Iraqi detainees are taken to be questioned. Photo: Sean Smith

US Empire: drone strikes, torture and prison industries

  • August 27, 2015

Imperialism & Insurgency

Torture and abuse of American prisoners at home and abroad are not the acts of a few bad apples, but examples of systemic, state-sanctioned violence.

In a ruling on May 5, a Canadian judge issued orders for the release of Omar Khadr on bail rejecting the government’s appeal to keep him detained. Khadr was arrested in 2002 as a 15-year old child on charges of assaulting a US Marine and was detained at Bagram and later at Guantanamo Bay where he was subjected to stringent interrogation techniques and torture.

Guantanamo’s child walks free today after twelve years in prison, but the system responsible for the humiliation and torture of Omar Khadr‬ remains intact. The hegemony of this surveillance, state security and prison apparatus is globalizing at a rapid rate. It took the Canadian justice system twelve years to get one of its own citizens freed, and there are many others still rotting in Guantanamo Bay. Some of them were accused of “terrorism” as juveniles. They don’t have the luxury of appeals and bails because they are “Muslim terrorists”, the torture and abuse of whom is legitimized by the US war machine.

The case of Khadr is part of a broader history of a US-run globalized system of torture and abuse. Muhammad Jawad, Ismail Agha, Abeer Al-Janabi, Mohammed Al-Gherani, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, Sumiteru Taniguchi and countless unnamed others are all children of war brutalized and tormented by the US army.

The Bush administration itself confessed in a 2008 report to the United Nations that it had detained over 2,500 juveniles in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002. A recent report revealed that US soldiers and contractors sexually abused at least 54 children in Colombia between 2003 and 2007. A single drone strike managed to kill 63 children in a madrassah of Bajor Agency, Pakistan.

Is this violence random and accidental? The raging discussion among the media pundits and activists portrays torture and abuse in the War on Terror as an “exception” – a bad chapter in the glorious history of America; the responsibility of a “bad few”; that if condemned enough would demonstrate the truly democratic and peaceful nature of American citizens.

This alternate patriotism is based on the same old politics of exceptionalism and conveniently draws attention away from the systemic nature of torture and abuse in the American wars. We need to challenge the popular narrative of exceptionalism by discussing the context of this abuse and the conditions which enable it to emerge.

Incarceration at home and abroad

The recent carceral boom in the US is fundamentally tied to the growth of the prison industrial complex – the domestic extension of the US Empire. From 1991 to 1999 the rate of violent acts in the US decreased by 20 percent but the number of people in prison increased by 50 percent.

According to a BJS report, 2 million adults were incarcerated in US federal and state prisons and county jails and nearly 7 million adults were under correctional supervision in 2011, the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The companies benefiting most from this prison system are Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO group. The glorious notion of “freedom” the US upholds basically entails incarcerating as many people as possible while allowing corporations to participate freely in the market. In the wake of 9/11, the US started to export its massive prison architecture – initially meant to control the US African American population – to Third World countries. This in effect extended control over African Americans back at home to the control over Muslim populations abroad.

Under the Extraordinary Rendition project of the CIA, detention centers have been set up around the world for the illegal incarceration and interrogation of the “most dangerous suspects”, using the most deplorable torture techniques without any legal consequences.

Amidst all the redactions, the 500-page, White House-approved summary of the 2014 Senate report of CIA “interrogation techniques” includes several references to these “black sites” around the world. A less well known report released by the Open Society Foundation in 2013 provides evidence of CIA detention centers operating in 54 countries around the world where torture is an approved technique of interrogation.

Susan Sontag, while reflecting on the pervasiveness of the prison system, said that this carceral empire has even exceeded the limits of procedures in French Devil Island and the Russian Gulag system: “Endless war is taken to justify endless incarcerations – without charges, without the release of prisoners’ names or any access to family members and lawyers, without trials, without sentences.”

