A member of the US Special Forces bound his hands with rope and put a hood over his head. He was held in a room with the windows blacked-out and guarded round-the-clock. The guards taunted him with epithets like “shitbag” and “shithead.”

He was given food, but not enough so that he was always hungry. Wounded during his first days of captivity, his wound was left untreated, as US military intelligence interrogated him several hours each day.

Afterwards, US soldiers blindfolded him, wrote the word “shithead” across the blindfold, and posed for photos with him. His wrists were cuffed so tightly they were scarred. His hands were numb for months.

He was flown to a Marine airbase called Camp Rhino, where he was stripped naked, fastened to a stretcher with duct tape, and placed inside a metal shipping container. There was no light, heat or insulation. Only two small holes provided ventilation. Only later did his American guards put a blanket on him, but he was still freezing cold at night and in constant pain because of his wound and the tight cuffs. To urinate he was propped up by guards while still strapped to the stretcher.

He was later dressed in a hospital gown, and taken to a room where an FBI agent asked him to sign a form waiving his constitutional rights. To get better treatment he agreed, and was interrogated by the FBI for two days. Afterwards he was taken to a US warship, where he was treated for dehydration, hypothermia, and frostbite. The bullet still in his leg was removed the next day.

No, this prisoner’s name was not Abdul, Osama or Muhammad, but John Walker Lindh. The place was not Iraq, but Afghanistan, and the inclusive period was December 7 to 14, 2001. His Northern Alliance captors turned over Lindh, whom the CNN called “the American Taliban,” to US forces on December 7.

Lind was wounded and sick from days of brutal captivity. Among other amusements, his Afghani captors—US allies all—would throw grenades into where he and other prisoners were being held. At one point they fired rockets into it; at another they filled it with freezing water. By the time Lindh emerged from that makeshift prison, only 84 out of some 300 prisoners had survived.

Lindh received relatively better treatment at the hands of his fellow Americans, but there’s no denying that they too violated his rights, and subjected him to treatment that clearly qualifies as torture. He has since been returned to the United States where he is under trial for supporting the Taliban. Lindh, who had joined the Taliban army at an early age to fight the Russians, was lucky. He’s American, after all, in a world the United States divides into “them”—anyone who isn’t—and “us”.

Lindh’s former comrades in the Taliban haven’t been as fortunate. In December 2002 the US Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote US President George W. Bush urging him to look into reports that suspected members of Al-Qaeda were being tortured in Afghanistan, while others had been turned over to other countries, among them Morocco, Pakistan, and Jordan, which routinely torture prisoners.

“Torture is always prohibited under any circumstances,” said the HRW’s Kenneth Roth, who warned Bush that “US officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world.”

Roth wrote Bush in reaction to a rare expose by a US media organization of possible US wrong-doing. The Washington Post—which also exposed the abuses at Abu Ghraib– had reported in a December 2002 issue that persons being held for interrogation in the CIA center at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were being subjected to “stress and duress” techniques, including “standing or kneeling for hours,” and being held in “awkward, painful positions.”

Roth reminded Bush that the Convention Against Torture, which the US has ratified, specifically prohibits torture and mistreatment, as well as sending prisoners to countries where they’re likely to be tortured. HRW urged Bush to issue a statement declaring it contrary to US policy to use or facilitate torture in any circumstances.

Bush issued no such statement. On the contrary. Although he has not openly said torture is ok, Bush has authorized the kidnapping of suspected terrorists anywhere in the world, their indefinite detention in special US prisons, among them that in the US base in Guantanamo. He has also denied them counsel, and in the case of Abu Ghraib, had allowed his commanders to bar the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The claim by US generals in Iraq that the mistreatment, abuse and torture of prisoners in the US-run Abi Ghraib prison is contrary to US policy has no basis. At one point the use of torture was openly discussed as an option in US government circles, on the justification that it was “wartime.”

Not only is any Bush statement declaring it contrary to US policy to use torture lacking. US prison custodians have individually admitted that they were given no guidelines to follow and no policies to observe on the job—which amounts to giving prisoner custodians free rein in the latter’s treatment.

The brutal treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib—incidentally only one of 14 prisons in which some 8,000 prisoners considered threats to United States personnel (meaning they resisted the US occupation of their country) are being held—has been attributed to individual depravity by some commentators and described as aberrations by military commanders and by Bush himself.

Bush thus declared that the abuse “does not represent the American that I know,” and said in so many words that it was not a matter of policy. The statements of the suspended US general formerly in command of Abu Ghraib prison, however, suggests that torture was indeed a matter of policy meant to soften prisoners prior to interrogation.

Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski has told US media that military intelligence, and not her military police, had control over the sections of the prison where the abuse happened. And as may be gleaned from the accounts of Iraqis who had been held there, the use of torture and humiliation was systematic, and was meant to break the prisoners’ spirits before they were interrogated.

That what was happening in Abu Ghraib—and is likely to still be happening in the US military’s other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan– is so totally alien to US policy and actions Bush could say with a straight face that it’s not part of the America he knows is denied by the world’s experience with US power over the last 100 years.

A hundred years ago US occupation troops were using the water-cure and plain beatings to extract information from captured Filipino guerillas. Some thirty years ago they were electrocuting captured Vietnamese fighters for the same purpose, shooting women and children, and torching hundreds of villages, according to recent studies on what really happened in Vietnam during the peak years of US troop presence there.

In Latin America the US government trained the torturers of Chile, Argentina, Honduras, and a host of other countries, with their operatives standing by in some cases, in the fine arts of torture—as they did the most infamous torturers and murderers of the Philippine military before, during and after the martial law period through its so-called “public safety program.” Let’s not even talk about what happens to blacks in certain US prisons.

Not representative of America? On the contrary. Torture and the encouragement of it is as American as apple pie and tail-gate picnics on July fourth afternoons.

One is tempted to describe the US prison network now in place all over the world as the American Gulag. But that would be insulting to the Soviets, the US network being worse. At least the Soviets kept their prisoners in overcoats, and did not force them naked into pyramids, on top of which a blonde, grinning idiot of a female soldier—exactly the kind of girl GIs could take home to Mom—could have her picture taken so she can tell her grandchildren years from now how she brought democracy to Iraq.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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