Power, Humiliation and Torture

Paul Woodward

War in Context, April 19, 2009

In the wake of 9/11, no phrase more succinctly projected the upwelling of popular jingoism across the United States than the words "Power of Pride."

America needed to reassert its potency after experiencing the insult and humiliation of witnessing its power simultaneously centralized and instantaneously crushed when two drab towers acquired their national and international iconic significance in the very same moment that they collapsed.

As American power symbolically turned to a cloud of dust, its leaders scurried around in a desperate effort to salvage their authority and reclaim their dominance.

It now appears that central to that process was a calculated effort through which senior members of the Bush administration would restore their own pride and purge their own humiliation by torturing those who had collaborated in the attacks.

The fact that the CIA's torture program was claimed to merely use "harsh interrogation" techniques was not simply a way of asserting that the legal threshold of torture had not been crossed. By using the term "interrogation" the issue of sadistic retribution was effectively screened out of consideration.

Even those who were critical of the approach the administration had adopted were inclined to confine those criticisms to questions such as whether these coercive methods would have any chance of yielding valuable intelligence. Alternatively they might press a patriotic argument by suggesting that torture was un-American.

The assumption inside the administration was that if its harsh methods could be presented as having been effective in preventing subsequent acts of terrorism, then pragmatic Americans would have less concern about the moral qualms of the administration's critics -- individuals who could be dismissed as civil liberties fanatics.

The moral question of whether the state can be allowed to use torture as a method of extra-judicial punishment and retribution rarely if ever entered the debate. But the evidence now suggests that it should.

We now learn that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003 and Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002.

The New York Times has reported:

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case....

...the use of repeated waterboarding against Abu Zubaydah was ordered “at the direction of CIA headquarters,” and officials were dispatched from headquarters “to watch the last waterboard session.”

The memo, written in 2005 and signed by Steven G. Bradbury, who worked in the Office of Legal Counsel, concluded that the waterboarding was justified even if the prisoner turned out not to know as much as officials had thought.

And he did not, according to the former intelligence officer involved in the Abu Zubaydah case. “He pleaded for his life,” the official said. “But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give.”

A line of command and a set of orders is one way of attempting to explain how it could come about that a man would be waterboarded day after day. Yet the significance of what was taking place at that time was implicit rather than explicit. What mattered most was what was left unstated.

Within a relatively short period, Zubaydah would have learned that as agonizing as waterboarding might be, it was something he could survive. In about the same amount of time, his torturers would have learned that there was no more information they could extract.

And yet the torture continued, day in, day out, multiple times a day.

Cheney knew. Bush knew. Rumsfeld knew.

Each day might yield no new intelligence but for those who had been most deeply humiliated by 9/11, unremitting waterboarding provided its own rewards.

To be able to say, "carry on" -- with no reasonable justification -- was to silently know: I have the power to exact retribution.



2 Comments

  1. […] Power, humiliation and torture. The assumption inside the [US] administration was that if its harsh methods could be presented as having been effective in preventing subsequent acts of terrorism, then pragmatic Americans would have less concern about the moral qualms of the administration’s critics — individuals who could be dismissed as civil liberties fanatics. The moral question of whether the state can be allowed to use torture as a method of extra-judicial punishment and retribution rarely if ever entered the debate. But the evidence now suggests that it should. (Conflicts Forum) […]

  2. jobarker wrote:

    America the Great is dead…it is wholly embarrassing to be an American…I have some Cherokee Indian in me…some redemtion vive Americana schizophrenia…I am sincerely thinking of heading South to Venezuela..I can find myself in helping others via teaching & like Hamas, I find Hugo Chavez another jewel of practicality & a great asset to his people..all children go to school from early morn to early eve..they are fed 3 fully nutritional meals until their parents pick them up after work..afterschool hours bring the elderly who are learning to read for 1st time in their lives..I want to help with this effort…enough USAsses of America!!