This incarceration works in tandem with the global presence of US military. The US hosts 16 spy agencies that employ 107,035 people around the world. As of 2011, there were 60 known bases for operating drone aircrafts around the globe. Apart from a major concentration in North America and Latin America, the highest number of US military bases is in Iraq (100+), Afghanistan (80+), Japan (130), South Korea (106) and Germany (287). Currently, the US army employs more than one million people.

Killer drones, accidental victims

This empire of military and prison architecture evolved alongside the abuse, torture and massacre sanctioned by US nationalism. A recent report by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and other groups examined that the War on Terror has “directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan.” The regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Iraqi civilians, half of whom were children.

Similarly, millions have been affected directly and indirectly by the US-led war in Afghanistan. President Obama in order to minimize the risk started to withdraw the troops but continued drone strikes. On average, one out of every four refugees worldwide is Afghan with a sum of 2.6 million concentrated in Pakistan and Iran.

Pakistan itself has had its share of heavy civilian casualties and internally displaced people because of US interventions amidst all the military operations carried out by the Pakistani Army itself. In the twelve years of drone strikes in Pakistan, the number of minimum casualties according to the data collected by BIJ, is around 2,500 – with less than 12 percent of casualties identified as militants.

The drone strikes in Yemen have killed around 444 people, whereas the figure in Somalia stands at 246. Needless to say, a significant proportion of these numbers have been reported as civilians and children, and these are only the recorded figures about a program whose operations are shrouded in a veil of utmost secrecy.

By characterizing these instances of abuse and civilian deaths as an exception, the American state manages to present itself as the victim, deflecting attention away from the actual victims of abuse. Even if the drone program, that the Obama administration characterizes as having “surgical precision” and “laser-like focus”, is not very precise, a language of “exceptions”, “mistakes” and “accidents” actually provides legitimacy to the draconian program. It reinforces the war rhetoric that American lives are more valuable than other lives by reducing civilian casualties to the label of “collateral damage”.

The very first drone strike that President Obama approved as he assumed presidency, killed nine civilians (mostly from one family). Later that day, the CIA attacked again and killed another ten civilians. President Obama “expressed condolences” in the coming days, but from that day on the administration stepped up drone strikes and so far the US has sanctioned 328 drone strikes in Pakistan which have not only killed and displaced hundreds of civilians but are also responsible for the traumas and stigmas of the survivors of these attacks.

Although such casualties are dismissed as “mistakes”, it is important to note that the American war strategies are not random or whimsical; the strategies approved by the American state are precise and reflect the systemic nature of violence sanctioned by the state. Moreover, President Obama himself provided a waiver to CIA for conducting drone strikes in Pakistan.

The price is worth it”

Civilian abuse in the form of burning campaigns, concentration camps and mass shootings have been a part of US imperialist wars in the past two centuries. However, the reports of torture and civilian massacres in the so-called Global War on Terror were, yet again, treated as exceptions. Following the leak of photos of Abu Ghraib prisoner torture, former President Bush used his “bad apples” defense and was quick to disassociate himself from the activities of US soldiers. President Obama justifying his decision to ban the dissemination of these images extended the same exceptionalist logic by calling these activities “anti-American” and their public dissemination dangerous for national interests.

The problem is not whether the acts of torture and abuse were carried out by a few US soldiers who are not representative of the entire state or army, but whether these acts reflect the systemic violence sanctioned by that state and army. As Sontag also said, “the issue is not whether a majority or minority of Americans performs such acts but whether the nature of policies prosecuted by this administration and the hierarchies deployed to carry them out makes such acts likely.”

For instance, in 2002, Former President Bush signed the memorandum that said that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to US wars against terrorism. The Justice Department subsequently issued memos that effectively legalized “interrogation” techniques like waterboarding (some prisoners were waterboarded hundreds of times), extreme temperatures, exposure to loud noise and light, prolonged isolation, short-shackling, wall-hanging and “walling”.

Similarly, former Vice President Dick Cheney in an interview following 9/11 said: “We have to work the dark side, if you will.” In 2014, in another interview regarding CIA interrogation techniques he maintained: “I would do it again in a minute.”

When asked during an interview what she thinks about half a million dead children as a result of sanctions during the Iraq war, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it”.

