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Tortures R Us

BY CHRISTOPHER LORD
11.11.2004 | POLITICS

Iraqis wondering what the next phase of the Republicans' invasion of their country will bring should consider El Aguacate airstrip in Honduras. In 2001, 185 bodies were dug up there: the victims were the 'terrorists' and 'enemies of democracy' of the day. Most of the estimated 200,000 dead in America's covert war in Central America in the 1980s disappeared in the jungle. A few were thrown out of helicopters alive (a specialty of US-trained death squads from Argentina, brought to Honduras to assist in the noble struggle against communism). In Honduras itself, where the military dictatorship of General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez became the region's largest recipient of US aid, 10,000 were murdered by death squads. The decomposed witnesses of El Aguacate were particularly unlucky: they were dumped in their mass grave after having passed through the torture chambers of Ronald Reagan's proxy soldiers: the 'democratic resistance', as the Department of Defense liked to think of them at the time. The 'freedom fighters', as Ronald Reagan preferred to say.

The airfield and its facilities were built with American taxpayers' money as part of a massive channeling of funds to the region, and the whole effort was coordinated from the US Embassy in Honduras by the Ambassador himself, John Negroponte, who is said to have masterminded the complex of covert operations in Central America by the US military and the CIA. The channeling of aid to the Contras in Nicaragua was particularly indefensible--they carried out systematic atrocities, with no other aim than establishing a reign of terror over a population that did not support them or anything they stood for. Now that the main players in the Republican war machine are once again those same Reagan-era policy makers, who do we find appointed to the new US Embassy in Iraq--the largest embassy complex in the world? None other than John Negroponte. And torture is back on the menu.

You don't need to be Einstein to join up the dots. Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick II gets eight years for abusing Iraqi prisoners. His lawyers, and credible witnesses produced at his court martial, say that the abusive treatment of prisoners was a regular policy, carried out by military intelligence and CIA interrogators, who also, through the regular military command channels and informally, encouraged the use of a particular style of torture as a normal part of the running of the prison. Nobody really denies this. It's just treated as an irrelevant detail, even though there is now a well-established paper trail documenting these methods. In May 2004 the National Security Archive obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, copies of interrogation manuals from the US Army and the CIA, and these show that for forty years the Pentagon and the CIA have practiced more or less the same kind of coercive interrogation. Not throwing people out of helicopters: that was left to foreign nationals financed, trained and advised by Americans. The methods used are those seen around the world thanks to the naďve behavior of a few intellectually challenged reserve soldiers who thought that it would be nice to take a few photos to remind them of their happy times bringing democracy to Iraq.

Is there any real attempt to investigate the Abu Ghraib abuses and their place in wider US policy? Are any commanders or CIA or military intelligence officers facing trial? Has the Administration acted on suggestions that the trail leads at least as high as Donald Rumsfeld? Of course not. A Washington Post - ABC poll in May 2004 showed that 35% of Americans believed that 'It's acceptable to torture people suspected of terrorism in some cases'. 51% believed that 'the U.S. government as a matter of policy is (...) using torture as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism'. The poll did not break respondents down into Republicans and Democrats, but the message is fairly clear. The American public on the whole prefers to look the other way, while a sizeable minority actually supports the use of torture.

The simple idea behind what seems to be standard US practice is that mental torture is more efficient than physical torture. The older interrogation manuals do mention the use of electric shocks, drugs and other more invasive methods, but only simple beatings seem to have survived into the 21st century as official technique. A few Iraqis seem to have been beaten to death during their questioning, but accidents will happen, I suppose. The main approved method is to use fear, humiliation and self-inflicted pain (through stress positions, mainly) to break down the resistance of suspects. In Iraq, the 'suspects' were in many cases not actually suspected of anything except being Iraqis: picked up off the street in random sweeps and pushed around by people who didn't speak their language, and for whom they were presumably no more human than the gooks of Vietnam to their brothers in arms of an earlier generation.

So far, the Republicans' script for Iraq seems to have much in common with Central America twenty years ago, with adjustments for local conditions. With Baghdad constantly under the eye of the international media, suspects earmarked for the most blatantly illegal styles of questioning have been 'disappeared', either to secret locations in Iraq, or to facilities in nearby countries with friendly and accommodating governments. Once the hurdle of rigging the January elections is over (and let's face it, if they can fix the U.S. Presidential election, that should be a walk in the park), the job of providing local death squads to go after opposition groups can safely be given to the forces of the puppet government, again with American training, weapons and support. Even Chip Frederick and Lynndie England might rebel at having to dump mangled corpses in mass graves, and if they were too confused themselves to notice that anything was amiss, the resulting photo souvenirs would be a bit more difficult to explain away. And why does America need such a big embassy in Iraq? For the same reason the Honduras embassy was so big. The aim is clearly to bring democracy lite to the whole region, and in time Iraqi death squads and secret police can be joined by exile groups from neighboring countries, until, as in Latin America, the whole region is effectively under the control of American proxies.

I'm sure this all sounded like a great idea a year ago. But there have been some unforeseen problems. The famous 'international coalition' that is supposed to be supporting the Republican war is crumbling fast, with foreign governments realizing that they get nothing in return for exposing their troops and civilians to improvised explosive devices and random beheadings--not to mention terrorist attacks at home. The payoff for the Republican Party is not international support but corporate profit, and very little of that is going into non-American hands. Also, military control of Iraq is turning out to be a lot harder to achieve than was foreseen, which makes extending regional hegemony a much more difficult proposition. Those countries which have been stupid enough to send their own troops to help in this criminal and lunatic enterprise have been hoping against hope for regime change in Washington: but as Bush demonstrates both his own child-like naivety, and the total cynicism of the grown-ups who are handling him, by starting off all over again with sincere-sounding talk about reaching out across the party divide, non-Americans involved in Iraq are nervously remembering that actually they do have some other stuff they should maybe be doing instead. Can we have our soldiers back now please, Mr President? Last to go will probably be the British, even though public disgust with the war has reached fantastic levels in Britain.

The Republicans have discovered a great secret. America doesn't need the truth. This is what freedom of speech now means: Say what you like. We don't care. The truth can easily be tolerated, because it can simply be ignored. Indeed, our core voters, as we know through a close study of statistics, already are ignoring it. A lot of Americans do care about the truth, but a voting majority is evidently more interested in the Book of Revelations. They are perfectly happy to be lied to. So the Reagan cycle will repeat itself. The lies will get more and more fanciful. (Reagan once described the Contras as 'the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers'.) The covert program of torture and murder will grow correspondingly more ambitious, as the situation spins further and further out of control. But news fatigue will soon set in among the Republican faithful, as the strain of continuing to believe the White House line becomes too much, and as far as they are concerned, the matter will then be closed. Democracy will have been brought to Iraq. It will be presented as a famous victory, and however unbelievable this claim, the slow thinkers of the heartland won't have the energy or the inclination to question it.

Arabs, though, have got the message. Not just Iraqis, either. Arabs and other Muslims all over the world now have regular access to satellite TV channels that are only too happy to report every case of torture, beating and murder. It is the great American beast of color TV that will turn around and bite its master. For ordinary Arabs everywhere, Bush is already established as the master of torturers and murderers, of imprisoners without trial: as the man who sends airplanes to murder little children and wedding guests and then goes on TV at home to congratulate himself for a job well done and receive the adulation of his people. But when they look at President Bush, few of them care much about this incomprehensible division between Republicans and Democrats. What they see is the leader of the United States of America. And that is enough.

About the Author
Christopher Lord's new book, Parallel Cultures, has just been published by Ashgate.
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