Workers Vanguard No. 936
8 May 2009
Obama and Image Control
U.S. Imperialism: Torture, Repression and War
On April 16, the Justice Department released four declassified Bush administration memos that provide grisly details of what had already been perfectly clear: that torture of detainees by U.S. security forces was planned and approved at the highest levels of Washington. The (heavily redacted) memos, released as a result of a court suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, describe in gory detail the “techniques” that were given official imprimatur. These include depriving prisoners of sleep for up to eleven straight days and shutting them in a dark, cramped box crawling with insects. The memos also give official approval to waterboarding, a favorite torture method of the Spanish Inquisition. Among the victims are two detainees who were waterboarded 266 times.
Liberal pundits and bourgeois media commentators are wringing their hands at the revelations of officially sanctioned torture. President Barack Obama intoned that the U.S. was “losing our moral bearings” and vowed there would be no more torture. After initially saying that none of the torturers would be prosecuted, Obama later stated that it was up to Attorney General Eric Holder to decide whether some of the architects of the torture memos will face any prosecution.
In reality, the U.S. has tortured, is torturing and will continue to torture so long as the U.S. imperialist state exists. Capitalist society was, as Karl Marx eloquently described in Capital, born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Modern imperialism continues the brutal practices of mass murder, torture and humiliation that accompany the exploitation of labor and the ceaseless struggle between competing imperialist forces to dominate the world.
U.S. imperialism marked its entrance on the world scene with the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the bloody suppression of a nationalist uprising in the Philippines, during which a U.S. general famously ordered his men to “kill everyone over the age of ten.” Generations of torturers and military henchmen in Latin America and elsewhere got their training at the U.S. military’s infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. As we wrote in 2004 as the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in U.S.-occupied Iraq came to light internationally:
“The photos only partially expose a small part of the terror and atrocities which in fact are meted out daily to U.S. imperialism’s victims worldwide, as well as inside the U.S. itself. From the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to the death rows of Texas; from systematic mass murder and torture of Vietnamese liberation fighters in the CIA’s ‘Operation Phoenix’ program in Vietnam to the death squads in Latin America; from Britain’s Long Kesh prison to the basements of French colonial Algiers; from Chile’s Santiago Stadium to Israel’s Ashkelon: an awful network of torture and death, going back in time, spans the world. These are not ‘aberrations.’ They are the conscious policies of imperialist and neocolonialist ruling regimes, who routinely and necessarily use terror and degradation as tools to maintain their power.”
—“U.S. Imperialism’s Torture, Inc.” (WV No. 826, 14 May 2004)
The International Socialist Organization (ISO), which enthused that Obama’s election is “a reason to believe that change is possible” (Socialist Worker online, 21 January), now writes: “Obama’s reversal of his earlier decision to grant immunity for the torturers is a critical first step in putting the torturers on notice
—the architects as well as the bricklayers. If more of them ended up behind bars, their would-be imitators will be less confident” (Socialist Worker, 30 April). In fact, in decrying Bush’s open policy of torture—and posing the possibility of any prosecutions—Obama’s aim is to refurbish the image of U.S. imperialism after eight years under the Bush gang. As Obama himself put it, such “interrogation techniques undermine our moral authority.”
What distinguished the oddly demented regime of George Bush and Dick Cheney is that it openly reveled in its barbarity and sought to give torture legal sanction. The recently revealed Justice Department memos, written by lawyers of the Office of Legal Counsel, were clearly crafted with the aim of providing “legal” cover to those carrying out the sadistic practices they described. For example, “stress positions”—such as “shackling,” in which a standing detainee’s handcuffed wrists are “attached by a length of chain to the ceiling” to force “sleep deprivation”—were declared to in no way constitute “severe pain or suffering.” By putting U.S. imperialism’s grisly acts back behind closed doors, Obama seeks to return to the bourgeois norm.
Obama’s “War on Terror”
Obama has been showered with praise for his vow to close the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. But in reality, the Obama administration is simply continuing the Bush regime’s policies under a different name, with the “war on terror” now branded “Overseas Contingency Operations.” Significantly, the Obama administration has endorsed indefinite detention, a hallmark of police-state dictatorships and the centerpiece of Bush’s war on democratic rights. Many of the Guantánamo detainees will not be released—they will be transferred to detention centers in Bagram, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Obama government invoked the longstanding legal doctrine of “state secrets,” a favorite of the Bush regime, to quash a lawsuit brought against a Boeing subsidiary by victims of the CIA’s policy of “extraordinary rendition,” in which the U.S. transfers prisoners to countries where torture has always been openly practiced.
