Recent Politics of Cruelty in Action


excerpted from the book

The Politics of Cruelty

an essay on the literature of political imprisonment

by Kate Millett

WW Norton, 1994, paper

Recent Politics of Cruelty in Action

Alicia Partnoy's account of her experiences in a clandestine Argentinean prison under the military government were published piecemeal and anonymously in human rights journals until they appeared together in the work entitled The Little School. Though narrated in the third person, the arrest is her own abduction on January 12,1977, when she was taken to the headquarters of the 5th Army Corps and then to a strange little compound hidden behind it, a few shabby trailers parked around an old house about a mile from the You and I Motel (Tu y Yo) on Carrindanga Road, a belt highway outside the town of Bahia Blanca. It is remote, dusty: one hears the traffic, a few trains, even the lowing of cattle. Handcuffed, Partnoy was brought with a blindfold over her eyes, but by tilting her head she was able to read the letters A.A.A., the initials of the Alianza Anticomunista Argentina, a paramilitary group "with whom the military has since denied any relation."

The term "Little School" (La Escuelita) is military humor, a name the victims of this clandestine prison heard all the time, the name they used in their own minds, whispered to each other when they dared to break its rule of silence; a mocking irony remembered as the experience itself by those who survived. "I knew just one Little School," Partnoy warns the reader, "but throughout our continent there are many 'schools' whose professors use the lessons of torture and humiliation to teach us to lose the memories of ourselves. Beware: in little schools the boundaries between story and history are so subtle that even I can hardly find them." In Argentina, more than thirty thousand persons disappeared during the "dirty war" between 1976 and 1979, four hundred of them children kidnapped with their parents or born in captivity. The vast majority of the disappeared remain unaccounted for.

Partnoy's Little School is in fact a little hell: there are two small rooms where an average of fifteen prisoners are forced to lie prone on camp beds. They must remain in this position twenty-four hours a day in a continuous condition of helplessness and inactivity. They are always blindfolded and their hands are bound. Between the two rooms there is a small tiled hallway where guards are on duty to ensure that they will neither speak nor move. Crude circumstances but absolute: the captive is totally immobilized and utterly forbidden to communicate. Blinded, deprived even of sight, he or she is reduced to an object. Move or speak and you are beaten with a rubber truncheon. Partnoy endured this parody of an authoritarian classroom regimen for six months from her arrest in January till the following June, unable to move, to speak, or to see.

To be imprisoned under these conditions is torture itself. But there are further tortures: past the guards' room and their kitchen and bath down the hall, a door opens onto the patio where the "torture room" is located, just before the latrine and the water tank. The torture room is equipped with an iron bed frame, standard equipment in such places; humble object made for other purposes but used here for the torment of electric shock. The metal conducts, and it is strong; prisoners can be bound to it. The guards sleep in trailers; in time a few more trailers will be added for more "disappeared."

It is the ordinary squalor of this bizarre homemade jail that makes it so real. The roof leaks: "When it rained, the water streamed into the rooms and soaked us. When the temperature fell below zero, we were covered with only dirty blankets; when the heat was unbearable we were obligated to blanket even our heads. We were forced to remain silent and prone, often immobile or face down for many hours, our eyes blindfolded and our wrists tightly bound."

It is as if, by covering the captives with blankets, they are made to disappear within their hidden prison. For six months Partnoy's family had no idea where she had vanished; the military denied that it had her in custody just as it had denied thousands of others. The ability to "disappear" a human being is such an awesome power that the verb itself, grammatically intransitive, becomes transitive and now takes an object. A new passive is also created: one does not disappear, one is disappeared. The word is further detached from its nearly abstract connotations of perception or impression and transformed into a specific act: "to disappear" someone is to erase a presence, perhaps even an existence, through capture.

But in a very special manner; this is no ordinary kidnap, this is an act by authority. Government now causes its citizens to exist or cease to exist. These magical feats of appearance and disappearance, the condition of being seen or being invisible, present or not present, border on conjuring. The state's very efficacy in abducting its targets not only has the effect of making them cease to be but perhaps also to have never been. Since the fact of their detention is not recognized or recorded officially anywhere, the "disappeared" can be killed with the same ease as they can be detained until broken through torture. When broken they may be tried, used as witnesses, or murdered.

To practice torture, the state creates the usual preconditions for torture: on coming to power in 1976, the junta annulled the constitution. During the three years that follow the most oppressive years of military rule, thirty thousand Argentineans simply vanished from among their fellow citizens. Government statements consistently denied this; the last official pronouncement, the Final Document of the Military Junta on the War Against Subversion and Terrorism of April 1983, denies it categorically: "There is also talk of 'disappeared' persons who are still held under arrest by the Argentine government in unknown places in our country. All of this is nothing but a falsehood stated with political purposes, since there are neither secret detention places in the Republic nor persons in clandestine detention in any penal institution."

A few months later, the dictatorship collapsed; by December 1983, a democratically elected president had come to power. Partnoy returned to Argentina the next summer to find a country where "hundreds of unidentified corpses were being exhumed, most of them with signs of torture." She testified before the commission appointed to investigate disappearances and helped to identify the location of the Little School. But for all the crimes of this government and despite overwhelming evidence against it, only two military leaders, General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera, were given life sentences for their part in the disappearance and torture of this enormous number of victims.

