:: Article

Crime of the Century

By Max Dunbar.


On 6 December al-Qahtani was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head. On 17 December he was told that his mother and sister were whores and that he was a homosexual and other detainees knew about these tendencies. On 20 December a leash was tied to his shoes and he was led around the room and forced to perform a series of dog tricks. He was also forced to dance with a male interrogator. Also in December he was strip-searched and, on one occasion, forced to stand naked for five minutes with females present. On three occasions he was prevented from praying during interrogation. On another occasion two copies of the Koran were put on a TV, and at another time an interrogator ‘unintentionally’ squatted over his Koran. On seventeen occasions interrogators poured water over his head.


Torture Team: Uncovering War Crimes in the Land of the Free, Philippe Sands, Penguin, 2009

The reviewer’s reflexive temptation is to go for courtroom metaphors: forensic examination, prosecutorial zeal, marshalled evidence. Yet Torture Team reads more like investigative journalism than legal argument. Sands uses the case of a single Guantanamo detainee to expose a conspiracy worse than Watergate.

‘Military necessity does not admit of cruelty – that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge, nor of maiming or wounding except in fight, nor of torture to extort confessions.’ The Bush administration had no time for the instruction of Abraham Lincoln and even less for the ‘quaint’ precepts of international law. The Geneva Convention was drawn up in the aftermath of World War Two. The cost of fascism and war was a loss of millions of lives and unimaginable amounts of human suffering. The Convention sought to lay down basic rules of war to minimise future suffering. Common Article 3 contained an unequivocal ban on the use of torture.

The common misperception about Abu Ghraib was that it was the work of a few bad apples – idiotic talkshow host Rush Limbaugh described the incidents as ‘just boys and girls blowing off steam during a stressful situation.’ In fact, American torture and complicity in torture was a top-down policy, with techniques drawn up at senior government level. They were originally intended for Guantanamo detainees only, but ‘migrated’ to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The administration and its defenders would argue that exceptional times demand exceptional measures. In the words of Doug Feith, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Bush team were ‘grappling with this extremely difficult problem of how do you defend the system against enemies of this kind, and some people came up with some ideas that were a little over-enthusiastic’. Alan Dershowitz backed this up with the one-in-a-million ticking bomb scenario. Bush apologists pointed out that al-Qaeda had not signed the Geneva convention – as no totalitarian movement would.

It’s the same story. Human rights are inviolable until we feel the need to violate them. But how effective were the torture policies, exactly? Their use fed into al-Qaeda propaganda. The hypocrite West preached human rights while pissing on the human rights of their enemies. The detention logs, with interrogators forcing Big Macs and pornography on detainees while Christina Aguilera played in the background, read like some dark Occidentalist fantasy.

Mohammed al-Qahtani, the detainee in the opening quotation, was held for six years. In February 2008, he was finally charged: but the only supporting evidence the Department of Defense could come up with was that ‘he had attempted to enter the US in August 2001, that he carried $2,800 in cash, and that he had an itinerary that listed the name of another detainee who was being charged with assisting and preparing the 9/11 hijackers.’ That was all they could get out of him. Sands notes that ‘[a]ll of this information was available to interrogators well before the Hayes memo was written or used.’ Aside from the moral evil of torture, it simply doesn’t work. The torturer hears what he wants and expects to hear. The sleep deprivation and mental distress inflicted on al-Qahtani meant that he could barely pass on information in a lucid and coherent manner even if he was able and wanted to.

In a final mocking twist, President Bush signed the 2006 Military Commissions Act, ‘which created a new defence to alleged breaches of Common Article 3 for government employees where the misconduct concerned the ‘detention and interrogation of aliens’ between 11 September 2001 and 30 December 2005.’ Essentially, it gave them immunity from prosecution. As Sands says, ‘Legislation creating such an immunity would allow the crime to be covered up; it was almost an admission that a crime had taken place.’ They knew breaking Article 3 was a war crime and retrospectively wrote themselves out of the frame.

Or not quite. One quote from an academic colleague of Sands keeps recurring: ‘It’s a matter of time… And then something unexpected happens, when one of these lawyers travels to the wrong place.’ General Pinochet, who also wrote a get-out-of-jail-free card into his country’s legislature, was arrested in London on universal jurisdiction for atrocities committed during his reign. He had gone to England for medical treatment.

‘The Torture Convention will come back to haunt those associated with the Administration’s interrogation policy,’ Sands tells a San Francisco conference. ‘Individuals who are associated with the policy of torture are likely to find themselves facing the very same tap on the shoulder that Senator Pinochet got so unexpectedly on 16 October 1998.’ Let us hope so.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 18th, 2009.