Has Torture Become Normalized in Our Culture? It's Still Unbelievably Inhumane

What if we called torture by another name? Would torture begin to mean something again?

Torture sets out to break down the human spirit. Think about even a small fraction of the ways torturers have destroyed minds, bodies and souls throughout history. Narrow that down to what the United States has done in the last several decades. If you can bring yourself to do it, try to picture actual acts of torture. Not televised, fictionalized, made-for-entertainment torture, but the real thing.

Imagine being wrenched, stretched, crammed, frozen, beaten, hung, drowned, sexually violated, forced to defecate on yourself in the presence of others, mocked, thrown, pushed, chained to the floor, chained to the ceiling, having feeding tubes stuck down your throat or up your anus, being exposed to ear-shattering volumes 24/7, not being allowed to sleep for days or weeks on end to the point of hallucination and suicidal ideation, having electrodes attached to your genitals, being forced to wear a hood while you are being interrogated, sexually violated and photographed, being made to pose in sexual positions with other men, being photographed in diapers, not being allowed clothing or blankets in freezing temperatures, not being allowed to urinate or defecate, not being allowed to eat or drink water for days, not being allowed to see daylight or touch another person for months or years, being shown pictures of your family and being told that your wife and children will be raped, dismembered and killed.

All of that is American torture. Most Americans don't have the time nor presence of mind to take it there. They have heard the word used so many times that torture fatigue has set in. Tragically, many supported the use of torture to begin with, which is why the likes of Donald Trump win favor by advocating for increased and expanded uses of torture, instead of suffering losses at the polls.

By now, it is well-documented that the U.S. government and its varied intelligence agencies, particularly in the post-9/11 era, have committed egregious human rights violations in the form of torture against suspected terrorists, many or most of whom have eventually been released from the CIA’s secret prisons and places like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib because little or no evidence could be produced to support any charges of terrorist activity.

All the while, we have learned more and more about how the people charged with torturing others human beings have effectively turned grown men and women into fragments, hollowed-out versions of their former selves.

Worst of all, the U.S. and its multitudinous intelligence, law enforcement and corrections agencies have rarely been held accountable for this torture. For most Americans, torture is not associated with punishment and long prison sentences for violations of international human rights law. These days, in fact, U.S. torture has a Teflon-coated wall of complacent acceptance built up around it. 

How else to explain the fact that Trump's proclamations about bringing back and expanding torture have not completely doomed his candidacy? His proclamations (and those of other current or former Republican contenders like Cruz and Rubio) have been met with the cheers and grins of die-hard supporters, accompanied by hysterical shouts of approval and wild-eyed enthusiasm.

Trump has made repeated statements calling for revisions in the law that would allow for expanded torture techniques, vowing that “we have to beat the savages” and that the U.S. current ban on waterboarding is a sign of weakness. On occasion, Trump has tried to soften his statements and vow that he would never instruct the military to break the law, but the March terrorist attacks in Brussels had Trump back in fine form once again, pronouncing that a captured suspect would have talked “a lot faster with the torture.” Even as European media was flush with reportage that it was not a lack of torture but a lack of timely analysis and coordination on the part of Brussels intelligence that helped the suicide bombers to unfurl their deadly scheme, Trump's statement made it clear as to where he really stands on torture. As the Washington Times reported, CIA director John Brennan is against waterboarding and opposed “these tactics and techniques [he's] heard bandied about” by pro-torture presidential hopefuls such as Trump.

Make no mistake: a Trump presidency would be a near-guaranteed return to precisely those American torture tactics that have effectively served as one of the best recruitment tools imaginable for extremist terrorist groups, while removing any shred of credibility from the U.S. as it tries to exert pressure on other countries to ban legal and unofficial forms of torture. 

In reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the CIA jumpstarted a global program of abduction, imprisonment and torture in secret detention sites known as black sites. In early December 2015, as most of the world was still consumed with news reportage related to the November terrorist bombings in Paris, Human Rights Watch released a phenomenal, 153-page report that received only a small fraction of the attention it should have received. “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture” brought to light the fact that absolutely not one person has been prosecuted in association with the myriad forms of torture committed in worldwide CIA-run black sites as well as the foreign prisons to which CIA abducted and forced people to endure torture at the hands of other perpetrators.

“We would be in a very different situation today if anyone had been prosecuted,” said Laura Pitter, senior national counsel for Human Rights Watch.

In December 2014, a great deal of new information about the CIA program came to light, even after years of media coverage on the issue, in the form of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report. The report would have been even more of a goldmine of information were it not for the fact that it was so heavily redacted only 499 of 6,700 pages were eventually released to the public. Still, Human Rights Watch was able to conduct a great deal of analysis, highlighting such findings as the practice of “rectal feeding,” by which detainees were forced to endure a large tube forced into the rectum, filled with pureed food, “without evidence of medical necessity.” In addition, HRW brought to light the practice of placing men in unchanged diapers in order to heighten humiliation and helplessness; the use of painful stress positions including being chained to the floor, wall or ceiling, in some cases while enduring excruciatingly loud music and freezing cold temperatures, and forcing some detainees to stand for hours or days on end with broken bones in their legs and feet.

