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Hidden in Plain Sight: Rebecca Gordon on Torture

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Rebecca Gordon on Torture

Soon after 9/11, the US began holding people in secret prisons around the world in places called “black sites.” Black sites were secret and what happened within them was unknown. When we did learn about the techniques our government was using to extract information, we were told it was not torture but something called “enhanced interrogation.” It sounded new and not so brutal. But it was torture. An updated version of it, but torture nonetheless, which forced us to think about what we were willing to do to other human beings in a state of war. In this episode, Rebecca Gordon argues that enhanced interrogation isn’t new. Torture as a tactic has been used by the United States since its inception to control people and suppress uprisings, domestically and abroad. She wants us to confront our history with torture and its connection to power and race, especially if we want to hold governments and interrogators accountable for their crimes.

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  • Rebecca Gordon, Author of “Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post 9/11 United States” & Teacher in the Philosophy Department of the University of San Francisco


  • Hosts: Aysha Choudary, Salima Hamirani
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Monica Lopez
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
  • Associate Producer: Aysha Choudary 


  • Chris Zabriskie – What Does Anybody Know About Anything
  • Veretski Pass – 25BratulBratanyek
  • Dave Nelson – Improvisation
  • Qnoun – Instrumental
  • Miles Jay Taqasim – Nahawand
  • Cory Gray – Build a View


Episode Transcript

Narr: – I’m Aysha Choudhary, and today on Making Contact:


ACT  – “the more I understand about US history including early U.S. history the clearer is to me that this country this economy is a house that torture built”


Narr: – You’ll hear from Rebecca Gordon about legacy of torture in the United States. We didn’t just start locking people up and torturing them after 9/11. The United States has always used torture to control and punish.


ACT – “ The real purpose of torture is establishing and maintaining the power of the regime that takes on the torture”

“They don’t torture everybody. There are certain groups of people who are identified as legitimate targets of torture and generally what makes them legitimate is that they are separated from the category of ordinary human beings these are people who are subhuman in some way.”


Narr:  And by better understanding torture itself as a tactic of control, we can better understand how to fight back against places like guantanamo and black sites. 

Here at making contact, we’ve been working on an in-depth piece about “Enhanced Interrogation,” which is a euphemism for torture: The kind of torture used in guantanamo and black sites. Our longer piece explores  the mechanics of Enhanced Interrogation and how it was designed by two military psychologists. And, in the process of researching, we had a chance to talk to Rebecca Gordon, who is the author of “Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States.” Rebecca told us so much about the history of torture, and what she’s learned from decades of thinking about it, that we wanted to air her interview  by itself. Now, I want to give a trigger warning. We don’t talk about torture techniques in much detail, but there are mentions of violence that some people might find disturbing. So please listen with discretion. Here’s Salima Hamirani’s interview with Rebecca Gordon –


ACT – Salima – So Rebecca, I wanted to start this interview with a personal question. Because I was reflecting on the fact that we’ve sort of forgotten about torture. We’ve forgotten about black sites. We don’t think about Guantanamo as much anymore. Why is this so important to you? Why is this topic – torture – something you can’t stop thinking about?


 ACT – That’s a really good question. And part of it has to do with my personal history and part of it has to do with the history of this country. 

So I was able to spend six months living in the war zones of Nicaragua in 1984 and during that time it was a time when it was actually illegal for the US to be spending money on the Contra war. The war that was attempting to throw overthrow the Sandinista government that had thrown out a dictator. But we knew that the U.S. was involved in that war. And my job was to go from town to town way out in the Cambo and interview people who had survived attacks from this contra force that was being trained and armed by the CIA and what became really clear was that the whole military strategy was one of terrorism one of attacking unarmed civilians in their homes torturing them mutilating their bodies leaving those bodies for other people to see and so be afraid. And I also had an opportunity to interview people who had been kidnapped by the contra taken to Honduras tortured and then brought into the contra force and sent back into Nicaragua to do the same thing to other people. 

 But. The other thing that makes this issue so important to me is that the more I understand about US history including early U.S. history the cleared is to me that you could say that this country this economy is a house that torture built because it turns out that if you look at the history of enslavement in this country that very early on those first farmers in Virginia who brought the first Africans to Virginia to work in the tobacco fields figured out that unlike the indentured servants they had from England who were going to work seven or ten years and then get a piece of land and their freedom these people were going to work for the rest of their lives and if they were lucky so would their children and their children’s children. And there was no deal for them. So there was no incentive for these people to work except to make their bodies physically hurt and this was developed first in the tobacco fields but then as the cotton business picks up, it’s’ carried out to a science. 


