American Amnesia: We Forget Our Atrocities Almost As Soon as We Commit Them
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The Torture Paradigm
Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture . He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury's penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way . So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the global sewers lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."
None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so."
Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. "[H]is is a return to the status quo ante," writes Nairn, "the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."
Sometimes the American engagement in torture was even more indirect. In a 1980 study, Latin Americanist Lars Schoultz found that U.S. aid "has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens,... to the hemisphere's relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights." Broader studies by Edward Herman found the same correlation, and also suggested an explanation. Not surprisingly, U.S. aid tends to correlate with a favorable climate for business operations, commonly improved by the murder of labor and peasant organizers and human rights activists and other such actions, yielding a secondary correlation between aid and egregious violation of human rights.
These studies took place before the Reagan years, when the topic was not worth studying because the correlations were so clear.
Small wonder that President Obama advises us to look forward, not backward -- a convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs. Those who are beaten by them tend to see the world differently, much to our annoyance.
Adopting Bush's Positions
An argument can be made that implementation of the CIA's "torture paradigm" never violated the 1984 Torture Convention, at least as Washington interpreted it. McCoy points out that the highly sophisticated CIA paradigm developed at enormous cost in the 1950s and 1960s, based on the "KGB's most devastating torture technique," kept primarily to mental torture, not crude physical torture, which was considered less effective in turning people into pliant vegetables.
McCoy writes that the Reagan administration then carefully revised the International Torture Convention "with four detailed diplomatic 'reservations' focused on just one word in the convention's 26-printed pages," the word "mental." He continues: "These intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain -- the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost."