Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Torturing Children: Bush's Legacy and Democracy's Failure

by Henry A. Giroux

Adult kicking child.
The torture of children under the Bush administration has gone relatively unpublicized. (Photo: thepeoplesvoice.org)

    This is an excerpt from Henry A. Giroux's forthcoming book, "Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror," to be published by Paradigm Publishers.

    Nowhere is there a more disturbing, if not horrifying, example of the relationship between a culture of cruelty and the politics of irresponsibility than in the resounding silence that surrounds the torture of children under the presidency of George W. Bush - and the equal moral and political failure of the Obama administration to address and rectify the conditions that made it possible. But if we are to draw out the dark and hidden parameters of such crimes, they must be made visible so men and women can once again refuse to orphan the law, justice, and morality. How we deal with the issue of state terrorism and its complicity with the torture of children will determine not merely the conditions under which we are willing to live, but whether we will live in a society in which moral responsibility disappears altogether and whether we will come to find ourselves living under a democratic or authoritarian social order. This is not merely a political and ethical matter, but also a matter of how we take seriously the task of educating ourselves more critically in the future.

    We haven't always looked away. When Emmett Till's battered, brutalized, and broken fourteen-year-old body was open to public viewing in Chicago after he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, his mother refused to have him interred in a closed casket. His mutilated and swollen head, his face disfigured and missing an eye, made him unrecognizable as the young, handsome boy he once was. The torture, humiliation, and pain this innocent African-American youth endured at the hands of white racists was transformed into a sense of collective outrage and pain, and helped launch the Civil Rights movement. Torture when inflicted on children becomes indefensible. Even among those who believe that torture is a defensible practice to extract information, the case for inflicting pain and abuse upon children proves impossible to support. The image of young children being subjected to prolonged standing, handcuffed to the top of a cell door, doused with cold water, raped, and shocked with electrodes boggles the mind. Corrupting and degenerate practices, such despicable acts also reveal the utter moral depravity underlying the rationales used to defend torture as a viable war tactic. There is an undeniable pathological outcome when the issue of national security becomes more important than the survival of morality itself, resulting in some cases in the deaths of thousands of children - and with little public outrage. For instance, Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appearing on the national television program "60 Minutes" in 1996 was asked by Leslie Stahl for her reaction to the killing of half a million Iraqi children in five years as a result of the U.S. blockade. Stahl pointedly asked her, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it."(1) The comment was barely reported in the mainstream media and produced no outrage among the American public. As Rahul Mahajan points out, "The inference that Albright and the terrorists may have shared a common rationale - a belief that the deaths of thousands of innocents are a price worth paying to achieve one's political ends - does not seem to be one that can be made in the U.S. mass media."(2) More recently, Michael Haas has argued that in spite of the ample evidence that the United States has both detained and abused what may be hundreds of children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, there has been almost no public debate about the issue and precious few calls for prosecuting those responsible for the torture. He writes:

The mistreatment of children is something not so funny that has been neglected on the road to investigations of and calls for prosecution of those responsible for torture. George W. Bush has never been asked about the abuse of children in American-run prisons in the "war on terror." It is high time for Bush and others to be held accountable for what is arguably the most egregious of all their war crimes - the abuse and death of children, who should never have been arrested in the first place. The best kept secret of the Bush's war crimes is that thousands of children have been imprisoned, tortured, and otherwise denied rights under the Geneva Conventions and related international agreements. Yet both Congress and the media have strangely failed to identify the very existence of child prisoners as a war crime.(3)

    While it is difficult to confirm how many children have actually been detained, sexually abused, and tortured by the Bush administration, there is ample evidence that such practices have taken place not only from the accounts of numerous journalists but also in a number of legal reports. One of the most profoundly disturbing and documented cases of the torture of a child in the custody of U.S. forces is that of Mohammed Jawad, who was captured in Afghanistan after he allegedly threw a hand grenade at a military vehicle that injured an Afghan interpreter and two U.S. soldiers. He was immediately arrested by the local Afghan police, who tortured him and consequently elicited a confession from him. An Afghan Attorney General in a letter to the U.S. government claimed that Jawad was 12 years-old when captured, indicating that he was still in primary school, though other sources claim he was around 15 or 16.(4) Jawad denies the charges made by the Afghan police, claiming that "they tortured me. They beat me. They beat me a lot. One person told me, 'If you don't confess, they are going to kill you.' So, I told them anything they wanted to hear."(5)


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