Poets Against War-Winter Newsletter 2006


In this issue:

William O'Daly: A Winter Sun: Writing Against Torture
Part I: The State of Torture
Part II: Speaking Freely: Poetry, Torture, and Truth
Fady Joudah: The Name of the Place
Gary Lawless: In Memoriam, Nadia Anjuman
Majid Naficy: My Poem has the Scent of Nadia
Sam Hamill Director of Poets Against War

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This is the first of a two-part commentary by William O'Daly, poet-novelist and renowned translator of Pablo Neruda's late poetry.

A Winter Sun: Writing Against Torture

Part I: The State of Torture

December 2005-January 2006

William O'Daly



"[Torture] forces even the innocent to lie."
Publilius Syrus, Sententiae, no. 171

Part I: The State of Torture

Last summer a friend and his family visited Ground Zero in New York City. He has since confided to me his belief that only those who have physically gazed into that gaping, tangled wound can grasp its dimensions, its depth and its breadth, the insidious nature of its impact on the psyche of our country. Beset by a mixture of sorrow and awe, my friend has struggled with the inexpressible weight of all the innocent dead. He, like most Americans, has tried to fathom the hatred and deranged ambition that impelled 19 people to give their own lives so as to take almost 3,000 others. Are there any other incidents in U.S. history that have left Americans clutching at their vulnerability, at the possibility of dying without warning, while commuting to work or shopping at the mall, as completely as the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

On that day, this multifarious nation's collective imagination was forever altered. Bewilderment and anger, stoked by a paucity of solid information and a cacophony of conflicting reports, alternately welled up on an undercurrent of fear. It was a fear few living U.S. citizens had previously experienced, rivaled only by the fear of nuclear war that found its culmination in the construction of backyard bomb shelters and in schoolchildren's diving under their desks during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But that near-hysteria developed within a more traditional framework of warfare and escalating threats between nation-states. The national interests and ideologies that led to that crisis were fairly well understood. With the 9/11 terrorist attacks, such was definitely not the case.

Late in the morning of September 11, 2001, former NATO commander Wesley Clark told CNN that only Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization possessed the resources to carry out such a large-scale terrorist operation. Despite bin Laden's prominent role in the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen resistance during the 1980s, and his likely involvement in the first World Trade Center bombing and in other terrorist bombings of U.S. interests during the 1990s, many Americans had never before heard his name. President Bill Clinton had fired several cruise missiles at one of his terrorist camps in 1998, reportedly missing him by only a few hours. In 2000, bin Laden's shadowy profile surfaced again with the suicide bombing of the USS Cole . Operating outside conventional structures, bin Laden and his terrorist activities, his affiliations and motivations remain something of a mystery.

President George W. Bush's subsequent and ongoing statements regarding other nations' being with us or against us, his "axis of evil" composed of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and his now famous invitation to the Iraq insurgency to "Bring it on" all appear to have been aimed at reassuring Americans. He sought to put us in touch with our nation's formidable military as well as his authority, his toughness, and his resolve to bring all evildoers to justice. As we can surmise, this misplaced machismo also was designed to simplify our thoughts and gain our acquiescence to the administration's yearning to wield our military forces with little discussion or oversight. The world was suddenly a black-and-white caricature of itself, a reduction that any angry and fearful heart might crave.

Since that time, the U.S. has waged war on the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida around the globe—the latter having boasted about the attacks—and mostly through aerial bombing that has caused thousands of civilian deaths. The U.S. bombing campaign vastly deepened an already severe humanitarian crisis and created a refugee flow that the United Nations has described as being among the "biggest movements of human beings in history." Our illegal invasion of Iraq, whose people were already wounded from a decade of economic sanctions, was begun on the heels of U.N. inspectors leaving the country. They had overseen the dismantling of Al Samoud missiles and found no evidence whatsoever of weapons of mass destruction or any nuclear weapons program. The legions of obfuscations and lies that emanated from the White House to gain the authorization from Congress and the acquiescence of the American people to invade Iraq are already well documented, and are becoming more so every day. The president, the vice president, and other administration officials have repeated them again and again in the manner of the "Big Lie"—the continuous repetition of a statement so outrageous that it is difficult to comprehend the audacity of any official who would speak it, were it not true. The administration's dishonest statements, particularly those intended to justify the invasion or to alarm, are still defended by die-hard partisans, by citizens who remain insulated from the facts, and by others who, for whatever reason, cannot allow themselves to see the facts for what they are. President Bush continues to publicly link the war in Iraq with the "war on terror," as he did in his August 20, 2005, radio address. Speaking of U.S. troops, he said then, "They know that if we do not confront these evil men abroad, we will have to face them one day in our own cities and streets, and they know that the safety and security of every American is at stake in this war, and they know we will prevail."

