Torturing Children: Bush's Legacy and Democracy's Failure

Torturing Children: Bush's Legacy and Democracy's Failure
Henry A. Giroux

The torture of children under the Bush administration has gone relatively unpublicized.

Monday 03 August 2009 - t r u t h o u t | Perspective

This is an excerpt from Henry A. Giroux's forthcoming book, "Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror," to be published by Paradigm Publishers.

Nowhere is there a more disturbing, if not horrifying, example of the relationship between a culture of cruelty and the politics of irresponsibility than in the resounding silence that surrounds the torture of children under the presidency of George W. Bush - and the equal moral and political failure of the Obama administration to address and rectify the conditions that made it possible. But if we are to draw out the dark and hidden parameters of such crimes, they must be made visible so men and women can once again refuse to orphan the law, justice, and morality. How we deal with the issue of state terrorism and its complicity with the torture of children will determine not merely the conditions under which we are willing to live, but whether we will live in a society in which moral responsibility disappears altogether and whether we will come to find ourselves living under a democratic or authoritarian social order. This is not merely a political and ethical matter, but also a matter of how we take seriously the task of educating ourselves more critically in the future.

We haven't always looked away. When Emmett Till's battered, brutalized, and broken fourteen-year-old body was open to public viewing in Chicago after he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, his mother refused to have him interred in a closed casket. His mutilated and swollen head, his face disfigured and missing an eye, made him unrecognizable as the young, handsome boy he once was. The torture, humiliation, and pain this innocent African-American youth endured at the hands of white racists was transformed into a sense of collective outrage and pain, and helped launch the Civil Rights movement. Torture when inflicted on children becomes indefensible. Even among those who believe that torture is a defensible practice to extract information, the case for inflicting pain and abuse upon children proves impossible to support. The image of young children being subjected to prolonged standing, handcuffed to the top of a cell door, doused with cold water, raped, and shocked with electrodes boggles the mind. Corrupting and degenerate practices, such despicable acts also reveal the utter moral depravity underlying the rationales used to defend torture as a viable war tactic. There is an undeniable pathological outcome when the issue of national security becomes more important than the survival of morality itself, resulting in some cases in the deaths of thousands of children - and with little public outrage. For instance, Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appearing on the national television program "60 Minutes" in 1996 was asked by Leslie Stahl for her reaction to the killing of half a million Iraqi children in five years as a result of the U.S. blockade. Stahl pointedly asked her, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright replied, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it."(1) The comment was barely reported in the mainstream media and produced no outrage among the American public. As Rahul Mahajan points out, "The inference that Albright and the terrorists may have shared a common rationale - a belief that the deaths of thousands of innocents are a price worth paying to achieve one's political ends - does not seem to be one that can be made in the U.S. mass media."(2) More recently, Michael Haas has argued that in spite of the ample evidence that the United States has both detained and abused what may be hundreds of children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo, there has been almost no public debate about the issue and precious few calls for prosecuting those responsible for the torture. He writes:

The mistreatment of children is something not so funny that has been neglected on the road to investigations of and calls for prosecution of those responsible for torture. George W. Bush has never been asked about the abuse of children in American-run prisons in the "war on terror." It is high time for Bush and others to be held accountable for what is arguably the most egregious of all their war crimes - the abuse and death of children, who should never have been arrested in the first place. The best kept secret of the Bush's war crimes is that thousands of children have been imprisoned, tortured, and otherwise denied rights under the Geneva Conventions and related international agreements. Yet both Congress and the media have strangely failed to identify the very existence of child prisoners as a war crime.(3)

