The shocking images of U.S. military personnel torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison now have retaliation images of an al Qaeda video showing the beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American communications adventurer –a war and Bush supporter who helped set up electronics equipment at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.
The Pentagon has tried to sanitize the terminology describing events at Abu Ghraib prison as “isolated incidents” of individual “misconduct” resulting in prisoner “mistreatment.” But to al Qaeda leaders, the torture of Iraqis at the hands of the U.S. military is a “picture of dishonor and the news of Satanic assault on the people of Islamic men and women," according to CNN reports.
Official statements claiming ignorance of Abu Ghraib tortures are hardly credible. Consider two widely published photographs. First is the young American woman in casual military attire, cigarette hanging from her mouth, pointing scornfully at a hooded, otherwise naked Iraqi prisoner’s genitals; and second, a naked Iraqi man in a hallway in front of a prison cell, hands clasped behind his neck, a panicked look on his face as angry dogs closing in on the defenseless prisoner menacingly snap at his genitals while savagely pulling on the leashes held by American soldiers.
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld admitted that there are worse pictures yet to come, but already key questions must be asked: Who taught American soldiers to think that shameless cruelty would advance the cause of freedom and democracy? Why did they deem it praiseworthy to pose for cameras while degrading the prisoners? Why was it patriotic –especially to the mind behind the camera– to document this for posterity?
Berg’s captors, in turn, released the videotape of his beheading echoing Rumsfeld: “…God willing, the tough days are still to come.” Yet, disgusting as Berg’s beheading is, his father acknowledged to AP that his son’s decapitation, “is preferable to a long and torturous death….” “You and your soldiers,” his captors warned, “will regret the day that you touched the ground of Iraq.”
Consider also the legal framework. Torture is intentional conduct that that does not arise from lawful sanctions and inflicts severe pain or suffering. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved under U.S. auspices by the United Nations General Assembly, established that, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
True, the Universal Declaration did not do away with torture. In fact, William R. Polk, a former Kennedy administration policy advisor for the Middle East has recognized continued torture as common practice by the U.S. Special Forces in Viet Nam, by the French in Algeria, by Israeli security forces against Palestinians, and elsewhere. But despite state terrorism’s recurrence, torture has been universally condemned by international human rights law.
In 1984, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Torture, without opposition. The United States ratified it a decade later, and Bill Clinton signed executing legislation in 1998 making the treaty’s prohibition of torture and “rendition” –seizing suspects and delivering them to third countries that practice torture– mandatory and binding on all government officials.
Detailed State Department regulations implementing the Convention’s framework under domestic and international law greatly weaken any claim of plausible deniability in this war’s Pentagon chain of command. Moreover, a U.S. diplomat told the Washington Post in 2002 that, after 9-11, rendition has been fairly common. “It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can’t do on U.S. soil,” he said. In November 2003, a senior U.S. intelligence official told the Washington Post that, since 9-11, rendition activities “have been very productive.” And another U.S. official reportedly said: “We don’t kick the **** out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the **** out of them.”
Thus Abu Ghraib has rendered rendition unnecessary. The U.S. need not hand suspects over to a third party for torture outside of U.S. soil. U.S. authorities now torture Iraqis on their own soil!
American torture and abuses at Abu Ghraib on television in the Arab and Muslim world feed anti-American resentment. As Jim Walsh, an international security expert at Harvard University told CNN, “They're seizing that opportunity … standing up to the Americans, and they hope … to try to bring more recruits, more money, more political support for their cause.”
Torture’s effectiveness may be questionable, yet it flourishes in circumstances that force human nature towards cruelty. Medical and psychiatric studies report that the confrontation of absolute weakness with absolute power generates violence. As Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz explained by analogy, animals endowed by nature with a powerful system –like a lion’s teeth and claws– are presumably more likely to exercise self control after defeating one of its kind than those not endowed by evolution with ostensibly lethal power –like the dove. Lorenz observed that the victorious lion refrains from killing his defeated adversary, while the dove –that symbol of peace– is more likely to torture a wounded adversary to death!
Today, Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to repudiate U.S. human rights violations, support peace, and demand the return of Puerto Rican National Guard and Reserve units when Senate Concurrent Resolution 105, introduced last Monday by Puerto Rican Independence Party senator Fernando Martín comes up for a vote.
Will colonial leaders submit to abuse like a dying dove? Or will they at least roar in moral outrage like the wounded lion?