Stalin’s Russia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and George W. Bush’s America

The title of this post refers to three states: Russia (in the Stalin era), Iraq (when Saddam Hussein was its President), and the USA (during the second Bush administration).

What do these three states have in common? They all practise torture.

We’re so afraid of disorder we make it into a god
We can only placate with state security laws
Whose church consists of secret courts and wiretaps and shocks
Whose priests hold smoking guns, and whose sign is the double cross.
(Bruce Cockburn, The Gospel of Bondage.)

Cockburn wrote the above song when George H. Bush was President. Back then I thought Cockburn’s anti-American rhetoric was overblown, but the lyric is apt as a prophecy of the post 9/11 situation. Playing on people’s fears to garner support for controversial measures? Check! “Security” the new policy mantra? Check! Secret courts? Wiretaps? Shocks? Check-check-check!

Jewish Atheist has been denouncing the Bush administration’s torture policy for some time. The first time I read about it on his blog, I argued that torture might be justifiable in certain “ticking time-bomb” scenarios, if the state was certain the person being tortured was a terrorist.

In retrospect, the argument was naive. I often debate issues in the abstract (topics that I have no direct experience of — for example, my post on the morality of BDSM). In this instance, I wasn’t aware that the USA was already routinely torturing people:

The incidents of abuse were recorded everywhere, according to the government’s own reports: from Guantanamo Bay to Afghanistan, Baghdad, Basra, Ramadi, and Tikrit and, for all we know, in any number of hidden jails affecting “ghost detainees” kept from the purview of the Red Cross. They were committed by the marines, the army, the military police, Navy SEALs, reservists, special forces, and on and on. …

Some soldiers objected. One West Point graduate testified that he had seen routine beatings of detainees, often for sport. Others spoke of gruesome practices: of the beating to death of an innocent man at a place called the “salt pit” in Afghanistan ….

The quote is from Andrew Sullivan’s book, The Conservative Soul, pp. 167-68. Below is a specific example that I found chilling in its clinical precision. The source is an army interrogator in Afghanistan:

When the Navy SEALs would interrogate people, they were using ice water to lower the body temperature of the prisoner and they would take his rectal temperature in order to make sure that he didn’t die. I didn’t see this, but that’s what many, many prisoners told me who came out of the SEAL compound, and I also heard that from a guard who was working in our detention facility, who was present during an interrogation that the SEAL had done.
(ibid., pp. 168-69)

I’ve read descriptions of waterboarding. I’m sure it’s horrific, but it’s hard for me to imagine the experience. It’s much easier to imagine what it would be like to have icewater poured over my body: for soldiers to induce hypothermia, warm me up again, then repeat the process.

Sullivan performs a public service by repeatedly hammering away at the torture issue on his blog. Here, for example, he refers to an HBO documentary directed by Rory Kennedy:

She began the documentary interested in the psychology of people who torture others. But when torturer after torturer told her that they were following instructions, she pursued an investigation. Some don’t want us to go there. Some want to euphemize it. Some want to describe it as self-actuated. The evidence won’t allow us such easy outs.

This happened. It was policy. Under mercifully more constrained conditions, it still is. And something deep in America has died. We can, I think, discuss whether such a shift away from America’s historic abhorrence of torture is somehow necessary. But before we can debate that, we have to face the truth. America is now a torturing nation.

Cheney, Bush
The most powerful of Sullivan’s posts on this topic recounts the testimony of Tony Lagouranis, an American soldier. Lagouranis’s story was first told at the Chicago Reader. Sullivan provides a lengthy excerpt:

At Fort Gordon, after war broke out, and after the president authorized torture for detainees, Lagouranis began to hear stories of what was now allowed in Afghanistan and Iraq:

“They were talking about using sexual humiliation on these guys, or certain stress positions they had used, or in Afghanistan they would make the guy sit in the snow naked for long periods of time. They said that the detainees that they had were not covered by the Geneva Conventions, which I continued to hear in Iraq too.”

You think Lynndie England came up with this by herself? Really? By the time Lagouranis arrived at Abu Ghraib, the scandal had come to light (Rumsfeld knew about it long before the photographs emerged and had done nothing to stop it) and there was reform. Soon after, however, Lagouranis interrogated a prisoner who said he’d been tortured.

Lagouranis filed a memo. That memo disappeared. Then assigned to Mosul, he got the hang of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policy: his unit used a shipping container as a makeshift torture-cell. …

The treatment they had at our hands was a lot better than they got from the detainee unit. We were getting prisoners who had gotten seriously fucked up. We were getting prisoners from the navy SEALs who were using a lot of the same techniques we were using, except they were a little more harsh. They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk.”

The most remarkable line in the entire piece is:

“We almost never had evidence on anybody.”

The results on these people were intense:

“We went on them hard for almost a month, I think, and these guys were just completely broken down, physically, mentally, by the end of it. One guy walked like a 90-year-old man when he was done. He was an ex-army guy, he was a real healthy young man when he came in, and by the end he was a mess.”

Who imagined this scenario back on September 11, 2001? When I saw the World Trade Centre towers pancake on TV, my immediate response was, “The USA will be at war with someone soon.” And I was completely onside, completely prepared to support the USA in its war against whoever was responsible for 9/11.

I did support the war in Afghanistan, and I still do. Naively, I also gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt when the USA attacked Iraq. But Jean Chretien, then Prime Minister of Canada, stayed out of the war, and in hindsight he made the right decision.

But this … torture? I still find it hard to believe that the USA has joined the roll call of the disreputable nations who practise torture. And all the while, appealing to the Christian right for reliable support — sickening!