While it is difficult to confirm how many children have actually been detained, sexually abused, and tortured by the Bush administration, there is ample evidence that such practices have taken place not only from the accounts of numerous journalists but also in a number of legal reports. One of the most profoundly disturbing and documented cases of the torture of a child in the custody of U.S. forces is that of Mohammed Jawad, who was captured in Afghanistan after he allegedly threw a hand grenade at a military vehicle that injured an Afghan interpreter and two U.S. soldiers. He was immediately arrested by the local Afghan police, who tortured him and consequently elicited a confession from him. An Afghan Attorney General in a letter to the U.S. government claimed that Jawad was 12 years-old when captured, indicating that he was still in primary school, though other sources claim he was around 15 or 16.(4) Jawad denies the charges made by the Afghan police, claiming that "they tortured me. They beat me. They beat me a lot. One person told me, 'If you don't confess, they are going to kill you.' So, I told them anything they wanted to hear."(5) On the basis of a confession obtained through torture, Jawad was turned over to U.S. forces and detained first at Bagram and later at Guantánamo. This child caught in the wild zone of permanent war and illegal legalities has spent more than six years as a detainee. Unfortunately, the Obama administration, even after admitting that Jawad had been tortured illegally, has asked the court to detain him so that it can decide whether or not it wants to bring a criminal charge against him. After a federal judge claimed the government's case was "riddled with holes," the Obama administration decided it would no longer consider Jawad a "military detainee but would be held for possible prosecution in American civilian courts."(6) This shameful decision takes place against any sense of reason or modicum of morality and justice. Even Jawad's former military prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a Bronze Star recipient, has stated that there "is no credible evidence or legal basis" to continue his detention and that he does not represent a risk to anyone.(7) In an affidavit filed with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he claimed "that at least three other Afghans had been arrested for the crime and had subsequently confessed, casting considerable doubt on the claim that Mr. Jawad was solely responsible for the attack."(8) It gets worse: Vandeveld also pointed out that the confession obtained by the Afghan police and used as the cornerstone of the Bush case against Jawad could not have been written by him because "Jawad was functionally illiterate and could not read or write [and] the statement was not even in his native language of Pashto."(9) The ACLU points out that "the written statement allegedly contain Mohammed's confession and thumbprint is in Farsi," which Jawad does not read, write, or speak.(10) Vandeveld was so repulsed by the fact that all of the evidence used against Jawad was forcibly obtained through torture that he "first demanded that Jawad be released, then, when Bush officials refused, unsuccessfully demanded to be relieved of his duty to prosecute and then finally resigned."(11) Since resigning, he is now a key witness in Jawad's defense and works actively with the ACLU to get him released. As Bob Herbert has written, "There is no credible evidence against Jawad, and his torture-induced confession has rightly been ruled inadmissible by a military judge. But the administration does not feel that he has suffered enough."(12) And, yet, Jawad was the subject of egregious and repugnant acts of torture from the moment he was captured in Afghanistan and later turned over to American forces.

In a sworn affidavit, Colonel Vandeveld stated that Jawad had undergone extensive abuse at Bagram for approximately two months: "The abuse included the slapping of Mr. Jawad across the face while Mr. Jawad's head was covered with a hood, as well as Mr. Jawad's having been shoved down a stairwell while both hooded and shackled."(13) As soon as Jawad arrived at Bagram, the abuse began with him being forced to pose for nude photographs and undergo a strip search in front of a number of witnesses. He was also blindfolded and hooded while interrogated and "told ... to hold on to a water bottle that he believed was actually a bomb that could explode at any moment." In addition, while in the custody of U.S. forces, he was subjected to severe abuse and torture. According to the ACLU:

U.S. personnel subjected Mohammed to beatings, forced him into so-called "stress positions," forcibly hooded him, placed him in physical and linguistic isolation, pushed him down stairs, chained him to a wall for prolonged periods, and subjected him to threats including threats to kill him, and other intimidation. U.S. forces also subjected Mohammed to sleep deprivation; interrogators' notes indicate that Mohammed was so disoriented at one point that he did not know whether it was day or night. Mohammed was also intimidated, frightened and deeply disturbed by the sounds of screams from other prisoners and rumours of other prisoners being beaten to death.(14)

The specifics of the conditions at Bagram under which Jawad was confined as a child are spelled out in a military interrogator's report:

While at the BCP (Bagram Collection Point) he described the isolation cell as a small room on the second floor made of wood.... He stated that while he was held in the isolation cells, they kept him restrained in handcuffs and a hood over his head, also making him drink lots of water. He said the guards made him stand up and if he sat down, he would be beaten.... [He] stated that he was made to stand to keep him from sleeping and said when he sat down the guards would open the cell door, grab him by the throat and stand him up. He said they would also kick him and make him fall over, as he was wearing leg shackles and was unable to take large steps. He said the guards would fasten his handcuffs to the isolation cell door so he would be unable to sit down.... [He] said due to being kicked and beaten at the BCP, he experienced chest pains and difficulty with urination.(15)