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Drawing copyright: Mohamed Ben Soud, "US: CIA Torture Is Unfinished Business," Human Rights Watch.

Incredibly, even former Office of Legal Counsel Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, the author of the infamous “torture memos” that gave the greenlight for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” has stated that many of the abuses described in the Senate summary exceeded the authorizations set out at that time.

The CIA black sites program operated from 2001 to 2009, which means that the five-year time period for charging a person with a crime has expired. However, there is no statute of limitations for the filing of “conspiracy charges,” which are commonly used to put low-level drug offenders in federal prison for decades or lifetimes. 

In addition, “it is not a bar to prosecutions for torture or conspiracy to torture when there is a ‘foreseeable risk that death or serious bodily injury’ (that) may result, or to prosecutions for the types of sexual abuse allegedly committed by the CIA program personnel,” according to HRW.

In the case of the CIA black sites, it could easily be established that a cadre of U.S. officials played a conspiratorial role in creating and implementing the CIA program. According to HRW, this long list of co-conspirators includes, but is not limited to Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, Asst. Attorney General for Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) Jay Bybee, OLC Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, CIA director George Tenet, Attorney General John Ashcroft, White House Counsel legal adviser Alberto Gonzales, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

In addition, said HRW's Laura Pitter, two CIA contractors should also be investigated: psychologists James Mitchell and John Jessen, who were responsible for creating, enhancing and even personally implementing many of the torture techniques used at CIA black sites. The CIA psychologist contractors earned no less than $80 million for their efforts, which appear to have pulled together interrogation, torture, humiliation and isolation tactics and techniques from various military branches, intelligence agencies, as well as U.S. supermaximum prisons. 

Unfortunately, Pitter said, the Obama administration's Department of Justice has effectively refused to prosecute anyone involved directly or indirectly in the CIA black sites program. Former detainees have been unsuccessful in bringing civil suits in U.S. courts because the Obama administration has invoked grounds of state immunity and national security to make sure lawsuits are dismissed even before plaintiffs are able to introduce evidence of abuse. New civil suits are underway, including an ACLU case filed against the Mitchell and Jessen.

To this day, the U.S. Justice Department maintains that its one and only investigation into the CIA black sites program was “extraordinarily thorough.” The investigation was led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, who looked into 101 cases of detainee abuse and decided not to file charges against any of the alleged perpetrators. He closed all of the 101 cases between 2011 and 2012. 

The assertion that Durham conducted a thorough investigation is absurd, said Pitter. For one thing, there were severe limitations on the evidence available to Durham’s team at the time, as this was before the publication of the Senate summary. But one of the most glaring inadequacies of Durham’s investigation was that no one on his team apparently bothered to speak to a single detainee/torture survivor. “We know that he never spoke to the detainees themselves,” said Pitter. “He was just content to rely on CIA documents.”

On the other hand, organizations like HRW, the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, in addition to individual attorneys representing plaintiffs, have conducted actual interviews of these torture survivors.

Pitter was involved in interviewing some of the victims rendered by the CIA to Libya for torture. “You see retraumatization in these men when they have to recount what happened and remember the pain,” she recounts. “Emotional breakdowns can happen even years later, because many of these guys have suppressed their memories for many years. They have severe anxiety and flashbacks can overtake them at odd times.”

A CIA cable included in the Senate Summary report described one detainee as “clearly a broken man … on the verge of a complete breakdown.”

Pitter noted that the victims of CIA torture are incredibly grateful that anyone seems to care about what happens to them. “They are truly thankful for our efforts to try to get them some kind of justice,” she said.

Many torture survivors are plagued by flashbacks that can send them spiraling into states of bleak despair, where memories of their torture and humiliation play over and over in their minds. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, which is common in survivors of torture, war and other traumatic events, can leave survivors unable to function at even the most basic level. Even more severe mental illnesses can develop in the aftermath of torture, and average psychologists or psychiatrists are ill-equipped to treat them. Specialists with in-depth knowledge of the treatment of severe torture victims are even harder to come by in developing nations, from which many of the victims were abducted.

The Open Society Foundation revealed in 2013 that 54 governments participated in some fashion in the CIA’s rendition program, including Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe. In some cases, an abducted suspect would be transferred to a secret CIA prison in a country like Romania or Afghanistan, complete with CIA interrogators. In other cases, the detainees would be sent to prisons in Libya, where local police and intelligence operatives would unleash their own forms of torture on the victims without direct CIA “oversight.”

In some cases, torture in the CIA’s black sites resulted in death, as in the case of Gul Rahman, who died from hypothermia after being shackled in Afghanistan, overnight, half-naked, to a concrete floor within a CIA site. Permanent physical disability was common in many of the cases, as was also true of Abu Ghraib. 

