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America's Dark Side That We Must Confront: Our Official Policy Is to Torture People

New Film 'Zero Dark Thirty' doesn't force us to confront one America's own private nightmare.

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Alone in the Dark

I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those “threatened” governments were among the company the U.S. keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be  demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then “legalized,” and carried out in global “ black sites” and foreign prisons.

A widely praised new movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden,  Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the U.S. government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called “ the Water Torture,” later “ the water cure,” or more recently “waterboarding”). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.

These are were among the techniques of torture “lawfully” laid out in a  CIA Inspector General's report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning,  heldisolated, naked, and without sleep in U.S. military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.

The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized.  As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don’t for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what  Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.

The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it’s not just about eliciting information -- sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it’s not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We’re just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? “You lie to me, I hurt you,” says a CIA torturer in  Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture “works” -- to destroy people.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 “mastermind,” was  waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison,  stating, “They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Brandon Neely, a U.S. military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there  beat an inmate he was supposed to treat.  CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a  car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.

 
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