BDSM, #MeToo, Torture and the Drumbeat For War

Welcome to the Apocalypse

In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity.
                  - NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman upon resigning

I’m not going to sit here, with the benefit of hindsight, and judge the very good people who made hard decisions, who were running the agency in very extraordinary circumstances.
                  - Gina Haspel, before the Senate Intelligence Committee

Life and politics are getting weirder and weirder. Now we have a powerful political figure — the New York state attorney general — who publicly advocated for, and allied with, the #MeToo Movement, who fought for the physical safety of women vis-à-vis men in the criminal justice system, who is, out-of-the-blue, outed by four women who accuse him of choking and beating them. His immediate explanation is that, whatever he did, he was participating in “consensual sexual … role-playing.”

It’s becoming so weird it’s now trite to say: “You can’t make this stuff up.”

Gina Haspel and Eric Schneiderman in public happy-face modeGina Haspel and Eric Schneiderman in public happy-face mode

Thanks to Mr. Schneiderman’s predicament I learned a new acronym: BDSM, Bondage, Domination, Sado-Masochism. I also learned about the notion of “safe words.” That is, if Mr. Scheiderman is truthful in his claim that he has “never engaged in non-consensual sex” and the four women are truthful in their accusations of being on the receiving end of violent acts they apparently did not accede to, then the issue seems to be a kinky legal, contractual one. Law school Contracts 101. Did the attorney general get a bit over-enthusiastic and break his contractual agreement? Did the woman in question contractually agree to being choked as long as the attorney general agreed to stop when she said her safe word — or when she gasped, “I can’t breathe!” That is, was it play-acting akin to the plot of bestselling female romance novels and movies like 50 Shades of Gray or was it play-acting NYPD bad cop? There are so many questions looming in a bizarre case like this, thanks to the fact such apparently kinky behavior is naturally kept secret.

Meanwhile, the #MeToo Movement’s campaign to crash through the glass ceilings of power in America has to deal with Gina Haspel, nominated by the Teflon-coated pussy-grabber-in-chief to run the CIA. The Haspel nomination is actually a very savvy move on Mr. Trump’s part. He’s leveraging the #MeToo Movement on its own petard by nominating a woman torture proponent (and possible actor) to break the glass ceiling at the CIA. As a sop for feminists, she thoroughly defended the Bush torture years in her senate committee hearing; everybody knew that the man who nominated her has many times publicly and enthusiastically advocated waterboarding and even worse torture. Another plus for Mr. Trump, Ms. Haspel had the “balls” to willingly obstruct justice by destroying 92 videotapes of US agents torturing one or more Arab males in what must have been quite a potentially sensational piece of You Tube cinema. Under questioning from Democratic senators, she adamantly refused to say torture was immoral, as she assured the Democratic senators she would not reinstate the Bush torture regimen. It all boiled down to, “Trust me.” The Republicans, of course, questioned her like cats who in some previous caucus had all lunched on members of a canary family. One question that arose in the New York Times after her hearing has to do with a man, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, and his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, both Libyan dissidents captured by British MI6 agents and rendered in 2004 to a CIA black site in Thailand, where they were both tortured for at least two days, which according to the woman, included punching her pregnant belly. What lends the story credence is that British Prime Minister Theresa May did not refute it and, in fact, publicly apologized May 10th to the couple for Britain’s involvement. Mr. Belhaj said the site Ms. Haspel ran sounds very much like the one he and his wife were rendered to and tortured by black-clad figures in ski masks.

“What does it mean for someone to be elevated and honored, someone who oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where torture was being practiced?” Mr. Belhaj wondered.

We know very little about Ms. Haspel and her career. Most of it is secret; and as she made clear in her senate hearing, she’s the one deciding what information about her will be released and what will remain secret. If asked to characterize her demeanor in the senate hearing, the words “feminine” or “delicate” do not come to mind; she comes off as a very capable, very cold-blooded individual absolutely loyal to the institution of the CIA. A friendly senator asked her about family issues and sacrifice in the CIA. Her answer was not memorable; but according to Wikipedia, her divorce after a decade of marriage to a military man came the same year she joined the CIA. We know that she intimately supervised the water-boarding torture of at least one Arab male at a black site in Thailand with the code name Cat’s Eye. She very ably finessed questions from Senators Kamala Harris and Jack Reed about morality by emphasizing over and over that at the time what she and others did was considered among members of the Bush administration to be “legal” and that she was simply a loyal agent following orders. Of course, the holocaust was technically legal, so that kind of argument is widely recognized as garbage — except in the minds of tyrants. The fact is, the torturing she and others were doing after 9/11 was, by then, well established in international circles as illegal, which should make her and others war criminals. But given we live in a moment of runaway selective enforcement up and down the judicial system, people like Gina Haspel are walking around free and touted as great Americans in the highest circles of the imperium. A West Point graduate, Senator Reed did get her to pause and twitch subtly when he quietly asked: If a CIA agent was captured and water-boarded, would that be “immoral”? She suggested, yes, it would be — because terrorists are immoral. Reed pointed out the flaw in her logic. But, by then, she had composed herself and the cold-blooded, loyal agent returned, and her answer became foggy and legalistic.

