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Alfred McCoy: Perfecting Illegality

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Once the Cold War ended in 1990, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, which banned the infliction of "severe" psychological and physical pain. The CIA ended its torture training in the Third World, and the Defense Department recalled Latin American counterinsurgency manuals that contained instructions for using harsh interrogation techniques. On the surface, then, Washington had resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.

But when President Bill Clinton sent the U.N. Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language (drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration) that contained diplomatic "reservations."  In effect, these addenda accepted the banning of physical abuse, but exempted psychological torture.

A year later, when the Clinton administration launched its covert campaign against al-Qaeda, the CIA avoided direct involvement in human rights violations by sending 70 terror suspects to allied nations notorious for physical torture.  This practice, called "extraordinary rendition," had supposedly been banned by the U.N. convention and so a new contradiction between Washington's human rights principles and its practices was buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Normalizing Torture

Right after his first public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his White House staff expansive secret orders for the use of harsh interrogation, adding, "I don't care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass."

Soon after, the CIA began opening "black sites" that would in the coming years stretch from Thailand to Poland.  It also leased a fleet of executive jets for the rendition of detained terrorist suspects to allied nations, and revived psychological tortures abandoned since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the agency hired former Air Force psychologists to reverse engineer SERE training techniques, flipping them from defense to offense and thereby creating the psychological tortures that would henceforth travel far under the euphemistic label "enhanced interrogation techniques."

In a parallel move in late 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed General Geoffrey Miller to head the new prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, and gave him broad authority to develop a total three-phase attack on the sensory receptors, cultural identity, and individual psyches of his new prisoners. After General Miller visited Abu Ghraib prison in September 2003, the U.S. commander for Iraq issued orders for the use of psychological torture in U.S. prisons in that country, including sensory disorientation, self-inflicted pain, and a recent innovation, cultural humiliation through exposure to dogs (which American believed would be psychologically devastating for Arabs). It is no accident that Private Lynndie England, a military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, was famously photographed leading a naked Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.

Just two months after CBS News broadcast those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib in April 2004, 35% of Americans polled still felt torture was acceptable. Why were so many tolerant of torture?

One partial explanation would be that, in the years after 9/11, the mass media filled screens large and small across America with enticing images of abuse. Amid this torrent of torture simulations, two media icons served to normalize abuse for many Americans -- the fantasy of the "ticking time bomb scenario" and the fictional hero of the Fox Television show "24," counterterror agent Jack Bauer.

In the months after 9/11, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz launched a multimedia campaign arguing that torture would be necessary in the event U.S. intelligence agents discovered that a terrorist had planted a ticking nuclear bomb in New York's Times Square. Although this scenario was a fantasy whose sole foundation was an obscure academic philosophy article published back in 1973, such ticking bombs soon enough became a media trope and a persuasive reality for many Americans -- particularly thanks to "24," every segment of which began with an oversized clock ticking menacingly.

In 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, the show portrayed agent Jack Bauer's recourse to abuse as timely, effective, and often seductive. By its last broadcast in May 2010, the simple invocation of agent Bauer's name had become a persuasive argument for torture used by everyone from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to ex-President Bill Clinton.

While campaigning for his wife Hillary in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton typically cited "24" as a justification for allowing CIA agents, acting outside the law, to torture in extreme emergencies. "When Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences," Clinton told Meet the Press, "it always seems to work better."

Impunity in America

Such a normalization of "enhanced interrogation techniques" created public support for an impunity achieved by immunizing all those culpable of crimes of torture. During President Obama's first two years in office, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz made dozens of television appearances accusing his administration of weakening America's security by investigating CIA interrogators who had used such techniques under Bush.

Ironically, Obama's assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 provided an opening for neoconservatives to move the nation toward impunity. Forming an a cappella media chorus, former Bush administration officials appeared on television to claim, without any factual basis, that torture had somehow led the Navy SEALs to Bin Laden. Within weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to any investigation of harsh CIA interrogations and to the possibility of bringing any of the CIA torturers to court.  (Consider it striking, then, that the only "torture" case brought to court by the administration involved a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, who had leaked the names of some torturers.)

Starting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the country took the next step toward full impunity via a radical rewriting of the past. In a memoir published on August 30, 2011, Dick Cheney claimed the CIA's use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on an al-Qaeda leader named Abu Zubaydah had turned this hardened terrorist into a "fount of information" and saved "thousands of lives."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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