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Tom Head

American Torture

By October 5, 2006

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Category: War on Terror

Guantanamo Detainees
New detainees at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, early 2002. Note the sensory deprivation equipment. Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

In 1903, when a friend wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt complaining about his administration's use of water torture against Filipino detainees, he was nonplussed. Water torture, he explained, was just "an old Filipino method of mild torture. Nobody was seriously damaged, whereas the Filipinos had inflicted incredible tortures on our people."

The phrase "nobody was was seriously damaged" has defined American torture over the past 120 years or so. It's not that Americans don't torture--it's that we as a nation try not to leave a mark when we do, because then we don't technically run afoul of U.S. laws restricting the treatment of prisoners. And when our government does leave a mark, it tries to do so in a way that minimizes its own culpability. Extraordinary rendition, pioneered by the Clinton administration, involves sending prisoners off to places with decidedly less rigorous anti-torture standards...and then benefitting from whatever interrogation takes place there. We don't know how the information is obtained. We don't want to know.

And when our own officials torture prisoners and do leave a mark, or blood, or corpses--as has happened at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq, to name one of many examples--then it's best that they do so in a way that allows them to be dismissed as "a few bad apples," certainly not representative of official policy. Because Americans, after all, don't torture.

So that's the gist of it, really. If you're an American president who wants to torture prisoners, there are only two rules you must follow:
  1. Don't leave a mark.
  2. If you do leave a mark, blame it on somebody else.
By following those simple rules, you can torture prisoners and still be regarded as a world leader in human rights. Everybody wins!

Except for the poor soul strapped to the waterboard, of course.

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October 16, 2006 at 9:04 pm
(1) David Chesler says:

It is easy to determine that there is no abuse in a system, and it easy to determine that there is officially-sanctioned system. How do you propose distinguishing a system which truly prohibits torture but some bad apples abuse prisoners anyway, and are prosecuted to an appropriate extent, from a system which uses scapegoats to achieve deniability?

(While Gitmo worries me [we're _not_ at the kind of war where we've got tens of thousands of POWs and can't afford legal niceties] I’m of the opinion that the US is a lot closer to the former, and more so in its POW facilities than in its civilian prisons, and that there is a material difference between what’s labeled “torture” as in your photo of blindfolded prisoners and torture that does leave a mark.)

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