It was clear this woman was very capable of running the CIA, a place where morality always gets a low priority. Torture is OK after something like 9/11, because we were scared and desperate and had to reinforce the unquestioned fundamental American value of world domination. If Muslim Arabs furious over US actions in the Middle East, on the other hand, employ torture, it’s immoral because they’re immoral. Next question.

In the dark, secret world of Gina Haspel, real torture is honorable. That’s not the case, when the acts are self-indulgent, “consensual” mock-torture of the sort Mr. Schneiderman claims he participated in. Schneiderman’s actions sound quite decadent to me, but that’s the culture Americans have created for themselves. But should playing BDSM games to get your rocks off be on the top on the list as a reason an otherwise effective leader should be forced to resign. I’m actually really confused here. Real torture is OK if you wave the flag while doing it and you torture Muslim Arabs infuriated at the crimes of US militarism such as the totally unnecessary invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sure, one must defend oneself and intelligence gathering is important to do right. But why is it laudable to oversee water-boarding torture and things like the shoving of enema tubes up the anuses of Muslim Arab men, an act the New York Times called “medically unnecessary rectal feeding”? Why are acts likes this necessary? If it wasn’t “necessary,” then was it self-indulgent and sadistic? Did it amount to involuntary BDSM?

I have to confess, this stuff is over my head — or as someone in the CIA might say, “over my pay grade.” One thing that this odd juxtaposition of stories makes clear is the #MeToo Movement is not a liberal or leftist movement. It’s totally bi-partisan, or more accurately, a-partisan. Like a lot of things, it’s about power. Who has it and what are they doing with it? In the case of torture, it’s about intimidation, humiliation, busting balls. It’s a tool of power, not of truth-seeking. Writing and journalism are tools of truth-telling. And in the realms of power, women are just as susceptible to the righteous abuse of power as men are. Gina Haspel should make this eminently clear. It’s something that should not be forgotten in the rush to balance the books on men abusing women. And, let’s not delude ourselves, the period in question (following 9/11 and leading to the invasion of Iraq) when reason was tossed to the winds and massive violence was undertaken is happening again before our eyes as we face a militarist bum’s rush to go to war with Iran.

                                                                        Women’s Role in US Torture

There is an on-going, unresolved argument whether torture is effective. Those like Mr. Trump who enthusiastically advocate it assure us it works. They love it. While those opposed to it suggest it doesn’t work. It gives them the creeps. I’d say both sides are right: It all depends on what the purpose and goal of the torture is and, of course, whose ox is being penetrated or waterboarded. If the goal is to obtain facts, truth or accurate information, the consensus is torture doesn’t work. But if the goal is to obtain what the torturer wants to hear, then it seems it does work.

The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartyr wrote a short story called “The Wall” in which a French resistance fighter is captured by the Nazis and tortured. The torturer’s goal is to locate a resistance leader in hiding. It gets to the point the man being tortured can’t take it anymore and wants it to stop. So he tells them the resistance leader is at a certain school, hiding in the basement. He’s relieved when they stop the torture, though he knows they’ll be back and the torture will resume. At least he has a reprieve. The cruel irony is that, unbeknownst to our tortured resistance fighter, the resistance leader is actually hiding in that very school basement. In the case of POWs in Hanoi, some reportedly broke down under torture and spoke or wrote derogatory statements about US war crimes against the Vietnamese. In the minds of these patriots, these were not true statements; they were the same sort of human response Sartyr’s resistance fighter made: The motive was to stop the pain by saying something deemed harmless. So they gave their torturers what they wanted to hear and the torture stopped. In cases like that, from the torturer’s point of view, the torture accomplished its mission. This is why a pathologically dishonest person like Donald Trump feels torture works. It’s why gangsters resort to torture: It’s the power to intimidate and get their way. Also, the personal sadistic component can’t be discounted. Look at the audiences’ faces in lynching postcards from the 19th and early 20th century: Hatred has trumped compassion or empathy; there is real joy and social bonding going on. You see the same smiles in the thumbs-up photos of soldiers with tortured or dead Iraqis.

