By Greg Grandin
The world is made up, as Captain Segura in Graham Greene's 1958 novel Our Man in Havana put it, of two classes: the torturable and the untorturable. "There are people,"
Then -- so Greene thought -- Catholics, particularly Latin American Catholics, were more torturable than Protestants. Now, of course, Muslims hold that distinction, victims of a globalized network of offshore and outsourced imprisonment coordinated by
In the decades after Greene wrote Our Man in Havana, Latin Americans coined an equally resonant word to describe the terror that had come to reign over most of the continent. Throughout the second half of the Cold War,
When Latin Americans used the word as a verb, they usually did so in a way considered grammatically incorrect -- in the transitive form and often in the passive voice, as in "she was disappeared." The implied (but absent) actor/subject signaled that everybody knew the government was responsible, even while investing that government with unspeakable, omnipotent power. The disappeared left behind families and friends who spent their energies dealing with labyrinthine bureaucracies, only to be met with silence or told that their missing relative probably went to
An Unholy Trinity
Like rendition, disappearances can't be carried out without a synchronized, sophisticated, and increasingly transnational infrastructure, which, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the
Death Squads: Clandestine paramilitary units, nominally independent from established security agencies yet able to draw on the intelligence and logistical capabilities of those agencies, are the building blocks for any effective system of state terror. In
Having just ended a brutal 10-year civil war, its newly consolidated political leadership, facing a still unruly peasantry, turned to the
As historian Michael McClintock puts it in his indispensable book Instruments of Statecraft, Yarborough left behind a "virtual blueprint" for creating military-directed death squads. This was, thanks to
Throughout the 1960s,
Disappearances: Next up on the counterinsurgency curriculum was
Then, as now, the goal was to turn lethargic, untrained intelligence units of limited range into an international network capable of gathering, analyzing, sharing, and acting on information in a quick and efficient manner. American advisors helped coordinate the work of the competing branches of a country's security forces, urging military men and police officers to overcome differences and cooperate.
In neither El Salvador, nor Guatemala was there even a whiff of serious rural insurrection when the Green Berets, the CIA, and the U.S. Agency for International Development began organizing the first security units that would metastasize into a dense, Central American-wide network of death-squad paramilitaries.
Once created, death squads operated under their own colorful names -- an Eye for an Eye, the Secret Anticommunist Army, the White Hand -- yet were essentially appendages of the very intelligence systems that
Between March 3rd and 5th of that year, the unit netted its largest catch. More than 30 Leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Their bodies were then placed in sacks and dropped into the
Over the next two and a half decades, U.S.-funded and trained Central American security forces would disappear tens of thousands of citizens and execute hundreds of thousands more. When supporters of the "War on Terror" advocated the exercise of the "Salvador Option," it was this slaughter they were talking about.
Following U.S.-backed coups in
According to Washington's ambassador to
Torture: Torture is the animating spirit of this triad, the unholiest of this unholy trinity. In
At this point,
As Naomi Klein and Alfred McCoy have documented in their recent books, these field manuals were compiled using information gathered from CIA-commissioned mind control and electric-shock experiments conducted in the 1950s. Just as the "torture memos" of today's war on terror parse the difference between "pain" and "severe pain," "psychological harm" and "lasting psychological harm," these manuals went to great lengths to regulate the application of suffering. "The threat to inflict pain can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain," one handbook read.
"Before all else, you must be efficient," said U.S. police advisor Dan Mitrione, assassinated by Uruguay's revolutionary Tupamaros in 1970 for training security forces in the finer points of torture. "You must cause only the damage that is strictly necessary, not a bit more." Mitrione taught by demonstration, reportedly torturing to death a number of homeless people kidnapped off the streets of
Florencio Caballero, having escaped from
Yet, as Abu Ghraib demonstrated so clearly and the destroyed CIA interrogation videos would undoubtedly have made no less clear, maintaining a distinction between psychological and physical torture is not always possible. As one manual conceded, if a suspect does not respond, then the threat of direct pain "must be carried out." One of Caballero's victims, Inés Murillo, testified that her captors, including at least one CIA agent -- his involvement was confirmed in Senate testimony by the CIA's deputy director -- hung her from the ceiling naked, forced her to eat dead birds and rats raw, made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate, poured freezing water over her at regular intervals for extended periods, beat her bloody, and applied electric shocks to her body, including her genitals.
Inés Murillo was definitely a member of Greene's torturable class. Yet Greene was writing in a more genteel time, when to torture the wrong person would be, as he put it, as cheeky as a "chauffeur" sleeping with a "peeress." Today, when it comes to torture, anything goes.
Ideologues in the war on terror, like
Things are so freewheeling that Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz -- who, at his perch at Harvard would undoubtedly be outraged if he were to be tortured -- thinks that the practice needs to be regulated, as if it were a routine medical act. He has suggested empowering judges to issue "warrants" that would allow interrogators to insert "sterile needles" underneath finger nails to "to cause excruciating pain without endangering life."
Pinochet, who didn't shy away from justifying his actions in the name of Western Civilization, would never have dreamed of defending torture as brazenly as has Dick Cheney, backed up by legal theorists like Yoo. At the same time, revisionist historians, like Max Boot, and pundits, like the Atlantic Monthly's Robert Kaplan, rewrite history, claiming that operations like the Phoenix Program in
But this kind of promiscuity has its risks. In
Greg Grandin is the author of a number of books, most recently Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. He teaches history at NYU.