Torture: Our American Heritage

Noam Chomsky’s recent essay in The Nation asserts (and offers scholarly evidence) that American torture and brutality, often undertaken in the name of humanitarianism and sometimes in the name of good business practices, has been with us since the 1600s — against native Americans east and (wild) West, against Haiti, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and various Latin American countries — and the only thing remotely new about the way we’ve gone about it in the Bush-Cheney years is that instead of acting indirectly, instead of farming it out to others to accomplish at our behest, it was “carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers.”

From a Girardian pov, this is sacrifice, pure and simple. We sacrifice and scapegoat the one, or the ones, with the justification that it makes life “better” for the many.  Whatever justifications, rationalisations, reasons, and defenses we come up with, it always comes down to this. As the high priest Caiaphas said (John 11), it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed. It’s nothing new. Chomsky notes that the Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, created in 1929, depicted an Indian entreating ‘Come over and help us.’ And so “the  British colonists were thus pictured as benevolent humanists, responding to the pleas of the miserable natives to be rescued from their bitter pagan fate.”  Lucky natives.

Some excerpts from Chomsky’s essay that seem to me especially salient:

Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.” To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.

As has commonly been the case since, the “humanitarian intervention” led to a catastrophe for the alleged beneficiaries. The first Secretary of War, General Henry Knox, described “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.”

Over the past sixty years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the US torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “His is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

The reigning doctrine of the country is sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It is nothing of the sort. It is probably close to a universal habit among imperial powers.

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