January Issue 2015
America’s Dark Side
“Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the colour of their skin; those who let the murderers of blacks remain free, protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men — how can those who do this, consider themselves guardians of freedom?”
These words are part of a comprehensive critique of the United States that the United Nations General Assembly endorsed with prolonged applause in December 1964. It was delivered by the leader of the Cuban delegation, Ernesto Che Guevara.
This particular aspect of the indictment has lost little of its validity in the 50 years that have ensued. The same thing could been said today, particularly in the light of events last year that have brought reminders of the civil rights movement in the shape of sustained protests.
It is notable, although hardly surprising, that nothing even remotely comparable to the uproar over the avoidable deaths of young black men at police hands has followed the controversial release last month of a Senate Intelligence Committee report containing graphic descriptions of torture methods employed by the CIA.
In the run-up to the publication of the report, security was tightened at American embassies and consulates in anticipation of a backlash that never came. Pakistan and Afghanistan, meanwhile, were among the countries that expressed consternation over the revelations, notwithstanding their own reputations for equally reprehensible conduct. The UK, on the other hand, is suspected of having persuaded the US to redact portions of the report relating to British involvement, and now faces the prospect of a domestic inquiry.
The rage over race relations erupted after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, was shot dead in August in Ferguson, Missouri, by policeman Darren Wilson, who claimed he felt threatened by the youngster, even though Brown was unarmed and apparently had his hands in the air at the time he was killed.
Riots broke out in Ferguson, while peaceful protests were staged right across the US, focusing attention once more on the knee-jerk tendency among law-enforcers to view young black men, in particular, as potential law-breakers based on the colour of their skin. No one could seriously claim that nothing has changed in the past 50 years. But it could reasonably be argued that attitudes have not changed enough.
The election of a black president in 2008 was rightly seen as a watershed, but the notion that Barack Obama’s presidency represented a pathway to a post-racial society turned out to be grievously mistaken. If anything, there is some evidence of regression during the Obama years. It’s not the president’s fault, although the resentment to his ascendancy spawned among substantial segments of American society is suspected of having fed into that trend.
The anger over Michael Brown’s unwarranted killing was revived when a grand jury decided that Wilson would face no charges. And it was redoubled when another grand jury returned the same verdict in the case of Eric Garner, a New York cigarette vendor who, during an attempt to arrest him in July, had been put in a chokehold that caused his death. Video evidence shows that he said “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died, yet the chokehold wasn’t relaxed even after he was clearly incapable of putting up any resistance.
Even the authorities were flabbergasted by the grand jury’s decision, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio let it be known that he empathised with the protesters, who made their presence felt not just in New York but also in Washington. Then a mentally unstable man shot dead a pair of New York police officers, undermining the protests and putting de Blasio on the defensive. The mayor, who has a mixed-race family, had declared a couple of weeks earlier that — like most parents in the African-American community — he had lectured his son about how to conduct himself in the presence of policemen.
Earlier last month, meanwhile, a rookie cop in Cleveland shot dead 12-year-old Tamir Rice after police received a report about a person parading around with a gun in a local park. It turned out to be a toy. The boy’s 14-year-old sister was tackled and handcuffed when she ran towards Tamir after hearing the shots.
It would be unduly optimistic to presume that another civil rights movement will emerge in the US, even though something on that scale may be exactly what is called for in a country where the police force has increasingly been militarised, where non-whites are disproportionately targeted by the forces of law and order, and where the justice system leaves much to be desired. It is not yet the country that Martin Luther King envisaged, where people would be judged by the strength of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
A year before he was assassinated in 1968, King also described his nation as the primary purveyor of violence in the world. He was speaking in the context of Vietnam, where torture by the US and its allies was commonplace. By then the CIA and other agencies were also implicated in offering training, sustenance and encouragement to favoured torturers in Latin America and elsewhere. Robert Fisk recently reminded us that “it was the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal who first wrote of how the CIA circulated film of an Iranian woman being tortured by the Shah’s secret police so that other nations should learn how to make female prisoners talk.”
By the mid-1970s the CIA had been investigated and restrained, at least on paper. It often wriggled out of the constraints, though. By 1979 it had launched its largest covert war since Vietnam — in Afghanistan, where, along with weapons and training, manuals on brutality were supplied to the mujahideen.
However, all bets were off once this waltz with the jihadis had led to the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. By 2002, new “enhanced interrogation techniques” were being worked out, never mind that the phrase was more or less a literal translation of ‘VerschÃ¤rfte Vernehmung,’ a term coined by the Nazi Gestapo.
Rectal rehydration may be the most interesting euphemism to have entered the vocabulary lately, implying an exotic form of therapy, but in fact signifying an unusual form of torture — the pumping of water up the rectum. Sometimes meals were also “fed” that way to uncooperative witnesses — through the wrong end. Waterboarding we already knew about, and the Abu Ghraib revelations of a decade ago also shed light on various other methods of enhancing pain and humiliation.
One thing the Senate report does not tell us, however, is that in the lead-up to the assault on Iraq in 2003, much of the attention in questioning detainees was focused, under pressure from the White House, on obtaining “evidence” of links between Al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime.
No such evidence existed, hence it was impossible to coerce it out of terrorist suspects. Much attention has been focused on the report’s conclusion that torture yielded no actionable intelligence — it neither helped to prevent further terrorist attacks nor contributed substantially to the pool of knowledge that eventually led Americans to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad. Some commentators have aptly pointed out, though, that torture is unconscionable in any case, regardless of whether any “useful information” can be obtained through it.
The American public, by and large, appears to have ignored the debate being conducted via media outlets, with George W. Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, prominent among those arguing that the CIA’s methods were both justifiable and useful. Others have suggested that if the culprits are ever brought to account, Cheney should be prominent among them.
There’s no reason to suspect, however, that anyone will be brought to trial. Nor is there any question of international legal proceedings, given that the US does not submit itself to the jurisdiction of any global judiciary. And the impunity in this context is comparable to that for trigger-happy American cops.
On the other hand, the fact that America itself has exposed its excesses is, no doubt, commendable, and senators such as Diane Feinstein and Mark Udall deserve kudos for this achievement. But if nothing comes of it, and the same mistakes are repeated ad infinitum, what’s the point of it — beyond a record that holds a mirror to America’s dark side?
There’s irony aplenty in the fact that many suspects were delivered for torture to regimes that the US subsequently sought to dislodge, not least in Libya and Syria. But these ironies, too, are destined to be overlooked amid the chaos that has followed in the Middle East.
In respect of both racial relations and the so-called war on terror, the sense of moral superiority that the US projects has been exposed as a farce. The possibility of making amends does exist. But that will involve nation-building at home, rather than in occupied territories.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.