On par with then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's comment that we would not want the "smoking gun" that proved Saddam Hussein had acquired nuclear weapons to be a "mushroom cloud," the president's radio message was intended, again, to alarm even as he remained alienated from reality. And despite recent, carefully crafted moments of honesty, Mr. Bush has resisted acknowledging the fact that his administration's mismanagement of the Iraq war has created the conditions for the insurgency as well as created many insurgents. Contrary to the administration's rhetoric suggesting that large numbers of foreign fighters have crossed the Syrian and Iranian borders into Iraq, recent reports indicate that the insurgency may be primarily homegrown. Weeks after the September 2005 sweep of the Tall Afar region of northern Iraq by U.S. and Iraqi troops, none of the nearly 1,000 insurgents captured had been identified as having come from outside the country.

Egregious numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, including thousands of children, have been killed, and roughly 2,750 Coalition troops, overwhelmingly American, have died in ongoing operations. Aside from all those deaths and the maimed, the blinded, and the comatose of many nationalities and faiths; aside from the psychological and emotional distress experienced by the Iraqi and Afghan populations, the greatest affront to our civilization's sense of humanity and decency has been the reports of officially sanctioned torture and abusive interrogation tactics on the part of American contractors and military personnel. Such reports have issued from Guantánamo Bay, from the U.S. base on the island of Diego Garcia, from Abu Ghraib prison, and from other U.S. detainment facilities throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and, in some cases, within U.S. borders. Those reports, and now credible stories of secret U.S. prisons throughout Europe, have undoubtedly helped to swell the ranks of the insurgency from within Iraq . Nevertheless, while Ms. Rice and the president categorically stated that the U.S. does not torture terror suspects or render them to other countries to be tortured, Vice President Cheney and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone were lobbying hard to have removed from the current defense appropriations bill a proposed ban on the torture of terror suspects in U.S. custody. They sought to create an exemption that would give the president the power to instruct the CIA to engage in "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of a suspect, should the president decide it were necessary to prevent a terrorist attack. Mr. Bush threatened to use the first veto of his presidency to kill the appropriations bill, if it came to him with the torture ban intact. He relented at the final hour, lacking the congressional votes necessary for a veto to succeed. Even though he may have restored some credibility by standing with Senator McCain, the ban's most vocal proponent, it appears that the administration has salvaged a small, less publicized victory. An amended version of a companion bill—sponsored by two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl, and Democratic senator Carl Levin—would give the administration the right to use information obtained from "coercive" interrogations occurring outside the United States .

To this day, the Bush administration continues to obstruct inquiries into Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-perpetrated torture scandals. The Republican leadership is still dragging its feet on congressional inquiries, blocking outside investigations, and refusing to hold senior officials accountable for the far-reaching scandals. And yet Mr. Bush took only three days to call for an immediate investigation into the apparent torture and inhumane treatment of Sunnis detained at a Shiite militia–run torture center in Baghdad . The investigation will encompass Sunni allegations of beatings and murders, in their homes and in the streets, by the overwhelmingly Shiite security forces. Implicitly acknowledging the conundrum of the Iraqi government's investigating itself, Mr. Bush has directed the FBI and CIA to assist the investigation.

The president's understandable skepticism toward an Iraqi-only investigation takes on hues of arrogance and self-aggrandizement when considered alongside his apparent assumption that the American people and the world have every reason to place their faith in whatever he decides or says. "I'm the commander—see, I don't need to explain—I do not need to explain why I say things," he told Bob Woodward in an August 2002 interview for the journalist's book Bush at War. "That's the interesting thing about being president… I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

After being so terribly wrong about Iraq and even fallaciously telling the Polish press that Coalition forces had uncovered weapons of mass destruction; after his insistence that the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was the work of "a few bad apples"; and after his repeated denials that the U.S. tortures terror detainees, he has only now begun to publicly acknowledge that "mistakes have been made." Certainly, the protracted nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with mounting skepticism at home, made it politically expedient for the president to utter a few oblique admissions. Those specious attempts at honesty, however, preordained Condoleezza Rice's recent tour of Europe, her denials of torture and extraordinary renditions, a debacle.

