The most painful thing for the inmates there were the cries of the people being tortured. One day, they brought sheets to cover the cell in order for no one to see anything. They began torturing one of them, and we could hear what was happening. We listened as his soul cracked.
– Former inmate of Abu Ghraib
May 15, 2007 – There was an ambush outside Baghdad a few days ago, yet another accent in Iraq’s ceaseless symphony of carnage. Little about it was distinctive at first, until word got out that three American soldiers attached to the attacked convoy were missing. The Islamic State of Iraq, described in American media reports as an “al Qaeda front group,” subsequently claimed to be holding these missing soldiers as hostages. Pentagon officials confirmed their claim, and some 4,000 troops have since fanned out to search for the abducted troops.
Recall, for context, our national debate over torture, renditions, and the rights of prisoners captured in the “War on Terror.” Recall the secret memos, endorsed by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, that slapped aside Geneva Convention prohibitions against the torture of prisoners. Recall Abu Ghraib, and the shameful photos documenting the absence of those prohibitions in living, bleeding color.
It was theoretical at the time, that debate, an exercise in nationalist rhetoric and sound-bite showmanship. Those who voiced warnings, who tried to remind us that actions have consequences, hardly made a dent. Abu Ghraib was exposed, and we were outraged, and then we forgot. The mangled morality of state-sanctioned brutality continued as mere fodder for this theoretical argument, and the horrors within those faraway prison walls simply got folded into the main.
It isn’t theoretical anymore. Three American soldiers are hostages today, and God help them if their captors decide to play by our rules.
Will these three soldiers be taken by their captors to another country, to some faraway facility filled with the infrastructure of applied agony? Will they be handed over to men who know precisely how to make a nerve ending shriek, who extract screams from flesh like miners of misery? There is precedent if this happens; our government has been doing it for years. Bush’s people send prisoners to far-flung nations, where they are tortured without mercy, because that theoretical debate made this an acceptable practice.
Will these three soldiers be beaten, raped, electrocuted and murdered? Will their religious faith be used as a weapon of humiliation against them? There is precedent if this happens; our government cleared a path for the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, for the murder and rape and torture and humiliation which took place there, and it was that theoretical debate which made this an acceptable practice.
Those who tried to warn the Bush administration about the inherent dangers of mistreating prisoners used images just like these to make their point. If prisoners are allowed to be tortured, if their faith is humiliated and their bodies savaged, a terrible price will be paid. It won’t be paid by comfortable politicians who blithely red-line the strictures of our common morality while sending troops off to war. It will be paid by those troops, American soldiers struggling to survive the application of wretched policy. To allow torture is to accept torture completely, especially torture as retaliation.
If the enshrinement of torture as a legitimate tactic had been inspired solely by fear, anger, desperation or a desire to defend the country at all costs, one might be able to understand. That wasn’t the case here. The decision to make torture an acceptable policy was born, first and foremost, from the mercenary priorities of a few powerful Bush administration officials. Blowing up Geneva, ripping up rights, defying all the rules, all this was just another necessary step along the path towards the establishment of the Supreme Executive, the termination of oversight, and the wilting of any separation of powers.
Put more bluntly, three American soldiers may be suffering the torments of Hell because some of Bush’s people made a power play. They pushed the limits, and then dismissed those limits out of hand, in order to show that they could, and because nobody stopped them. Now, three soldiers who played no part in crafting those decisions face the grim results of those decisions. Those three troops do not in any way whatsoever deserve this fate, nor even the mere possibility of this fate.
In exactly 616 days, the oath of office will be solemnly sworn by a new president, bringing a final conclusion to the gruesome phenomenon that is this administration. If we, as a nation, learn but one lesson from what we have seen and endured these last years, it must be this: actions have consequences. If the foundations of basic decency are allowed to be razed, if the rights and protections which define us are allowed to be erased, prepare to reap the whirlwind.
Light a candle, lift a prayer, make a vow, do whatever suits you best sometime today. Do so in the hope that this nation, this world, and those three soldiers, may survive the consequences of the inexcusable and deadly actions which have delivered us to this place.