It's worth starting with the basics, because they're what you're likely to see the least of in the uproar at hand. The system of injustice that we've sent offshore and organized globally since 9/11 - from Guantanamo in Cuba to Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan - is by its nature also a system of torture. It was designed from the beginning to be a Bermuda Triangle of injustice, existing in an extrajudicial darkness beyond our sight or oversight. There, on military bases and in special military-controlled prisons, the "war on terrorism" could be carried to its informational climax.
This developing mini-gulag was never meant to be a system of imprisonment for crimes. Hence the lack of charges, much less trials of any sort, anywhere in the imperium. It was to be an eternal holding operation for the purpose of information extraction (and possibly revenge).
We know from the May 9 Washington Post that in April 2003, after "debates" on the subject, Pentagon officials at "the highest levels" approved 20 "psychologically stressful" methods of interrogation, most or all of which any sane person would classify as torture, including the questioning of naked prisoners. In the meantime, there was a good deal of post-9/11 torture chatter in the media about how much of it we could, should and would use in a war to the death against a fanatical enemy.
Both the president and his Pentagon chief claimed to be "shocked" or "disgusted" by the forms of torture used. Yes, they had been informed of what had happened at Abu Ghraib prison, but those, after all, were just words. It was different seeing the images on television and in the press. It seems they could practise "deniability" not only on us but on themselves. But whatever the deceptions, the simple fact is that the penal system they set up was a torture system.
After all, it was a new-style bomb-shelter world. They planned to act accordingly and, our leaders made clear, to hell with international institutions and international norms, whether new (the International Criminal Court) or old (the Geneva Conventions).
They set up the cameras and determined the angles, so to speak, but when the pictures came back they had no stomach for them.
That such a system was being developed was obvious to anyone who cared to look, to read even our own press closely, or to consult groups concerned about such matters, like Human Rights Watch.
In the wake of the publication of the prison photos, the editorial pages are suddenly in full cry. They are shocked - shocked! - and ready to do something about it. And we have to be glad for that. On May 5, the Washington Post wrote, "Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday described the abuses of Iraqi prisoners as 'an exceptional, isolated' case. At best, that is only partly true. Similar mistreatment of prisoners held by U.S. military or intelligence forces abroad has been reported since the beginning of the war on terrorism."
The next day, the same page called for Rumsfeld's resignation. But it also called for the sort of special handling of terrorists that can only lead to further torture.
Accounts by released Guantanamo prisoners and those in Afghanistan indicate that psycho-sexual humiliations are part and parcel of the system itself. During the period in the spring of 2003 when our media expressed outrage (as they should have) over the parading of American POWs before Iraqi propaganda cameras, they were showing the first shots of hooded Iraqi prisoners in what looked like burlap sacks. If you go back to our newspapers of that time, you'll find such photos presented without comment.
No one discussed "hooding" as a practice until the photos of the hooded prisoners at Abu Ghraib suddenly made it look like a horror. And yet the practice, clearly systematic, must have been carefully planned and prepared for. Those bags didn't just materialize from the palm groves along the roadside.
As far as I can tell, for Iraqis themselves - though the specifics of Abu Ghraib undoubtedly shocked - none of this was exactly news. After all, they were the ones who best grasped that the essential principle of the occupation was the use of brute force (in or out of prison). Paul Bremer's "democracy," run out of the isolation of the Green Zone in Baghdad, was Iraqi-less but filled with corporate "contractors," including some who continue to make piles of money by sending hired "interrogators" and "linguists" into our detention centres to join American "human exploitation teams."
At least one of these contractors, CACI International, is still advertising for interrogators willing to work in the field in "Afghanistan Iraq Kosovo." The ad says applicants must posess "the ability to work in extreme environments... (and) knowledge of the reporting tools used in tactical interrogation operations."
Enough Iraqis have passed through our prison system there - 43,000 by some estimates, including perhaps 8,000 still in detention - that this sort of thing was hardly news.
Nor could it have been news that among the "terrorists" slipping into the country, the Coalition Provisional Authority was sponsoring hired mercenaries who had formerly worked in death squads or other heinous activities for the regimes of apartheid South Africa, Pinochet's Chile and Milosevic's Serbia.
Most of the reaction coming from this administration, whether apologetic or horrified, has to do with loss of its own reputation or credibility. It's about "wrong impressions" and, of course, damage control. Only to Americans inside the imperial bubble-world can these statements sound faintly reasonable or like actual apologies.
The irony of it all is that the more information these prisons and their "exploitation units" pump out, the more insecure Iraq (and the world) becomes. Now the post-9/11 torture system, in the form of these picture postcards from the edge, seems to be cracking the Bush administration wide open. Under torture, they're the ones who have folded.