The torture-house run by Gina Haspel in 2002 was code-named “Cat’s Eye” (Adam Goldman, New York Times, March 13, 2018), evoking images of the Orwellian poster that haunted Winston Smith in 1984 (“Big Brother is Watching You”) and of the Ministry of Love and Room 101. At this site (before Haspel ran the prison), a Qaeda suspect by the name of Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times. A medical officer recorded the beginning sessions of Zubaydah’s “water-cure”:
“The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling [slamming prisoner against wall], and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far…. He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.[i]
A common thread in discussions of “enhanced interrogations” by our politicians is the widespread assumption that the times after 9/11 were a “dark period” in our history, an aberration, an exception to our usual humane treatment of prisoners of war, political prisoners and even common prisoners.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
From the time of the arrival of the first conquistadores to the shores of the Americas we have been torturing, raping, maiming and killing war combatants to our heart’s content. From the writing of Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) to the publication of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), we have been documenting our barbaric behavior. Here is Brown’s brief account of the death of the Apache chieftain Mangas Coloradas:
They were heating their bayonets in the fire and touching them to Mangas’ feet and legs…. Both sentinels promptly brought down their … muskets to bear on him and fired, nearly at the same time, through his body….
When Mangas fell back, the guards emptied their pistols into his body. A soldier took his scalp, another cut off his head and boiled the flesh away so that he could sell the skull to a phrenologist in the East.[ii]
In 1902 William Howard Taft, head of the US Commission charged with organizing a civilian government in the Philippines after the end of the Spanish American War, testified before the Senate Committee on the Philippines. More honest and candid than our present government officials, Taft acknowledged the routine use of torture in the suppression of the Filipino nationalist insurgency:
That cruelties have been inflicted; that people have been shot when they ought not to have been; that there have been individual instances of water cure, that torture which I believe involves pouring water down the throat so that the man swells and gets the impression that he is going to be suffocated and then tells what he knows, which was a frequent treatment under the Spaniards, I am told—all these things are true.[iii]
During the 20th century, the United States maintained and supported a number of bloody dictators throughout the Americas (Somoza in Nicaragua, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Batista in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile). During the Cold War, an entire generation of torturers was trained to carry out US policy in Latin America (see Costa-Gavras’ film State of Siege from 1972). Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter has left a nightmarish account of US imperial rule:
The Americans have been exporting torture for years. They have been teaching torture techniques to military representatives of various dictatorships at Fort Benning in Georgia for a very long time. Fort Benning was called the School of the Americas but was actually known as the “school of torture.” They practice it themselves at home, in the vast gulag of prisons across the United States, where over two million people are held in custody, the majority black. Restraint chairs, where convicts are strapped and left naked in their own urine and excrement for days, the use of gas and stun guns, the random brutality, the systematic rape and abuse of young men and women—all of these things and more an affront to human dignity—are common practice…. That is the nature of the beast.[iv]
The period of torture of suspected enemy combatants after 9/11 was simply the latest chapter in a history of bloody and cruel practices that continue unabated in our days. Torturers like Gina Haspel are merely loyal servants of the beast—members of its “water detail.”
But we are worshippers of the beast. In our Christian faith we have an example that teaches us that torture victims immediately gain moral superiority over their torturers. But we are too busy buying and selling, flouting the mark of the beast on our foreheads, and the “number of his name” (KJV, Rev 13:17).
What a country! What a world!
[i] US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” December 13, 2012; April 3, 2014; December 3, 2014.
[ii] Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), 199.
[iii] Paul Kramer, “The Water Cure,” in The New Yorker, February 25, 2008.
[iv] Harold Pinter, “Iraq Debate, Imperial War Museum” in Death etc. (New York: Grove Press, 2005), 80.