Presidency of the absurd

By JAMES PARKER  |  August 1, 2007

This mania for culpability is pervasive. As soon as Yunis and his brothers arrive at the detention site at Camp Ganci, a subdivision of Abu Ghraib, they are enveloped in an almost Calvinist miasma of guilt: if you’re here, you must have done something. A female American interrogator spits in Yunis’s face and calls him a terrorist. When told of his starring role in a plot to kill Blair, Yunis laughs — one reaction to absurdity. The other is despair, which soon overwhelms him. (Del Rey has just published a novel called Harm, by veteran science-fiction author Brian Aldiss, on this exact theme.) “All is imaginary,” wrote Kafka in his diary in 1921. “Family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand, the woman; the truth that lies closest, however, is only this: that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.” (A year later, with no explanation, Yunis and his brothers are released.)

Another key document is Tony Lagouranis’s memoir Fear Up Harsh, just published by Penguin imprint NAL. Lagouranis was an Army interrogator with the US 513th Military Intelligence Brigade, and in 2004 he was sent to Iraq to participate in the ongoing intelligence-gathering operation at Abu Ghraib. The abuse scandal was already percolating, under military investigation, and would explode into the media inside four months — all Lagouranis knew was that “something bad” had happened on the nightshift over at the so-called Hard Site, and that it had been dealt with. The worst, then, might have been assumed to be over.

Not so. Fear Up Harsh is a painful and deeply moral account of the vitality of torture: its entropic ability, once the door has been opened to it, to shift, mutate, and intensify. Legalized abuse is a contagion: it begins with Alberto Gonzalez musing in a memo to the president that the Geneva Convention has been rendered “quaint” and “obsolete” by the new facts of war, and it ends with a prisoner’s body packed in ice. All this has been well-documented, but Lagouranis is the first to record in such diagnostic detail its effects on individual interrogators in the field — to provide us with a portrait, if you will, of the torturer as a young man.

Absurdity is staring him in the face: again and again he comes to the sickening conclusion that the men he is interrogating are innocent, or at least non-insurgent, but finds to his horror that he cannot extricate them from the system. The flawed logic of the interrogation program, by which coherent items of “actionable intelligence” are expected from men whose bodies and minds have been broken by torture, is inescapable. Admitting to a fellow soldier that he is feeling sorry for some of his more hapless cases, Lagouranis is mocked: “Can’t you see through these guys? They’re just trying to manipulate you.” Any pitiable human aspect displayed by a detainee is a result of training in sophisticated counter-interrogation techniques: the sorrier you feel, the harder you must work. The circularity is perfect, limerick-like, hellish. Lagouranis refers to this as his “problem with compassion.”

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