The Power of Denial

By Tom Engelhardt It’s time to assess what’s happened — in Guantanamo, in Abu Ghraib — for exactly what it is.


By Tom Engelhardt

Recently I wrote once again about the spread of torture as a way of life in the Bush administration’s offshore imperium. I offered my version of a national “self-portrait” for the New Year (American Gothic) and considered the latest torture news, now practically pouring through leaks in the Washington and Pentagon bureaucracy. While I was at it, I made a partial listing of some of the grisly tortures reported in the news as 2004 was ending. As now often happens (especially when right-wing blogs comment — disparagingly, of course — on Tomdispatch material), I received an abusive letter. It called me “disgusting” and a “coward”; wondered whether I wasn’t a “pervert” as well as a godless sot; suggested I get help; complained that I ignored “beheadings” (in a portrait of America) — and suggested, as proof that something was “wrong” with me, that I worried instead “about someone put in underwear.”

Most of this text was, as I’ve learned, pretty much the norm for such abusive letters, but that last little comment stuck in my mind. The letter writer had clearly read my accounting of recently reported tortures (many contained in e-mails sent back to the U.S. by outraged or unnerved FBI agents observing interrogation tactics at our Guantanamo detention camp) and picked from a horrific list that included beating people to death, dousing hands in alcohol and lighting them, administering electric shocks, and putting lit cigarettes in ears, the least horrific sounding — “paraded naked around a courtyard while photos were being snapped.” But — and here’s what caught my attention — my outraged correspondent found even that too much to bear and so, undoubtedly quite unconsciously, put those naked, humiliated prisoners in a courtyard at Guantanamo back in their underwear.

That spoke to me of the power of denial in the “homeland” that the loosing of torture in the imperium seems to have set free. That somehow speaks to me as well of the fact that not a single senator, Democratic or Republican, has announced the intention to filibuster the nomination of White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales, thus assuring that the face of legalized torture is attached to the position of Attorney General of the United States. Most of them would evidently prefer, like so many other Americans, to put underpants back on the President’s legal counsel and confidant when, thanks to leakers in the administration, he has been photographed naked in legally compromising positions.

Much media attention was paid last week to the conviction of Abu Ghraib prison guard (and former U.S. prison guard) Charles A. Graner Jr. and his sentencing to a military brig. (My hometown paper headlined the Sunday story about Graner’s conviction, “Ringleader in Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Is Sentenced to 10 Years,” and as is the news style of our moment, wrote of “the abuse scandal”; but to give credit where it’s due, elsewhere the paper had a bold, blazing headline, “Torture From Above” — it led off the Times‘ Real Estate section with the subhead, “A Neighbor’s Renovation Can Be a Nightmare.”) Graner was a cruel man who evidently took pleasure in horrific acts. But his obvious enthusiasm for torture, as related by witnesses, his desire to hear prisoners scream, to add just one extra punch, to inflict just one more ounce of pain, that enthusiasm wasn’t restricted to the low-level guards of Abu Ghraib or others like them elsewhere in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and at stops in-between; that spirit of enthusiasm for torture was evident at the very top of the administration as the war on terror began; it permeated the legal documents that came out of the Office of the White House Counsel; it can be felt in Donald Rumsfeld’s scrawled comments on torture memos sent to his office.

We should all stop putting the underpants back on the men in the courtyard. It’s time to assess what’s happening for exactly what it is. So, when next you write me an angry, abusive letter, at least be honest and keep the underpants off.

This first appeared at Tomdispatch.com as the introduction to
What is Wrong With Torture, a piece by Jonathan Schell.

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