Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

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  • josephmoyer

    I watched an episode of Charlie Rose some weeks ago with Mr. Gourevitch, what an impressive fellow. His discussion here opened my eyes wider and turned me back on, flipped the switch so as to keep me awake and interested in what is going on, to keep me aware of what is being done in the name of our United States.

  • seltzer

    Thank you for continuing this series, Chris. I am grateful that others in this country have not forgotten about Abu Gharaib and the Pandora’s box opened there. I feel compelled to counter Philip Gourevitch’s assessment that we as Americans aren’t outraged or haven’t protested the normalization of torture. I may be just one citizen, but I have signed countless petitions and donated to Amnesty International, and other human rights’ organizations, hoping that someday in the not too distant future, the leaders of my country will come to their senses and reject this barbarism. Perhaps I take this too personally, but I am nauseated by the idea that my tax dollars in however small a way subsidize torture.

  • It seemed like Philip Gourevitch was struggling to put in the clearest language and in the simplest terms that we as a nation need to face the torture practices we have accepted as national defense policy. We are smart people, and I am sure there are a tremendous variety of other questions Philip Gourevitch could (and probably would rather) be asking, but right now it seems that even when using the clearest and simplest language to explain the crimes committed in the name of national defense, many of us are still missing the message. After hearing this interview, the question of whether Gourevitch’s message will stick and be developed is something that I think might indicate changes in American collective identity: what will it take to face Abu Ghraib, and how can America reconcile the continuation of these past, documented crimes that haunt our present?

    I have a suspicion that we might forget, but we cannot blame it on a dearth of information after hearing from Morris, Sands and Gourevitch.

  • Mike Brisco

    Australia (where I live) is a signed-up member of the “Coalition of the willing”. Decisions the US takes, affect us. Our politicians go along uncritically, without Parliamentary debate without discussion.

    Australian troops in Iraq, did detain people. There was concern at the time, whether Australian troops might be abusing prisoners. The politicians answered, Australians could sleep easy, we were not involved at all in that type of thing. We did not operate prisons. Our troops handed over detainees immediately to the US. Yes, there might be a few problems – but these were isolated, a few low-ranking soldiers, & you always get a few bad apples. Australian military acted in good faith, & could not be aware of absolutely everything taht went on in US-run prisons in Iraq.

    But Gourevitch says, the entire system was involved in abuses, and was open about it. That means, our military would have been aware or at least had cause to suspect.

    Australians are not yet discussing, complicity in torture/abuse. However if that is what we were – Gourevitch makes a good case – it is important we know that and own up to it.

    Gourevitch’s book is avaialble here, & he did a few short radio interviews. His argument is important. So it is valuable to hear him speak at length.