Exit the Glories of Empire

The rumors of the glorious British Empire persist, the benevolence of the colonial rule, the improvement in the lives of the natives. History has a way of leaking out over time, or of being excavated by diligent workers, and is now erecting a counter-narrative to that of golden years nostalgia.

British Colonialism was bad.  Very bad, especially for those who were tortured, starved and killed as the Empire began to be chipped apart by small revolts that became big rebellions.

David Anderson, author of Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, has a few reminders in the NY Times today. 

  •  In a historic decision last week, the British government agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s
  • In 2010, Britain formally apologized for its army’s conduct in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972, and earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron visited Amritsar, India, the site of a 1919 massacre, and expressed “regret for the loss of life.”
  • The evidence of torture revealed in these [just released] documents was devastating. In the detention camps of colonial Kenya, a tough regime of physical and mental abuse of suspects was implemented from 1957 onward, as part of a government policy to induce detainees to obey orders or to make confessions.
  • The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top — sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.
  • A case already before the courts concerns the 1948 Batang Kali massacre in colonial Malaya, now Malaysia. There, the relatives of innocent villagers — who were murdered by young conscript soldiers ordered to shoot by an older, psychopathic sergeant major — have asked for compensation. For Americans, the case has eerie echoes of Vietnam.
  • In Cyprus, translators employed by the British during the 1950s told tales of electrocutions and pulled fingernails as British intelligence officers tried to elicit information about gunrunning.
  • The British historians Andrew RobertsNiall Ferguson and Max Hastings have all nailed their colors to the mast of the good ship Britannia as she sailed the ocean blue bringing civilization and prosperity to the world. This view seems unlikely to be credible for much longer.
  • Empire was built by conquest. It was violent. And decolonization was sometimes a bloody, brutal business.
  • Torture is torture, whoever the perpetrator, whoever the victim. Wrongs should be put right. Whatever wrongs were done in the name of Britain in Kenya in the 1950s, the British government has now delivered modest reparations to some victims. And maybe we in Britain have also finally begun to come to terms with our imperial past.
  • Would the United States be so accommodating to a similar claim? In the current political climate, probably not. But times change. Fifty years from now, will Americans face claims from Guantánamo survivors? You might, and perhaps you should.

Histories of the Hanged

[Nor have we heard anything about a fulsome apology for say, the Trail of Tears…]

Torture in the Community of Nations



And for more at Juan Cole: Top Ten Surprises at the Brennan Hearing on CIA Torture and Drones

54 Countries Collaborate in US Rendition and Torture

“The U.S. counterterrorism practice known as extraordinary rendition, in which suspects were quietly moved to secret prisons abroad and often tortured, involved the participation of more than 50 nations, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Open Society Foundations.

The OSF report, which offers the first wholesale public accounting of the top-secret program, puts the number of governments that either hosted CIA “black sites,” interrogated or tortured prisoners sent by the U.S., or otherwise collaborated in the program at 54. The report also identifies by name 136 prisoners who were at some point subjected to extraordinary rendition.”

From the report:

Today, more than a decade after September 11, there is no doubt that highranking Bush administration officials bear responsibility for authorizing human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition, and the impunity that they have enjoyed to date remains a matter of significant concern. But responsibility for these violations does not end with the United States. Secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, designed to be conducted outside the United States under cover of secrecy, could not have been implemented without the active participation of foreign governments. These governments too must be held accountable.

…  The report also shows that as many as 54 foreign governments reportedly participated in these operations in various ways, including by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals; assisting in the capture and transport of detainees; permitting the use of domestic airspace and airports for secret flights transporting detainees; providing intelligence leading to the secret detention and extraordinary rendition of individuals; and interrogating individuals who were secretly being held in the custody of other governments.

… The 54 governments identified in this report span the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and
North America, and include: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. [Western countries proud of their rule of law in bold.]

… A telling example of the disastrous consequences of extraordinary rendition operations can be seen in the case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, documented in this report. After being extraordinarily rendered by the United States to Egypt in 2002, al-Libi, under threat of torture at the hands of Egyptian officials, fabricated information relating to Iraq’s provision of chemical and biological weapons training to Al Qaeda. In 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell relied on this fabricated information in his speech to the United Nations that made the case for war against Iraq

… Despite the scale of torture and other human rights violations associated with secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, the United States and most of  its partner governments have failed to conduct effective investigations into secret detention and extraordinary rendition…

Read at least the first 10 pages –– executive summary and recommendations….


Zero Dark Thirty: Is It Pornography?

I’ve been wrestling with myself about whether or not to see Zero Dark Thirty, not only because the violence is up-close, personal and gruesome for some forty-five minutes, but because many reviewers who have seen it say that torture is linked directly to the success of finding and killing Osama bin-Laden.  A filmic argument is being made that torture was effective, without the smallest counter argument being shown, even though in the real world, which the movie aims to depict, there were arguments conducted at high volume and at the highest levels of government.

My mirror neurons are so tightly tuned that I had to walk out of Syriana a few years ago when fingernails started being pulled out.  I was sweating and breathing fast and shallow.  It took me fifteen minutes walking through a chill Marin night to get back to nada nausea, but not enough to want to go back in.  I nursed a beer until my friends came out.  That might have been a five minute scene.  Forty five minutes?  Of a man hanging by his wrists, being sexually humiliated, being shoved into a tiny box?

So I don’t think so.  Meanwhile, here are some reviews to help you make up your own mind; Read more of this post

27 Myths in 38 Minutes

From Think Progress:

Romney spoke for 38 minutes of the 90 minute debate and told at least 27 myths:

How Romney got it all wrong on Wall Street.

Ad Questions Romney as Commander in Chief

Romney Adviser “Bring Back Enhanced Interrogation” Indisputably Illegal says Bush Lawyer

Bill Moyers on US Torture

From PEN on their very good web site:

In Doug Liman’s documentary film Reckoning With Torture, ordinary Americans stand side-by-side with actors, writers, and former military interrogators and intelligence officers in a reading of official documents that reveals the scope and cost of America’s post-9/11 torture program.

This Sunday on Moyers & Company, Liman joins Larry Siems, PEN American’s Director of Freedom to Write and International Programsto discuss the film and the importance of hearing the voices of detainees.

To find out when the show airs in your area, click here.