Swans Commentary » swans.com October 24, 2005  



The Dark Side


by Milo Clark





"If American foreign policy falls under the sway not only of unilateralism, or misconceived neoimperialism, but also irrational biblical prophecy as well, the risks for the world will multiply profoundly."
—Jeffrey D. Sachs, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (Enquin, N.Y., 2005)
"Nobody knows what happens when you lose a war. . . . What mattered was surviving. And, as the months went by, ordinary people settled into their new roles, which were not all that different from what they had been before the occupation. . . . the politicians took over again. Different prisoners were in the cells. . . . There were always a lot of people who liked what was happening. Always plenty of people who never had it so good.

". . . it wasn't possible to blame whole nations for the evil men did. . . . It was men who did those things. Just men."
—Ted Allbeury, A Time without Shadows (Mysterious Press, N.Y., 1990)
"How can we fight to uphold the rule of law if we break the rules ourselves?"
—Adm. John Hutson, USN ret., Dean Franklin Pierce Law Center (ACLU advertisement)


(Swans - October 24, 2005)  What have we come to? Who are we? What do we stand for?

Let's not delude ourselves. Torture, atrocity and massacre have long characterized American military operations. Some may add American labor relations, too. We simply pretend not to notice or enthusiastically to count the scalps, ears, and pubic skins collected.

Have Americans effectively deluded themselves since our beginnings? Are we continuing to do so? Apparently, yes.

Stuart Creighton Miller published his exhaustive Benevolent Assimilation, The Conquest of the Philippines 1899-1903 in 1982. (1) Various Philippine areas and tribes had been in rebellion against Spain for over 400 years when the Americans invaded and found themselves also opposed. Retribution was swift, brutal and ruthless.

"The war of conquest and its atrocities. . . is rarely touched upon in history texts, and when it is, this sordid episode is reduced to a bare mention of an 'insurrection against American rule.'" (p. 286)

To resist an American invasion is insurrection by definition. Notice today's use of the word "insurrection" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In terms of atrocities and torture, in reference to concern over the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Miller notes ". . . Americans had raised such issues before, during the war in the Philippines, after Wounded Knee, and as early as the eighteenth century when friendly Indians were slaughtered in a wave of hysteria at Paxton, Pennsylvania. The issue is not that of a new, enlightened generation of sensitive Americans becoming actively concerned over their own country's inhumanity, ... but that of retaining the lessons from the past." (P. 267)

Now with reports of torture from Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo and tales of renditions (2) and other horrors multiplying, shall we ask: What have we come to? Who are we? And what do we stand for?

To attempt answers, I find myself ever further separated from "we" as may be defined by "American." I am physically located within a rural area of the most remote of the once United States of America. Hawaii is a state coerced, usurped, seized to be territory and then State. Hawaiians are forever tortured thereby. Torture can and does take many forms.

Divorced from "we," I cannot define myself as American within the contexts elaborated by George W. Bush. During previous administrations, whether nominally Democratic or Republican, I held myself at varying degrees of distance which, fortunately, was not challenged. I achieved a degree of insulation, separation, and distance, which a clinician would likely class as denial.

The judicial coup d'état of November 2000 succeeded by September 2001 tried my denial beyond bounds. My insulation and isolation were blown away. Keyboard at hand, I have since raved, ranted and raged hardly without cease. (See my Swans archive)

And now, from the long and lengthening lists of attacks on whatever may be left of being American, I will focus on the most abhorrent behavior of those who have stolen America. That crime, namely torture, is personified by George W. Bush.

Condemnation of torture is unequivocal. Therefore, to apply sophistries to condone torture cannot find justification no matter how sick the minds and how arcane the machinations of those who have done and are doing so. See Mark Danner's work below. (3)

Now, it is reported that Bush has threatened to veto a Pentagon budget bill unless constraints on torture are removed. For the record, Bush has not vetoed a single bill during his administration to date. Yet language binding the Army to its own doctrines on torture invokes the threat of veto.

Those who join in such machinations place themselves far beyond the bounds of human or humane. They deserve and earn no respect. On the contrary, they are purely and simply, beyond qualification, criminal. And, somewhat in parallel, we may be witnessing further societal erosion resulting from continuing moral failures in post-Katrina, post-DeLay, post-Abramoff times.

