Editor’s Note: Out of the Past


| July-August 2009

  • Washing Hands of Torture

    image by Adam Niklewicz / www.illustratorusa.com

  • Washing Hands of Torture

Clear your mind of images fed to you by fiction—of ticking time bombs and last-minute rescues, of “evil-doers” and misunderstood heroes. Then close your eyes and consider, just for moment, what it would have been like to be a detainee at Guantánamo Bay during the Bush years.

Envision being shackled naked, on your knees, hands pulled behind your back and over your head for the length of a transcontinental flight. Once you wrap your brain around that level of discomfort, multiply it by weeks and imagine your back muscles knotted into never-ending spasms, your legs and wrists swollen and blistered, skin on fire.

When released from that position, you are strapped to a tilting bed and a cloth is placed over your face. Water is poured on the cloth until it is saturated. You are suffocated for minutes on end, convinced that death is imminent. Just short of passing out, you are allowed to breathe. You vomit, then wait for it to happen again, as many as six times a day, for days on end.

No one knows where you are. You see no one but your masked interrogators. It doesn’t matter whether you actually know anything or committed a crime—you’re not likely to see the inside of a courtroom. And no matter what truths or lies you think to tell, the torment endures with no end in sight.



It’s a distasteful psychological exercise, but I implore you to try it. Because, as Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick wrote on April 25, “America seems to have lost its capacity to be truly shocked by anything America might do.

“[The images from Abu Ghraib] are no longer postcards from the unthinkable. They are what we have become.”