The Black Room

March 19th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics  |  2 Comments

The sign at left was posted at Camp Nama, an Iraqi military installation which was commandeered by U.S. special forces. There they turned one interrogation room into a ghoulish torture chamber called the Black Room:

"In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations."

What is most disturbing about this episode of detainee abuse is, as with Abu Ghraib, its seeming pointlessness, relative to extracting any actual information, and its ostentatious sadism. Torture for any reason is horrifying; but torture for its own sake is the most chilling because it calls to mind the worst of the historical atrocities perpetrated by humans on their fellow humans.

But at least the "Black Room" of Camp Nama has been brought to light by the diligent work of the New York Times, and at least we still live in a society which retains enough humaneness and dignity to execrate such acts when they occur. Yet there are other "black rooms", whose existence cannot be revealed because they are not hidden--they are the "dark places" hidden in plain sight, from which we avert our eyes out of habit or despair.

In Florida, a young man was sent to boot camp for stealing his grandmother's car, then beaten to death for talking back to his jailers. The ensuing scandal has given everyone from Jeb Bush to the county medical examiner a stage on which to do their utmost to come across as depraved, racist monsters. Bush spoke against closing the boot camps since they have "yielded a good result". And Bay county medical examiner Charles Siebert, who initially found that the young man had died, not from being beaten and suffocated, but from sickle cell anemia, said he was "appalled". Not appalled, mind you, at the senseless death of a 14-year-old boy, but at the "baseless and mean-spirited accusations from special interest groups" who impugned and embarassed him by questioning his nonsensical medical verdict.

Young Martin Lee Anderson was evidently not the first person to be beaten at one of these boot camps. It was only his accidental death which forced the "black room" of the boot camps into the light; had he merely been maimed as intended, the routine physical brutalization of young black men by the state of Florida might have continued unchecked, indefinitely.

Meanwhile, something completely different, only not: the Indonesian army moved to quell riots by taking control of a provincial capital in Papua. The "riots" are in fact protests, directed against an American mining company, Freeport McMoran. In so many ways it is a typical story, of corrupt governments in the global South acting as enforcers for American capital. The sort of open class violence that is tolerated in the periphery would be outlandish and unacceptable in the core--except, as we saw in the previous case, when the violence is directed at the most oppressed "internal colonies" within the homeland.

Among the more despicable specifics of the situation in Indonesia is the following:

The senior Papuan at Freeport, Thom Beanal, who is a leader of one of Papua's biggest tribal groups, the Amungme, and a director of the Indonesian unit of Freeport, said the company was concerned about maintaining its daily operations in the current atmosphere.

Mr. Beanal said in a telephone interview from his home in Timika, near the mine, that he advised Freeport this week that to reduce hostilities, the company needed to deal more effectively with the more than 700,000 tons of mine waste that is generated every day.

Much of it hurtles directly down the Aghawagon River, and protests began last month when villagers were told by the security forces that they could no longer pan in the waste for scraps of gold. "I suggested they put the waste in a pipe and put it far away," Mr. Beanal said.

Environmentalists and some mining engineers have made similar suggestions, but the company has rejected them, saying they would be too expensive to carry out.

It is hard to know what is more appalling in these four paragraphs. Is it the abject figure of Mr. Beanal, attempting an impossible reconciliation between loyalty to his people, and loyalty to his company? Is it the casual reference to the company's profligate desecration of the local environment? Or is it that, after insisting that it has no choice but to deluge the local residents with toxic waste, Freeport McMoran now reproaches them for having the temerity to steal scraps of gold from the company's proprietary sludge?

Faced with such scenarios, those of political good will often throw our hands up in despair, helpless in the face of what seem to be horrors without end. And this is not only a reflex of rationalization and denial; our powerless to restrain our government or "our" capitalists is in many ways real. But I fear that those generations which follow us, if any, will not judge us kindly for our "black rooms".


  1. The Special says:

    March 20th, 2006 at 10:36 pm (#)

    Are we really powerless? That is a bleak thought. But I wonder what American imperialism would look like if it there were no oppostion at all. I believe it would be a shade uglier. At least we have Bush’s torture machine “on the run.” Everywhere, from the Abu Ghraib to European “black sites” it flees from the spotlight. In this sense I think we are having an important disruptive effect, obviously this is not enough, but still…

  2. Peter says:

    March 25th, 2006 at 3:55 pm (#)

    I didn’t mean to be totally fatalistic. Indeed, I think that exposing the hidden terrors of imperialism is one of the vital functions of the American left. If I didn’t think that, I could hardly justify even writing this post.

    To some degree which is not precisely measurable, I think we have reigned in the brutal propensities our government; despite its hyperbole, I rather like the phrase that someone coined a few years ago, about global public opinion as the “new superpower”. But the possibilities or limits of a politics of moral outrage are, as we like to say in the social sciences, “an empirical question”. There are, I fear, definite limits–particularly when the outrages are the work of private companies, which are not so susceptible to the demands of a democratic polity as are governments, even pseudo-democracies like ours.

    Ultimately, moral authority is a supplement to mass mobilization and political power, not an alternative to them. And in those latter, we are still sorely lacking.

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