Partnoy is stunned with disappointment by the results of the junta's trial: "Only three others were convicted and four military officers were acquitted of all charges. The rest of the criminals enjoy complete freedom." She is fully aware that this trial could have set a precedent in Latin America, only the second considerable trial for torture since Nuremberg. Nuremberg however was a case of the victor judging the vanquished; here was a case of a nation judging itself: "It is true that a very important trial has taken place against the generals who presided over the country, the men responsible for the massive assassinations. But it is also true that not until justice is brought in cases like that of the Little School will there be a safeguard against the recurrence of these crimes in the future."

Indeed, the results of the Argentinean trial are deplorable, virtually an exoneration of the military and all its brutality, a brutality in which thousands of uniformed members of the armed forces took part, together with thousands more paramilitary and covert actors who were never censured or brought to trial. Out of all these only five convictions, three of them minor: crimes as it were without consequence. The outcome was very reassuring not only for the Argentinean military but for all other military regimes in the region. A great opportunity has been lost. What began as a trial of the military ended as a surrender to military intimidation. In capitulating to the army by failing to try or punish the torturers among its ranks, Argentina may have made their return not only possible but easy. Justice seems further away than ever and the squadrons of Little Schools throughout the continent operate as usual.

How do such [national security] systems come into being? The case of Brazil is a comparable model for study, since the politics of cruelty are now part of life in the region and many countries can furnish an example: Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala. It begins with an ideology, the doctrine of the national security state. Brasil, Nunca Mais, the historic secret Report of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo, published in English as Torture in Brazil, is based on a five-year study of the official court records of military trials from 1964 to 1969. The Report gives a careful account of how such an idea develops and proliferates, how it originates in economic conditions, takes over politics, and permeates the legal system, resulting in the web of police apparatus that enforces abduction, interrogation, and torture.

Although portions of the Brazilian military were first seduced by Nazism and impressed by its early victories, Brazil finally joined the Allied forces in World War II and its expeditionary force fought on the Italian front under U.S. command. That connection was strengthened as generations of Brazilian officers thereafter came to the United States for military courses. They returned profoundly influenced by a new theory of national defense. They had learned in America that fortifying their national system against external attack was "far less important than shoring up institutions against an 'internal enemy' that might be trying to undermine them."

In 1949 the Superior War College was founded in Brazil, modeled upon the National War College of the United States, further adapting this interpretation of American Cold War strategy. U.S. national defense policy focused upon an exterior enemy, the Soviet Union, communism. Brazil could imagine no such external danger. But since any threat to U.S. economic interests in Brazil was perceived to be communism as well, a substitution was made: the enemy in Brazil's case was interior rather than exterior. At the Superior War College this was developed into an elaborate political program, and military personnel were trained for political and administrative office in government on the assumption of the military coming to power.

This idea was developed into a political program by the Brazilian military in the years it prepared for the coup of 1964, when the reformer President Joao Goulart was deposed by the army with the assistance of the United States through covert operations, destabilizing propaganda, and repeated assurances of support from the U.S. Embassy and its military attaché.

The new military government proclaimed itself a "victorious revolution," which "confers its own legitimacy upon itself." Then it set about changing the laws, enacting a series of "Institutional Acts," five in all, which cumulatively granted it dictatorial powers. They were necessary: given the unpopularity of its economic program, only force could implement it. Every door was opened to foreign investment incentive, easy credit, land purchase; huge projects were undertaken, massive indebtedness was built up as the living conditions of Brazilian citizens deteriorated. This neocolonial | situation where one nation holds sway over a formally independent country, extracting economic and political benefits, | gradually requires greater and greater military enforcement.

And therefore the need for "security" grows ever more urgent. Upon taking over, the new government drove ten thousand civil servants out of office, then instituted a General Committee for Investigations; five thousand investigations, affecting a total of forty thousand persons. Within months it had created a National Intelligence Service, extended the jurisdiction of military courts to the civilian population, abolished most political parties, developed the ability to suspend the legislative branch at will, rewritten the constitution, and given total license to the executive.

Through a barrage of acts, decrees, prohibitions, it had nearly silenced dissent, but sporadic resistance gave it occasion to restore the death penalty and to develop more and more "organs of security" until it had a great machine of repression, what came to be known as "the System." By the time that General Emilio Medici followed Marshal Castello Branco into office in 1969, the System was well developed: thousands were being sent to prison, abducted in the street or seized in raids upon their homes, interrogated, tortured, and murdered.

The "internal enemy" is hunted everywhere and with a thousand arms, one after another variety of police force is established and locked into an interconnecting grid: the army, navy, and air force police powers, the political state police, the federal police, the civil police, the military state police, and the civil guard. It is not an open war but a secret one, carried out through interrogation, surreptitious investigation, telephone taps, the storing and processing of information; clerical at one end, brutal at the other. The System proliferates and expands into acronyms, gathers autonomous and officially unacknowledged paramilitary units under the umbrella of OBAN (Operation Bandeirantes), which gains support in the business sector and funding by numbers of multinationals, among them Ford and General Motors, its headquarters a police precinct where every type of police organ is represented and coordinated.

The very fact that OBAN was extra-legal gave it great flexibility and impunity with regard to methods of interrogation; this in turn empowered it for important victories in the "fight against subversion." This conglomerate is so successful it provides a model for the next step in the System, DOI-CODI, the Center for Internal Defense Operations, which coordinates every police and paramilitary organ region by region, culminating in DEOPS, the State Departments for Political and Social Order-the most important forces of political repression and responsible for the most investigations, abductions, interrogations, tortures, and murders.

