Interrogations, Words or Actions? Essay

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European Medi@Culture-Online Author: Sontag, Susan. Title: Regarding the torture of others.

Source: New York Times Magazine. 23.05.2004. New York 2004. Published with kind permission of the author.

Susan Sontag

Regarding the torture of others
For a long time --- at least six decades --- photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events, and it now seems likely that the defining association of people everywhere with the rotten war that the United States launched preemptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein's prisons, Abu Ghraib. The Bush administration and its defenders have chiefly sought to limit a public relations disaster --- the dissemination of the photographs --- rather than deal with the complex crimes of leadership and of policy revealed by the pictures. There was, first of all, the displacement of the reality onto the photographs themselves. The administration's initial response was to say that the president was shocked and disgusted by the photographs --as if the fault or horror lay in the images, not in what they depict. There was also the avoidance of the word torture. The prisoners had possibly been the objects of "abuse," eventually of "humiliation" --- that was the most to be admitted. "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference. "And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word." Words alter, words add, words subtract. It was the strenuous avoidance of the word "genocide" while the more than 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were being slaughtered, over a few weeks' time, by their Hutu neighbors ten years ago that indicated the American government had no intention of doing anything. To refuse to call torture what took place in 1

European Medi@Culture-Online

Abu Ghraib --- and in other prisons in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and in "Camp X-ray" in Guantánamo Bay --- is as outrageous as the refusal to call what happened in Rwanda a genocide. Here is the standard definition of torture featured in international laws and conventions to which the United States is signatory: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession." (The definition comes from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and exists in more or less the same wording in earlier customary law and in treaties, starting with Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and in many recent international human rights covenants, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European, African and Inter-American Conventions on Human Rights.) The 1984 Convention specially declares: "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." And all covenants on torture specify that torture includes treatment intended to humiliate the victim, like leaving prisoners naked in cells and corridors. Whatever actions this administration undertakes to limit the damage of the widening revelations of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere --- trials, courts martial, dishonorable discharges, resignation of senior military figures and responsible cabinet officials, and substantial reparations to the victims --- it is likely that the "torture" word will continue to be banned. To acknowledge that Americans torture their