Torture in the United States: In Theory and Praxis

The United States is known by many as the global hegemon, especially in regard to military strength. While this is sometimes disputed, what cannot be is the vast scale on which the defense budget of the United States far exceeds that of any other country. In 2015, the defense budget of the US was $569.3 billion, while the next closest country, China, comparatively had a measly budget of $190.9 billion. With this global label and exponential expenditure comes a certain amount of responsibility on the part of the US. The United States has maintained its membership in the United Nations and ratified selected international treaties, showcasing this so-called accountability. However, their adherence to this governance remains questionable. This is especially apparent in the case of torture.

Torture is universally condemned under customary international law as jus cogens, meaning that “it has the highest standing in customary law and is so fundamental as to supersede all other treaties and customary laws.” Anti-torture has been further institutionalized by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which was ratified by the United States in 1994. This Convention defines torture as

“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, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

The United States has similarly ratified the Geneva Conventions, which “bars torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, as well as outrages against the human dignity of prisoners of war, or POWs.”

In ratifying these treaties, the United States is asserting to the United Nations and the rest of the globalized world that they will refrain from partaking in any acts that fall under these definitions of torture. They are simultaneously declaring that their vast and sometimes daunting military budget will not contribute to these acts of war. Though this sounds well and good in theory, the United States has in fact participated in acts of torture, while claiming the vague and broad definitions above do not fit their specific exploits.

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay being forcibly chained and muzzled by United States military personnel

When thinking about the justification of torture claimed by the United States, there are a few specific examples that stand out. These include acts committed in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo Bay is a US detention camp that was created to house prisoners of war in Afghanistan, while Abu Ghraib was a shared US-Iraq prison in Iraq. Each of these examples represents a series of abuses that the United States has passed off as different from the definitions of torture highlighted by both the Convention on Torture and the Geneva Convention.

Guantanamo Bay, located at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, opened as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City as part of the United States’ War on Terror. When opened, the camp was intended to be a place to interrogate suspects and, initially, the detainees were combatants captured during the the war in Afghanistan in 2002. However, it evolved into something much more dangerous. It has been discovered that many of the captives were low-level fighters and even civilians, coming not only from Afghanistan, but also from places such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Reportedly, the CIA frequently inflicted extreme torture on the detainees. This included but was not limited to: sexual assault, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, mock executions, forced medication, temperature extremes, and even forcefully making one watch another be tortured. Even though Guantanamo Bay’s illegal activities have been widely publicized, it remains open to this day. However, the Obama Administration filed an executive order in 2009 to close the prison, a work hopefully still in progress.

The techniques used at Guantanamo were then used as a blueprint for further abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, located 20 miles west of Baghdad, facilitated by the Torture Memos describing the practices. General Geoffrey Miller, a US officer during the war, was even sent to Abu Ghraib prison to ensure the practices at Guantanamo were effectively instilled. In 2004, Abu Ghraib was gripped with controversy when photos were released of the brutality conducted against the detainees. In the Taguba Report, a written report of the investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade, it was stated that violations included physically abusing detainees by forcing them to participate in many different sexual and explicit acts.

One of the most famous and widely publicized photos released of Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, a prisoner at Abu Ghraib

However, while similar practices were performed at both locations, very different discourses surrounded each. The Bush administration has publicly declared that the CIA program at Guantanamo did not include torture, as it is banned by the US government, but instead constituted what they called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The definition of this term, which was originally made vague so as to encompass multiple forms of aggression, was then used as a justification. President Bush stated that “America’s armed forces would treat the detainees ‘humanely’ in a manner ‘consistent with the Geneva Conventions’” — but only “to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity.” In 2006, it was later ruled by the Supreme Court that all detainees, no matter where they were being held, were protected by the Geneva Conventions.

While this rhetoric was used for justification of the abuses at Guantanamo Bay, an opposite form of language was used in regard to Abu Ghraib. When pictures were publicly released of the atrocities performed at Abu Ghraib by the United States in 2004, there was public outcry. At Guantanamo, the US could spin the theoretical protocol and ratified treaties as a justification, but in the case of Abu Ghraib there was clear photographic evidence of intense brutality. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that they “depict incidents of physical violence towards prisoners, acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman.” This statement was then supported by President Bush.

While the use of torture in both these places is equally deplorable, why the difference in discourse? Abu Ghraib has been publicly condemned while Guantanamo Bay lives on. The difference lies in the international community’s reaction. The photos of Abu Ghraib were proof of torture activities, exemplifying the extent to which the United States violated the theoretical frameworks against torture outlined in the Geneva and U.N. Conventions. However, at Guantanamo Bay the extent, and some could say proof of torture, was far less publicized. In today’s media climate, photographic proof such as that of Abu Ghraib speaks exponentially louder. It is much harder for the United States public to believe their own government and military are committing atrocities without clear-cut evidence. It is uncommon for a people to oppose their government without a reason, and Abu Ghraib gave them that reason. This then begs the question, what now? How do you force the world’s strongest and best equipped military to follow international law?

There is something that can be done, however small. Visit to sign a petition to get President Obama to close the base. Every signature makes an impact.

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