At least 112 people are known to have died in U.S. custody (the actual number is doubtless much higher), including at least eleven who were killed through blunt trauma or asphyxiation. One of those was an Afghan man named Dilawar—depicted in the powerful 2007 documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side”—who died after having been beaten so badly by U.S. forces in Bagram that his legs were “pulpified.” For his part, Obama is doubling the size of the Bagram prison, where more than 600 detainees are already confined. And when a federal court judge last month granted habeas corpus rights to a handful of prisoners in Bagram, the Obama administration appealed the ruling, arguing, just as the Bush regime had before, that the courts had no jurisdiction over these prisoners. We say: Free all the detainees!
Since its launch, the “war on terror” has served as a pretext for imperialist intervention abroad, and it is no different today. The bloody U.S. occupation of Iraq continues while at least 21,000 more U.S. troops are being shipped to Afghanistan to bolster the 40,000 already there. In Pakistan, over 700 people have been slaughtered by U.S. drone attacks, with some 150 having been killed since Obama took office. U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan! Hands off Pakistan!
Democratic Party politicians were up to their necks in helping to set up the Bush administration’s torture program. In September 2002, top Republican and Democratic Congressmen, including current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were given a “virtual tour” of CIA detention sites that included descriptions of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods. As Mark Danner, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, wrote in the New York Review of Books (9 April): “The US Congress, already in possession of a great deal of information about the torture conducted by the administration passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and in so doing attempted to protect those responsible from criminal penalty under the War Crimes Act. Democrats, who could have filibustered the bill, declined to do so.” Now, after initially promising to do away with Bush’s “military commission” kangaroo courts for Guantánamo prisoners, the Obama administration says that it may rely on them after all in order to be able to secure convictions by using hearsay and evidence obtained under torture.
It isn’t just foreign “terror suspects” who have been subjected to torture. In 2002, Jose Padilla, an American citizen, was picked up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, declared an “enemy combatant” and disappeared into a Navy brig in South Carolina. In 2003 and 2004, the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee filed amici curiae (friends of the court) briefs against Padilla’s indefinite detention. When charges were finally brought against Padilla in November 2005, his lawyers revealed that for three years and eight months he had been tortured by extreme sensory deprivation—the windows of his tiny nine-by-seven-foot cell were blacked out, and he could only leave his cell wearing blinkered goggles and headphones. This was punctuated by blasts of harsh light and loud, pounding noise. A motion filed by Padilla’s lawyers in 2006 described that Padilla was “hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long durations of time” and “threatened with imminent execution.” He was also injected with drugs believed to be LSD or PCP. Nonetheless, Padilla was convicted in a show trial and sentenced to 17 years and four months in prison. Free Jose Padilla now!
The defense brief for the modern-day Torquemadas has already been written by the New York Times. In a 22 April article, the Times claimed that in 2002 the Bush administration united around a program of “brutal methods of interrogation.” “This extraordinary consensus was possible,” according to the Times, “because no one involved investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving.” The supposed “origins”? With consummate hypocrisy, the Times announces: “Government studies in the 1950s found that Chinese Communist interrogators had produced false confessions from captured American pilots not with some kind of sinister ‘brainwashing’ but with crude tactics,” which the Times claims were the basis for the Bush administration’s torture program. According to the anti-Communist, pro-imperialist mouthpieces of the Times, the criminals, torturers and murderers during the 1950-53 Korean War were not the U.S. imperialists who invaded the peninsula, reducing it to rubble and slaughtering some three million people, but the courageous Chinese and Korean Communists who fought to expel them. This comes from the same newspaper whose “embedded” reporter, Judith Miller, was in the forefront of selling the government’s “weapons of mass destruction” lies to justify the invasion of Iraq.
To be sure, it is a measure of how degenerate U.S. bourgeois society is that the “value” of torture is now publicly debated in the press, with many pundits and politicians openly justifying the inhuman treatment of humans. With Orwellian doublespeak, the Times calls torture “harsh interrogation techniques” and describes waterboarding as “simulated drowning” (there is nothing “simulated” about it). Mark Danner, in a 30 April piece in the New York Review of Books, advises that “what is needed” is a “broadly persuasive judgment on whether or not torture made Americans safer. This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture.” Even supposed “Marxists” have weighed in with their own “judgment.” In a 24 April article on its Web site, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) grotesquely advises the bourgeoisie that the recently released memos “suggest” that torture is “largely useless.”
