Mark Danner

The “Holiday Snaps”

Author: Ziauddin Sardar


America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror
By Mark Danner
Granta, 573 pp, £16.99

The Road to Abu Ghraib
ed. Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel
Cambridge, 1284 pp, £27.50

The truth about the torture of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq is simple. The Bush administration sanctioned it, the military deployed it, and the American public gave it a tacit nod of approval. Most of the people who were and are being tortured are innocent. And they are all Muslims.

The Torture Papers provides a blow-by-blow account of how the US adopted torture as a standard policy after the events of 11 September 2001. A few days after the attacks, the deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo wrote a memo in which he reasoned that because Afghanistan under the Taliban was a “failed state” and because al-Qaeda was not a state, the Geneva Conventions were applicable neither to the Taliban nor to Qaeda operatives, given that the conventions dealt only with “states” (Yoo presumably meant “successful” states).
A couple of months later, President George W Bush decided that the ” quaint” conventions did not apply to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. All of them, he declared, were “unlawful combatants”. Numerous other memos, collected in The Torture Papers and Torture and Truth, show that the president thought his powers were over and above international law. He was not answerable even to Congress. As one memo insists, Congress “may no more regulate the president’s ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants, than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield”. In other words, the president of the United States is a law unto himself.

“Military necessity”, argued Bush and his advisers, dictates that no method of interrogation be ruled out. It is legal and necessary for torture to be “part of the process”. Only Colin Powell, the US secretary of state at that time, opposed these callous arguments.

The road from Afghanistan to Iraq’s prisons was a slippery one. By the time the photographs of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib became public, torture had become routine. As Mark Danner points out: “What Americans did at Abu Ghraib was ultimately tied down to what they had done in Afghanistan, Guanta- namo and elsewhere.” At Bagram and other US outposts in Afghanistan, suspects were habitually and systematically tortured in a very specific way. Prisoners were hooded and stripped naked; handcuffed with flexi-cuffs; forced to squat or stand for hours; punched, kicked and beaten with hard objects; deprived of sleep; paraded naked and made to simulate sexual acts; tied to a leash and set upon by dogs; and had sticks and other objects rammed up their rectums.
The institutionalisation of torture by US forces should not surprise us – the US military proved what it is capable of in Vietnam and Cambodia. Recruits are trained to treat the enemy with contempt, to see him as less than human. Tough guys have got to do what years of cultural indoctrination have taught them – bend the enemy combatant to their will, if necessary by torture. This is the theme of countless “hard man” films, from classic westerns to Heartbreak Ridge and Missing in Action. In such films, the heroes are licensed to use ruthless violence and brutality to make the land safe for their own.

What is surprising is the normalisation of torture. It has become democratised, something that everyone should participate in, either as perpetrators or observers. Even the language used to describe torture has been cleansed of blood. Bush’s advisers, firing off memo after memo, talk about “counter-resistance strategies”; these may be “cruel, inhuman and degrading”, but they are “not torture”. The Red Cross found that the Abu Ghraib prisoners had not been tortured but had simply suffered “ill-treatment”. Sleep deprivation is “adjusting the sleeping times”. Setting dogs on the detainees is “forced grooming”. Shoving a pole up a victim’s rectum is “butt stroking”. Keeping prisoners in solitary confinement is “segregation”. And the policy to send suspects to torture chambers located in various parts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Cuba is “rendition”.

The new ingredient in this “rendition” is pictures. Today’s torturers enjoy what they do, so they keep a record. They take photographs – not just a few, but hundreds. Danner reproduces the famous 32 pictures (out of more than 200) of the Abu Ghraib tortures, reduced and neatly framed to fit several to a page. These include the pictures of Private Lynndie England: cigarette in mouth, pointing gleefully at a prisoner’s genitals; leading a naked man on a leash; smiling broadly and giving the thumbs-up while leaning on a man beaten to a pulp.

To all intents and purposes, these are holiday snaps. The perpetrators adopt familiar poses – smiling, laughing, pointing to the scenery, flirting with the camera. Like most holiday shots, they are taken in full view of others. The background activity in some indicates that the goings-on in the foreground are nothing out of the ordinary. When sent home, these photographs will join others from other holidays – all with the same smiling faces, announcing “I was there”.

That is why Private England genuinely thought that “it was just fun, harmless fun”. “Stupid, kid things – pranks,” her mother told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. Others agreed. “No different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners to his radio show.

That is precisely the point. There is a seamless connection between what happens in American society, the way society is represented by Hollywood, and the torture meted out by US soldiers abroad. In movies, torture is an everyday activity. In Man on Fire, the Denzel Washington character casually tortures a gangster, chopping off his fingers and then taping a bomb to his posterior. Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorist agent in the TV series 24, tortures indiscriminately, not caring whether his victims are suspected terrorists, colleagues or teenaged girls. The relationship between American society and Hollywood is like a feedback loop. The extremity of one reinforces the other.

This is why the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were not content simply to take photographs to send to the folks back home, but found it necessary to stage their atrocities as special events for the camera. Hence the piles of naked bodies shaped as human pyramids (reminiscent of a horror film), the man standing on a box with arms spread, wires attached to his limbs and genitals and wearing a hood (reminding us of the Ku Klux Klan), and the dead man wrapped in a plastic sheet (a scene straight from CSI: crime scene investigation). The pictures prove how proud the soldiers are of their directorial skills. They act like characters in a Hollywood blockbuster.

The nudity that is so conspicuous in these scenes has a special purpose. The enemy is not just any old inhuman dirt; it is a specific kind of gook. The “towel heads” and “camel jockeys”, as Muslims are referred to by the American military, have a loathing of nudity and public sex. Orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Daniel Pipes have been telling Americans for decades that backward Muslims do not appreciate sexual games and fun. Hence the focus on explicitness in the photos: men forced to perform anal sex; men forced to fellate other men; men humiliated by female soldiers.

The tortures perpetrated in Afghanistan, Cuba and Iraq are not the work of “a few bad apples.” The documents collected in these two volumes show clearly that everyone, from President Bush down to the lowliest soldier, understood what was required, and carried out his or her mission with due diligence.

Soldiers and politicians are not the only ones responsible for the normalisation of torture, however. As Karen Greenberg suggests, one cannot exonerate the American people. Almost every segment of society has been involved, one way or another, in sanctioning torture: the ” highly educated” writers of the memos that argued for torture; the military that denied its use; the intelligence services that suppressed the evidence; the lawyers who (mis)interpreted the law in “the cause of evil”; the press, which underplayed the use of coercive interrogative techniques; the film and television industry that represents torture as necessary and routine; and the public that refused to believe the truth. Indeed, by electing Bush for a second term, the American people have condoned torture, the indefinite confinement of suspects, and an indefinite war of terror.

No extenuating circumstances can be pleaded on behalf of the great American public. It knew the truth; and in effect it supported and sanctioned policies that made torture normal, routine and democratic. Instead of looking for evil all over the world, perhaps Americans should look at themselves.

Ziauddin Sardar’s American Dream, Global Nightmare, co-authored with Merryl Wyn Davies (Icon, £7.99), is also available as a Naxos audio book (£16.99).