The interrogations, abuse, and isolation daily proved so debilitating physically and mentally that Jawad told military personnel at Bagram that he was contemplating suicide. What must be kept in mind is that this victim of illegal abuse and torture was only a juvenile, still in his teens and not even old enough to vote in the United States. Unfortunately, the torture and abuse of this child continued as he was transferred to Guantánamo. Starved for three days before the trip, given only sips of water, he arrived in Cuba on February 3, 2003, and was subjected to physical and linguistic isolation for 30 days - the only human contact being with interrogators. In October 2003, he underwent another 30-day period of solitary confinement. The interrogators displayed ruthlessness with this young boy that is hard to imagine, all in the absence of legal council for Jawad. For instance, "Military records from throughout 2003 indicate that Mohammed repeatedly cried and asked for his mother during interrogation. Upon information and belief, before one interrogation, Mohammed fainted, complained of dizziness and stomach, but was given an IV and forced to go through with the interrogation."(16) Driven to despair over his treatment, Jawad attempted suicide on December 25, 2003. Hints of such despair had been observed by one interrogator who approached a military psychologist and asked that the "techniques being applied to Jawad should be temporarily halted because they were causing him to dissociate, to crack up without providing good information."(17) These techniques were particularly severe and, as Meteor Blades points out, can cause "physical deterioration, panic, rage, loss of appetite, lethargy, paranoia, hallucinations, self-mutilation, cognitive dysfunction, disorientation and mental breakdowns, any of which, alone or in combination, can spur the detainee to give interrogators more information than he might otherwise surrender."(18) Not only did Army Lieutenant Colonel Diane M. Zeirhoffer, a licensed psychologist, refuse to stop the abuse, which she had ordered, she also, according to the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Vandeveld, engaged in a psychological assessment not to "assist in identifying and treating any emotional or psychological disturbances Mr. Jawad might have been suffering from. It was instead conducted to assist the interrogators in extracting information from Mr. Jawad, even exploiting his mental vulnerabilities to do so.... From my perspective, this officer had employed his or her professional training and expertise in a profoundly unethical manner."(19) This is a profoundly egregious example of how the war on terror, its reign of illegal legalities, and its supportive culture of cruelty transforms members of a profession who take an oath to "do no harm" into military thugs who use their professional skills in the service of CIA and military interrogations and detainee torture - even the almost unspeakable torture of juveniles. The abuse of Jawad, bordering on Gestapo-like sadism, continued after his attempted suicide. From May 7-20, 2004, he was subjected to what military interrogators called the "frequent flyer" program, which was systemic regime of sleep disruption and deprivation. In order to disrupt his sleep cycle, Jawad, according to military records, "was moved between two different cells 112 times, on average every two hours and 50 minutes, day and night. Every time he was moved, he was shackled."(20) As a result of this abuse, "Mohammed's medical records indicate that significant health effects he suffered during this time include blood in his urine, bodily pain, and a weight loss of 10% from April 2004 to May 2004."(21) At a June 2008 military commission hearing, Jawad's U.S. military lawyer inquired as to why "someone in a position of authority ... and not just the guards" was not being held accountable for Jawad's subjection to the "frequent flyer" program.(22) The government refused to supply any names or prosecute anyone involved in the program, citing their right to privacy, as if such a right overrides "allegations of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right of victims of human rights violations to remedy."(23)

