After reading our post on Cañon City, Colorado, a reader called our attention to a piece on the Huffington Post by Anne-Marie Cusac called “Torture Is American.” As an investigative reporter for The Progressive, Cusac wrote about devices of torture in U.S. prisons, including Tasers, restraint chairs, and stun belts, as well as solitary confinement; she has also authored a book on the subject, called Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America.
In “Torture Is American,” Cusac begins by referencing the suicide of Allyssa Peterson, a young American soldier charged with questioning prisoners in Iraq, who shot herself in the head back in 2003 after being ordered to use interrogation techniques that she clearly considered torture. “I suspect that what confronted this patriotic, Arabic-speaking, intelligent, sensitive, and empathetic woman in the last days of her life,” Cusac writes, “was evidence of a culture in conflict. She appears to have gone to Iraq as a true believer in the good of her country. She discovered there the American culture of punishment.” Cusac continues:
Torture is American. It was American when Peterson died. It was American long before that. How do I know? I am a reporter who for years covered allegations of prison abuse and ill treatment in domestic U.S. prisons. Nearly every technique used at Abu Ghraib had a close, recent parallel in a U.S. facility…Just to mention a few parallels, inmates in domestic U.S. prisons have been threatened with electrocution, intimidated with dogs, restrained nude, and restrained for weeks. Some U.S. inmates have alleged that they were forced to soil themselves, an allegation that also arose in Iraq.
So I didn’t feel surprise when the Abu Ghraib story broke. I felt a sickened familiarity. What bothered me more than Abu Ghraib was the outrage my fellow Americans expressed. Why were they so upset about torture in Iraq when similar punishments had been used in the United States in recent years? Peterson’s death says a bit about why. She didn’t know about such techniques until she saw the “interrogation techniques used on prisoners” with her own eyes. Prisons are closed, private places. Most of us don’t know, and would rather know little, about what life inside is like.
And prisoners, even those who have been severely mistreated, can be less-than-sympathetic subjects. My subject matter has inspired baffled stares at high school reunions, jokes from schoolteachers about putting their students in stun belts, and yelling sessions in elevators. The response tends to be strong, and I feel a hitch in my stomach when a new acquaintance, upon hearing I am a reporter and writer, asks me my area of specialty.
Contrary to such responses, Cusac concludes, “Our lives outside are linked to those inside, whether we admit this to ourselves or not.” You can read the full article here.