In one of the more horrific cases reported, Abu Zubaydah was shot three times during his capture. He was close to death, according to the CIA officers at the detention site where he was held. The CIA officers wrote up a what-if scenario describing the possibility of Zubaydah suffering a heart attack or another serious life-threatening condition. “In the event that [Abu Zubaydah] dies, we need to be prepared to act accordingly, keeping in mind the liaison equities involving our hosts,” noted the CIA officers, who then went on to add that if Zubaydah died, he would be cremated. The memo went on to note that “regardless ... In light of the planned psychological pressure techniques to be implemented, we need to get reasonable assurances that he will remain in isolation and incommunicado for the rest of his life.” 

The CIA officers went on to waterboard Zubaydah, inducing convulsions and vomiting. During one waterboarding session, he became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Zubaydah survived, but it is hard to fathom that anyone who has undergone this kind of torture would ever be able to live any semblance of a normal life again. 

What is particularly ironic is that the U.S. was integrally involved in creating the Convention Against Torture, but has failed to abide by its own treaty. The Convention Against Torture makes it mandatory for governments to prosecute suspects who are in their territory, regardless of where the torture took place. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 also contain similar provisions related to war crimes. 

As such, the victims of torture at CIA black sites, or any number of other U.S.-operated detention facilities in the post-9/11 era, should have received justice years ago in the form of compensation at the least‚ as well as criminal charges filed against the perpetrators. Instead, they have been left to suffer the emotional and physical consequences of the abuse they endured without any compensation whatsoever from the United States. However, several other countries, NGOs and international courts of justice have taken action.

Most recently, in late February, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for the abduction of an imam by the CIA. Abu Omar, who had received political asylum in Italy, was grabbed from a street in Milan in 2003 as a part of the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program and flown to Egypt for interrogation and torture. Omar was held for four years without a trial. In 2009, Italy convicted two Italians and 23 Americans for the abduction, although all of the Americans were tried in absentia. The court ordered Italy to pay over $127,000 in expenses and damages to Omar and his wife. 

Many other countries and NGOs have filed complaints, started investigations or pursued criminal investigations, including Spain, France, Switzerland, Canada and Poland, among many others. Many of these cases have revolved around trying to force the country in question to admit it participated in the CIA’s rendition program, with limited success. Two detainees were actually successful with their charges that Poland authorized a black site and that Polish authorities were directly responsible for the detainees' torture and unlawful rendition. A Polish court eventually ordered the country to pay Abu Zubaydah and another detainee roughly $112,000 in damages. 

Since the days of Abu Ghraib and the CIA black sites, laws have been passed to make it much more difficult for U.S. intelligence operatives or soldiers to legally commit acts of torture, Pitter said. Yet Guantanamo remains open, and the treatment of detainees is hardly transparent to the public. Drone attacks continue, and the CIA and other intelligence agencies have hardly disappeared from the realm of foreign intelligence gathering and the detention of suspected terrorists. They are simply far more careful about how they go about doing so and who knows about it. 

This past February, the Pentagon began reluctantly to release a few hundred photos showing abuses of detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan—out of at least 2,000 photos the ACLU has sought to have released under the Freedom of Information Act. Just as in the case of the Senate Summary on CIA black sites, in which a few hundred pages were eventually released out of thousands, the ACLU’s deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer pronounced that “more important than the disclosure is the fact that hundreds of photographs are still being withheld.”

The released images are, for the most part, closeup pictures of unidentified men bearing scars, cuts, bruises and other evidence of blunt-force trauma. The Pentagon has taken redaction to a new art form, even to the point of blacking out noses, eyes and other features, in a likely ploy to make sure that victims of abuse and torture are unidentifiable. According to expert briefs filed with the court, the images that still have not been released are far more disturbing than those which have been released, including images of sodomy and guns pointed at the heads of hooded captives.

The Pentagon releases are part of an exhaustive ACLU FOIA battle, which has been ongoing since 2003 and has resulted in what the ACLU calls a torture database of more than 6,000 documents. The photos have been the most difficult and contentious part of this battle, which finally began to move forward when a Manhattan federal judge ordered the Department of Defense to disclose all photographs related to the ACLU’s FOIA request.

“Unfortunately, America still hasn't accounted for its dark, historical past. Not acknowledging for it in the past has had an incredibly corrosive effective on the present day and has undermined the ability of the U.S. to push for human rights. It has done enormous damage,” said HRW's Pitter.

The damage has taken many forms, not the least of which is the sheer gall of the U.S. government trying to persuade other governments to stop torturing dissidents.

From an anthropological standpoint, one could also make the argument that a different kind of damage has taken place within American society. Varied acts of torture are now commonly built into the plot lines of innumerable television shows centered around glossy depictions of American police and intelligence agencies. There, in the space of a few minutes, torture is typically unleashed on a bad guy and the intelligence hero saves the day with the information extracted.

The reality is that the results of torture have long since been proven to be both unreliable and misleading, and confessions derived from torture are inadmissible in a court of law. 

Torture has essentially become woven into the fabric of American culture. It is hard to foresee an immediate future for the United States in which torture can be taken seriously for the horror and outright violation of basic human dignity that it is. That bodes poorly for the survivors of torture who are trying to seek restitution and apology, and also for the modern-day incarnation of the American government, which seems to have lost sight of its moral center altogether.


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