You read the Bible in your special ways
You’re fond of quoting certain things it says –
Mouth full of righteousness and wrath from above
But when do we hear about forgiveness and love?

Sometimes you can hear the Spirit whispering to you,
But if God stays silent, what else can you do
Except listen to the silence? if you ever did you’d surely see
That God won’t be reduced to an ideology
Such as the gospel of bondage.
(Cockburn, Gospel of Bondage)

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JewishAtheist
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 15:39:51

    We have become the bad guys. Bush and his administration are monsters.


  2. Michael (a.k.a. Snaars)
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 19:50:12

    I am embarassed, quite frankly, to be a citizen of the USA. Not only because of torture, either.

    I can boycott products at the store. I can choose not to buy clothes made in sweatshops with child slave labor. I can choose to buy free trade coffee and I can choose which charities to give to. But I can’t choose not to pay my taxes, or they’ll come after me and take them.

    It’s almost enough to make me emmigrate to Canada. 😥


  3. Stephen
    Mar 15, 2007 @ 20:46:05

    After Bush’s reelection, there was a huge increase in requests for information about immigrating to Canada. I don’t know how many people actually followed through and left the USA. But it’s clear that many seriously considered it.


  4. Ozymandias
    Mar 16, 2007 @ 13:18:43

    I find myself in a funny position, but not in a humorous way. I am not prepared to say that I accept torture for a variety of reasons and I am definitely not willing to say that we are the bad guys.

    We may be the “guys” who lost our way, but that doesn’t mean that we will always be lost. We still have free speech. We still have the ability to protest and advocate for change and that is a big distinction between us and the “bad guys.”

    I have never been willing to say that the US is always right, we aren’t. But at the same time it is clear by most measures that we are still superior to many other countries.

    What I find so difficult about this is the same as many others. The terrorists do not play by our rules. They do not honor the Geneva Convention nor do they give quarter to civilians.

    The challenge is how to fight them more effectively without descending to their level.

    There is no shame in saying that we are wrong, but as I said earlier it doesn’t always have to be like this.


  5. Stephen
    Mar 16, 2007 @ 14:05:51

    Thanks for the substantive comment.

    I agree with your main point. I also agree with Jewish Atheist: on this matter, torture, the USA has become one of the bad guys. But more broadly? I would rather have George Bush overshadowing my neighborhood than Stalin or Saddam Hussein.

    As for not playing by the rules — I’m not sure where you’re headed with that point. In war, I know that civilians are often killed as “collateral damage” when the intended target is someone genuinely evil. Honestly, I think I could live with that on my conscience if I were a soldier. Ultimately the responsibility for it lies with the terrorist, using civilians as a human shield.

    But this policy cannot be blamed on the terrorists. The USA has certain suspects in custody, completely within its power. It should stay within the Geneva convention in its treatment of those individuals; if not, it is solely responsible for the decision to do otherwise.


  6. Ozymandias
    Mar 16, 2007 @ 21:43:42


    Clearly this is one of those topics that could take months to discuss as there are so many points and “subpoints.”

    I’ll try to clarify. Part of the challenge of this war on terror is that it is not a traditional war of state versus state. The “soldiers” do not wear uniforms that clearly distinguish them from noncombatants.

    In a “traditional” war this would not be the case. It would be “clear” to all who the soldiers were and there would be some sort of effort not to harm the civilian populace.

    Instead the terrorists intentionally target civilians using the most horrifying and barbaric methods they can.

    If we allowed ourselves to fight as they do we would engage them in a fashion far more similar to the way the Russians are fighting in Chechnya, or for that matter how they fight terrorists in general.

    But we do not fight in that manner. So we find ourselves in the position of trying to gather intelligence on enemy strikes in the unorthodox manner we see.

    I still straddle the fence. I cannot condone nor condemn it. I am not sure if I’ll reach a point where it becomes more clear. I have lost people to acts of terror so my restraint has changed.

    What I do think the US needs to do is to clearly define what torture is. This may sound like playing a game of semantics, but I think such a definition will help to clean things up.

    Will this mean that waterboarding becomes legal? Perhaps? Or perhaps it will make it blatantly illegal.

    The point is that I think that the US needs to lead by saying this is what we are willing to do to protect our citizenry. The world may not agree with all of it, but I think that there is a benefit in being “open” about it.

    In any case I need to continue thinking about this. I may still change my mind.

    Nothing like a fence straddler.


  7. Carolyn
    Mar 16, 2007 @ 23:53:35

    I think I’ve always taken a sheepish approach to my US citizenship (at least since Bush began his reign). I think the Bush administration would like to give the impression that the US government is above reproach…that we’re a higher moral authority. Of course, we are only torturing people different from us, right? It would be naive to think that all countries don’t torture detainees, but we’re so damn indignant when accused of it – like it would never occur to us.

    Man…please let this administration be over soon.

    I truly feel that things have gotten so bad during this term that things have GOT to get better with the next president. I would hope that at some point Americans will demand it. I was getting out of a car with some colleagues at lunchtime yesterday and one of them taunted me by calling me an idealist (I was on some sort of rant about how great the world would be if…blahblah). I turned and told her that if nobody has a vision of a better world, how would we aspire to be better?

    I need to stop…I’m on a serious sugar buzz from a half box of Girlscout Samoas. I feel quite sick.


  8. Trackback: Americans must elect a real man in 2008 « Canadian Expatriate
  9. Trackback: Emerging From Babel » Christian faith and the politics of war

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