Torture and the Politics of Denial

Lisa Hajjar

On April 30, President George W. Bush said, A year ago I [gave a] speech … saying we had accomplished a mission, which was the removal of Saddam Hussein. As a result, there are no longer torture chambers or mass graves or rape rooms in Iraq.” As he spoke those words, he and millions across the world were aware that U.S. soldiers, military intelligence and American security contractors had been torturing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.

The right not to be tortured is stronger than the right to life given there are many circumstances in which people legally can be killed but absolutely none in which they legally can be tortured.

The U.S. torture scandal has been compounded by military investigations and complaints by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that such practices were systematic and rampant in other U.S. military prisons and detention facilities. Yet the dominant response by the Bush administration has been to deny the scope and the causes of torture by laying all blame on a few aberrant” individuals, and to downplay the implications by terming such practices abuse.”

Official U.S. responses are similar to those promulgated by virtually every other state accused of engaging in torture. Stanley Cohen, author of States of Denial, identifies three common forms of denial of atrocities. Literal denial” is when the accused state claims nothing happened and that those who say otherwise are liars or enemies of the state.” Interpretative denial” is when a state refutes allegations by saying that what happened was not torture but something else” — like moderate physical pressure,” stress and duress” or abuse and humiliation.” Implicatory denial” is when a state acknowledges torture but blames it on aberrant agents.

Implicatory denial has been the No. 1 talking point since the CBS 60 Minutes II” segment that exposed the torture in Abu Ghraib. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said: All of us are disappointed by the actions of the few. … [T]his is a small minority of the military, and … they need to understand that the Army … is a values-based organization. … [The] acts that you see in these pictures may reflect the actions of individuals, but by God, it doesn’t reflect my Army.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the practices as un-American.”

But Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated prisons and interrogation centers between October and December 2003 and testified before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on May 11, argued that responsibility extends beyond the soldiers now facing court martial. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, who oversaw 16 prisons in Iraq and has been relieved of those duties because of the scandal, said, The [Abu Ghraib] prison, and that particular cell block where the events took place, were under the control of the MI [Military Intelligence] command.” Karpinski sought to lay blame elsewhere when she noted that MI officers went to great lengths to try to exclude the ICRC from access to that interrogation wing.” Reservist Lynndie England, photographed holding a leash attached to a naked Iraqi prisoner, stated that the photos were ordered by superior officers,” presumably to soften up” and break” detainees for interrogation.

The investigations to determine who ordered the torture and how high up the chain of command complicity extends are worthy and necessary goals. But the scandal keeps growing as more information emerges about routine torture in Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Therefore, it is equally important to confront the whole politics of denial, much of which is attenuated to the sensibilities of the American public and to electoral politics. Some Americans have responded to the scandal with ridiculous retorts in the vein of they are worse than us.”

Whatever one thinks about the war on terror and the war in Iraq, it is vital to recognize the distinctive status that torture has in the pantheon of international rights. The right not to be tortured is stronger than the right to life given there are many circumstances in which people legally can be killed but absolutely none in which they legally can be tortured. In the words of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984), No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture.” The United States ratified this convention in 1994.

Calling what was done in Abu Ghraib abuse” does not negate the crime. Moreover, justifying torture contradicts opinions of seasoned interrogators who maintain that violence is ineffective to obtain accurate information. The torture scandal is further compounded by revelations that many detainees were suspected of crimes unconnected to security or the U.S. war effort, as Taguba affirmed.

The torture scandal is a public problem because American interrogators and jailors represent the public they serve. Citizens of a democracy should not be comforted or assuaged by blaming a few aberrant agents” if torture is systemic and routine. The public is responsible for stopping, protesting and preventing torture. If we fail, we risk the specter George Orwell cautioned against in 1984: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

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Lisa Hajjar teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Her book, Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza, will be published in 2004 by the University of California Press.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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