Moreover, on the same day that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Secretary of State Rice met in Berlin, German citizen Khaled Masri filed suit against former CIA director George Tenet and three private aviation companies. According to The Los Angeles Times, the suit alleges that Mr. Masri, a car salesman, "was snatched while on vacation in Macedonia in December 2003, drugged and flown to Afghanistan, where he was held for five months in one of those secret CIA prisons that the administration pretends don't exist. In prison, he says, he was beaten, photographed naked and held in squalid conditions." Chancellor Merkel revealed after their meeting that Ms. Rice had admitted that the U.S. had made a mistake by kidnapping Mr. Masri, a statement promptly denied by a Rice aide. So again, we are left to parse who is lying and who is telling the truth, having only the two officials' reputations and records to guide us.

Few would consider Syria or Egypt bastions of human rights, and insurmountable evidence exists to prove that the U.S. government has flown terror suspects to those countries and others known for torture. While rendition itself is humiliating and degrading by the nature of its procedures, the case of the innocent Canadian citizen, Maher Arar—who was taken into custody at Kennedy Airport in 2002 and rendered to Syria for brutal interrogation—underscores certain dire consequences of the practice. His mind and body traumatized, his life in ruins, Mr. Arar was allowed to return to his family in Canada only after U.S. officials claimed that he had confessed; contrarily, Syrian officials admitted that they had found no link whatsoever between Mr. Arar and terrorism. A suit has been filed on his behalf against the United States by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York . The Justice Department has tried to block adjudication of Mr. Arar's claims, arguing that the proceedings would expose "state secrets." President Bush tried to take some heat off by condemning Syria 's "legacy of torture, oppression, misery, and ruin" in a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. But the blush remained, as The New Statesman quoted former CIA agent Bob Baer as saying, "If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria . If you want someone to disappear—never to see them again—you send them to Egypt ."

Amid this atmosphere of hypocrisy, double standards and secrecy, an Associated Press–Ipsos poll has determined that a majority of Americans believe that torture is justified under certain conditions, presumably in cases that might fall under what has been called the "ticking bomb" scenario. Never mind that most "intelligence" that can be acted upon is puzzled together from many small pieces obtained from different sources; never mind that legalizing such exceptions to torture bans creates conditions that are ripe for abuse. When this abdication of Western humanistic values is heaped upon the looting of ancient cultural artifacts from the Iraq Museum (which looting Coalition forces did nothing to stem after taking Baghdad), and upon the lagging and often corrupt reconstruction effort, the disparity between the moral authority America claims and our recent violations inevitably undermines the administration's remaining justifications for the invasion of Iraq. Such duplicity dishonors the sacrifices of the dead and the wounded, and it raises questions among Americans who have lost children, spouses, relatives and friends to the chaos. Such duplicity is weighed by the living who have sacrificed something of themselves to contribute toward an outcome that would be less likely to generate further violence. Such duplicity also plays directly into the hands of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and their recruitment efforts, and it creates confusion, if not outright hostility, among populations the world over. And such duplicity does nothing to protect the U.S. population or to calm the "urge and rage," to use Anne Frank's phrase, that have surfaced in the American heart.

The national debate has touched on the morality and efficacy of torture, on when, if ever, it should be used and on whom, and even on what constitutes torture. This discussion is occurring ten years after the War Crimes Act was passed, 12 years after the United States ratified the Convention Against Torture, and 28 years after two additional Geneva Convention protocols extended protection against torture to combatants in conflicts not formally declared as wars. Americans cheered the martial rhetoric of Cofer Black, one-time director of the CIA's counterterrorist unit, in his testimony to Congress in 2002: "There was a before–9/11 and an after–9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off." It is also noteworthy that the Bybee Memo (written by John Woo, a Justice Department legal counsel, and modified by then–assistant attorney general Jay Bybee) claimed that the president had the authority to suspend the Geneva Conventions in times of national security threats. Although the administration has since disavowed that memo as overly broad, it has continued to embrace the arguments of Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel at the time. Mr. Gonzales wrote of the nature of this "new kind of war": "[T]his new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva 's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." The administration has done so in spite of a near revolt by the service judge advocates general (JAGs), the military's top lawyers. Allied with Secretary of State Colin Powell, they attempted to convince their civilian bosses to retain the spirit and letter of the Geneva Conventions. They continued to petition and plead with the administration, even after harsher interrogation tactics were approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in April 2003.

