A female interrogator wearing only a bra and thong conducts a late-night interrogation of a male detainee. Another removes her shirt while interrogating another male detainee, to reveal that she’s wearing a tight t-shirt. She touches her breasts and rubs them against the prisoner’s back. When the detainee spits on her face, the interrogator leaves the room. After making sure that the water supply to the detainee’s cell is turned off, she smears red ink on her hands, and, returning to the interrogation room and pretending that the ink is menstrual blood, wipes her hand on the detainee’s face. Another female interrogator takes off her uniform top, exposing her brown t-shirt. She runs her fingers through another male detainee’s hair and sits on his lap.

The above incidents took place in the United States military prison in Guantanamo military base. The United States has occupied the base since the 1950s, resisting the Cuban government’s efforts to regain its lawful territory, which the Batista dictatorship had leased to the US before Fidel Castro’s revolution won in 1953.

Since late 2001, after the US attack on Afghanistan in November that year, the US has used parts of “Gitmo” as a prison. It currently houses over 500 detainees accused or suspected of links to the Al-Qaeda network, and/or the ousted Taliban regime of Afghanistan. Many of the detainees–they are not prisoners because they have not been convicted of any crime, and neither are they serving fixed sentences– from some 40 countries have been held for more than three years without charges, or access to lawyers and relatives.

Do the above incidents qualify as torture? No, says the US Army, which claims that US forces “treat all detainees and conduct all interrogations, wherever they may occur, humanely and consistent with US legal obligations, and in particular with legal obligations prohibiting torture”.

What those “legal obligations” are, and to what extent they’re binding to the US has defined according to its interests, however. The US military has been redefining torture to exclude such torments as sleep and sensory-stimuli deprivation (hooding prisoners so they can’t see and hear is the usual form the latter takes) to extract information. As the Abu Ghraib prison abuses revealed, the US military has also developed such tactics as sexual humiliation to extract information.

These methods are not new. The Germans in World War II and other occupying powers did use deep-seated religious beliefs to humiliate prisoners to extract information from them. These US interrogation tactics have the approval and encouragement of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and have been given legal protection by Bush’s US Attorney General-designate. But the United States has taken the greatest pains to make it appear that the torture, cruel treatment and humiliation of detainees is the work of a handful of enlisted men and non-commissioned officers gone bad, and not official policy.

The “Gitmo” incidents say otherwise. Together with the Abu Ghraib incidents, they suggest a concerted and deliberate policy to use detainees’ beliefs against them. The incidents will appear in a book written by a former US Army sergeant, Erik Saar, who says that because of the methods used by interrogators, the detainees, their families and the rest of the world will think that the United States is waging a religious war. (The Associated Press, which reported the torture, obtained nine manuscript pages of the Saar book, which is still being reviewed by the US military.)

Saar’s fear is more than justified. The use of women as interrogators in “Gitmo” and, in fact, the formation of an all-female “Immediate Reaction Force” meant to subdue unruly male captives do show that their religious beliefs are being used against the “Gitmo” detainees.

Muslim males serious about their religion regard close contact with women other than their wives as contrary to Islamic teachings. “Close contact with women,” in Saar’s documentation, has apparently not been limited to the use of female guards, escorts and interrogators in dealing with male captives. It has also included sexual touching, which, to a believer, makes one unworthy in Allah’s eyes. In at least one instance, a detainee was subjected to religious torment by making him believe he had been made “unclean” by menstrual blood, but was unable to cleanse himself because the water in his cell had been turned off.

No matter how the US military twists and turns, it is obvious from Saar’s account that the faith of the captives is being used to break them. If torture is defined as “the infliction of agony or torment either bodily or mentally” (from The New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language), the use of sexual touching and women’s exposing themselves in skimpy underwear would constitute torture for devout Muslim males.

After World War II, one of the most vexing questions to confront the human race was how it was possible for the Germans and the Japanese–whose civilizations had reached what seemed to be one of the high points of human achievement in terms of philosophy, arts and literature–to have sanctioned the sufferings they inflicted on millions of people: Germany in Europe, and Japan in Asia.

The very same question begs to be asked about the United States, which has had a long record of either direct involvement in torture, or/and of causing mass suffering across the globe from the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century to Iran and Guantanamo in our own times.

Part of the answer may well be the same impulse that drove the Germans and the Japanese to treat conquered peoples as brutally as they did. It is the belief in their superiority over others, and their common contempt for the culture of other peoples.

This is a belief apparently as deeply-rooted in the American psyche as hatred for the Jews was among Europeans, and as contempt for the “lesser” peoples of Asia was in the Japanese warrior class. It explains the enthusiasm with which the torturers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo go about their tasks.

There is also the torturer’s suspicion that the object of torture is somehow superior, at least in the strength of his beliefs. The object thus goes beyond mere military necessity, and extends to breaking the detainee’s faith to destroy his suspected moral superiority. Other commentators have pointed out as well that the torturers are driven by their own need to be convinced of their own worth, hence their doing anything to prove their loyalty and allegiance to the flag as badge of “honor.”

What these imply is a coming together of official policy and the deep-seated hatred of strangers and other cultures resident in the vast majority of the US population, particularly the racists and ne’er-do-wells, the trailer riff-raff and the white trash that, for want of any other options, the purely voluntary US military attracts.

There are governments that are able to educate their own people, to teach them compassion and respect for life, as well as for the cultures and beliefs of others.

The US government is not in that category. The torture and the forms it has taken, whether in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, or any other outpost of Empire, condemn not only the torturers, but the government, the culture and country they represent as well.

Men and women cannot be so debased unless the values of the society from which they sprang have deteriorated to such a point that having sex before detainees, trying to arouse them by sexual touching, or parading before them half-naked, have become, in their own minds, acceptable weapons of choice in the “war on terror”.

What kind of creatures are these, then, whose leaders demand by force of arms, control over a planet whose diverse cultures, creeds and civilizations they despise?


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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