New Internationalist

Confessions of the Torturer

Issue 373

The confessions of the tortured are worth little or nothing. Since the days of the Inquisition it has been clear that the information obtained through torture is not credible, or barely so, for the simple reason that pain transforms anyone into a prolific author of fiction.

The powers that use torture, on the other hand, reveal their true identity through this grim practice: in the chambers of torment, the commanders take off their masks.

So it is in Iraq. To take over the country despite the Iraqis and against their will, the occupying forces acted with realism: they preach democracy and freedom but practise crime and torture. The ends justify the means. Does anyone believe there is another way to steal a country?

The rest is pure theatre: the ceremonies, proclamations, speeches, promises, the transfer of sovereignty – from the United States to the United States.

Power cannot tell things as they are. For example, when it says ‘terrorism in Iraq’, it should usually say ‘national resistance to foreign occupation’.

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When the Abu Ghraib scandal blew up, a chorus of self-absolution was heard from the heights of political and military power: ‘These are isolated cases.’ ‘The men and women involved are pathological.’ ‘It’s just a few bad apples, a handful of perverted individuals dishonouring the uniform.’

As usual, the killer blames the knife. But the soldiers or police officers who drove a prisoner insane by jolting him with electricity or submerging his head in shit or spreading his buttocks are only instruments, functionaries paid to perform tasks during office hours. Some work reluctantly, others with fervour, like the enthusiastic young women who took pictures of themselves humiliating tortured Iraqis as if they were hunting trophies. But all of them, apathetic and zealous alike, are bureaucrats of pain acting at the service of a gigantic machine for crushing humans.

Insane? Perverted? Perhaps. But the excuse of being ‘pathological’ does not absolve the imperial power which needs torture to secure and widen its dominion because this power is far more insane and perverted than the tools that it employs. And there is nothing abnormal about an atrociously unjust power using atrocious methods to perpetuate itself.

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Nor is there anything abnormal about these atrocious methods not being called by their name. The European Union’s declaration against the torture in Iraq doesn’t mention the word torture. This disagreeable term was replaced by the word ‘abuses’. Bush and Blair spoke of ‘errors’. The journalists of CNN and other mass media couldn’t use the banned word.

Years before, in order for Palestinian prisoners to be ‘legally’ tortured, the Supreme Court of Israel authorized the use of ‘moderate physical pressure’. The courses in torture that have been taught to officials of Latin America for many years use the term ‘interrogation techniques’. In my country, Uruguay, which was world champion in this field during the years of the military dictatorship, torture was called, and is still called, ‘illegal physical pressure’.

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In contrast, the word torture was mentioned explicitly by US pollsters in 2001, shortly after the attack on the World Trade Centre. Almost half of the respondents answered that torture did not seem bad ‘if used against terrorists who refused to say what they knew’.

Six years earlier it never would have occurred to anyone to torture terrorist Timothy McVeigh when he refused to name his accomplices. The bomb he set off in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, including women and children. But he was white, not Muslim, and he was a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, which is where he learned to make human purée.

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Guantánamo is the symbol of the world that awaits us. Six hundred suspects, some minors, languish in this concentration camp. They have no rights. No law protects them. They have neither lawyers, nor trials, nor sentences. No-one knows anything about them and they know nothing about anything. They just survive at a naval base the US usurped from Cuba. It is supposed that they are terrorists. Whether they are or aren’t is a detail that lacks any importance.

It is in Guantánamo that General Ricardo Sanchez tried out 32 forms of torture, called ‘intimidation and pressure tactics’, that were later applied in the prisons of Iraq.

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Since the Twin Towers fell torture has received numerous eulogies. There was a wave of juridical opinions and newspaper pieces openly favourable to or showing veiled approval for this mode of institutional violence – though it is almost never called that. These tributes, which came from those in power or from sources nearby, maintain that torture is legitimate when defending an exposed population from the threats against it. Their reasoning is that morally dubious ways of fighting become necessary to resist the unscrupulous assassins who practise and promote terrorism and who never tell the truth.

However, if this were so, who should be tortured? Who are the men that uttered the biggest lies of this 21st century? Who have killed the most innocents, without any scruples, in their wars against Afghanistan and Iraq? Who contributed most to the proliferation of terrorism in the world?

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Many people reacted to the Abu Ghraib crisis with surprise or indignation, but torture was not used either casually or mistakenly against the Iraqi population. The occupation troops used it as if it were customary procedure, ordered by superiors, fully aware of what they were doing and why.

The question ‘Why?’ deserves an answer. There is no proof whatsoever that torture ever helped prevent a single terrorist attack. In the case of Iraq it has not led to the capture of any of the most important fugitives. The most important, Saddam Hussein, was caught not because of torture but because of a paid informer.

Torture generates information that is of minimal usefulness and questionable veracity. And yet it is efficient. That is why it has been and continues to be used. Efficiency is a prized element in the world’s reigning value system – and torture is efficient in punishing heresy and causing humiliation. Above all it is efficient in sowing fear. The monks of the Spanish Inquisition knew this very well, And so does the top military brass of today’s imperial adventures. Power does not use torture to protect the population but to terrorize it.

Will it be as efficient as power thinks it is?

b>Eduardo Galeano is a Uruguayan writer, author of The Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire. © IPS Columnist Service.

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