 ACT – Rebecca – And if you continue to examine the history of this country you can see that torture has been used especially to subdue and suppress and repress African-Americans but also other groups of people who presented any kind of a threat to the regime of white supremacy and that the capital that built the economy of this country would not have been accumulated, it would have been impossible, without the torture that drove people to drive their bodies. 


Narr – They drove their bodies because of torture, state sanctioned torture in the form of whipping and lynching. In order to force people to work. This is an idea that Rebecca comes back to, often in her interview. Torture is a tool. It has a purpose. Although it’s almost never to get information, despite what we’re told. So first, torture was used to force slaves to work. And later on, it was used abroad…..


ACT – Salima – Rebecca, this history is so important because I’ve been struggling to understand our modern torture regime, what people are now calling enhanced interrogation, within the broader context of US history, which is also a colonial history right?


ACT – Rebecca – Absolutely. And that’s the other thing our huge economic expansion that happened in the post World War II period in which the United States working class through the use of unions and the growth of working people’s power was able to wrest from the government and from their owners a living wage and and certain welfare things that we took for granted that don’t even exist anymore. But this huge industrial expansion was made possible in part because we had available extremely cheap raw materials that came from our colonies and our neocolonial quote possessions places like for example Chile which had an abundant supply of copper which we needed in order to prosecute the war in Vietnam, literally for the bullet casings but also the things that built our planes trains and automobiles a lot of those raw materials came to us very cheaply because we put, or maintained in power, elites in these colonial possessions that use torture systematically as a routine way of keeping their own power. 


ACT – Torture as an institutional practice only does its work in the larger society when people know it’s happening. If it’s completely in secret and nobody knows it doesn’t work because what you’re doing by torturing that one member of an organization is that you are poisoning the relationships within the entire organization you release that person. And now everyone’s looking at each other like What did she say. Who did she give up. Who did she you know betray and the suspicion just builds inside the organization pulls it apart from inside. And furthermore when you see people who have been broken out there in the world it makes other people afraid to resist the regime. 


ACT – Rebecca – They don’t torture everybody. There are certain groups of people who are identified as legitimate targets of torture and generally what makes them legitimate is that they are separated from the category of ordinary human beings. These are people who are subhuman in some way. So for example in Chile during the Pinochet regime they called the people that they tortured humanoid but they were leftists they were leftists they were Marxists Exactly. 


Narr: Here, in the US, the targets of torture were clear. They were not white. Since, Rebecca Rebecca Gordon argues, The system of power that torture was designed  to maintain was —white supremacy. 


ACT – The idea was that only a beast would allow himself to be treated this way. Therefore these people are not really human in the sense that we think of human beings. Therefore we can treat enslaved Africans however we that as white people choose to do. And so part of torture’s work in the mind of the white supremacist is it demonstrates to us to the white people just how degraded these people are who are the targets of torture. 


ACT – Salima – Right. and I also think about places like the Philippines yes. And we we kind of lost that history. But things like waterboarding were huge in the Philippines and in fact we actually developed a lot of our torture mechanisms. They’re fighting the insurgency. 


ACT – Rebecca – Exactly right. And that was at the very beginning of the of the 20th century and they used to call it the water cure. And we developed these techniques precisely in the context of this colonial and then neo colonial expansion that the United States has had in its mind ever since the idea of the Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny.


Narr –  The Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny were both ideas about the supremacy of The United States and served to justify economic and military intervention in Latin America, and expanding boundaries of the country — by force   And torture was part of our imperial expansion, from the very beginning. But, torture wasn’t ONLY used abroad. And it’s not just a historical oddity.   


ACT – Salima – And so this history is interesting because a lot of the people that I’ve talked to have said well you know it’s not like the torture of the past. Enhanced interrogation is different. It’s a new regime and partially that’s because the U.S. is doing the torturing themselves. [11.8s]


ACT – Rebecca – OK. That is a change in a sense but it depends on how you identify torture. A lot of what would qualify as torture to this very day goes on inside our jails and our prisons. 


ACT – Salima – Solitary confinement


ACT – Rebecca – Solitary Confinement! Which can produce psychosis in a matter of days. They don’t count as torture because the people to whom it is done are considered to be criminals and therefore non-human or subhuman are different from ordinary. They are part of the legitimate targets of torture. 

