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9/11 and the Erasure of American Torture

“This ongoing pattern of the justification and erasure of torture is indefensible”

Photo by Tasha Jolley on Unsplash

On September 7, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man accused of orchestrating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, appeared at a hearing with four other defendants. Twenty years after the attacks, their trial has still not begun. The legal case against them is mired in delays because some of their testimony was gained under torture.

Yet their torture, and the existence of a torture program that President George Bush authorized after the 9/11 attacks has been erased from public awareness. Many Americans no longer recognize the name “Abu Ghraib,” let alone know that hundreds of people were tortured at CIA black sites, in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, and at Guantanamo Bay. None of the CIA and Bush administration officials involved in the program have been held legally accountable. The Obama administration blocked avenues of accountability for torture, the Trump administration supported the use of torture, and the Biden administration has made no moves to hold those involved in the torture program accountable.

Instead, President Joe Biden has said that torture “goes against everything we stand for as a nation.” But Biden is wrong: The Bush torture program is part of a long history of American torture of nonwhite people and the erasure of torture from public awareness. Until this history is publicly addressed, the victims of American torture will be denied the justice they deserve.

“This ongoing pattern of the justification and erasure of torture is indefensible”

The history of American torture

Far from being antithetical to American values, from the earliest days of colonization torture was used to enforce racial boundaries between “civilized” white Americans and so-called “savage” or “uncivilized” peoples. The torture of nonwhite people continued in the institution of slavery, during the war in the Philippines, and in the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. In each case, torture was said to be necessary because of the victims’ barbaric nature. Indigenous peoples were described as “of vicious and ferocious habits who know no law but force.” Similarly, slaveowners claimed that slaves were uncivilized, had “dulled sensibilities,” and needed to be taught obedience. Even though laws prohibited the abuse of slaves, these laws were rarely enforced. During the U.S invasion of the Philippines in the early 1900s, a 1902 Senate investigation found that the torture (including waterboarding) of Filipino fighters and civilians was widespread. Yet President Roosevelt defended the invasion as “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism” and asserted that instances of torture by U.S. troops were “wholly exceptional.” Of the few soldiers were tried for war crimes, those found guilty faced no serious repercussions.

The erasure of American torture

This history reveals a pattern. First, torture is said to be justified because of the uncivilized nature of those to be tortured — who are almost exclusively nonwhite. Second, torturers are depicted as motivated by necessity, and not by cruelty. Third, few, if any, torturers are held accountable for their actions. Finally, torture is erased from public awareness. So, the torture and genocide of indigenous people has been deliberately mispresented, as when “scalping” is attributed almost exclusively to indigenous peoples despite being used by white settlers and militia. Likewise, few accounts of slavery in high school textbooks discuss the torture of slaves. Some even depict slavery as benevolent. The movement to ban Critical Race Theory in schools further erases the history of slavery. The erasure of torture in the Philippines is similarly thoroughgoing. Many contemporary discussions ignore the use of torture by American soldiers and depict the invasion of the Philippines as a case study for unconventional warfare.

The Bush torture program is part of a long history of American torture of nonwhite people and the erasure of torture from public awareness.

The justification and erasure of the Bush torture program repeats this pattern. The distinction between so-called “barbaric” Islamic terrorism and American civilization was a key justification for the torture program and the Bush administration declared that Al Qaeda fighters were “unlawful enemy combatants” not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. And, just as Roosevelt said that U.S. torture in the Philippines was “wholly exceptional,” Bush asserted that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the “actions of a handful of soldiers” and “did not reflect the nature of the American people.” Finally, few of those responsible have been held accountable, and the torture program has been erased from public awareness.

This ongoing pattern of the justification and erasure of torture is indefensible. It reinscribes the myth of American civilization vs barbarism, ignores the role of torture in the history of American racial violence and discrimination, and fosters the illusion that torture “goes against everything we stand for as a nation.” This illusion enables the ongoing torture of nonwhite and marginalized people to be ignored, such as the torture of inmates in U.S. prisons. Unfortunately, given the failure of the Biden administrations and previous administrations to hold the architects of the Bush torture program accountable, a genuine reckoning with the history of American torture remains unlikely.

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