Once the enemy is the citizenry itself, there is no end to fears for security; dissent is treasonous, opposition criminal activity. The System is a pyramid extending upward from its base of interrogation rooms to its apex with the Council of National Security; its chief holds cabinet rank and meets each day with the president, its budget expands exponentially. Directed against its own people, [the system] must be paid for and supported by them as well, a luxurious burden of paranoia, a great useless expense undertaken to ensure their oppression.

In designing the National Intelligence Service after study in the United States, General Golbery do Conto e Silva had foreseen this. In his Geopolitica do Brasil, which became a manual for military government, he concluded that there was no alternative: "There is a new dilemma, that of well-being versus security. This was pointed out by Goring in the past, in an imprecise but highly suggestive and well-known slogan: 'More guns, less butter' . . . there is no way to escape the need to sacrifice well-being for security, once the latter is truly threatened." Goring of course had been speaking of a country at war with an external enemy; Golbery is speaking of one at war with its own population. They must not only endure poverty so that the military can remain safely in power over them, they must sacrifice every right as well.

Ultimately only the military is safe in the national security state. Everyone else is at risk; any life may come under suspicion and unbearable persecution. Living in a protected world of their own, the military are a separate caste enjoying great privilege and unlimited power, a world of state crime and lawlessness completely protected by the specious legality of its own laws. The doctrine of national security is an absolute one; it has decreed from the beginning that "internal opposition could not be tolerated" if its own security were to be maintained: toward that monopoly on authority it has dedicated its entire armory of force, every gun and roadblock, every listening post and agent. But its greatest weapon is torture: arriving at total control, it acknowledges this as its surest avenue.

Torture is institutionalized under regimes like these, a deliberate political and social policy, a calculated strategy of widespread intimidation which goes far beyond the old abuses of police interrogation. The secret character of torture is only ambiguously maintained: protests against it in the congress or the press are rare and swiftly punished, but when suspects are arrested it is routine to beat them in the sight and hearing of their neighbors. The population at large must know something of disappearance, enough to be afraid: the opposition must know more, enough to despair. There are circles of awareness, but within the System itself, there is hardly any pretense: the Report of the Archdiocese, compiled from the official records of the military courts themselves, gives a frank and open picture. Once in the custody of OBAN or DOI-CODI, very few escaped torture; but most victims did not refer to it when they finally reached the courtroom, silenced by their own fear or a well-grounded sense of futility as well as the advice of council. Nevertheless, of the seven thousand defendants tried in this period, nearly two thousand had the temerity to speak out in such a court, testifying that they had been tortured and protesting against it. Although their courage had no effect and allegations of torture were ignored and dismissed, the information they provided, information the military regime did not even think to suppress, is invaluable and gives us an understanding of the process.

Torture had a budget and staff, training procedure, study and teaching methods, was regarded as a science. There are classes, classrooms, visual aids, technical terms, and apparatus: slide photographs of torture are followed with practical demonstrations on prisoners. The classes are described in the testimony of the prisoners who were used as live subjects in classes where acknowledged experts like Lieutenant Hayton would instruct large groups of eighty or one hundred army personnel, the lecture and photographs followed with practical "hands-on" exercises. Dulce Pandolfi, a twenty-four-year-old university student, was used as a guinea pig for torture classes in the barracks on Barao de Mesquita Street in Rio: "stripped naked and subjected to beatings and electric shocks and other torments such as the 'parrot's perch.' After being taken to her cell, the defendant was assisted by a doctor, and after a while, was again tortured with exquisite cruelty in a demonstration of how torture should be carried out." One student prisoner was even used as a subject before an audience of military cadets at a preparatory school. Another prisoner was told as he was being used for demonstration that his torturers were exporting their sophisticated knowledge of the technology of pain and "owed nothing to any foreign organization" in their expertise.

Perhaps they overstated their case: the practice of using live subjects, according to the Report of the Archdiocese [Brazil], was introduced by the American police instructor Dan Mitrione in the early years of the regime: "Mitrione took beggars off the streets and tortured them in classrooms, so that the local police would learn the various ways of creating, in the prisoner, the supreme contradiction between the body and the mind by striking blows to vulnerable points of the body." When Mitrione was transferred to Uruguay to teach policemen there, the use of live subjects could be refined upon.

The methods of torture reported in the military court records are now common throughout the continent. They have names like the "parrot's perch" and the "ice box" and the "dragon chair." In the first, the prisoner's wrists and ankles are tied to an iron bar anchored between two tables, suspended just above the ground. The body is then beaten or shocked with electricity. The dragon chair is a device into which one is strapped for the same purpose. It has a metal seat to increase conduction and an iron bar that pushes the legs backward with each shock, causing deep gashes. Electric shock is produced by army field telephones and various rotary devices called "the little pepper" or "the doubler of tension." Ice boxes are any number of cold and restrictive spaces where the victim is confined for long periods to endure deafening noises, strong light, or lack of ventilation. Insects and animals are also used: snakes, dogs, cockroaches. Every sexual orifice and organ is invaded through these methods: electric shock is typically directed at the most vulnerable parts of the body-the fingers and mouth, as well as the penis, vagina, breasts, and anus. The experience of drowning is created in many ways as water is forced into the mouth through tubes or towels; strangulation is approached by hanging or with a garotte. Victims are made to stand precariously on aluminum cans, or hung on beams as if crucified.

Torture is routinely practiced for a considerable period ever before interrogation begins, for its own sake and without the excuse of obtaining information, to induce terror and despair and to bring about the victim's moral destruction. To complement this, friends and relatives are captured so that emotional ties may be called upon. From the records of the court it is clear that "children were sacrificed before their parents' eyes, pregnant women had miscarriages and wives were subjected to suffering to make them incriminate their husbands." Women prisoners were raped, penetrated with objects, and ritually humiliated by groups of males before whom their vulnerability I was ingeniously exploited.