The other place where torture has gone on in plain view is in our police stations to get confessions from people.  

So people who tell you that this is new just don’t know U.S. history and if you look too at who was it that designed Guantanamo? the army didn’t have people to design Guantanamo and they brought reservists who worked with the Chicago Police to Guantanamo to design the prison there. Similarly your listeners may have heard about the outrages that happened at the Iraqi prison. That’s called Abu Ghraib and Abu Ghraib was Saddam Hussein’s most infamous prison where people were tortured and in their brilliance theU.S. occupiers decided oh here’s a prison ready made. This is where we’ll keep detainees. And of course everyone knew already who was Iraqi what went on in Abu Ghraib. So they brought in this group of soldiers who tortured people. The real torture the worst torture was actually going on upstairs where the CIA and CIA contractors even killed people at least one person was killed upstairs. But these people were reservists and all of them in their civilian life were prison guards.  


ACT – Salima – I did not know that.  


ACT – Rebecca – Yep. And in fact there’s a famous e-mail that Charles Graner who was sort of the ringleader he was a sergeant sent home which said the Christian in me knows it’s wrong but the corrections officer in me loves to see a grown man piss himself.  


Narr – “The corrections officer in me loves to see a grown man piss himself.” (pause)You might assume  that men like Charles Graner are unusual. An aberration. But he’s not. For torture to be used in black sites across the world, as it is now, we need A LOT of interrogators. And as Salima Hamirani explored with Rebecca Gordon: We also need a lot of people who think that torture is OK. And that means they had to be trained, and re programmed, to believe in torture. Maybe even to find it thrilling.


ACT – Salima-  You know, like you, I’ve become a little obsessed with this topic – I think because I want to, as a human being, try and understand what’s happening. Morally. How people are able to torture.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about professionalism. The way so-called professionalism allows us to justify immoral behavior. Does that make sense? 


ACT – Rebecca – That makes a lot of sense. it really makes sense in the way that torturers are trained because they are trained to be professionals. And if you look at and there are a number of really good books about this. But if you look at how people are trained in Greece under the junta how people were trained in Chile and Brazil in Argentina in any place where there’s been a torture regime. And I would argue also in the United States there is a real similarity in that training. And the idea is that first you are yourself as a new recruit exposed to brutalization you are beaten by your upperclassman. You are humiliated you are tortured in effect and once you’ve survived that ordeal you emerge on the other side of it as a person who thinks of himself and it’s mostly men, as a superior human being who has survived this and is now in a position to turn around and do the same thing to other people.  

So there’s this guy that I wrote about in mainstreaming torture who was a torture under the Chileans and he was interviewed by a Costa Rican reporter a woman who went to him where he was in jail and talked to him about what he had done and the kinds of things that he said were oh electric current. That’s not really torture. he completely minimized the things he had done but then he was so proud because he had been trained at the U.S. school of the Americas. 

And at that school he pulled up his pant leg and showed her the burn scars from where he had been tortured with electric current.


Narr – Luckily, that training isn’t fool-proof. And people’s morality is harder to manipulate than we think.


ACT – Rebecca -And this is this is something that a lot of veterans organizations are starting to talk about. Now the way that human beings who through basic training and army’s basic training is sort of a slightly milder version of the same thing it’s physical and mental torture for the purpose of remaking you from a person into a soldier. And now people who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and have done things that they now regret and consider to have been wrong are experiencing in addition to the trauma of risking their lives and PTSD this moral injury in which their sense of themselves as valuable legitimate human beings has been is in tatters because of the things they’ve done.   



Narr: You’ve been listening to Salima Hamirani’s interview with Rebecca Gordon, author of “Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States.”

This is just one interview from a longer investigation we’re working on, about the link between professional psychology and torture. — And we need your support to help us complete that program.  We don’t receive corporate or government funding, instead we rely on YOU. Please make a donation right now at Any Amount of support helps –thank you!

In the first half of the show, we looked at the way the state uses torture to maintain power. So slave owners use torture to maintain power over slaves for example. And, invading armies have historically used torture during warsNow, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t seen as “imperial wars” in the traditional sense. Here’s Rebecca Gordon in conversation with Making Contact’s Salima Hamirani: 


ACT – Rebecca – Today the enemy and this is so much more protean and so much more permanently useful. The enemy is a tactic So our fight today isn’t against. Individuals or even individual extra state outside state actors or even individual states except for Iran. Our fight is against a tactic. And. That can go on forever. 


