to protect and serve by skewing that mission into control and domination, much as the military has switched from “liberation” and reconstruction to occupation and repression.

Moreover, like the military’s discredited spin on the torture scandal, police atrocities are always treated as the depreciations of “a few bad apples.” Never are they reported, let alone explored, in the context of stemming from flawed policies, attitudes and institutional cultures that allow their endless repetition. Unjustified police killings. Tortures of suspects for information and of prisoners just because they are “them” to the police “us.” Falsification of evidence. “Testilying.” Framing defendants. Militaristic repression of popular demonstrations. Confiscation, a.k.a. forfeiture. Brutality. Overreaction. Excessive force. Corruption. Ad nauseam. And a “blue wall of silence” to protect it all. Across the country, instances of these crimes occur repeatedly and frequently, but are denied, downplayed, described as reasonable or at least not improper, or written off as the excesses of “a few bad apples.” And even where some bad-apple status is acknowledged, the agents of repression involved are not held accountable to nearly the same extent as non agents are in similar circumstance, if at all, nor is any culpability assigned to their agencies.

In this light, the danger represented by the U.S. policy of torture and the attendant mendacity exposed in far off places is manifest. In the current atmosphere, it is politically incorrect to criticize the military or its denizens –except for a few lowly “bad apples” who will be sacrificed on the altar of public relations. And even they have defenders –verily more than do the soldiers who did the right thing. Without such criticism to the point of revulsion, however, the torture policy and the context in which it can be largely okay will be returned to the home front; indeed, it is already happening. That will coarsen the society by depreciating personal and social liberties and making violations of them seem less significant or legitimate defense of homeland security instead of violations.

People will leave the military, where such repressive tactics will move laterally beyond the war zones, if not rooted out, for police and prison and other social administrative jobs in the U.S. Many police and prison employees are already in the military as reservists, meaning the legacy of the torture policy will find its way into the domestic apparatus even sooner. And people without military experience will see the message, too. Who will tell them what is okay for a suspected terrorist or anyone who might know anything about one in Iraq is not okay for a suspect in Indiana –or that a terrorist (or anyone who might know anything about one) is worse than a suspected killer, rapist, robber, dope fiend, traffic scofflaw, leash law violator (or anyone who might know anything about one)? Unless they know–and we know– that torture and repression are anathema to freedom and democracy, the freedom and democracy the military and civilian contractor torturers bring back is likely to resemble that they left in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bill Dunne (10916-086)
USP Big Sandy
P.O. Box 2068
Inez, KY
USA 41224
[address updated April 2010]

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