In Brazil ... the Amnesty of 1979 closed all cases of the regime's crimes against its citizens, and the long list of the 440 torturers printed at the end of the Archdiocese Report-names obtained through the military court's own records of its procedures against their victims-is a list of men now beyond the reach of the law, which includes many still "in service" to the republic.

Force remains immune to justice, even the "moral justice", the Report argues for, having despaired of any other and anxious not to be accused of "revenge." If the rule of law and democracy has returned to Argentina and Brazil, it may be only temporarily; meanwhile it has been extinguished elsewhere.

Somehow the official version is always a lie, and even the most informative reports fail to produce results. Because if a trial ever takes place, the court fails to convict: the witnesses come forward, the bodies are exhumed and analyzed for evidence of torture by experts, yet somehow the military always escapes unscathed. Somehow the national security state maintains its immunity; it is such a general phenomenon now, such a widespread ideology, so essential to the military element and its unchallenged power in the society of the region and its neocolonial mission, that, like a colony of bacteria temporarily in remission, it simply relocates and continues to operate with impunity.

Guatemala has undergone only one period of reform in this century, the decade between 1944 and 1954, the presidential terms of Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman-a period of popularly elected democratic government where labor organization was permitted, even encouraged, and a beginning was made at land reform. The moment of Arbenz's fall is the moment history stopped in Guatemala or took another course, the army withdrawing support for an elected government that had relied upon it, joining in a CIA-supported coup replacing democrat with dictator, and beginning forty years of military repression. Land reform would never again be considered in an agrarian economy of staggering disparities, the larger holdings accounting for as much as 90 percent of the land in export agribusiness; as the great plantations swell, the peasantry's communal land and subsistence plots contract and they are forced to travel to the coast to perform as migrant labor several months a year at wages that barely sustain life. The big plantations reek of chemicals, toxins, insecticides; crops are sprayed by air while Indian laborers are exposed in the field; workers' living conditions and their shack housing are described by the International Labor Office as "totally unacceptable with regard to hygiene, health, education and morality."

Arbenz's agrarian policy offended United Fruit with plans for appropriation of unused portions of its vast holdings. The American firm demanded twenty-five times the sum Arbenz was offering in compensation and registered its claim directly with the State Department: a head-on collision with the U.S. government. Direct threats to U.S. corporate interests were totally unacceptable. Arbenz's modest reforms were now considered "Communist," the Arbenz government toppled, and the new military government was very careful to appeal to | United States investment as well as its Cold War ideology.

The doctrine was American; so was the advisory planning, training, and instruction, the military aid and materiel. In Guatemala, the doctrine took the form of counter-insurgency. a variant on the ideology of the national security state. Perhaps also an intensification, especially if one remembers that counter-insurgency is also described as counter-terror. So while the huge repressive machinery of the national security state tends to lie in wait for transgressions against its authority, poised and ready to pounce, counter-insurgency assumes that the mischief is already going on, that an insurgent force is present, that it has dared to organize and band together, that it is out there, ready to be attacked, even to attack authority itself, the military state. This is to assume not only that the enemy is internal, the population itself, but that there is a real enemy with a face, the guerrilla, the armed resistance. In the first period of counter-insurgency in the sixties, when U.S. Special Forces were used in training and advisory and perhaps even in some combat capacity, some eight thousand persons were killed by the Guatemalan government, although the guerrillas themselves did not number over five hundred. In the eighties there may have been ten thousand insurgents, but something like eighty thousand persons were killed. The other victims are considered support, accomplices in some sense: they were there, they were in the neighborhood, it is difficult to tell the guilty from the innocent, and these people, like the Viet Cong-for counter-insurgency was built on American strategy in Vietnam, the "model hamlet" method of invading and controlling alien populations and the "Phoenix" pattern of assassination-these people must be crushed, if necessary exterminated. One begins with deception, spreading lies and disinformation, "fooling them, finding them, attacking them, annihilating them," as Rios Montt's four tactics outline it in his "Standing Orders for the Development of Anti-Subversive Operations" in the so-called Victoria 82 Plan of Campaign.

It is interesting that in the case of the doctrines of both the national security state and counter-insurgency, Latin American military could accept a U.S. version of their military situation and their relationship to their own population, without objecting that American strategists did not apply these doctrines at home. Only the U.S. Special Forces operated on the same dynamic toward civilians as did Latin American regimes, since this was a unit dealing with foreign nationals or a teaching branch for export. There are consequences in the fact that the U.S. military did not posit an enemy within its population or a hostile dynamic toward its citizens: what was appropriate for export was not acceptable at home. There is an unconscious racism and imperialism inherent in such a double standard. It is related to privilege, or what has become privilege in the face of deprivation, that narcissistic glow U.S. nationals experience in their certainty that their civil rights are still intact, respected. Others elsewhere have lost or never had the traditional "liberties" they continue to enjoy-together with their recent economic hegemony. Observing their own good fortune in comparison to the fate of other citizens under other governments may be so satisfying that scruples about equity or causation do not arise.