Is there much of anything new about the Iraq War or its insurgency, or about either state- or non-state-sponsored terrorism? Most likely not, not since the Athenians' Thracian mercenaries slaughtered the townspeople of Mycalessus, including children in school. Or since the Spartans murdered 2,000 of their freed Helot serfs out of fear that they were plotting to overthrow the state. In reality, the new paradigm of warfare and torture looks a lot like the old one. Or perhaps the paradigm is made new by us Americans feeling threatened on our own soil, not by the Soviet nuclear weaponry of the Cold War but by the exploding vest or the hijacked chemical plant or the "dirty bomb."

A longtime resident of the United States, Chilean poet and playwright Ariel Dorfman has written compellingly of the 1973 Chilean military coup and Augusto Pinochet's Villa Grimaldi torture palace. Mr. Dorfman told Misha Berson, in an autumn 2005 interview for The Seattle Times: "[T]he U.S. as a country lost an extraordinary opportunity to mature after Sept. 11. It was given to us to look at ourselves in a moment of great crisis and grow. Instead, I think we regressed, in the sense that we allowed fear and ignorance to breed. We allowed ourselves to be manipulated. And we're paying the price for it today." Millions of Americans—poets, writers and artists, teachers, plumbers, business owners, venture capitalists, active and retired military personnel as well as veterans of earlier wars—would have preferred a response to 9/11 that brought our country's visionary imagination to bear upon the problem of terrorism. We would have preferred an integrated, multifaceted strategy to confront the attacks in a way that would not have perpetuated brutality and injustice. If our government had gone about forging working alliances, had begun culturally aware programs to improve our image in the Middle East, had continued to track down the specific individuals responsible for 9/11, and had otherwise taken a more thoughtful and less financially interested problem-solving approach, the U.S. would have reaffirmed its position as a global leader in the nurturing of democracy and human rights. It also might have drastically undermined support for Islamic terrorist groups who seek to force their reactionary fundamentalism on the predominately moderate Middle East . Instead, the ancient habits of opportunistic war and the dictatorial methods of manipulating intelligence and truth reasserted themselves, this time in neoconservative garb.

And now that the photographs are a part of our collective imagination, we cannot turn away from the degrading and humiliating treatment of terrorist detainees, the obvious tortures, or the ACLU report (based on Pentagon documents) of the homicides of at least 21 detainees in U.S. custody. It is reassuring that the military is investigating the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush, who was stuffed into a sleeping bag, wrapped in electrical cord, laid on the floor and beaten, his ribs broken, until he suffocated. Major General Mowhoush walked into the U.S. detention facility at Qaim, near the Syrian border, to discuss the detention of his two sons, and was himself taken into custody. Over a 16-day period he was interrogated and then humiliated in front of other Iraqi prisoners, a ploy which, after he had proved moderately cooperative, apparently hardened his will. Under pressure to extract information, his interrogators wound up killing him. Initially the military claimed that Mr. Mowhoush had been captured in a raid and had died of natural causes.

Charges have been brought against two of Mr. Mowhoush's interrogators, though their senior officers at Qaim have stated that they thought the interrogation techniques that led to his death were sanctioned. It is no longer a stretch to understand why those officers might have been under that impression. But it is also clear that in Mr. Mowhoush's case, as with a vast majority of other cases, torture was counterproductive. Setting aside the immorality, illegality, and repugnant nature of torture, it is possible that unreliable information obtained through abusive treatment was at least partly responsible for the Bush administration's erroneous justification for launching the Iraq invasion.

When Colin Powell delivered his February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council—detailing "evidence" that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—he claimed that Iraq had offered chemical- or biological-weapons training to al-Qaida operatives. Secretary Powell went on to say that the information had been obtained from a "senior terrorist operative" belonging to al-Qaida. News reports later identified the operative as Al-Shaykh al-Libi, captured in Pakistan in 2001 and rendered most likely to Egypt . There he was subjected to "water-boarding" and then repeatedly doused with icy water in his cold cell, where he was made to stand through the night. He finally talked, and as is frequently the case with those tortured for the purpose of obtaining "actionable intelligence," he told his interrogators what they wanted to hear. It was all lies, and al-Libi has since recanted. Even so, President Bush and Vice President Cheney continue to publicly conflate the connection between al-Qaida and Iraq as a justification for the U.S. invasion.

