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Torture is an American value. US leaders from Bush to Biden are in denial

On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, US leaders point the finger at others while failing to take responsibility for their government's own torture crimes
'The US government should begin a meaningful process of addressing the legacy of harm from its torture programmes' (AFP)

Commemorating the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, both US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken released statements condemning torture and pledging to eliminate its use.

Noticeably absent, however, was any commitment to hold US government officials accountable for sanctioning, authorising, funding, and committing acts of torture.

Biden perpetuates the false narrative that the practice of torture is antithetical to US values, despite its long and well-documented history

What this silence obscures is that, from Rikers Island and Communication Management Units to Chicago police torture to Guantanamo Bay to the School of the Americas and CIA black sites around the world, the critical fact is that US torture is a systemic and enduring practice. It is an intentional tactic to break down those detained and incarcerated within and outside of the country.
 
Biden did, however, call for other states to be held accountable. “When a government commits torture, it surrenders its moral authority and undermines its own legitimacy. And, critically, when torture is committed in the name of national security, it only emboldens and multiplies enemies, fuels unrest, and leaves governments isolated internationally,” he stated.

By ignoring the ongoing legacy of US torture while pointing the finger at other governments for the same practice, Biden, like other presidents before him, perpetuates the false narrative that the practice of torture is antithetical to US values, despite its long and well-documented history.
 

Time for a reckoning 

Although Blinken veered slightly towards recognising the US practice of torture, he downplayed the true nature of the issue, saying that “We acknowledge that we must confront our own shortcomings and mistakes and uphold U.S. values."

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Torture, however, is not a shortcoming or a mistake. Rather, it is a deliberate strategy employed by the state for the purpose of exerting power and control over its victims. As George Orwell wrote in 1984: “The object of torture is torture.”

Like Biden, Blinken’s statement sought to warn perpetrators that they would be held accountable. And once again like Biden, Blinken utterly failed to hold up the same mirror to the US government, choosing instead to deflect the problem of torture onto other countries.  

Biden’s comments followed the template of his statement in 2021, which likewise missed the mark by de-centring the experience of survivors, emphasising the impact the revelation of its torture programme has on America's reputation, and rooting the problem with torture in arguments about effectiveness and “terrorist recruitment” rather than human rights.

These elements represent a pattern in US discourse around torture that prevents a true reckoning with the extent to which the US government has perpetuated it, and the lasting harms it has caused. 

Torture is especially endemic to the War on Terror and has been systematically practised by the US in the name of national security in Bagram, Falluja, Abu Ghraib, countless CIA detention sites across the globe, and at Guantanamo Bay prison. If the US is truly interested in reckoning with the crime of torture, it must undertake the task of working towards real, meaningful accountability, and not be satisfied with rote annual lip service.

Guantanamo's 'forever prisoner'

To take just one case, if torture were truly a “stain on our moral conscience”, as Biden stated, his administration would not be fighting to keep the details of the case of torture victim Abu Zubaydah, formerly held by the CIA and now at Guantanamo, secret, but would be actively seeking to address the harm done to him. 

If the Biden administration were truly interested in accountability for torture, then ending Abu Zubaydah’s indefinite detention at Guantanamo would be a good start

Zubaydah was captured in 2002, alleged to be an Al-Qaeda leader and subsequently subjected to a systematic programme of torture that included being waterboarded 80 times and being made to spend over 11 days in a coffin-size confinement box.

Despite US officials acknowledging in 2006 that Abu Zubaydah was not in fact a member of Al-Qaeda, he remains detained at Guantanamo without any hope of release. If the Biden administration were truly interested in accountability for torture, then ending Abu Zubaydah’s indefinite detention at Guantanamo - a place synonymous with torture - would be a good start.

Biden’s vague and evasive statements are not an anomaly when it comes to presidential comments post 9/11 on the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

While Trump characteristically declined to commemorate the day at all, both Barack Obama and George W Bush released statements that sought to condemn torture while focusing on its supposed incompatibility with the founding values of the US, de-centring survivors and deflecting accountability.