The American counter-insurgency doctrine was formative, all-pervasive: lives were lived and lost behind its perceptions. Its effect was a nightmare brutality of clandestine executions and mutilated corpses, yet acceptable to Latin American militarism for reasons of its own. One might guess at a colonized sense of inferiority before the glamour and wealth of empire, the young officer dazzled by study abroad. But far more important is the balance of power at home, preserving that. Through such necessity they have arrived at a particular form of bad faith which accepts any terms in order to maintain power. That these are one's own people is not material: the ideology of anti-communism has made them estranged, foreign, contaminated, possessed by a diabolic force that makes them more remote than foreigners, less sympathetic, less human. The rules of combat do not apply here; the rules of war are military, not paramilitary. There is nothing too cruel or outrageous in this combat, there is no restraint, no mercy, no quarter. Counter-insurgency becomes counter-terror.

In the city, one is always dealing with "unknown assailants," "masked men," and nameless or anonymous "death squads," "vigilante groups." In the countryside, where the army openly confronts the peasantry, there are other forms of manipulation and distancing: Indian foot soldiers deal with Indian peasants, but by careful design they are never from the same provinces or language groups. The soldier's training has been a systematic denial of his natural sympathies, part of it a deliberate brutalization whereby he has been beaten routinely, endured it, and been taught to beat others. He has been thoroughly conditioned to believe there are "Communists" everywhere and to regard them as anathema. He has been lied to and suborned and estranged from his origins and background. Although he was conscripted by poverty or even impressed and kidnapped on market day, the army has in time become his home, his whole sphere of experience now: its male culture is familiar and agreeable. It is an entire institution, secure and reassuring, full of authority and prestige, a path of opportunity far above what fate would have presented otherwise; promotion is frequent, sometimes every four months, there are extra awards for guerrilla deaths, executions.

One is fighting a crusade, warring with a pure evil. Counterinsurgency was always understood to be a "dirty war": beyond morality, magical and abstract. Everyone is pretending: there is no Communist threat, the opposition is indigenous, a broadbased spectrum of worker, peasant, and middle-class dissatisfaction arising out of traditional commitments to democracy and religious values where the Communist Party is an insignificant minority. But the specter of communism has been used successfully to justify military rule and then dictatorship. Doctrine, dogma, myth, convenience. The army grows richer and more powerful, no longer the servant of the propertied classes but their partner. The political parties are eviscerated; elections are fraudulent. Measures are more and more extreme, the military proliferates through every institution, controls more and more of the social apparatus, declares frequent states of siege which suspend the constitution and all other civil guarantees.

Conquest is through sheer nastiness: the model is not a warrior or officer ethic but the mafia, criminality. But it is a highly technical and completely sophisticated criminal force, enjoying every advantage of governmental prestige and cohesion: its very mechanical heart the great communications center in the National Palace where all intelligence information from every source is coordinated and the orders go out for death squad killings. This great complex, the Regional Center for Telecommunications (La Regionale), a gift of U.S. "development assistance," not only puts Guatemala in twenty-four-hour contact with the police and security of six other neighboring states and the Southern Command of the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone but also functions as the command center for the supposed random killings, the thousands of tortured bodies which the regime passed off as inexplicable crimes by unknown assassins or persons beyond the law, zealots whom it claims it cannot control or identify. On February 18, 1981, Amnesty International published a report which concluded that "no pro-government groups existed independent of government control and that government agencies were directly responsible for the killings and kidnapping which the authorities ascribed to extremist death squads." Amnesty's conclusions were based on a variety of testimony, including that of Elias y Barahona, former press representative of the Ministry of the Interior, whose duty it had been to present such deaths as savage infighting between the extreme left and extreme right, utterly disassociated from government. Deaths ascribed to much-publicized squads like White Hand, ESA, and NOA, groups which advertised themselves by leaflet and claimed "credit" by crude notes pinned upon disfigured bodies, were and still are the work of the government itself: the Ministry of the Interior was said to keep a supply of blank stationery from the chief death squads.

Executions by the various police forces are routinely performed by groups of demoted policemen forced to atone for past irregularities by assassination duty with short pay and some chance of reinstatement. Executions by the military itself are also conducted by government personnel, the assassins generally two confidentiales or secret military intelligence agents in one part of the country, who are provided with tickets and photographs of their victims either routinely approved from the lists in the central regional files by the heads of the detective corps and the military police or, in the case of the prominent, decided upon at meetings of the Departments of Interior and Defense. Duty is temporary and hard to trace; the agents return at once to their own locales and are disassociated with the crime.

Surveillance is highly developed through La Regionale; electronic information from any government data base can be correlated to intelligence. Whatever may be learned from the state-run telephone company, the ministries of Labor, Finance, Immigration, and Passport Records. Everything is on hand, ready for "when the time comes to pick them up," as the historian Michael McClintock demonstrates in The American Connection, Volume 2, State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala. Tens of thousands have met this fate. There is very little detention; nearly everyone who disappears in Guatemala is murdered. Combined with torture and mutilation, it is a very hard death.

... the instant when Archbishop Romero [El Salvador] is murdered with one bullet on a church altar while saying mass on March 24, 1980, is ...crucial. By then it was civil war, a mass popular movement against which the army was at war; and by then Romero himself would be so incensed he would not only admonish the soldiery to disobey orders to torture fellow peasants but go on to justify open rebellion, perhaps even the armed struggle: "when a dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes insupportable and all channels of dialogue, understanding and rationality are closed, when this occurs, the Church speaks of the legitimate right to insurrectional violence." At his funeral, a hundred thousand mourned Romero in the cathedral square and the military opened fire on the crowd with machine guns. Things had gone this far.