Donald Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib and a look under the rockDonald Rumsfeld at Abu Ghraib and a look under the rock

Back in the early days of the Bush Iraq debacle, Seymour Hersh reported on the popularity of a book in the halls of our military and intelligence services. It’s called The Arab Mind by Raphael Parai, a Hungarian who lived for some time in Jerusalem and later taught at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s a serious 400-page book from a conservative, western point of view. According to Hersh, the chapter that was the rage in the halls of US militarism was the one on Arabs and sex, specifically issues of male sexual repression and male sexual honor. More so even than western males, the Arab male is, Parai says, really freaked out by masturbation and homophobia, especially the passive role in male homosexuality, which is seen as being turned into a woman. Hersh emphasized that it was, thus, no coincidence — that, in fact, it was policy — when CIA agents operating in Abu Ghraib in the winter of 2003 induced the more stupid and sadistic National Guard troops assigned there to, late at night, “tune-up” the captive Arab males for interrogation the next morning. Let’s not forget, Abu Ghraib was notorious among Iraqis as Saddam’s main torture house where Saddam’s henchmen would drill holes in people with Black & Decker drills. So horror was already associated with being imprisoned there. Our National Guard troops didn’t use electric drills; they did their tuning-up of captive men and boys with sexual humiliation tactics, which included forcing naked Arab males to masturbate and engage in mock homosexual couplings. This is something Americans should not be allowed to forget. This disgusting tactic was done in our names because our arrogant leaders decided to open a Pandora’s box and were suddenly scared to death what they’d unleashed. In this predicament, anything and everything became OK.

I was in the parking lot of Abu Ghraib in December 2003 with a veteran’s fact-finding mission when this was going on, just before the scandal blew up. The guards in watchtowers intensely eyeballed us with binoculars as we talked with family members of captives in the lot. I recall a major who came out to see who we were. He seemed to be a quite reasonable man; he could have been an insurance agent from New Jersey doing his National Guard duty. What quickly became clear was that he was someone way, way over his head. One sign of this was, like a recalcitrant private with a bad attitude might do in Vietnam, he had written sayings and drawn images with black marker on his helmet liner. I told him I was a Vietnam vet and we were peace activists trying to understand the invasion and occupation.

“You would not believe what’s going on in there,” he told me, referring to the aging prison behind him.

“Why don’t you give us a tour inside?” I asked in a friendly tone.

He laughed a soft mad laugh and muttered: “You can’t imagine.”

Later, I imagined this major completely intimidated by the sergeants running the sexually humiliating tune-ups of Arab male captives. As you may recall, seven low-ranking soldiers were tried and imprisoned for all the sexual abuse and torture; three of them were women. One woman was impregnated in Abu Ghraib by the chief abuser, who had earlier worked as a corrections officer at a prison in southwest Pennsylvania. One might say the atmosphere inside Abu Ghraib was quite “hot” in the realm of BDSM categories. As the major said: “You can’t imagine.”

Women played a significant role in the immoral fiasco. Brigadier General Janis Karpinski ran Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq. A lieutenant colonel named Diane Beaver in the Judge Advocate General Corps. is credited with proposing the policy of harsh interrogation practices employed at Guantanamo; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed off on Beaver’s proposal in November 2002. A Captain Carolyn Wood was in charge of the intelligence staff at Bagram AFB in Afghanistan at the time the Red Cross protested the brutal treatment of prisoners, including hanging them from chains; two prisoners died from beatings while hanging from chains. Major General Barbara Fox was the senior officer in charge of intelligence in the entire Iraq theater and was “intimately involved in creating and managing the interrogation program at Abu Ghraib during the time when the photographed abuses took place.” This is from a chapter in the book One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, edited by Tara McKelvey. Personally, I recall speaking with a female interrogator in Veterans For Peace about witnessing other female interrogators in Guantanamo exposing their breasts and grabbing Arab men by the genitals. The point is, US women were deemed very useful in the humiliation and break-down of Arab males. This was part of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld turn to the “dark side” to undermine the insurgency that unexpectedly arose in 2003 and 2004. So Ms. Haspel is not an anomaly; she fits into a full chorus line of women who bear guilt for what many still hold out were flagrant war crimes, actions that, it’s important to realize, did not help an America under attack at all. In fact, there are good arguments their actions, along with the actions of many more men, helped make things much worse. Everybody knows it’s not cool to say “We told you so.” But while the antiwar movement could hardly predict the future, it did try to tell our leaders the invasion of Iraq would be a mess and create a lasting, festering wound in the region. That was the essence of the report our 2003 trip to Baghdad made at a briefing at the Washington Press Club. That was just one small effort out of many. The antiwar movement should be called The Cassandra Movement after the Greek prophetess doomed by angry gods to suffer the frustration of pronouncing true prophesies that the culture would be too corrupted and stupid to heed. Now, it’s happening all over again.