TRACK – But, Rebecca points out, that doesn’t mean torture is any less racist than it’s been in the past. The enemy might be a tactic, but the enemy is still not white.  


ACT – Salima – you know some of the things that I’ve read, testimonies, from people who work in Guantanamo sound like something right out of the Spanish Inquisition.  / crusade

ACT – Absolutely yeah. It’s a crusade. I mean George W. Bush said that before somebody told them to shut up and use another word. 

ACT – But but yeah and in the United States.  Islam or Muslim is a racialized category in the imaginary of white people in this country. A Muslim is a person of color.

And then then white people attribute all kinds of bad ideas to Muslims like it’s a you know it’s a violent religion. But really those are racialized ideas they have nothing to do with the actual content of Islam. They have to do with our ideas about what. Are Being white people’s ideas about what brown people are capable of. 


TRACK – Rebecca Gordon had been tracking the way governments have used torture since the 1980’s and the U.S. Contra war in Nicaragua. In fact, she’d seen first hand the way the US had taught other countries how to torture dissidents. So after 9/11 she says she wasn’t surprised by the fact that we opened black sites and prisons like guantanamo.  In fact she expected it. 


ACT – I knew that someone was going to get tortured.

And it only took. Like six weeks on the 5th of November. A liberal historian named Jonathan Alter wrote a column that was called Time to think about dot dot dot torture. And the people he wanted to torture were not the any detainees that had been caught in the war in Afghanistan because it wasn’t a war in Afghanistan yet they weren’t people from Iraq because there was no war in Iraq yet. These were people who had been caught up and picked up by the FBI inside the United States who had visas some of them expired who were Muslims and there were about 600 of them and they were held. Some of them for as long as six months in a jail in Brooklyn New York. And you could read about this in the New York Times. This isn’t a secret but it’s history people have forgotten and they were tortured they were chained to radiators they were put outdoors in the February weather in bare feet and hospital gowns. They were beaten with electric cords. At least at least one of them was raped with analy with a police flashlight. All of this literally within view of the Statue of Liberty. Not to prevent a future attack but as a crime investigation tool to find out who was responsible for what he called the greatest crime on American soil. 


ACT – Salima – But why would these immigrants know anything about it?


ACT – Rebecca – Well that’s the thing they didn’t of course


ACT – Salima – So that just becomes plain racist?


ACT – Rebecca – Well absolutely. Racism and Islamophobia and and of course we were literally terrified terrified of Islam because we were very quickly told that the people responsible were al-Qaida. And so these people were tortured they were held no lawyers their families and friends didn’t know where they were. If it had happened in some Latin American country would we would have said they were disappeared. Eventually. Some of them were deported because they had overstayed their visas. And not one of them was ever accused of anything to do with terrorism and yet they were tortured.


Narr: According to the New York Times, 762 undocumented immigrants were jailed in the weeks and months after 9/11, most of whom had no connections to terrorism. Yet were treated as if they did. Within 2 years, almost all detainees were deported. 

But most of the United States government’s worst abuses happened abroad. In secret locations called black sites. Where detainees were tortured for years and years. They were beaten. Waterboarded. Bombarded with noise. Prevented from sleeping. Force fed through tubes. Sexually humiliated. Kept in the freezing cold. Made to crouch in boxes the size of coffins. Held in solitary confinement. Hung from the ceiling by the wrists behind their backs. Slammed against walls. Prevented from having any contact with the outside world. As one current detainee, Ammar El Baluchi, said, “the way they treat you..they try to separate your mind from your body.” 

To this day we don’t have a lot of information on what happened in black sites: places with names like “the salt pit,” “the Cat’s eye” and “the darkness.” 


ACT – Salima – how many people have died in black sites. Do we know. No. Under torture. 


ACT – Rebecca – No we don’t know. We know about some cases we know about Gul Rahman for example who died of exposure. I think in Thailand we don’t know who died in the Salt Pit. We don’t know we know about one person who died upstairs from Abu Ghraib because in order to get his body out of the prison they had packed him in ice. They put him on a gurney and put a fake I.V. in his arm and rolled him out as if he were still alive and was going for treatment. But no we don’t know and we never will know. 


ACT – I mean. It’s possible that some of that information is in the actual 6000 page report that the Senate Intelligence Committee produced. But as far as we know there were only two or three paper copies of that report and they’re locked up somewhere and we’re never going to see that. And the CIA is one of 17 different agencies that are involved in national security and in intelligence gathering. The Joint Special Operations Command JSOC operated their own their own torture sites which haven’t been investigated at all except to some extent by Jeremy Scahill who is an independent and amazing journalist. So they had their own camp NAMA. It was called which stood for nasty assed military area The signs supposedly in that were up on the walls in this place said no blood no foul.  