Counter-insurgency has produced this, the American doctrine, the American training and advisers, the American aid and war materiel in congressional appropriation after appropriation. Archbishop Romero had begged that the repression come to an end and that U.S. military aid come to a halt: another appropriation was voted the day after his murder. One must go back to the beginning of counter-insurgency theory and implementation, the article of faith that all forms of opposition and protest are subversion: trade unions, student demonstrations, opposition parties. Every form of dissent has been criminalized, converted to communism, to treason: for economic reasons, if no other, since the disparity in wealth is so enormous, the oligarchy of the "fourteen families" so powerful, the role of the security forces to guard the elite so manifest. "Development" and "civic action" were supposed to balance the role of "coercion" in counter-insurgency; but this would involve basic economic change, undesirable and therefore unfeasible, so they remain public relations gestures, words and phrases.

What is created instead is a vast network of security forces and political police, the product of twenty years of U.S. training. Organized beside it is a secret paramilitary force, faceless bands of men mobilized under patronage, low-level government workers who must "volunteer" to keep their jobs, army reservists and veterans retrained as part-time assassins in the city and the countryside, who in the jargon of the U.S. Defense Department, CIA, Public Safety Program, and U.S. Army pronouncements cited in Volume 1 of McClintock's American Connection form the "basic civilian counter-terrorist organization." "Young elites," they are called flatteringly, "who have a stake in the community, because they have a family, own a house or a piece of land, are ambitious to get ahead in business, profession or politics." The selection of such men is the "first priority after the military have cleared an area," training them for guard duty, nighttime roadblocks, surveillance, and to act as informants and guides for the military, not excepting assassination squad duty. U.S. advisers created this web of counter-terror in ORDEN and a number of other Salvadoran paramilitary organizations, civil defense patrols, and death squads.

In forming such units every interest and prejudice can be played upon, every mercenary or ideological connection, religious belief, ethnic identification, class consciousness, incorporating employees of the landlord class, lesser relatives of property, recipients of patronage, and especially families identified with the National Guard. It is a volatile mix: once organized and empowered, once citizens are permitted and encouraged, trained and directed to break the law, to carry arms and to commit murders and assassinations, it is hard to stop this process, modify or moderate it. Directed and controlled by the army and security forces, the identity of paramilitary individuals is secret to the rest of the population, just as their deeds are obfuscated and confused in the press, blamed on "extreme elements of the right or left." Constant confusion is necessary, references to mysteries, unknown assailants, masked men, vigilantes, fringe groups, persons "out of control," with "no official ties," phantoms, independent and "unaffiliated" bodies. A language of the indefinite comes into being, the unaccountable: there will be no accountability, only power, fear.

Yet for all this, as one U.S. Army study puts it, "paramilitary forces are primarily political." An astute observation; even when the message is merely intimidation, "Their function is to provide visible and effective demonstrations of the power of the state." Even when the source of the violence is muddied, the message is still effective: one gets the point. Responsibility and blame are avoided at the same time.

The irresponsibility inherent in counter-insurgency has placed the prestige and power, the moral authority of the United States, its military and material assistance of all kinds behind the thinking of U.S. Army handbooks which can describe an imaginary Latin American country called "Centralia" where counter-insurgency techniques are considered with this single limitation: "You may not use mass counter-terror, as opposed to selective terror, against the civilian population, i.e. genocide is not an alternative." McClintock cites this source, and one is forced to consider with him just how high a percentage of the population may be exterminated under the term "selective."

Under the massacre conditions of army counter-insurgency, that percentage could go very high indeed. Over and over in counter-insurgency thinking the armed resistance is conceived of as being like fish in the sea; failing to catch the fish, the army will drain the sea instead by destroying its base of support in the local population, if necessary by exterminating that population itself. The term "civilian" has no meaning now, the entire citizenry in some regions may be bombed and machine-gunned; strategists like Colonel Ochoa deny even that civilians exist in certain zones even children there are military targets. By the eighties, emboldened by the Reagan administration, the army itself had become a death squad.

Massacre after massacre is attributed to the Atlacatl Battalion, trained in El Salvador by U.S. Special Forces from Fort Gulick in the Canal Zone, or to the Ramon Belloso, trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The El Mozote massacre, reported in the U.S. press and by the Americas Watch Committee, took the lives of a thousand civilians from a number of villages in Morazan; the main strike force was again the Atlacatl Battalion, comprising three thousand army and security forces as well as paramilitary irregulars.

In El Mozote itself there was only a single survivor, a thirty-eight-year-old woman named Rufina Amaya. The troops arrived early in the morning and rounded up the villagers, locking the men up in the church and women in a house nearby. At noon the men were blindfolded and executed in the town center, Amaya's husband among them, who was nearly blind. Then the women: in the afternoon the young women were taken to the hills and raped, then killed and their bodies burned. Next the old women were taken and shot. "The soldiers had no fury," Amaya explained, "They just observed the Lieutenant's orders. They were cold." Hiding among the trees, Amaya heard the soldiers discuss how to kill the children; they seem to have decided to choke them, because later she heard their screams and calls for help but heard no shots. Three of her own children were among those dead; all were under ten years old.


State Torture and Religion, The Torture of Children

The idea of human "trash" takes hold in the minds of security and police authority. Perhaps its most tragic use at the present is against children.

There are locations where such abuses became extraordinary, as in the widespread torture of children in South Africa following the uprisings in Soweto there are ... places where the torture of children is routine and consistent, that is, governments that torture suspects will torture suspected children as well.

