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John Chuckman: Torture And White Phosphorus

Torture And White Phosphorus

By John Chuckman
December 10, 2005

"The captured terrorists of the 21st century do not fit easily into traditional systems of criminal or military justice, which were designed for different needs. We have to adapt."
- Condoleezza Rice

I've previously charged Condoleezza Rice with having an appalling ignorance of history. I don't mean the kind of knowledge - dates of battles, names and terms of treaties, etc. - that earns a good grade on an exam. We know Condoleezza got good grades in school. No, I mean a deeper understanding of the economic, social, and moral forces of history and of the irrepressible role of truth despite the countless attempts to silence it.

Guerilla warfare, terrorism, and fanatical causes are not new to the 21st century, they are as old as human society, and governments have had many ways of dealing with them. This goes so far as governments changing around those regarded as terrorists and heroes, according to the needs of the time, much the way victors in a war define who were the good guys and bad guys.

One thing history surely does tell us is that nothing is more dangerous than Condeleezza's tendency to speak in sweeping, virtually meaningless generalizations about the people she regards as foes. Every war of aggression, every wave of state terror, every deadly fanatical cause has used just such terms. People are described with de-humanized slogans, making them easy to hate and abuse. We should all go on a personal terror alert when powerful figures talk this way.

The assertion of a special case or status in the current situation is utterly dishonest. It is more than dishonest: it is a deliberately constructed logical fallacy calculated to elicit the idea of special measures from listeners. It is America's special measures that Condoleezza went to Europe to defend.

The special measures of concern are secret prison camps and torture. Condoleezza's basic approach at the start of her trip was to assert that the United States doesn't do anything nasty or underhanded while at the same time just telling everyone to mind their own business. That didn't get her very far, and she had to adjust her words in the face of incredulity, frustration, and anger.

Then Condoleezza demonstrated a remarkable ability to turn around American policy or at least to seem to be doing so. In one day, she went from firmly stating that Americans abroad were exempt from certain international commitments of the United States in treating prisoners to saying they were bound. European leaders were publicly contented with what seemed a concession, but the truth is they were just not prepared to stand up to threats Condoleezza whispered in their ears.

"The United States has not transported anyone and will not transport anyone to a country where we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."
- Condoleezza Rice

I wonder then what could have been happening then when a German citizen was kidnapped in Macedonia about two years ago, drugged, flown to Afghanistan, kept for five months, tortured, and finally left abandoned in some bleak place in Bosnia when his American Gestapo captors apparently learned they had made a mistake?

I wonder what was going on when a Canadian citizen whose plane made a stopover in the U.S. was removed, imprisoned, and denied his rights? He happened to be a dual citizen with the country of his birth, Syria, so instead of sending him where his wife, children, and home were in Canada and where he repeatedly asked to be returned, he was deported to Syria for a year of (totally predictable) brutal imprisonment and torture.

There are many such cases known, and they must be regarded as more than administrative glitches. What are all those mysterious places in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Romania, Poland, and as far away as Diego Garcia, now run by American crew-cut thugs and to which there is no access? What are all the many hundreds of flights recorded by dedicated amateur plane spotters and checked back to registration? Are we to believe the US is not running a huge, illegal secret prison and torture system?

How could such an enterprise possibly conform to international agreements and treaties? Are there really thousands of people looking for free trips in shackles to nowhere courtesy of the CIA? Thousands ready to give up all rights and years of their lives voluntarily to satisfy the urges of American paranoia? Of course not, to ask the question is to know the answer.

I don't want to quibble about the meaning of torture. The CIA term "enhanced interrogation technique" is straight out of the horrors described in Orwell's Politics and the English Language. If, as one wag put it, it isn't torture, then why not use it on Cheney in getting to root of current scandals in Washington? Of course, it's torture.

So simple a thing as deprivation of sleep can reduce a healthy human being to delusions in a short time. One of Israel's favorite tortures has been to keep captives' heads in a large hood, shaking them vigorously while their heads bob and bounce around inside the hood, making them dizzy and anxious, perhaps feeling their necks might be snapped. Sounds like no big deal compared to pulling out finger nails? Try it on your kids for a week or two. The CIA is known to use "waterboarding," submerging a victim strapped to a board in just enough water to cause him to gulp, gurgle and gasp, panicking him into thinking he is being drown, over and over.

Nothing, I repeat nothing, the United States thinks it is protecting itself from is worth this descent into moral hell.

"The United States will use every lawful weapon to defeat terrorists"
- Condoleezza Rice

That statement is a platitude, useful only to stir blood at a Fourth of July speech in Muncie, Indiana. It tells us nothing. It is inherently evasive because the lawfulness of tactics being used is the very issue in question.

We all recall with a frown or a grimace Bill Clinton's playing with truth when he testified, "It depends on what you mean by the word is"? Although his statement concerned a relatively trivial matter, it is actually representative of something far greater and more sinister that has grown to become an integral part of American political culture. American politicians and their creatures like Condoleezza simply have become expert in the art of giving an interview or a speech and avoiding saying almost anything meaningful. Artful lying, subtle avoidance, and giving an answer different than the question asked have become a basic set of political job skills.

Members of the American government, more and more, resemble those sleazy well-prepared witnesses on the stand who just can't recall point after point or a cheap lawyers who rephrases a statement to a similar-sounding one and assure you, yes you have his word on that.

The string of lies and misrepresentations leading up to the invasion of Iraq alone are enough, in the words of Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, "to make the Testament leap from her [the witness's] hand."

Only recently, after a year of denials about using napalm at Fallujah, despite the words of witnesses and the charred bodies of victims, we learn that white phosphorus was used. Indeed, Marines are trained to use white phosphorus to drive people out to places where they can shoot them, only the people are supposed to be soldiers, not civilians. Now, I am not sure people whose flesh is roasted to bubbling globs care whether the Marines used napalm or white phosphorus doing it.

But on such fine distinctions and guarded answers stands the word of the United States today. "No, Sir, I don't understand how those good folks got roasted, but I can assure you we did not use napalm." So when Condoleezza asserts, as she did a while back on a trip to Canada, that "the word of the United States is as good as gold," you just have to smile bitterly.


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