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We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

One of the mysteries of American public morality is why there is so little public outcry about the Bush Administration’s support for torture.
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One of the mysteries of American public morality is why there is so little public outcry about the Bush Administration’s support for torture. It’s not as if this is a big secret. Each week brings a fresh revelation about U.S. treatment of prisoners in violation of the Geneva conventions. On November 2nd, the Washington Post reported that alleged members of Al Qaeda are being held in “black sites,” a CIA prison system in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Thailand, and Eastern European countries. These facilities are kept secret so that they won’t come under the scrutiny of Congress, the Red Cross, or other international agencies; an arrangement that permits the CIA to hold suspects for as long as they want, “off the books,” and use whatever techniques they feel are necessary.

Apparently, Americans ignore the irony that we overthrew Saddam Hussein to free Iraqis from his brutality and, now, are substituting our own.

George W. Bush made the decision to ignore the Geneva Conventions the night of September 11th; Richard Clarke quoted him, “We are at war…any barriers in your way, they’re gone…I don’t care what the international lawyers say.” The President signed a memo on February 7, 2002, declaring that the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war did not apply to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. (It is incongruous that America’s leader in the war on terror is “Christian” George Bush. The ethics of Jesus of Nazareth do not condone abuse such as torture. His Golden Rule is, “Treat people in ways that you want them to treat you.”)

Immediately, misconduct began in Afghanistan. On October 10, 2001, the U.S. began dropping cluster bombs on civilian targets, followed by the use of “bunker-busters”, which had a similar, savage impact. When the Taliban fell, U.S. forces and their Northern Alliance allies, mostly mercenaries, took about 8000 prisoners; of these, 5000 “disappeared.” A BBC documentary ( reported that the majority suffocated during transportation in freight containers and were buried near Sheberghan prison. Thousands of Afghani suspects have been detained, without legal recourse, and, in most cases, tortured.

Three forms of abuse take place in Iraq. Military assaults often feature weapons designed to inflict casualties on civilians, including cluster bombs, napalm, and ordinance encased in depleted uranium ( Despite the negative publicity surrounding Abu Gharaib, suspects continue to be routinely tortured in military prisons. Iraqi prisoners are referred to as “Persons Under Control” (PUCs). The November 3rd edition of the New York Review contains an article, “Torture in Iraq,” from Human Rights Watch (, which graphically detailed this abuse.

“Everyone in camp knew that if you wanted to work out your frustration you show up at the PUC tent…One day a sergeant shows up and tells a PUC to grab a pole. He told him to bend over and broke the guy’s leg with a mini Louisville Slugger that was a metal bat. He was the [expletive] cook.”

A January 4, 2005, Newsweek article reported that the U.S. was considering death squads as a strategy to combat the insurgency. Recent evidence suggests that this policy has been put into effect ( Since the “transitional” government took over in April, more than 500 Iraqi corpses bearing evidence of torture have been counted. (The November edition of “Mother Jones” has an article about Steven Vincent who was killed investigating Basra death squads.)

While a properly conducted war on terror is a vital component of American security, such an effort does not justify abuse by U.S. forces: Torture is illegal under our law and under international treaties that we signed. Furthermore, torture is not a reliable method of obtaining information; many intelligence officers argue that torture produces unreliable results, as victims will say anything to alleviate their pain. Torture punishes the innocent as well as the guilty; U.S. authorities acknowledge that the majority of tortured prisoners, whether in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, or Iraq will eventually be released, charged with no crime. Finally, torture is immoral; it takes the philosophy of “the ends justify the means” to an extreme with no limits – more than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody. Torture is an aggressive, moral cancer.

When the Iraq war began on March 20, 2003, there were many arguments against the invasion. None of the opponents anticipated that the eventual, compelling argument would be the loss of America’s soul: that by occupying Iraq we would take on the attributes of Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime; that 30 months later Americans would be emulating the evil dictator, torturing Iraqis in the same facilities once used by Baathist thugs; that U.S. soldiers would be as feared by Iraqi civilians as were Hussein’s henchman.

Near the end of the Vietnam-era, the comic-strip character, Pogo, spoke words as applicable now, as they were then, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”