US torture legacy

A few times during the past two decades of the "war on terror," presidential administrations have been forced to address the legacy of US torture head-on. For example, former President George W Bush was compelled to address the atrocities that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison - when it became a global scandal.

In a statement released in 2004, Bush said: “The American people were horrified by the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These acts were wrong. They were inconsistent with our policies and our values as a nation.”

In other words, even while admitting wrongdoing, Bush’s language quickly reverted back to the narrative frame of “American values” rather than focusing on redressing harm.

Notably, this statement shortly followed the release of the US Army’s official investigation detailing the torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib, commonly known as the Taguba report, which documented sexual abuse, forced nudity, and other forms of deliberate dehumanisation such as using a dog chain or strap on prisoner’s necks.  
 
Another government report - the AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Prison and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, commonly known as the Fay Jones report - was released on 25 August 2004, and corroborated findings of the earlier investigation and detailed additional instances of abuse.

Activists protest the Guantanamo Bay detention camp during a rally in Lafayette Square outside the White House in Washington, DC on on 11 January 2018 (AFP)
Activists protest the Guantanamo Bay detention camp during a rally in Lafayette Square outside the White House in Washington, DC on on 11 January 2018 (AFP)

Despite the evidence thoroughly documenting the systematic and egregious use of torture at Abu Ghraib, only 11 US soldiers, none of them high-ranking, were ultimately convicted of crimes.

The intellectual authors and high-ranking officials giving the orders have yet to be held accountable and face consequences for their crimes, perpetuating a culture of impunity by giving a tacit green light to continue utilising torture practices.

Tellingly, Bush only addressed the torture at Abu Ghraib in light of mounting public pressure after details, including photographs, of the shocking treatment of prisoners were exposed.  

No accountability

Obama, even while trying to distance himself from Bush and his legacy, in fact followed similar discursive patterns. Obama began his presidency by asserting, in regards to torture, that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards”.

Obama's statement established his disinterest in holding accountable those who designed and implemented torture programmes in the name of national security. His position would be repeated in subsequent remarks throughout his two terms.

When Obama said we should look forward, what he apparently meant was that the doors of accountability would be closed forever

In a 2015 statement on the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, for example, Obama said: “No nation is perfect, and the United States must openly confront our past, including our mistakes, if we are to live up to our ideals. That is why I ended the CIA's detention and interrogation programme as one of my first acts in office and supported the declassification of key details of that programme as documented by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.”

But ending the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme hardly counts as taking responsibility for it and the enduring harm left in its wake, and neither does declassifying details of a programme for which no one will be prosecuted. When Obama said we should look forward, what he apparently meant was that the doors of accountability would be closed forever.

Lack of accountability abounded during the Obama administration - from then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision not to bring criminal charges in over 100 alleged cases of torture, to the administration’s ultimate decision not to prosecute any Bush-era officials for their role in green-lighting and supporting torture programmes.

To seal the deal, in the final days of Obama’s tenure, the decision was made to keep a 6,000-page report detailing CIA torture classified – an action that effectively silenced the truth and put a final nail in the coffin of accountability. 

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The failure of elected representatives to accept responsibility for these systemic and horrific acts of torture doesn’t mean that we should not continue to attempt to hold them accountable, or that calls for truth and justice should end; but it does mean that we have to proactively, consistently, and collectively disrupt the narrative that invisiblises reality and perpetuates injustice.

In addition to pursuing prosecutions against those responsible, the US government should begin a meaningful process of addressing the legacy of harm from its torture programmes.

This entails providing compensation for survivors who have been repatriated to their home countries or precariously resettled in third-party countries, often without legal status; the inability to pay rent, gain employment, or seek necessary medical care and mental health support despite enduring years of detention and torture.

Talk is cheap, and the US feigning concern over torture is even cheaper. Absent true accountability and tangible corrective measures, torture will continue to be an American value.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.