Imperialism, Islamophobia, and Torture
One key element of American imperial history is its use of torture, which can be traced back to America’s treatment of African slaves. Such an analysis of torture, especially in the post-9/11 era, is very uncommon in mainstream political discourse. As such, before I proceed, it is important to dispel the current myths about torture propagated in the mainstream media.
As is well known, the United States has tortured hundreds of detainees suspected of being involved in terrorism. It is hard not to notice when the former Vice President brags about personally authorizing the use of torture on national television[v]. These acts included water-boarding, physical beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and, in some cases, murder[vi].
The primary justification is that torture is a necessary tool to extract information from people who might know about impending threats of terrorism. Politicians (both Republican and Democrat), intellectuals, pundits and other leaders argue that America faces a new kind of threat. America is up against extremist, religious fanatics who hate the United States and wish to kill innocent Americans. Current domestic and international laws and law enforcement tactics are not sufficient to subdue this threat. As Alberto Gonzalez said to former President George W. Bush, the Geneva Conventions are “obsolete” in this new war against terrorism.[vii]
As a result, the United States must be willing to torture terrorist suspects in order to extract vital information that could prevent the next terrorist attack. This apocalyptic mindset has impacted the current American psyche and post-9/11 American foreign policy. Since the war is against a nebulous enemy, the war against terrorism is essentially a permanent war.
Despite the compelling arguments used to justify torture, adopting an objective view of the facts rips them asunder. First, there is little to no evidence to prove that torture is a useful interrogation technique. In fact, the evidence that does exist proves the opposite – that torture is ineffective because the suspect will say anything, whether it’s true or not, in order to make the torture stop. Ali Soufan, an intelligence official who interrogated Guantanamo terror suspect Abu Zubaydah, stated[viii] that conventional interrogation techniques compelled Zubaydah to provide actionable intelligence. It was only after Zubaydah was waterboarded several times that he could not provide useful intelligence.
Second, most of the people detained, usually indefinitely, in places like Guantanamo Bay and CIA-owned black sites are not diehard terrorists. The vast majority of them are innocent. Even President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other high government officials may have been aware of this[ix]. Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Cheney “had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent…If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it.” The apocalyptic mindset of the broader War on Terror justified this tragedy.
Third, torture and cruel or inhumane treatment is a violation of U.S. domestic law and international law. The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment and the Torture Act prohibits the use of torture[x]. There are several international treaties that prohibit the use of torture. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions[xi], the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[xii], the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture explicitly prohibit torture and cruel or inhuman treatment[xiii]. The Convention Against Torture even states that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
Sending a person to a country where it is known they will be tortured – a practice known as extraordinary rendition – is also illegal under international law. However, the current Obama administration continues this practice. Torturing an individual violates that person’s fundamental human rights and their inherent dignity as a human being. Not only is torture illegal, it is also immoral and one of the many accumulated evils of war.
Given the transparency of official justifications for torture, one question remains. Why does the United States continue to torture people, even though it is ineffective, illegal and immoral? Torture has historically been used by governments for four main reasons.[xiv] One reason is to extract a confession and establish guilt. Torture is commonly used in countries where the presumption of innocence does not exist in the legal system. The second reason is for power. Powerful rulers would torture people in order to instill fear in their citizenry and remind them of who has authority. The third reason is to curb political dissent. While all three of these reasons may be applicable to the United States, the fourth reason gets to the heart of why America tortures. The fourth historical reason for utilizing torture is to subjugate a group of people considered to be sub-human.
An apt comparison to the American use of torture would be the French use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence.[xv] The French colonization of Algeria was based on the racist ideology of the French civilizing mission. In the eyes of the French colonial power, their culture was superior and more advanced than the cultures of racially-inferior “others”, in this case, the Algerians. The French saw it was their duty to “civilize” people who they viewed as primitive through colonialism. As such, the French annexed Algeria and established colonial settlements on Algerian land. When Algerian nationalists engaged in guerrilla warfare to oust the French, France felt it was up against a new kind of enemy – Maoist-inspired guerrillas. In order to defeat this enemy, the French believed it was necessary to engage in exceptional and unconventional means of warfare. This included denial of prisoner-of-war protections for captured combatants, trials in military tribunals, torture and execution. The French counter-insurgency strategy is very similar to American foreign policy post-9/11. It was motivated, in large part, by a belief in Algerian sub-humanity; in other words, racism.
Racism is not just an individual problem of prejudice or hate. It is an ideology used to justify systems of hegemony and oppression. It creates a binary between the Self and the Other. The Self is ascribed all positive aspects of humanity, such as rationality, intelligence, high culture, and credit for creating the benefits of modern civilization. The Other is ascribed all negative aspects of humanity, such as irrationality, primitivity, criminality, and barbarity. By categorizing certain groups as inferior “others”, hegemonic powers rob those people of their humanity, thus, making it easier to commit acts of brutality against them for imperial interests.
Racism, under the banner of “manifest destiny”, was used to justify the genocide committed against the Native Americans that made room for American territorial expansion. Racism was used to justify the enslavement of millions of black Africans whose free labor was exploited to work on plantations and build the American economy.
Despite the advancements made during the civil rights movement, racism still exists in many areas of American life, such as the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos in prison, de facto housing segregation, inequality in the education system, and police brutality committed against people of color. Some of the most recent cases of police brutality were the deaths of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland[xvi] and 7-year-old Aiyana Jones in Detroit[xvii] – both of whom were African-American.
America’s wars against Afghanistan and Iraq serve to maintain American global hegemony and access to key resources such as oil. The racist dehumanization of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians is committed to justify America’s wars and acts of torture primarily against people from countries whose populations are predominantly Muslim and black and brown-skinned, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. It is not difficult to witness the manifestations of Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism in American society. It exists within the media and underlies the sophistry of politicians and leading intellectuals. Muslims, Arabs and South Asians are always suspected of being terrorists, similar to how black and Latino people are suspected of being drug-dealers, gang members and criminals. Racism is the fundamental ideological motivation behind America’s wars and use of torture.
The key task now is to end America’s use of torture and, more broadly, eliminate racism and imperialism; a daunting task but a necessary one, nevertheless. First, it is important for everyone, of all races, to see and treat every other person as a human being. Despite our cultural differences, we are part of one human family. Second, it is crucial that we hold our political leaders accountable for authorizing acts of torture and starting wars. At Stanford, we can start by pressuring our government to hold current Professor and former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and other government officials, accountable for authorizing torture and engaging in aggressive wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. Third, it is vital that we work to build institutions that foster peace instead of war and sustain humanity rather than destroy it. To build a better future for humanity is by no means an easy task. But a million-mile journey begins with one step. Let’s make that first step.