In a recent London Review of Books article detailing the abysmal horrors of Egypt’s prison system — a multi-circled hell with visible and invisible layers, all of them wretched, some of them unspeakably so — Tom Stevenson noted, in passing, this piece of historical context:
“The prison system in Egypt is the legacy of a long period of British control, followed by the successive autocracies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. It was in a British prison during the Second World War that some of the torture techniques now employed by Egyptian intelligence were refined. The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre was annexed to a British army camp in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. The camp had a cinema, boxing ring and ice-cream parlour for the soldiers, but a few hundred metres away British interrogators were experimenting on as many as sixty prisoners at a time, attempting to induce hallucinations with thyroxine, or trying to break them psychologically by forcing them to dig their own graves.”
This is an important fact to remember. Far be it from me to deny agency to the creative peoples of the Middle East, who like all other human groupings are entirely capable of devising their own methods and traditions of tormenting each other. But this tidbit of recent history reminds us of the true nature of the “Western values” said to be under attack by the “savages” of Islamic extremism. (Always excepting the Islamic extremists that our Western Valuists arm and support, of course, such as the Saudi royals or the Libyan extremists ushered to power by the humanitarian application of NATO bombs.) It also reminds us that today’s incessant Western “interventions” in the region are not some new direction forced on civilization’s defenders by the sudden and unfathomable rise of Islamic extremism, but a continuation of old polices, all based on the unexamined assumption of Western superiority — and the entirely transparent lust for power and loot on the part of Western elites.
For just as Hitler and the Nazis looked to America’s enthusiastic eugenics programs (some of which continued until the 1970s) for inspiration and “scientific” confirmation of their own racist policies, so too much of the “savagery” now rampant in the “Arc of Crisis” was learned at the feet — and the fists — of the Western powers who spread their enlightenment over the region for so many decades. Indeed, who can forget the bitter joke told by Iraqis during America’s invasion in 2003 to overthrow its former client, Saddam: “The pupil has gone; now the master has come.” And of course the American headmaster taught his new pupils in Baghdad many valuable lessons during his stay in Iraq: how to sow sectarian hatred to augment your power, for example, how to sell off your national patrimony to the highest bidder, how to line your pockets with public loot while beggaring your people and leaving them exposed to violence, chaos and extremism.
There is little in Stevenson’s harrowing description of Egypt’s prisons, and the brutality meted out there, that could not be found in America’s 21st century Terror War gulag. Of course, the Egyptians have had decades of authoritarianism to work out their own approaches to punishment and persuasion — but they have been aided, supplied, trained and tutored by American military and security experts every step of the way. That iron-hand-in-fisted-glove cooperation continues under the Peace Prize Prez today, of course — despite the murderous repression of the Sisi regime, which, as Stevenson rightly notes, outstrips even the atrocities of Hillary Clinton’s long-cherished family friend, Hosni Mubarak.
The greatest service America has performed for the torturers of the world is not the training, teaching, S&M gear and money it has given them; it’s legitimization. America has brought torture over from “the dark side,” as Dick Cheney called it, from the shadow world where, although long practiced, it remained tinged with shame and criminality. Instead, Bush and Obama – especially Obama – has taken torture boldly into the shining light of day, as a legitimate, official necessity of statecraft: no longer a crime subject to prosecution, no longer shameful or secret but a matter of public debate on how best to implement it “in a way in keeping with our values.”
For of course, American torture still goes on: from the force-feeding of strapped-down captives in Gitmo to the psychological and physical terror Obama inflicts on thousands of innocent people every day as they watch the lizard-eyed drones hovering over them and wonder if this is the hour they’ll be ripped to shreds or burned alive to whatever the hell goes on in the secret cells our humanitarian leaders still keep in bases, basements and hidey holes all over the world.
Every day, the Keepers of our Sacred Values teach the world that death and torture, lies and torment, loot and terror are legitimate means – the only legitimate means – for taking and holding power. They teach it from the podiums where they mouth their obscene pieties. They teach it in their nation-raping, terror-spawning interventions. And they teach it, every day, on the bodies of their victims.
***This is my column in the latest print version of Counterpunch Magazine.