The torture and abuse of the child detainee, Mohammed Jawad, continues up to on or about June 2, 2008 when he was "beaten, kicked, and pepper-sprayed while he was on the ground with his feet and hands in shackles, for allegedly not comply with guards' instructions. Fifteen days later, there were still visible marks consistent with physical abuse on his body, including his arms, knees, shoulder, forehead, and ribs."(24) How the Obama administration can possibly defend building a criminal case against Mohammed Jawad, given that he was under 18 years-old at the time of his arrest and has endured endless years of torture and abuse at the hands of the U.S. government, raises serious questions about ethical and political integrity of this government and its alleged commitment for human rights. The case against this young man is so weak that Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle has not only recently accused the government of "dragging [the case] out for no good reason," but also expressed alarm at how weak the government's case was, stating in a refusal to give them an extension to amass new evidence against Jawad, "You'd better go consult real quick with the powers that be, because this is a case that's been screaming at everybody for years. This case is an outrage to me.... I am not going to sit up here and wait for you to come up with new evidence at this late hour.... This case is in shambles."(25) On July 30, 2009, Judge Huvelle ordered the Obama administration to release Jawad by late August. She stated "After this horrible, long, tortured history, I hope the government will succeed in getting him back home.... Enough has been imposed on this young man to date."(26) The New York Times reported, in what can only be interpreted as another example of bad faith on the part of the Obama administration, that the Justice Department responded to Judge Huvelle's ruling by suggesting that "they were studying whether to file civilian criminal charges against Mr. Jawad. If they do, officials say, he could be transferred to the United States to face charges, instead of being sent to Afghanistan, where his lawyers say he would be released to his mother."(27) This response goes to the heart of the contradiction between Obama as an iconic symbol of a more democratic and hopeful future and the reality of an administration that is capable of reproducing some of the worst policies of the Bush administration. Jawad's case is about more than legal incompetence, it is also about the descent into the "dark side," where a culture of cruelty reigns and the law is on the side of the most frightening of antidemocratic practices, pointing to a society in which terror becomes as totalizing as the loss of any sense of ethical responsibility. Torture of this type, especially of a child, would appear to have more in common with the techniques used by the Gestapo, Pol Pot, the Pinochet thugs in Chile, and the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s rather than with the United States - or at least the democratic country the United States has historically claimed to be.

(1). See, for example, Rahul Mahajan, "We Think the Price is Worth It," Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (November/December 2001). Online at:

(2). Ibid.

(3). Michael Haas, "Children, Unlamented Victims of Bush War Crimes," FactPlatform (May 4, 2009). Online at:, and Michael Haas, "George W. Bush, War Criminal?: The Bush Administration's Liability for 269 War Crimes" (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2009).

(4). Will Mathews, "Government Seeks to Continue Detaining Mohammed Jawad at Guantánamo Despite Lack of Evidence," CommonDreams.Org (July 24, 2009). Online at:; and ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition."

(5). Cited in Andy Worthington, "The Case of Mohamed Jawad," Counterpunch (October 17, 2007). Online at:

(6). William Glaberson, "Government Might Allow U.S. Trial for Detainee," New York Times (July 25, 2009), p. A14.

(7). ACLU, "Mohammed Jawad-Habeas Corpus," Safe and Free (January 13, 2009). Online at:

(8). ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on Behalf of Mohammed Jawad," June 2009. Online at: "Amended Petition."

(9). Ibid. "Amended Petition."

(10). Ibid. "Amended Petition."

(11). Glenn Greenwald, "Mohammed Jawad and Obama's Efforts to Suspend Military Commissions," (January 21, 2009). Online at:

(12). Bob Herbert, "How Long is Enough," New York Times (June 30, 2009), p. A21.

(13). Colonel Vandeveld sworn affidavit is included in the ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition."

(14). Ibid.

(15). Amnesty International, United States of America - "From Ill-Treatment to Unfair Trail: The Case of Mohammed Jawad, Child 'Enemy Combatant'" (London: Amnesty International, 2008), pp. 12-13.

(16). ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition."

(17). Meteor Blades, "Army Psychologist Pleads 'Fifth' in Case of Prisoner 900," DailyKos (August 14, 2008). Online at:

(18). Ibid.

(19). Colonel Vandeveld sworn affidavit is included in the ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition."

(20). Amnesty International, United States of America - "From Ill-Treatment to Unfair Trail: The Case of Mohammed Jawad, Child 'Enemy Combatant'" (London: Amnesty International, 2008), p. 20.

(21). Ibid., ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on Behalf of Mohammed Jawad."

(22). Amnesty International, United States of America, p. 31.

(23). Ibid.

(24). ACLU Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus, "Amended Petition."

(25). Cited in Jason Leopold, "Obama Administration Cooks Up New Legal Argument for Detaining Guantánamo Prisoner," Truthout (July 28, 2009). Online at:

(26). Valtin, "'So Ordered': U.S. to Release Mohammed Jawad After Six Years of False Imprisonment," Daily Kos (July 30, 2009). Online at:

(27). William Glaberson, "Judge orders Release of Young Detainee at Guantánamo," New York Times (July 31, 2009). P. A14

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Related work: Henry A. Giroux, "The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence" (Lanham: Rowman and Lilttlefield, 2001). His most recent books include "Take Back Higher Education" (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), "The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex" (2007) and "Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed" (2008). His newest book, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Beyond the Politics of Disposability," will be published by Palgrave Mcmillan in 2009.