When a group of 50 high school students visiting the White House in June handed President Bush a letter urging him to stop the torture of suspected terrorists, the president took their letter, read it, then told the students that "the United States does not torture."
By the time a president has alienated even high school overachievers, the cat is out of the bag; it is now general knowledge that the United States of America tortures people. We know that torture rarely if ever works. So what are government officials getting out of it?
Right before his recent colonoscopy, Bush announced that he had issued an executive order banning cruel and inhumane treatment in interrogations of suspected terrorists. This clarified interrogation guidelines he had issued last fall banning techniques that "shock the conscience." While the guidelines appear to be a step toward more concrete protection of human rights, the administration's constant rejiggering of the border between interrogation and torture reveals something else: a Sadean interest in the refinement of torture, a desire to define what is and is not "beyond the bounds of human decency," as the order puts it.
The claim that there is an element of sexual perversity in the government's interest in prisoner abuse may seem broad, but consider how officials discuss it. And when it comes to pictures documenting torture, they react in ways that should be as interesting to psychoanalysts as they are to constitutional lawyers, civil libertarians or investigative reporters.
In April, former CIA Director George Tenet appeared on "60 Minutes," telling interviewer Scott Pelley -- between swigs from a tiny bottle of Evian and his insistent, repetitive bark that "we don't torture people" -- that the reason he has never personally seen the evidence of the interrogation techniques he refuses to talk about is because he is "not a voyeur."
Tenet's reference to voyeurism -- which the dictionary defines as "the practice of obtaining sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or acts, especially secretly" -- would seem to imply that these unmentionable techniques are sexual in nature and therefore inappropriate. But Tenet can never know if that's the case because he, not being a voyeur, claims never to have seen them. So why bring up voyeurism at all?
A quote from an unidentified lieutenant general in Seymour Hersh's article, "The General's Report," in the June 25 issue of the New Yorker exposes a similar unwillingness to confront scenes of torture. "I don't want to get involved by looking" at photographs and videos of torture, the officer told Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba during the torture investigation at Abu Ghraib, "because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?"
When babies cover their eyes, they assume the world has disappeared because they can't see it; they think they're invisible too and that the world can't see them. Donald Rumsfeld, in Hersh's article, comes off like an innocent child rubbing his eyes and waking in a world he never made. "My God! Did I authorize putting a bra and underwear on this guy's head and telling him all his buddies knew he was a homosexual?" asks the former Defense secretary. Heck, was it all just a dream?
Maybe the reason members of the Bush administration are reluctant to look at evidence of torture is that if they did, they would be forced to admit that, for them, what happened at Abu Ghraib really wasn't torture. For them, evidently, it was sex, and that's why they won't watch.
It's not like government officials have never come right out and said that. In 2004, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) bridged the gap between the painful and the erotic by dismissing the Abu Ghraib abuses as a mere "sex ring": "I've seen what happened at Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture. It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops who were involved in a sex ring." When asked to clarify, Shays backtracked and dug himself in deeper at the same time. "It was torture because sexual abuse is torture
This is more about pornography than torture."
Last winter, when an Australian TV network released photos and videos from Abu Ghraib, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, speaking for the coalition forces, called the report "unnecessarily provocative." He didn't say the images were wrong or criminal.
Instead of just banning torture outright, as the high school students asked him to do, Bush's new executive order, which purports to be an "interpretation of the Geneva Convention Common Article 3," reduces torture to a series of deviant acts. It dwells on "sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation."
It's the exact kind of list you'd expect to find from the kind of people who go on TV and announce to the public that they're not voyeurs. Now that they've defined torture so carefully, it should be much easier for them not to look at it.
A.S. Hamrah is a writer and brand analyst living in Brooklyn, N.Y.