President Obama embodied the same patriotism shrouded in liberal vocabulary. Such an amalgamation of US nationalism with the war project enables the conditions for torture and abuse at US prisons abroad to emerge and it receives active endorsement from the citizens who uphold patriotic ideals. It does not really come as a surprise that top psychologists from American Psychological Association colluded with the CIA and the Pentagon in the post 9/11 torture program.

Such instances are not divorced from the broader nationalist project that legitimizes such abuse. The activities of the troops on ground are the physical manifestation of the violence sanctioned by a hegemonic system.

Private profit, collective suffering

The emergence of torture in the US wars, despite constitutional outlawing of torture and US being a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture (CAT), needs to be situated in the political economy of terrorism in the US and the big money behind imperialist wars. As Jonathan Turly says, “the new military-industrial complex is fueled by a conveniently ambiguous and unseen enemy: the terrorist.”

Marketing counter-terrorism efforts as a “war” profited certain industries, increased the powers of the president, and maximized the budgets for military and homeland agencies, which benefited people like former President George W. Bush (CEO of Arbusto Energy, heavily invested in oil firms in the Middle East) and his aides like former Vice President Dick Cheney (CEO of defense-contractor Halliburton).

Professor Turly elaborates:

The core of this expanding complex is an axis of influence of corporations, lobbyists, and agencies that have created a massive, self-sustaining terror-based industry. In the last eight years, trillions of dollars have flowed to military and homeland security companies. There are thousands of lobbyists in Washington to guarantee the ever-expanding budgets for war and homeland security. The war-based economy allows for military and homeland departments to be virtually untouchable. A massive counterterrorism system has been created employing tens of thousands of personnel with billions of dollars to search for terrorists.

Despite the fact that the Obama administration claims to have ended the Global War on Terror and torture (even though the evidence suggests otherwise), the highest rate of expansion in the military architecture has been seen during Obama era with its heavy investment in the drone program and mass surveillance technology. The current US defense budget is $610 billion, which is more than any country in the world invests in its military. The “black budget” of secret intelligence programs alone was estimated at $52.6 billion, the bulk of which goes to CIA, NSA and the NRO. These ever expanding budgets represent perpetual profits for a new and larger complex of business and government interests.

Legislation like the Patriot Act allow private companies to profit from the government’s manufactured need for enhanced security systems, which subject citizens to intense surveillance. Similarly, the ever-expanding prison industrial complex directly benefits from the incarceration and abuse of more than two million inmates with corporate giants like Wedell and Zoley becoming some of the richest people in the US because of their shares in the CCA and GEO groups.

The legislations and economic policies work closely in this regard. For instance, Vice President Joe Biden wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, among other things, called for $9.7 billion in increased funding for prisons and stiffer penalties for “drug offenders”. Similarly, President Obama’s proposed budgets called for increasing the amount of money spent on the Bureau of Prisons.

Meanwhile, the drone program receives ever increasing funding and civilian casualties keep on being ignored. The corporate media sells this war to the masses by cultivating common anxieties and reproducing an increasingly racialized terrorists-are-out-to-get-us discourse.

The operation of the war-time US economy is intensively focused on protecting the interests of corporations and rich US nationals, rather than the disenfranchised masses. Torture and abuse of civilians in US wars is embedded in capitalism. US nationalism, racism and Islamophobia fueling the War on Terror intersect with the capitalist order to enable exploitation of people which manifests itself in the form of torture, sexual abuse and murder of the “terrorist suspects” in the US prisons.

Humanitarian Terrorism

Despite extensive reports of abuse and torture, it was astounding to see that the Bush administration heavily invested in trying to market the War on Terror as a humanitarian project. Laura Bush, sharing her husband’s ambitions to “liberate the oppressed Afghan women,” effectively rejuvenated colonial feminism, following the lead of Britain in India and Egypt, and France in Algeria.