Bush II likes the word "evil." We have his "Axis of Evil." We have reports of the resonance nominal Christians feel with his labeling in such quasi-moral terms. (See my previous notes on Yankelovich's polls from a Foreign Affairs article which reports that Southern white evangelical Protestants are minimally concerned by reports of torture, reduction of civil rights or related topics.)

And they are criminal in the name of the once United States of America. Shame touches them not. The once lofty aims and values widely associated with the American state are rent to tatters. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and on and on are tainted and shamed by those who have seized control.

What is the core of torture? As Elaine Scarry (4) so thoroughly explains, torture robs those tortured of consciousness, curbs their awareness and exposes them to pain far, far beyond capacities to imagine unless experienced.

Torture is beyond killing. Death is definitive. Torture endures if not released by death. One tortured is never again free even though life may appear to continue.

Further, torture assumes so many and such diverse forms as to be far outside the integrative capacities of people, even or especially those untortured in the more conventional senses of thumbscrews and racks. (Think about the communities, the homes destroyed, and families smashed in today's Iraq and Afghanistan. That destruction is also a form of torture.)

Those who torture define themselves as naked power available as a personal choice. Is anyone tortured to torture? Does anyone in an institutional setting or organizational context choose to torture independently? Are all who torture rogues? Obviously, no!

Sadists as individuals aside, do institutions, do states, embody sadism? Obviously, yes!

Elaine Scarry works around and finally confronts the actuality that all who work within or belong to an institution condoning and practicing torture are accomplices no matter how distant they may see themselves or whether they elect to ignore or to attempt to separate themselves. All our "nice guy" personas cannot evade our collective guilt in this regard.

Those who make weapons, those who design instruments of torture, those who transport, store, and distribute instruments designed to injure, those who use them, those who train others to torture, those who believe they are just in doing so, are beyond delusion. Those who bomb and are bombed are equally condemned to forms of torture, albeit much different in apparent impacts.

Torture is an extreme form of directed and personal injury. Those who torture are directly and personally engaged in extreme injury by choice. The purpose of war is to injure others more than to be injured. Strategic success is defined as giving injury more than receiving it.

By dancing around that Clausewitzian actuality, we delude ourselves beyond calculation. Those who torture have virtually no direct risk of physical injury at the time of torturing. Are their minds corrupted thereby? As we are seeing, only token punishment for torturing is dealt out to those at the bottom of the chains of command.

Those who ignore torture done in their name, those who justify torture as appropriate injury to others, those who deny that torture exists, are as complicit as those who actually torture.

That means me, too. I shout, "Count me out!" Yet, where can I be counted in now?

At this time, as at previous times, all those who call themselves Americans are accomplices to torture. As an American, much as I would opt out, I am an accomplice to torture. I cannot shuck my being American other than symbolically, and then only to a degree.

What have we become? Who are we? What do we stand for?

Obviously, given evidence from Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Bagram, and through "renditions," collectively Americans are torturers.

To quote a footnote from Elaine Scarry's chilling and sobering book,

Article 5 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states unequivocally, "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Again, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights are unequivocal; though some "rights" may be suspended during a state emergency, no such qualification extends to torture.

The unequivocal prohibition is again manifest in the fact that, as a result of the court decision in Filartiga v. Peña-Irala. 630 F. 2nd 876 (1980), (5) torture comes to be considered a crime warranting extraterritorial jurisdiction: the crime of torture can be tried in the United States even if the act of torture did not occur within US boundaries, and neither the victim nor the torturer is a US Citizen. (p. 333. note 2)

Among the rights universally proclaimed, as I have noted, is the right to be free of physical torture. Indeed, for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind.

Unequivocal is a word meaning without exception, without extenuating circumstances, without ambiguity, clear.

Where have all the lawyers gone, now that we need them? Is anyone citing this decision?

Yet, as Mark Danner documents, the full might and power of the once United States of America is assembled to declare the unequivocal equivocal. He supplies pages and pages of ponderous and tortured legal jargon designed to justify torture as national policy to be summoned at the beck and call of the "Commander in Chief," however obliquely it may seem.

That is, torture is OK if George W. Bush says so. And, kid yourself not, George W. Bush says so. Just don't ask him! We are, however, to believe, to accept that while nodding, "Torture is OK" George W. Bush is also winking at the evidence accumulating.

