Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Nation Of Torturers

Spencer Ackerman proposes an experiment:
Take all the shelving out of a typical filing cabinet. (My own office cabinet happens to be slightly smaller than the cell described here.) Now lock yourself in it for two days. You may notice you can neither stand up straight nor lie down, and crouching gets really uncomfortable extremely fast.
He's referencing a report from what the New York Times rather optimistically identifies as the "last" inquiry into the abuse of prisoners by American troops.
General Formica found that in the third case at a Special Operations outpost, near Tikrit, in April and May 2004, three detainees were held in cells 4 feet high, 4 feet long and 20 inches wide, except to use the bathroom, to be washed or to be interrogated. He concluded that two days in such confinement "would be reasonable; five to seven days would not." Two of the detainees were held for seven days; one for two days, General Formica concluded.
You might have missed the article. There have been so many outrages that they begin to blur together after a while: beatings, "waterboarding," sodomy with objects, broken kneecaps, relatives as hostages, dog attacks, extended sleep deprivation, food deprivation, extended restraint, electric shocks, outright murder. None of the recent revelations have sparked the kind of outcry that Abu Ghraib did. Americans seem to have settled - numb with horror or belligerently defensive, depending on our individual moral compasses - into the knowledge that we are a nation that tortures defenseless prisoners.

Conducting Spencer Ackerman's experiment would probably do us all a great deal of good.

As I prepared to write this post, I looked back through my archives to find the posts I'd written about Abu Ghraib, in April and May of 2004. From the first, I was pretty sure that the abuse that was coming to light would not turn out to be the work of a few sociopathic "bad apples," entirely divorced from military policies and directives from the Administration. But I don't think I could have imagined, then, that two years later the Administration would defy Congress in claiming that the President has the unrestricted right to authorize torture, and that the Army field manual would be rewritten to omit Geneva Convention provisions forbidding Abu Ghraib-style abuses.

I'm not sure anyone outside the Pentagon could have imagined it, actually. The notoriously rabid conservatives at the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed page apparently didn't, even as they sneered at and belittled the victims of Abu Ghraib. Here's a quote from a May 2004 WSJ editorial:
Enemy propaganda notwithstanding, this underscores the fundamental difference between America and totalitarian regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Evil is part of human nature, and Americans are as susceptible to it as anyone else. But in a civilized country like ours, the state uses its power to prevent and punish brutality.
In 2004, what made us civilized was that our soldiers only abused prisoners behind the government's back, and were then lectured sternly for it. What "underscores the fundamental difference between America and totalitarian regimes" in 2006, now that we know that we literally took over Saddam Hussein's torture chamber and made it our own? I'm afraid we'll be waiting quite a while for our answer.