“Words falling like little drops of arsenic in our body politic”

Barack Obama has apparently changed his mind about releasing up to 2,000 photographs of alleged abuse at American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan; he has decided that releasing the photos might endanger American troops. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers asks “why it is so important for the photos to be released,” since “we know that this behavior occurred,” to which Sullivan replies:
Without photos, we would never have heard of the mass abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.... When the photos were uncovered, revealing clearly what the anodyne words “stress position,” “mock execution,” “forced nudity,” etc., actually meant, we finally were able to hold the government accountable for the abuse it authorized.
This is likely true -- but we might also start to recognize the horror in those “anodyne words.” In a conversation about torture that PEN and the ACS put together in December -- and which appears in abridged form in the new issue -- Scott Horton refers to our many euphemisms for torture (“harsh interrogation techniques” and so forth) as “words falling like little drops of arsenic in our body politic.” Consider the sworn statement we reprinted in the new issue, which we obtained from a book published by the ACLU, The Administration of Torture:

I told ______________ a story I heard in Afghanistan of a dog used during an interrogation. The dog was trained to bark on cue and would bark any time the interrogator had reason to believe the detainee was lying during the interrogation. I told him that this would probably not be allowed, but that the presence of barking dogs in the prison might be effective. I told him of a story of an interrogator using a Pride and Ego Down approach. The interrogator took a copy of a Koran and threw it on the ground and stepped on the Koran, which resulted in a detainee riot. I explained to him that an adjusted sleep schedule was used on detainees in Afghanistan. The process was closely monitored and used to disorient the detainee. Subsequently, I explained that basic approach strategies would be most effective within the first few hours of capture and that they needed to do timely interrogations. The more comfortable a detainee gets with his surroundings, the stronger his resistance becomes.

“Adjusted sleep schedule,” “basic approach strategies”: the sterile language contrasts starkly with the photos that we have already seen, and no doubt with the others possibly still to come. The language of the statement also contrasts with the plain speech of Mourad Benchellali in “Postcard from Camp X-Ray,” published, along with the sworn statement, in PEN America 10. “Postcard” is excerpted from Benchellali’s memoir, Voyage vers l’enfer (translated by Antoine Auduoard and Ruth Koral Marshall, but not yet published in English), and it describes his arrival at Guantánamo:
There are two openings in the wire mesh of my cell door. One is at hand height, the other is level with my ankles. When we’re called over for whatever reason, we’re required to stand close to the door so they can handcuff and chain us through these holes. We’re given plastic flip-flops. The guard barks. I don’t understand, but the gesture’s clear, so I huddle at the back of the cell. He slides two buckets towards me. One is filled with water, for washing. The other is for relieving ourselves. We get a toothbrush with a very short handle, and a tube of toothpaste. Then comes a thin foam mattress, a blanket, a towel. The water bucket has to stay close to the bars. The guard fills it from a hose he pushes through from the other side of the wire fencing, just as you would do for a wild beast.
Another contrast to the “anodyne words” of the sworn statement can be found in the language used by Anouar Benamalek, both in the conversation about torture and in his accompanying one-page statement, also published in the issue, entitled “To Be Human”:
The task of a writer is to repeat endlessly that the person we are torturing is a human being and that when we torture a human being we are no longer human. We must repeat again and again: To torture is not to be human. To torture is to accept disgrace for oneself and for one’s nation. The writer must repeat this again, again, and again.

We chose the title of the issue, “Fear Itself,” with the stories of Benmalek and Benchellali in mind; we did not yet know we would find echoes of their stories elsewhere in the issue -- in particular in the works of fiction by Etgar Keret (in a fable-like and more lighthearted -- but still frightening, I think -- depiction of torture) and, especially, by Rawi Hage. We adapted a piece from Hage’s novel Cockroach in the issue, and the excerpt happens to feature an Algerian professor (Benmalek taught math at the University of Algiers, and in his statement lays out the responsibilities of intellectuals, as he sees them) who is in some indistinct way connected with torture in his native country.

Each time we put together an issue, though, we find echoes and parallels that only become evident (to us, at least) after several readings; discovering them is one of the more rewarding things about working on the journal. These echoes make evident some of the ways that writers respond, however obliquely, to their circumstances, and how these writers can both reflect and illuminate our own experiences, and those of others.

See also: Mark Danner in The New York Review of Books, Gareth Peirce in The London Review of Books, the ACLU blog, and PEN's Campaign for Core Freedoms.


King Wenclas said...

What about the fear of those who fail to answer legitimate questions about their organization?
"Clean up your own backyard."

King Wenclas said...

Surely you see the hypocrisy in asking, rightly, for openness from our government, while maintaining NO OPENNESS whatsoever regarding PEN itself, which I should remind you is a public organization.
Shouldn't anyone find it curious that not one person on PEN's staff will answer any questions from non-PEN writers-- or at least from this writer? (As I describe on my blog, there's a pattern to this.)
Where are PEN members?
Do any of you read this?
Can any of you think or speak for yourselves?
The stonewalling is becoming comical.

King Wenclas said...

Day Thirteen of your stonewalling?
You don't know me from Adam. Someone is TELLING you to ignore these posts.

King Wenclas said...

Think about this for a minute, readers:
PEN staffers are not allowed to speak.
PEN bloggers to a person have been silenced.
It's a sad day for PEN, for American literature, and for free speech.

Harland said...

I'm telling them to ignore you, King. You're right: I'm calling the shots here. You're very close to discovering my identity at last.

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