It was the "mission accomplished" of George W. Bush's second term, and an announcement of that magnitude called for a suitably dramatic location. But what was the right backdrop for the infamous "We do not torture" declaration in early November.
With characteristic audacity, the Bush team settled on downtown Panama City.
It was certainly bold. An hour and a half's drive from where Bush stood, the U.S. military ran the notorious School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a motto, might have been "We do torture." It is here in Panama, and later, at the school's new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the roots of the current torture scandals can be found.
According to declassified training manuals, SOA students military and police officers from across the hemisphere were instructed in many of the same "coercive interrogation" techniques that have since migrated to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib: early-morning capture to maximize shock, immediate hooding and blindfolding, forced nudity, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, sleep and food "manipulation," humiliation, extreme temperatures, isolation, stress positions and worse.
Some of the Panama school's graduates returned to their countries to commit the continent's greatest war crimes of the past half-century. Suffice it to say that choosing Panama to declare "We do not torture" is a little like dropping by a slaughterhouse to pronounce the United States a nation of vegetarians.
The embrace of torture by U.S. officials long predates the Bush administration and has in fact been integral to U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War. In his upcoming book, A Question Of Torture, Alfred McCoy produces a riveting account of how monstrous CIA-funded experiments on psychiatric patients and prisoners in the 1950s turned into a template for what he calls "no-touch torture," based on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain.
McCoy traces how these methods were field-tested by CIA agents in Vietnam as part of the Phoenix program and then imported to Latin America and Asia under the guise of police training programs.
It's not only apologists for torture who ignore this history when they blame abuses on "a few bad apples" so too do many of torture's most prominent opponents.
A startling number have begun to subscribe to an anti-historical narrative in which the idea of torturing prisoners first occurred to U.S. officials on September 11, 2001, at which point the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo apparently emerged, fully formed, from the sadistic recesses of Dick Cheney's and Donald Rumsfeld's brains.
The principal propagator of this narrative is Senator John McCain. Writing recently in Newsweek on the need for a ban on torture, McCain says that when he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, he held fast to the knowledge "that we were different from our enemies" that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them."
It is a stunning historical distortion. By the time McCain was taken captive, the CIA had already launched the Phoenix program and, as McCoy writes, "its agents were operating 40 interrogation centres in South Vietnam that killed more than 20,000 suspects and tortured thousands more," a claim he backs up with press reports as well as Congressional and Senate probes.
Does it somehow lessen the horrors of today to admit that this is not the first time the U.S. government has used torture to wipe out its political opponents that it has operated secret prisons before, that it has actively supported regimes that tried to erase the left by dropping students out of airplanes? That, closer to home, photographs of lynchings were traded and sold as trophies and warnings? Many seem to think so.
On November 8, Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott made the astonishing claim to the House of Representatives that "America has never had a question about its moral integrity, until now."
Other cultures deal with a legacy of torture by declaring "Never again!" Why do so many Americans insist on dealing with the current torture crisis by crying "Never before"? I suspect it stems from a sincere desire to convey the seriousness of this administration's crimes.
The Bush administration's open embrace of torture is indeed unprecedented but let's be clear about what is unprecedented about it: not the torture, but the openness. Past administrations tactfully kept their "black ops" secret; the crimes were sanctioned but they were practised in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush administration has broken this deal: post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new definitions and new laws.
Despite all the talk of outsourced torture, the Bush administration's real innovation has been its in-sourcing, with prisoners now being abused by U.S. citizens in U.S.-run prisons and transported to third countries in U.S. planes. It is this departure from clandestine etiquette that has so much of the military and intelligence community up in arms: Bush has robbed everyone of plausible deniability.
For those nervously wondering if it is time to start using alarmist words like "totalitarianism," this shift is of huge significance. When torture is covertly practised but officially and legally repudiated, there is still the hope that if atrocities are exposed, justice can prevail.
When torture is pseudo-legal and when those responsible merely deny that it is torture, what dies is what Hannah Arendt called "the juridical person in man"; soon enough, victims no longer bother to search for justice, so sure are they of the futility (and danger) of that quest.
This impunity is a mass version of what happens inside the torture chamber, when prisoners are told they can scream all they want because no one can hear them and no one is going to save them.
The terrible irony of the anti-historicism of the current torture debate is that in the name of eradicating future abuses, past crimes are being erased from the record. Since the U.S. has never had truth commissions, the memory of its complicity in far-away crimes has always been fragile. Now these memories are fading even further, and the disappeared are being disappeared all over again.
This casual amnesia does a disservice not only to the victims but also to the cause of removing torture from the U.S. policy arsenal once and for all. Already, there are signs that the administration will deal with the current uproar by returning to the Cold War model of plausible deniability.
The McCain amendment protects every "individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States government"; it says nothing about torture training or buying information from the exploding industry of for-profit interrogators. In Iraq the dirty work is already being handed over to Iraqi death squads.
The U.S. role in training and supervising Iraq's Interior Ministry was forgotten, moreover, when 173 prisoners were recently discovered in a ministry dungeon, some tortured so badly that their skin was falling off.
"Look, it's a sovereign country. The Iraqi government exists," Rumsfeld said. He sounded just like the CIA's William Colby, who when asked in a 1971 Congressional probe about the thousands killed under Phoenix a program he helped launch replied that it was now "entirely a South Vietnamese program."
And that's the problem with pretending that the Bush administration invented torture. "If you don't understand the history and the depths of the institutional and public complicity," says McCoy, "then you can't begin to undertake meaningful reforms."
Lawmakers will respond to pressure by eliminating one small piece of the torture apparatus closing a prison, shutting down a program, even demanding the resignation of a really bad apple like Rumsfeld. But, McCoy says, "they will preserve the prerogative to torture."
This column was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com).