Ever since the Italian Inquisition of the sixteenth century, water-boarding techniques have been recognized as torture. In its raw form, water-boarding involves stripping, shackling, and submerging a prisoner in water until he or she begins to lose consciousness. Yet, despite being prohibited by United Nations convention and U.S. military law, the practice has continued to be used by CIA interrogators overseas as one of their approved "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques." In an article appearing on the ABC News web site, Brian Ross and Richard Esposito describe the technique as currently practiced by the CIA: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt." American military personnel and private contractors also have employed water-boarding and a number of other illegal methods—beating detainees with rifle butts and clubs, breaking legs and fingers, withholding pain medication for the wounded, inflicting various forms of sexual humiliation and sexual assaults with chemical light sticks, threatening their families with death and their wives and sisters with rape, and depriving them of sleep and food. Interrogators have also used a technique known in the trade as "the Vietnam ." In "the Vietnam " a person is hooded and made to stand naked on a box, arms outstretched, with wires dangling from his fingers, toes, and genitals. One iconic photograph from Abu Ghraib showing a detainee being "Vietnam-ed" has been widely distributed on newsprint, and been telecast and wired throughout the world.

Vice President Cheney sought a CIA exemption for brutal and inhumane treatment, yet Israel, a state vastly more experienced with terrorism, forbids all forms of torture, apparently with no exemptions. In late 2003, Michael Koubi, former chief interrogator for the Shabak, Israel 's General Security Services, related to journalist Mark Bowden that he came to his career through "his love of language." Mr. Koubi grew up speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic, and has worked to master the latter's idiom and slang. He believes that "the most important skill for an interrogator is to know the prisoner's language. Working through interpreters is at best a necessary evil. Language is at the root of all social connections, and plays a critical role in secret societies like Hamas and al-Qaida. A shared vocabulary or verbal shorthand helps to cement the group." Mr. Koubi claimed that when interrogating Arab prisoners, even those "whose hatred of the Jews is unbridgeable," he rarely needed to "extract" information from prisoners, and when he did, the results were dubious. Rather, he saw his role as orchestrating "their emotional surrender." His methodology involved "preparation, investigation, and theater," though he admitted to having sometimes "softened up" prisoners by utilizing sleep deprivation, extremes of hot or cold, and other aggressive techniques that recently have come to be known as "torture lite." There was outrage, within Israel and without, at Mr. Koubi's tactics, yet his emphasis on language and culture, on convincing the prisoner that he was more of the prisoner's culture than the prisoner, obviated the perceived need to torture, and this in a society that has both terrorized and been terrorized on a regular basis. "No accent, no mistaken syntax. I speak to him like his best friend speaks to him," explained Mr. Koubi. "I might ask him a question about a certain word or sentence or expression, how it is used in his culture, and then demonstrate that I know more about it than he does. This embarrasses him very much."

It would seem that the biggest similarity between Mr. Koubi's measured and thorough approach and that of trained U.S. interrogators, whose methods have been informed by behavioral psychologists, is that both are intent not so much on teaching the subject a lesson or deterring other offenders, but on obtaining reliable information that might help prevent future terrorist attacks. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Jack Jacobs, a former interrogator, has spoken to reporter Chris Jansing about his experiences: "At the end of the day, it's very easy to distinguish between the right thing and the wrong thing to do. If you do the wrong thing, you're not going to get any positive payoff from it and it's going to be of at [sic] some great cost. We get much more information if we treat people properly." Colonel Jacobs went on to say that at Guantánamo Bay, which he recently visited, the detainees tell their interrogators whatever they want to hear if it means better treatment. "[I]f you treat people inhumanely, they're just going to tell you what they think you want to hear. They'll do anything just to get the mistreatment to stop, so you get nothing from mistreatment." Further, "When I was in Vietnam, we were given…the best intelligence and had the most success with captors [sic] if we gave them cigarettes, medical care, food [and] water. Almost always, you get the best success from treating people properly."