ACT – Salima – And you know Guantanamo is one example but we don’t actually know if I think all the black sites have been closed. but you know we had some floating black sites that I know about. 


ACT- Rebecca – Exactly. We don’t I mean Obama ordered them closed I think President Obama also discovered very quickly just what the limits of presidential power are especially the power of a black president. For that matter matter. And yet we don’t know. I mean I’d like to think all the CIA’s black sites were close 


ACT – Salima – but what about the JSOC ones ?


ACT – Rebecca – [01:16:49]Well in fact we know they haven’t been. We know that for example the CIA is still assisting in Somalia in training Somalia and police in interrogation of sapote you know of terrorists that have been captured in Somalia. We know that theU.S. is operating all over Africa and supposedly fighting terrorism in all of these places. And we have no idea what’s going on in these places. 


Narr– The portions of the Senate report that were released found that the CIA lied about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation, the kinds of torture were far more brutal than policymakers were led to believe, and the CIA actively avoided congressional oversight of the program. Still, 5 years later, though many regret the programs, none of the architects have been charged with war crimes. But Rebecca Gordon thinks there are ways to start holding people accountable. Starting with the International Criminal Court.


ACT – Rebecca – It has been suggested that there are people who might be put on trial if not for torture at least for other kinds of war crimes committed in the context of the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. of course wouldn’t recognize that. And the problem with the ICC is that. It has really lost a lot of its credibility because the only people it has ever tried are former heads of African states. And so it’s it’s problematic. And the interesting thing about the ICC is that it was actually the outgrowth of what the people who put together the trials at Nuremberg hoped for which is that there would be an ongoing venue in which people who were guilty of war crimes who couldn’t be tried in their own countries for whatever reason could be put on trial internationally. 


Narr – But that’s not the only option – 


ACT – There’s the possibility of People’s Tribunals. And this was there’s a precedent for this from the Vietnam War. Jean-Paul Sartre and various other people Bertrand Russell very famous arm European intellectuals created a tribunal in 1967 that put theU.S. on trial for what it was doing in Vietnam. I’d like to see. And in fact there have been events like that held in the United States. 


Narr – And then there’s the civil courts. Which might seem like a strange place to try the US for torture. But, recently the psychologists who designed enhanced interrogation – named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell – were sued. They were sued by two people who’d survived the torture program in a place called Cobalt, and the brother of one man who died in cobalt. And that’s not the only known case of people using the civil courts.


ACT – this is actually sort of there’s a tradition of people going to civil court when they haven’t been able to use criminal courts to get restitution. Maharaj Arar who was a Canadian who was stopped at at Kennedy Airport and shipped off to of all places Syria when we were still friends with Bashar al Assad instead of enemies of Bashar al-Assad and was held and tortured for ten months. He received an apology from the Canadian government because he’s a Canadian citizen. The U.S. has never apologized. 


Narr – the suit against the psychologists Mitchell and Jessen never actually went to court. The plaintiffs settled. But, through the process, the public found out massive amounts of information on the black site Cobalt, and at least it forced Mitchell and Jessen to testify.


ACT – I think if what we’re after is as much exposure and truth right we’re not going to get reconciliation but maybe we can get some truth. Yeah I think that the civil courts are actually a really good place to do that. 

So yeah there are some possibility there are possibilities. And I really think the key is organizing and wherever you are the key is to find your local organization or national organization that’s doing this work and find a way to support them even if it’s just with money but and you know. What happens of course. And what happens on the streets. Those things can work in tandem. It’s not an either or it’s a both.


Narr- You were just listening to our Making Contact Producer Salima Hamirani interviewing Rebecca Gordon about torture. And we’re working on a more in-depth piece, about the link between professional psychology and torture. So make sure to keep in touch with us so you’re able to hear it when it airs. 

And we want to hear from you! What are your thoughts on enhanced interrogation? Join the conversation on Facebook;  — Our Twitter handle is Making underscore Contact and on Instagram we’re makingcontactradioproject. 

The Making Contact Team includes:

Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Sabine Blaizin, and Lisa Rudman. I’m Aysha Choudary .  Thanks for listening to Making Contact!


Author: Radio Project

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