                                                                        A 37-Year Debacle That Keeps on Giving

In February 2004, an Iraqi Arab male named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badrywas was captured in Falluja and taken to the Abu Ghraib prison complex not far away with a sandbag over his head, along with a collection of other Iraqi Arab males. He was kept there for eight months, then was moved to a prison called Camp Bucca. He was eventually released. What al-Badrywas experienced in US custody in Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca is not known, probably because he was one of so many Iraqi Arab males captured during what supporters of, and protesters against, the invasion and occupation of Iraq both concede was a very confusing time. The fact is, no one — especially our leaders at the time — knew what the consequences of their combined arrogance and ignorance would be, something that never seems to change when it comes to the Middle East.

A good friend of mine was an infantryman in the invasion who ended up patrolled the town of Abu Ghraib that surrounds the notorious prison. He says he must have kicked in a thousands doors in Abu Ghraib at three in the morning, rousting families out of bed, cursing in a strange language and humiliating husbands and fathers in front of their wives and kids. One day it went off in his head like a light: These people were attacking us because we were in their town and breaking down their doors in the middle of the night. Abu Ghraib and Falluja were the beginning of the brutal violence and humiliation our forces brought down on the citizens of Anbar Province. Anbar reaches from Baghdad west to the Jordanian and Syrian borders. For what it’s worth, I’ve ridden in a large GMC utility vehicle through Anbar province for 12-hours from Ammon, Jordan to Baghdad and back, twice. We stopped for hot tea and kabobs at a truck stop in the middle of that desert, and I have no doubt many of the busy, working people also stopping there were friendly to Saddam Hussein and, later, to ISIS. As I waited in line in December 2003 for hot tea in a courtyard concession outside the truck stop, I recall a large, imposing bullying sort of fellow. He saw me and decided it would be great sport to harass the European or American. This was after the invasion, and Saddam was still on the run and in hiding. The man pointed at me and, so everybody could hear, loudly said: “George Bush!” Because I did not like George Bush, I smiled at him and quickly gave him a thumbs-down. At this, his face lit up. “You like Saddam!?” The situation was deteriorating fast, so the prudent thing was to become scarse. I looked him straight in the eye and said: “George Bush!” I gave him another emphatic thumbs-down. Then I said: “Saddam!” and gave him a second emphatic thumbs-down. Then, I booked from the line and returned inside the truck stop with my comrades. Fortunately, the fellow did not follow me and we enjoyed without incident very tasty lamb kabobs among the working people of Anbar Province.

As it turns out, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badrywas was none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of what became ISIS and the Islamic State. Our forces had “tuned him up” at Abu Ghraib enough to inspire him on as the future leader of ISIS. Once the US war had reached the absurdity of having its clueless president on live TV landing on an aircraft carrier in a crotch-grabbing flight suit and declaring victory under a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” it was too late to get out of the quagmire he’d sent our forces into. But wait; let me be clearer: It wasn’t “too late” for Cassandras like me. It reminds me of the senator who was asked how the nation could possibly get out Vietnam and who responded: “Ships and planes.”

At this point, General Stanley McChrystal enters the scene. He began his Iraq career as a one-star PR officer managing the five-o’clock-follies during the invasion. Now, he was wearing three more stars, thanks to somebody’s recognition that this man was a batshit-ascetic military genius. He entered Anbar under cover of the “surge” and whipped what was an intel debacle into shape. Captured laptops and cell phones were no longer left piled up in a corner; they were immediately analyzed, leading to five or six additional raids before insurgent leaders and other go-to fighters (or “innocent” citizens caught in a vice) woke up the next morning. Those who could be bought off, were bought off. Compared to the early years, US forces began to go through Anbar Province like shit through a goose. This new efficiency involved killing and torture and for a while was known as “the Salvadoran option,” a death squad metaphor. This success so infuriated the insurgency that it ended up reforming itself as a truly psychopathic force with Abu Ghraib alum al-Baghdadi as its spiritual leader. When people are brought so low the only way they can get back at their sophisticated tormentors is to release videotapes of killers barbarically hacking off people’s heads, it’s clear you’ve now got a new, even worse problem. Iraq was approaching first-world status in many ways before US invasions destroyed that progress. Now, following more killing and more folly and more confusion, we’re being pushed by John Bolton and ass-kissed by Israel and Saudi Arabia to invade Iran. It doesn’t seem to end. One can’t help thinking of the officer in Vietnam who famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Which brings us to page 356 of the great Andrew Basevich’s 2016 military history titled America’s War For the Greater Middle East, which details our blundering, destructive military involvement beginning with Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Operation Eagle Claw that ended disastrously at a place dubbed Desert One. Looking back 37 years and on the cusp of the Trump presidency, Bacevich saw it this way:

“By almost any measure, the region was in greater disarray than it had been in 1980. Not only were American purposes unfulfilled, they were becoming increasingly difficult to define with any sort of specificity.”

The tragedy is, it could have been different.