I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.
Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the internment camps for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history. We also know that this treatment inflicts trauma; those who have been interned have been twice as likely to suffer cardiovascular disease or die prematurely than those who were not interned.
Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.
When I saw that Laura Bush wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about the cruelty and immorality of the Trump administration, I almost had to laugh. It takes some serious chutzpah for the family who tried to contravene a man’s wishes for his dying wife to condemn separating mother from child; for the family who mastered the politics of “you’re with us or you’re against us” (not to mention homophobia) to talk about “prid[ing] ourselves on acceptance”; and for the family who fiddled while an American city drowned to discuss “humanitarian relief” (once again, heckuva job).
But set all that aside. What is going on right now in America is a crime against humanity, and its most direct analogue, and precedent, is the Bush administration’s regime of torture, which was also a crime against humanity.
Laura and George would like to distance themselves from Trump. They would like to rehabilitate their public image by hoping that everyone forgot how stupid and evil and awful they were. But if this humble politics blog has one purpose, it is to show that cruelty and immorality weren’t born, fully formed, in the Trump administration, like Venus on the half-shell. They had direct antecedents (and, to be fair, Presidents Clinton and Obama also deserve a great deal of blame).
The Bush administration murdered prisoners. “Over 100 detainees died in custody during the war on terror. Nearly half of those deaths have been classified as homicides.” Alex Gibney in The Atlantic examines one case in particular: Dilawar, a 22-year old cab driver (of the kind that Thomas Friedman might solicit advice from, on a better day).
In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces, Dilawar was accused of launching a rocket attack against U.S. forces. There was scant evidence that he was guilty of anything, but nonetheless he was shipped to Bagram Air Base. What happened afterwards is the story of nightmares.
[Dilawar] died of a pulmonary embolism caused by trauma to his legs that was so severe that the coroner said his legs were “pulpified,” and looked like they had been run over by a truck. Had he lived, the coroner later testified, Dilawar’s legs would have had to have been amputated.
A criminal investigation revealed that the Military Police at Bagram had pummeled Dilawar’s legs with peroneal strikes, an “approved” control measure that the MPs had learned one day in their guard training. It involved slamming their knees into the nerve endings on Dilawar’s thighs. “It drops ’em pretty good,” said one MP.
Much like Kirstjen Nielsen claiming that there is no family separation policy (“Period.”), the Bush administration too tried to disavow responsibility for the horrific acts conducted by its military. Such claims were lies.
As Damien Corsetti, a member of the 519th MI unit told me, “Mr. Rumsfeld’s office called our office frequently. Very high commanders would want to be kept up to date on a daily basis on certain prisoners there. The brass knew. They saw them shackled, they saw them hooded and they said right on. You all are doing a great job.”
At Abu Ghraib, the story was similar. Seymour Hersh, who broke the scandal in The New Yorker, wrote:
The photographs tell it all. In one, Private [Lynddie] England, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, is giving a jaunty thumbs-up sign and pointing at the genitals of a young Iraqi, who is naked except for a sandbag over his head, as he masturbates. Three other hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners are shown, hands reflexively crossed over their genitals. A fifth prisoner has his hands at his sides. In another, England stands arm in arm with Specialist [Charles] Graner; both are grinning and giving the thumbs-up behind a cluster of perhaps seven naked Iraqis, knees bent, piled clumsily on top of each other in a pyramid. There is another photograph of a cluster of naked prisoners, again piled in a pyramid. Near them stands Graner, smiling, his arms crossed; a woman soldier stands in front of him, bending over, and she, too, is smiling. Then, there is another cluster of hooded bodies, with a female soldier standing in front, taking photographs. Yet another photograph shows a kneeling, naked, unhooded male prisoner, head momentarily turned away from the camera, posed to make it appear that he is performing oral sex on another male prisoner, who is naked and hooded.
Lynddie England and Charles Graner were not “bad apples” or “rogue actors”. The commands trickled down the chain: get intelligence from prisoners, and do it by any means necessary.
Another witness, Sergeant Javal Davis, who is also one of the accused, told C.I.D. investigators, “I witnessed prisoners in the MI [military intelligence] hold section . . . being made to do various things that I would question morally. . . . We were told that they had different rules.” Taguba wrote, “Davis also stated that he had heard MI insinuate to the guards to abuse the inmates. When asked what MI said he stated: ‘Loosen this guy up for us.’ ‘Make sure he has a bad night.’ ‘Make sure he gets the treatment.’ ” Military intelligence made these comments to Graner and Frederick, Davis said. “The MI staffs to my understanding have been giving Graner compliments . . . statements like, ‘Good job, they’re breaking down real fast. They answer every question. They’re giving out good information.’ ”
Hell, set aside Abu Ghraib and Bagram, where issues with the chain of command are perhaps muddled. Let’s look instead at the case of Mohammad Al-Qahtani. As Murtaza Hussain writes in the Intercept, Al-Qahtani’s case is fascinating because the government admitted to torturing him at Guantanamo Bay. There were no scapegoats, like Lynddie England. The directives came from the very top: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself.
A memo…written by [DOD General Counsel William] Haynes and signed by Donald Rumsfeld on Dec. 2, 2002, the document discarded a military prohibition on cruelty promulgated by President Lincoln as long ago as 1863. Haynes’ memo recommended 15 new techniques, including nudity and forced grooming, humiliation and deception, dogs, sleep deprivation, and stress positions like standing for up to four hours. Three other techniques—including water-boarding—were not given blanket approval, although their future use in individual cases was not rejected, either. Rumsfeld approved the memo, scribbling next to his signature authorizing these techniques the observation, “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
After being subject to these 15 techniques (and more), al-Qahtani falsely confessed to being the potential 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks. He became so disturbed by the torture he experienced that he attempted to kill himself in 2008. And, according to a medical evaluation, his treatment exacerbated his latent mental illnesses: al-Qahtani experiences severe post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia, and these conditions will last his entire life.
The number of lives needlessly ruined by the Bush administration’s torture program runs in the hundreds, if not thousands. Maher Arar, for instance, was a victim of extraordinary rendition, the program in which the American government, at the time too skittish to commit torture itself, outsourced the practice to our Middle Eastern allies. It turned out he was innocent (and, being a Canadian citizen, he won a hefty payment from the Harper administration after his story came out). He wasn’t alone. Laurence Wilkerson, right-hand man to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, admitted in 2009 that most of the Guantanamo detainees were likely innocent and should be released. Instead, their detention in many cases lasted decades, and 39 prisoners are still held there today.
Matthew Yglesias wrote on Twitter that “the same callous instincts that lead to breaking up families at the border have them keeping chemicals legal that poison kids’ brains, keeping predatory lenders in business, costing millions their health insurance, etc.” Perhaps for want of characters, he didn’t go far enough back in time.
The media personalities then dismissed torture as frat boy antics. Now, they compare family separation to “summer camps”. The legal scholars then constructed horribly convoluted legal theories to justify any sort of torture, including (no joke!) crushing a child’s testicles. Now, the claim is that family separation is justified by Biblical law. The administration, then, responded to any nagging voice of conscience by hiding their cruelty behind black sites and outsourcing it to other countries. The administration, now, bars the doors of detention camps to senators like Jeff Merkley and claims that he is “smearing” law enforcement by asking questions. Laura Bush, then, believed that George was compassionate and conservative. Laura Bush, now, believes that Trump is heartless and cruel. Perhaps, 10 years from now, we’ll hear Ivanka Trump spouting the same line, in the same credulous newspapers, about the latest Republican monster in office.