M. Gregg Bloche, professor of law at Georgetown University and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Jonathan H. Marks, a barrister in London and bioethics fellow at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, have put forth a compelling theory regarding the techniques employed by American interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the detention center at Qaim, and other facilities in Iraq. Citing supporting documentation that describes the "strategic error" that led to the adoption of tactics that rose to the level of torture, they believe that "the Pentagon effectively signed off on a strategy that mimics Red Army methods. But those tactics were not only inhumane, they were ineffective. For Communist interrogators, truth was beside the point: their aim was to force compliance to the point of false confession." Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) was a classified program at Fort Bragg, N.C., "based on studies of North Korean and Vietnamese efforts to break American prisoners"; it "was intended to train American soldiers to resist the abuse they might face in enemy custody." Messrs. Bloche and Marks believe that the Pentagon, frustrated by the lack of intelligence produced at Guantánamo Bay, flipped the SERE program on its head and mined it for interrogation methods. General James T. Hill, chief of the United States Southern Command, said in a June 2004 briefing that a team from Guantánamo went "up to our SERE school and developed a list of techniques" for "high-profile, high-value" detainees. General Hill then sent the list to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in December 2002 first approved many of the abusive tactics.

Although the SERE methods were originally intended to be meted out in precise dosages, the intense pressure to produce intelligence and, in Iraq, the stress of combat and the loss of fellow soldiers made it nearly impossible to apply the methods in a controlled manner. One failure of this kind was the previously mentioned death of Major General Mowhoush. Messrs. Bloche and Marks obtained a memorandum from a former SERE trainer, in which he cites "command authorization of ‘stress positions' as justification for using what he called ‘the sleeping bag technique.'" "A cord was used to limit movement within the bag and help bring on claustrophobic conditions." "Those who squirmed or screamed in the sleeping bag" were "allowed out as soon as they started to provide information."

The irony of Saddam Hussein and his co-defendants standing trial for a series of crimes against humanity (the torture and mass murder of Kurds among them), after our own national leaders set the tone and in some cases approved the use of abusive techniques long ago perceived as torture, is lost only on those who, in all matters, believe in American exceptionalism. When the United States becomes the exception to democratic law and human decency while launching unnecessary preventative wars that result in tens of thousands of casualties in the name of establishing freedom and democracy, Americans predictably become a prime target of resentment and hate, prime motivators of vengeful violence. When it is criminal for Syria, Egypt, Uzbekistan, North Korea or North Vietnam, Argentina or Chile to torture when they feel threatened, yet it is somehow incumbent upon the United States to take off "the gloves" when it feels threatened, our nation is accurately perceived not only as having abdicated its values but as being guilty of moral cowardice in the act.

"Some argue that since our actions are not as horrifying as al-Qaida's, we should not be concerned," wrote Captain Ian Fishback in a letter to Senator McCain prior to their meeting in October 2005. "When did al-Qaida become a standard by which we measure the morality of the United States ? We are America, and our actions should be held to a higher standard, the ideals expressed in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution." Formerly of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, a recipient of two Bronze Stars, and a West Point graduate with special forces training, Captain Fishback revealed that prisoners taken during the siege of Fallouja "were kicked and beaten, their bones broken and eyes doused with irritants." He and two sergeants have charged that, in 2003 and early 2004, detainees were routinely tortured. Captain Fishback recognized some of the methods of torture from his tour of duty in Afghanistan, concluding that the problem was systemic. He and the sergeants went public only after their reports were ignored by higher-ranking officers.

It is easy to forget that many Middle Easterners are getting to know the United States far better than they have previously. This is particularly true of Muslim Arabs who were young children during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. If we were in their shoes and beheld what they are witnessing—from torture and American leaders' cultural cluelessness to the violent insurgency that the war and occupation have unleashed, to the insipidly poor planning, to the faltering reconstruction and the double-talk—what would we think? What would we feel? How would we cope with the deaths of our children as "collateral damage," with stories of the torturing of unindicted countrymen by agents of a paternalistic occupying force, one that decided for us that our deaths were worth our "liberation"?

We must ask ourselves why we have allowed ourselves, as a democratic nation, to be led into taking such precipitous action, how we got ourselves here and where we each stand in relation to the spread of liberal democratic principles for which we are willing to kill Iraqis and sacrifice American soldiers. If we are to weigh the morality and legitimacy of our nation's actions, we must possess the courage to bring our imaginations to bear upon these questions and answer them as honestly as possible. This self-interrogative process is at the root of all the great moral and ethical systems, and is necessary in order to achieve genuine compassion. It is a basic corrective to the ideological and economic ambitions of any democratic civilization.

"If Kuwait grew carrots we wouldn't give a damn," said Lawrence Korb, former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, commenting in August 1990 on the motives for Operation Desert Storm. And deep inside, even American neoconservative power brokers and the starving farmers of Darfur know it.

Part II  Speaking Freely: Poetry, Torture, and Truth


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