She cashed on the idea of a global sisterhood this time, when in fact there is practically no evidence to suggest that the US efforts to “save” Afghan women (from Afghan men) were able to achieve anything except worsening the situation for Afghan women. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton presented themselves as the feminist sisters who understood in entirety the Afghan woman’s experience of oppression and thus eligible to come in and liberate them.

On the other hand, mountains of evidence challenge the image of War on Terror as a humanitarian project, and present it for what it truly is: a war for capitalist exploitation and neoliberal expansion of empire to consolidate a cultural hegemony in the name of bringing democracy and human rights.

However, a more popular rhetoric – that of “terrorism” – burgeoning during the Bush era and strengthening in the Obama era, manufactures a discourse on global terrorism that is the moralizing force behind the logic of “just war”. The secular humanist ideals of liberal democracy are posed against the barbarity and autocracy of Muslim fundamentalism.

Barack Obama, being the first “demographically-symbolic” president of the US, heavily relied on marketing his image as feminist and gay-friendly to establish his difference from ex-president Bush, which helped him in supporting a democratic and pro-human rights image to aid in his foreign policies that continued the American “just war”. As Deepa Kumar puts it, “in the Obama era, liberalism became even more intertwined with empire.”

One could extend Talal Asad’s argument here, by proposing that the politics of responsibility legitimizing the US state as the harbinger of peace and democracy work with the dialectical relation established between terrorism and the discourse on it, to effectively construct the categories of “terrorism” versus “just war”. This is done by associating the former with the “others” to justify the use of violence against them by way of the latter, thus conveniently bestowing an ethical paradigm to an array of actions (like torture) sanctioned by the state in power.

Such a construction of “terrorism” is an exercise in power and, thus, an act of epistemic violence. In this sense, the American state constructs, discursively and (sometimes) practically, the very terrorism it aims to fight. After all, the Taliban were the pet-project of the CIA and Saddam Hussein was much loved by the US until both became a danger to American interests. Some recently declassified documents revealed that the Pentagon predicted the rise of a sectarian body like ISIS because of American support for al-Qaeda yet continued its intervention in Iraq and Syria.

For the American state, the “unruly Blacks”, “ugly suffragettes”, “decadent queers” and “infidel communists” were the terrorist “others”, an affront to the true “American culture”, for quite some time until the radicals were successfully assimilated into the normative liberal structures and the state itself adopted an apparently anti-racist, feminist and gay-friendly rhetoric.

This “humane” state relies on a desired image of progress to present itself as more progressive and modern than the “backward Third-World terrorists” to justify imperialism and abuse. The imperialist project operates through US exceptionalism justifying violence against the dehumanized “other” by manufacturing a heavily racialized cultural discourse on “terrorism” that is gladly reproduced by liberal Americans who fetishize “freedom” and “human rights” without ever dissecting these categories and the political context in which these are emerging.

The systematic exclusion of Muslims from the national and economic space and valorization of the idea of a “reformist Muslim”, especially after 9/11, sought to define the terrorist “other” by racializing Muslims on the basis of their beliefs, culture, attire and rituals. The politics of such everyday prejudice directly legitimize the exercise of violence on Muslim bodies in the American prisons.

Orientalism, Sexual Abuse and Prisons

The American empire effectively relies on the orientalist notions of the racial “other” upheld in the public imagination to justify abuse. In the traditional imperialist discourse, the colonizer is epitomized as the dominant male who captures and violates the feminized “other”. Sunny Woan theorizes how the Asian female has been fantasized by the white male US soldier as the “small, weak, submissive and erotically alluring” woman who is hyper-sexualized and hyper-feminized. While occupying the Philippine Islands, the American soldiers referred to the Filipinas as “little brown [sex] machines powered by rice”. Subsequently, a sex industry sprang up in the Philippine Islands to cater to the US military men. During the Vietnam War, as many as 70,000 US soldiers went to Thailand for “rest and recreation” and ignited a sex industry. Pornographic websites such as “Rape Camp” sold the videos of Vietnamese women being raped.