This is the case in Turkey. Helsinki Watch attorney Lois Whitman, in an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times (Friday, January 3,1992), describes several cases of the torture of children apprehended on both criminal and political grounds such as distributing leaflets; for this offense a sixteen-year-old Turkish girl was badly beaten and held for two months. Whitman herself interviewed nine children between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, all of whom had been abused in detention. Helsinki Watch has reports of dozens of other cases of the torture of Turkish children in custody. Their families were never notified of their whereabouts; all of them were incarcerated in adult prisons, none were permitted to see lawyers during their interrogations. A child of fifteen accused of robbery was detained for four days, during which he was subjected to falaka, the soles of his feet beaten, then his whole body beaten with clubs while he hung suspended upside down, naked and blindfolded. He was then handcuffed to the door of his cell and beaten again, suspended again by the arms and given electric shock. This child then signed a confession, since repudiated. Turkish authorities consistently deny allegations of torture: Turkish attorneys charge that torture is routine in 80 to 90 percent of political cases and 50 percent of criminal cases. Turkey is a signatory state both to the European and the United Nations Conventions Against Torture.

There are indications that the torture of children may become more specific. Destitute and defenseless, children of the street are becoming targets of disappearance and death, the victims of what are now habits of cruelty, established practices of dealing with the unwanted human being. At first there were only scattered press references and reports of this phenomenon in Guatemala, although the numbers of children murdered by death squads, the police, and the military in Brazil and Iraq had indicated a disturbing pattern; by now UNICEF has gathered information on the torture and disappearance of children in many countries which indicates strong tendencies in some, emergencies in others.

Death squad culture has created a scenario now, a manner of locating and apprehending a target, the scapegoat vanishing only to reappear as the mutilated example of an existence that will not be tolerated: communism, destitution, overpopulation, feral childhood. These are street children, beggars, some of them addicted to "glue," some of them migrants or refugees of counter-insurgency, some abandoned-place, land, and parents lost, no longer even remembered. Their numbers grow, they are a "problem," an increasing social phenomenon perceived as an offshoot of criminality and addiction throughout the region; drugs a familiar excuse for police brutality whereby the desperate condition of these children may be construed as corruption rather than poverty. Their presence is offensive in the eyes of security: conspicuous, a blemish to the public image, not only an embarrassment before visitors but a threat to tourist income.

Their very being suggests the stray, an insult to order and ownership and family cohesion. There is about them an inevitable lawlessness because they are also utterly indigent and dependent for sustenance upon garbage or petty crime, sleeping in the open in ditches, ravines, culverts, or protected only by cardboard and other scraps of material. The children of no one, wandering outside a social order where children are dependent for existence upon being the acknowledged property of adults. Unacknowledged, then, without public resources of any kind, deprived of any type of collective support that might constitute "permission" to exist, they exist anyway; without permission, that is without parents or sponsors. It is an existence increasingly precarious in authoritarian society, and in view of the growing brutality of police methods and the hardening of attitude that accompanies the use of torture in social policy, increasingly perilous as well.

In Guatemala, these children are being subjected to police brutality which ranges from casual torture during round-ups to mutilation, disappearance, and death. According to Amnesty International sources and W. E. Gutman's report in Omni magazine (November 1991), which includes information supplied by the child advocacy group Casa Alianza and is accompanied by a large number of photographs of disfigured and mutilated young corpses, the perpetrators of these crimes against children in Guatemala are police and security personnel. Sometimes police patrols operating in plainclothes or hiding their badges; at other times police officers working second jobs, "moonlighting" by operating as executioners "on behalf of local municipalities and private businesses." A third type are members of private security corporations that are licensed by the national police and the Ministry of the Interior. For all the evidence of their crimes, these men are rarely tried or indicted.

There is little outrage or sentimentality over these deaths, since the lives in question are not those of beloved offspring but understood to be a kind of public nuisance. In view of the "delays, irregularities and blatant reversals connected with official inquiries" into these cases, Amnesty feels that children's rights have been continuously subordinated to trade and diplomatic concerns. Meanwhile worldwide there are some 100 million street children living in fear of their lives, many of whom "disappear, are beaten, illegally detained and confined, sexually exploited, tortured and systematically killed by agents of the state." Gutman and Amnesty list twenty-two countries where children are systematically sexually exploited, as in the Philippines, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, or illegally imprisoned and tortured, as in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, E1 Salvador, Iraq, South Africa, and Turkey, and where they may also be executed either extra-judicially or legally, as in the United States, where fourteen states have juveniles on death row.



But reversion is a constant danger. Once a society becomes as regimented as Argentina, Brazil, or Uruguay, as dominated by inquisitorial ideology and security controls and surveillance, reversion is always possible, remains as near as the resumption of military rule-for which civilian politicians have frequently been responsible. They are so again in voting for blanket amnesties which grant the military virtual impunity. The party and the army cut deals, the politicians forgive all, playing it safe, propitiating the armed forces. The victims lose their rights, so do the people at large. Consider Uruguay, where there was an attempt, by popular plebiscite, to overturn the congressional vote whereby professional politicians had extended total amnesty to the previous military regime. A grass-roots campaign was organized to reverse this gift of impunity through a popular referendum. Every obstacle was put in the way of obtaining the referendum: a staggering number of signatures (one sixth of the population) was required just to initiate the ballot. Then a year passed while government contested the signatures on the most specious grounds and harassed those who had dared to sign. But enough had, and it came to a vote. However, by that time the citizenry had been muddled and intimidated, unremitting propaganda and advertising had created a majority who, through exhaustion and confusion, would finally endorse the government position that to grant amnesty to the army for its crimes would preserve the new peace of democracy.