The torture and brutality meted out to America’s victims abroad finds its reflection in the horrific treatment of the more than two million human beings locked up in America’s prisons. It is no accident that Charles Graner, one of the sadistic torturers at Abu Ghraib, had been a prison guard in the U.S. A powerful article by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker (30 March) reports that by the end of the 1990s there were some 60 “supermax” prisons in the U.S. holding at least 25,000 inmates in total isolation, itself a form of torture. Gawande documents the chilling effects of extended solitary confinement and consequent sensory deprivation on prisoners, who are, in effect, deliberately driven mad.
Human beings should not be treated like beasts. We communists denounce torture, imperialist war and repression as barbaric. Our goal is the liberation of the working class and all humanity, and we repudiate such methods—as did the Bolshevik leaders of the October Revolution of 1917, in which Marxism has found its highest expression in practice thus far. It was with the aim of ridding the world of capitalist barbarism that the Bolshevik Party led that successful workers revolution, and that is the reason why bourgeois rulers everywhere, backed by their social-democratic hangers-on, despise the October Revolution and the Soviet workers state it created. As we wrote in “U.S. Torture Machine” (WV No. 863, 3 February 2006):
“The world bourgeoisies and their mouthpieces loathe the fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks applied the measures not only necessary to attain state power but essential to defend and consolidate working-class rule. In the name of ‘democracy,’ the capitalist powers subjected the Russian Revolution not merely to the hammer and tongs of military encirclement and invasion, provocations and isolation, but to mountains of slander as well.”
That article explained that even in the heat of the brutal Civil War that followed the October Revolution, the Soviet Cheka (Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage) issued instructions that “any verbal abuse, rudeness, injustice or impropriety” shown toward the incarcerated “is a blot upon the Soviet power” and raised the call: “No tortures and torments!”
One liberal pundit after another, concerned that American “democracy” has been tarnished by Bush’s open program of torture, has demanded “independent” investigations and possible prosecutions. Such liberal outrage has been echoed by the reformist left, who now see in Obama a “friend” who can be pressured to do what is right. In fact, Obama is a Wall Street Democrat who bails out the banks while busting unions, who administers imperialist war and occupation abroad and carries out class war against the workers and oppressed at home.
In an article titled, “Will Bush Gang Be Prosecuted for Torture?” (Workers World, 30 April), the Workers World Party (WWP) states: “There would be widespread support here and worldwide for prosecuting Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and company for their many war crimes, including the torture of prisoners.” A 24 April article on the ISO’s Web site by Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, demands: “What is actually needed is an independent prosecutor—someone like [U.S. Attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald—to treat this as the major-league, far-reaching crime investigation that it should be seen as.”
Scahill’s piece, which the ISO printed without comment, concludes by referring readers to an online petition that states in part: “We urge Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a non-partisan independent Special Counsel to immediately commence a prosecutorial investigation into the most serious alleged crimes” of the Bush regime. The petition even advises that prosecutions would not be “extraordinarily lengthy or costly” because “substantial evidence of the crimes is already in the public domain”! The petition was signed by various Democrats and Greens and the ANSWER Coalition, which is led by PSL, and the World Can’t Wait (WCW) outfit, which was initiated by the Revolutionary Communist Party. Indeed, WCW complained in a 24 April headline on its Web site: “Bush Memos Reveal Policy of Cruelty: Obama Refuses to Enforce the Law.”
The reformist left promotes the illusion that imperialist militarism is merely a bad policy that can be eliminated from the capitalist system if sufficient pressure is applied. But the drive toward war and repression is as inextricably rooted in the capitalist system as the drive to increase profit. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, marked by the domination of the globe by a small, exclusive club of the capitalist great powers that lord it over the weaker, dependent nations. No amount of pressure can transform the nature of capitalist imperialism.
The reformist “socialists” stand in opposition to the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. The truth is that the victims, at home and abroad, of the U.S. capitalist state will never know justice until capitalist rule is overthrown through socialist revolution. Only then can the imperialist war criminals and sadistic torturers be tried by their victims.
A 17 April press release by WCW stated: “Your government refuses to bring war criminals and torturers to account. Will you remain silent or get informed, take a stand and build a movement to stop torture and demand accountability for war crimes?” This is not “our” government, it is not the government of America’s working people and the oppressed. The capitalist state exists to defend the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie against those they exploit and oppress, and in carrying out torture, war and repression, the capitalist state is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. The capitalist state, which at its core consists of the cops, prisons and military, must be shattered through a socialist revolution and replaced with a workers state in which those who labor rule. This perspective demands the building of a workers party—independent of and opposed to both the Democratic and Republican parties of capital—to lead the struggle for workers power.