There Donald Rumsfeld was, fielding unfriendly fire on Tuesday over the military’s torture of Iraqi prisoners. This time, his usual pose of barely concealed contempt seemed more like scarcely repressed rage. Every muscle in his body was tensed, and his shoulders looked like wire hangers were holding them up. It was Rummy’s Strangelove-ian attempt to keep from shrugging.
Hey, the voice within him longed to say, those fuckers are lucky to have their fingernails. But Rummy is a master of extenuation. When Baghdad was looted while the U.S. army stood by, he uttered his most famous euphemism: “Stuff happens.” Now he was saying something even more elliptical: Torture? Don’t call it that.
The military report that describes forced masturbation and anal rape, threats of electrocution, and terror inflicted even unto death? Rummy hasn’t finished reading it yet. The failure to inform Congress? He cited a memo issued last January that was as oblique as the fog of war itself. The probe of similar conduct at some 20 U.S.-run detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan? The guilty will be punished, Rummy vowed—but surely not the intelligence officers who devised this “softening-up” process or the two private companies contracted to perform interrogations (because they are exempt from military law). Or the secretary of defense.
Two immigrants held in New York after 9-11 have filed a suit charging guards—supervised by intelligence officers—with subjecting them to casual violence and repeated body-cavity searches. (As in Iraq, large objects were allegedly inserted in the rectum.) But don’t call it torture; why, that would be against U.S. law. The events at Abu Ghraib prison are an aberration, Rummy insisted, even though there are dark accusations of prisoner abuse by our British allies. For that matter, many of the 3,000 men detained since 9-11 were shipped to countries whose governments are known to practice interrogation methods anyone but Rummy would consider a bit much.
What if the military had stuck to the “rule book” of prolonged sleep deprivation, protracted isolation in a small space, and a severely limited diet that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, says he was subjected to? What if we contented ourselves with variations on the old rubber hose? These techniques are so acceptable that you can see them in many cop movies, even though they’re against the law. The truth is that most Americans are willing to tolerate such acts, and far worse, in the name of safety—especially today. We just don’t want to have the evidence shoved in our faces. And we sure don’t want to see pictures of our heroic troops acting like pervs.
Or do we?
One reason why these photos are such a sensation is that they are stimulating. Especially the image of that woman grinning over a pyramid of naked men. She’s the Phallic Female, watching guys parade around naked and jerk off before her. This really gets the kitten-with-a-whip crowd drooling. And when it comes to sadistic pleasure, there’s nothing like forcing a man to give a simulated blowjob or take a peg-leg–sized anal probe. Shit, you won’t even see that on Oz.
But that’s the great perk of war. You can unleash the darkest reaches of your libido. Murdering, mutilating, and raping are all part of the adrenaline rush—and nothing feels better than that forbidden thrill in the name of God and country.
The most distressing thing in those photos from Abu Ghraib was also the least remarked upon. That soldier standing over his prostrate prisoners, holding his thumb up, was wearing surgical gloves. Was he afraid of being contaminated by his victims’ blood, feces, semen—or just their humanity? We’ll never know. But it’s an astonishing symbol of what America is becoming: a nation where suffering is tolerable—even pleasurable—as long as the shit doesn’t get on our hands.