The amnesty itself had violated Uruguay's own commitments to the UN Conventions Against Torture. Then the results of the referendum, in permitting crime to be excused by a special plebiscite, violated the principle of equal protection before the law, which is fundamental to it. So is the principle of governmental accountability: rebels and criminals pay dearly; the state is increasingly unaccountable. It is as if the Germans had voted after the war to excuse Nazi crimes against the Jews. In Uruguay, too, the new "democratic" government had now come to be the protector and apologist of the previous military regime.

In Stanley Milgram's classic study Obedience to Authority, naive college students cast as "teachers" in a university experiment on learning and memory delivered massive amounts of electric shock to other students cast as "learners," simply because they were repeatedly ordered to by an "experimental scientist." Abridging his book for Harper's magazine in an article entitled "The Perils of Obedience," Milgram states that most of his subjects who delivered shock did so out of a "sense of obligation," which leads him to agree with Hannah Arendt's contention that evil is essentially banal and to conclude that directed cruelty does not require a sadistic personality: "That is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental j standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority"

... even the governments who are signatories to the UN Conventions Against Torture who offend. The United States, for example, which offends more abroad than at home, though it is not without offense there as well, has been extremely slow to ratify. A Special International Tribunal convoked at Hunter College in 1990 concluded that the United States does in fact violate the conventions in holding political prisoners, sentencing them disproportionately, and violating their rights through cruel and degrading treatment in its prisons, particularly the U.S. Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and the Women's High Security Unit at Lexington, Kentucky, object of popular outcry for its program of sensory deprivation in underground cells, constant illumination, and absolute isolation. Numbers of notable American political prisoners such as Leonard Peltier serve outlandish terms, some in solitary under inhumane conditions.

While governments must truly concur in abolition, it is unlikely they will do so without popular pressure. Conventions against torture, like all pledges and promises, are only as good as the power to enforce them and the means of redress when violated: means of an international court or authority to whom any citizen might apply-means presently not at hand. Implementation is crucial: guarantees of extradition to safety, indictment of the offending authorities, power of appeal against one's own nation state. The sovereignty of the nation state itself is a great obstacle to the abolition of torture.

There is nationalism at the popular level, and on the level of government itself, multinational or transnational economic power-these forces put torture in place and keep it there. As long as we identify culture and language and love of place with nation and national government, we are vulnerable to patriotic manipulation; as government's power increases, there is a concurrent increase in manipulation. To have any effect on state power, even to see and apprehend it, one must, as a first step, transcend nationalism. Amnesty and the other non-governmental groups are effective just because they ignore borders and identify through common humanity.

Torture cannot be prohibited without an attack upon state power, limiting it, pruning it back to democratic proportions, imposing strict limitations upon its increasing luxuriance.

How does the state come by its powers? Through its monopoly on force and its capacity to incarcerate. Therefore it has always had them, relinquished them only after long campaigns of agitation produced certain restraints which eventually curtailed them. But only for a while, since vigilance is the price of this type of freedom. In a sense, therefore, the state has simply reassumed these powers, slipped back into them as its claims were permitted to grow and magnify themselves through unchallenged arguments of revolutionary necessity, military necessity, counter-insurgent necessity, the complex necessities of national security-for all of which one must read its own self-interest, its hold on power.

A consolidated power, not merely of this particular government, regime, administration but the state itself, its accumulated force as it would be passed on to the next cast of military officers or even law-abiding civil bureaucrats. That power has advanced steadily and we have permitted it. To curtail it now may be late and difficult. Uncontrolled, it is terrible and has produced the present, this growing nightmare of force, torture only its most obvious excrescence. There is the prospect of it proliferating or going on untrammeled; yet even continuing as it does, it produces crime from which only the accident of place removes one.

Certain governments now "get by with murder" because the fortunate citizens of other governments completely fail to identify with their unfortunate fellows, are effectively "nationalized," confidently imagining "these people" deserve their fate. Anyway it's not their affair, they are the happy citizens of State A, which does not torture its citizens; as for the woeful conditions in State B, they are something else again. Imagining the two unrelated, accidental, a matter of luck. Or as Page duBois explains the dynamic in Torture and Truth, "Torture has become a global spectacle, a comfort to the so-called civilized nations," their proof of the "continued barbarism of the other world," the Third World "which has become, beside the site of torture, the spectacle of the other tortured for us."

The collective will toward abolition, small and weak as it is, is likely to succeed first at the abolition of physical torture, somatic torture, torture to the body itself. But this success would not prevent the growth of psychological torture. In Uruguay, for example, prisoners brought out of clandestine detention and interviewed by reassuring psychologists upon their admission to acknowledged public prisons were promised they would not be mistreated any more. In fact, their every confidence was systematically betrayed by a highly sophisticated behavioral psychology completely at the service of the state. As Lawrence Weschler describes Libertad Prison in Uruguay, the declared purpose of the regime was to drive one mad, a deliberate manipulation of sanity and suffering. All punishment was in relation to the rules, but the rules are secret and are changed every day. The declared purpose is to break the prisoner by destroying his mind, and every effort of behavioral science is brought to bear to accelerate this. Guards are trained to show aversion, films are projected out of focus, it is forbidden to sing, laugh, smile everything has emblematic meaning, to draw a rose brings a month in solitary as ideological punishment. There are two prisoners to each cell but only one chair; since it is forbidden to sit on the bed. one prisoner must pace or stand at all times.

The prison itself is a panopticon, where everything is visible; the larger society begins to replicate a panopticon as well. The logic behind all this surveillance and imprisonment is generally economic; in this case, the military government had put its hopes in the free market theories of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, or as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it, people were in prison so that prices could be free. With governments, one thing leads to another.

Politics of Cruelty

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