Sexual violence against women has been used as a primary tool of war by the US. In 1995, the case of a 12-year old Japanese girl gang-raped by US soldiers in Okinawa gained prominence. However, the Marines had been raping womenand exploiting resources on the US occupied island for decades.

In the US wars in the Middle East, the orientalist image of the “Arab mind” (the modest, sexually-repressed, backward “Moslem”) combines with institutionalized racial violence to justify sexual abuse and torture in prisons. The “terrorist Arab” is feminized and sexual abuse figures as the ultimate act of domination.

The official report of Taguba investigation into Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and the corresponding leaked photos speak of myriad instances when US soldiers repeatedly used sexual violence or threats of sexual violence as an interrogation technique. An Afghan detainee, Dilawar, was threatened by Specialist Walls that he would be “treated like a woman, by the other men” before his murder in the Bagram prison in 2002.

The politics of rape in this context are directly tied with the orientalist image of Muslim men who are perceived to be “afraid of homosexuality” in American discourse around LGBT rights, hence, sodomy is used as an effective torture technique. However, imposing sexual humiliation on the racial “other”, especially through women, is conceptualized as the ultimate act of imperialist domination, which is why the US soldiers raped many female detainees and forced male detainees to strip or wear women’s underwear in Abu Ghraib. A 13-year old Iraqi girl was raped and set on fire by US soldiers who used to jeer at her from the military base near her home. These instances verbatim reproduce what colonizers did for centuries.

Jasbir Puar has argued that sexualized bodily abuse is a normalized facet of prisoner life and the sexual is always already inscribed in necropolitics. Sexual abuse is a feature of the prison industrial complex in the US and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Bagram is explained by the former’s intersection with the imperialist military industrial complex. Sexual abuse and torture lie at the essence of occupation as is abundantly evident from a reading of the history of French, British, early Spanish, Portuguese, and modern Israeli settler colonialism.

Puar explains that, “Sexuality is a central and crucial component of the machinic assemblage that is American patriotism. The use of sexuality […] to physically punish and humiliate is not tangential, unusual, nor reflective of an extreme case, especially given continuities between representational, legislative, and consumerist practices. The systematic failure of US military operations at prison is thus clearly not the fault of a handful of individuals but rather due to the entire assemblage of necropolitics, and sexuality reveals itself not as the barometer of exception, a situation out of control, an unimaginable reality, but rather as a systemic, intrinsic, and pivotal module of power relations.”

American patriotism is, thus, the central tool that simultaneously erases the grievances of the “others” and legitimizes the existence of US Empire. It comes as no surprise that US is the strongest ally of another imperialist state – Israel – that wages sexual violence on women’s bodies and legitimizes imprisonment and torture of Palestinian civilians through settler colonialism.

Uncle Sam’s Freedom

In essence, torture and abuse need to be understood in the broader context of systemic violence sanctioned by an imperialist state. Torture as an instrument of empire amalgamates the images of the “other” with institutionalized racial violence as an extension of wars for neoliberal expansion. Such violence is not an exceptional or isolated instance, it is a systemic tool deeply embedded in hegemonic structures and the cultural psyche that manufacture discourses on terrorism and just war.

The “freedom” espoused by the American Dream creates a nationalistic discourse that justifies this violence and the public takes an active part in propagating this discourse by juxtaposing the undesirable “others” against the democratic American citizens. Such patriotism constructs respectable citizenship and perpetuates the idea that American lives are worth more than other lives. Hence, the conception that torture and abuse in American wars are the result a few bad soldiers on ground is essentially flawed since it fails to take into account the conditions that legitimize the abuse and its location in the values and cultural systems that American citizens share.

The activities of the soldiers, the citizens, or for that matter the President are not divorced from the systems in which they exist and that they sustain. It is a result of this systemic violence that in the attempts to fight the sharia of bin Laden, Uncle Sam’s “freedom” has emerged as an equally brutal terrorist for the systematically disenfranchised.

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Mehlab Jameel

Mehlab Jameel is an anthropologist in the making. They live in Lahore and can mostly be found exploring the streets of the historic city. They take a keen interest in postcolonial theory and gender and sexuality studies.

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