If believing George W. Bush in this context is required to be American, I am clearly not as American. What, then, am I?

What have we come to? Who are we? What do we stand for? As defined by torture, the once, always superficial, American "we" is farce.

What am I doing about it? Shouting as best I can that the emperor is naked! The empire is hollow and gutless! Hypocrisy rampant! The dogs have slipped their leashes. God shows himself to be demonic.

I have noted before that historian John Lukacs, writing in 1984, predicted a return to barbarity for this time. Is there greater barbarism than torture?

As Elaine Scarry illustrates, however, torture is also an admission of weakness, vulnerability, lack of confidence. To resort to the most despicable uses of power rather than shine beacons of light as a nation is all of those things and then some.

I am ashamed. I am ashamed for myself. I am ashamed for the once United States of America. Americans are abhorrent. Americans are despicable. Americans stand for the worst.

We also stand bankrupted. Our only present manifestation of strength is through force. We have forfeited our moral base. All we have left is a bullying posture.

And, I fully expect, others will shout that Americans are the best. Exceptions do not make a rule. Unless, of course, exceptions prove a rule.

Contribute generously to funds for relief of the tortured. Pay your dues.

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1.  Stuart Creighton Miller; Benevolent Assimilation, The American Conquest of the Philippines, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1982, ISBN 0-300-03081-9  (back)

2.  "Rendition" is the strange circumlocution applied to transporting "detainees" in a chartered Gulfstream executive jet to "allied" nations such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan or Pakistan to be tortured out of sight and out of mind. It has recently come to be known that an obscure department of the US Navy was called upon to arrange leases of aircraft for renditions.  (back)

3.  Mark Danner; Torture and Truth, America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror (includes the Abu Ghraib torture photographs and the major documents and reports commissioned by the Executive Offices.), New York Review Books, New York, 2004, ISBN 1-59017-152-7.  (back)

4.  Elaine Scarry; The Body in Pain, The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford University Press, New York, 1985, ISBN 0-19-503601-8. This book rips and strips away the sophistries and exposes the hypocrisies of those who torture.  (back)

5.  Filartiga v. Peña-Irala. 630 F. 2nd 876 (1980) Conclusion. This decision is unequivocal in declaring torture to be a criminal act punishable under US law.

"In the twentieth century the international community has come to recognize the common danger posed by the flagrant disregard of basic human rights and particularly the right to be free of torture. Spurred first by the Great War, and then the Second, civilized nations have banded together to prescribe acceptable norms of international behavior. From the ashes of the Second World War arose the United Nations Organization, amid hopes that an era of peace and cooperation had at last begun. Though many of these aspirations have remained elusive goals, that circumstance cannot diminish the true progress that has been made. In the modern age, humanitarian and practical considerations have combined to lead the nations of the world to recognize that respect for fundamental human rights is in their individual and collective interest. Among the rights universally proclaimed by all nations, as we have noted, is the right to be free of physical torture. Indeed, for purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him hostis humani generis, an enemy of all mankind. Our holding today, giving effect to a jurisdictional provision enacted by our First Congress, is a small but important step in the fulfillment of the ageless dream to free all people from brutal violence."  (back)


Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect on Swans


About the Author

Milo Clark on Swans (with bio).



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This Edition's Internal Links

Theocracy. Hypocrisy. Plutocracy. - Jan Baughman

The United Corporate States of America - Raymond Garcia

The American Experiment, Really? - Gilles d'Aymery

To Hell In A Hand Basket - Gerard Donnelly Smith

What Have We Become? Not Better -- Zombie Nation - John Steppling

Soup Of The Evening, Beautiful Soup - Michael Doliner

U.S.: A Psychological Profile - Charles Marowitz

The Best Of Times - Deck Deckert

The Corporate-Owned Ivory Tower: An Omen - Audra Himes

Where Is The Left In The U.S.? - Robert Wrubel

Crisis: Depravity Of The Leaders, Obedience Of The Citizens - Philip Greenspan

Do Workers Understand Their Class Interests? - Louis Proyect

The Terms Of My Surrender... - Michael DeLang

Letters to the Editor

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Published October 24, 2005