Heather Mallick: The terrible accomplishment of Gina Haspel
“Bloody Gina! Bloody Gina! Bloody Gina! You are a torturer!” shouted protesters as they were removed from the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on CIA director-hopeful Gina Haspel. As a nickname, it will stick, which I suspect gives the Republican Party great happiness. They do take pride in things that would harrow up the blood and freeze the young soul.
Speaking of Dick Cheney, he says the U.S. should start torturing again and Haspel has done “a great job in terms of the career she’s built,” which will flower as the public face of modern American torture if she is confirmed by the committee and approved by the Senate, both likely.
For the rest of us, Haspel isn’t just damaged goods, she’s very much in send-it-straight-back-to-the-shop condition. Sen. John McCain says “her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.” This is the dying man ridiculed on Fox News on Thursday for having been tortured as a PoW in North Vietnam: “It worked on John [McCain]. That’s why they call him Songbird John.”
McCain, himself the public face of a vanishing American political civility, knows pain. It’s not clear if his torture was as severe as the CIA’s agonies at global CIA black sites, as only the victims can judge that. I, with no physical courage whatsoever, only know how the torture that Haspel defends — she fudged on every answer — was described by its victims.
But here’s how it has been described by one of the torturers: “He struggled to breathe and opened his mouth to inhale air. They poured water into his mouth. I saw his stomach swelling up ... I took him by the broken wrist and felt the pulse. With the prisoner screaming and crying, ‘Mother! Mother!’ I muttered to myself, ‘Mother, do you know what is happening to your son now?’”
Another torturer described the prisoner as “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”
The first quote refers to British soldier Eric Lomax being waterboarded by the Japanese in 1943, the second to prisoner Abu Zubaydah being waterboarded by the CIA in 2002.
Lomax was tormented by a man named Takashi Nagase. The two met again in old age, their faces burned into each other’s memory and both their lives ruined. They talked.
The Japanese were famous for their water torture of PoWs, as famous as the Americans are for water torture at Haspel’s Thailand posting, and years from now, we’ll hear more stories of how Americans were tortured thanks to Haspel. Every mention of her name will inspire an enemy. If President Trump follows through with at least one of the wars he has giddily threatened — North Korea or Iran — the enemy will once more pour water into a U.S. grunt’s open mouth.
Haspel won’t suffer. She never has. But American prisoners will recall her mouth twitching, her little sniffs, and her smile that seems hideous in retrospect.
“Several on the team profoundly affected,” one CIA employee wrote of the scenes, “some to the point of tears and choking up.” Will they seek out Zubaydah in old age and talk quietly, holding hands, as Lomax and Nagase did? (The scene is described in Lomax’s extraordinary 1995 memoir The Railway Man.)
There were many copies of the Thailand torture tapes and one former CIA official doubts they would all have been destroyed, as Haspel claims they were to protect CIA staff. It isn’t in the nature of the beast. When asked during the hearing why the videotapes weren’t just transferred digitally and the enhanced-interrogators’ faces obscured, Haspel got all girlish and said she’s “not a technical person.”
I mentioned Republican glee. Most Republicans, whether standard or Trump brand, detest women, always have. It would have been a smarter move to nominate a faceless male bureaucrat to run the CIA but Haspel, said to have been backing out, was encouraged to go ahead with the hearing.
Her nomination is interesting because she is female. Women don’t get far in Trump world unless there’s a personal link. Elaine Chao is married to power, Ivanka Trump is a daughter, Betsy DeVos’s family is a Republican profit centre, etc.
Haspel breaks the pattern. She is one of the few powerful woman in the Trump administration to have got to the top on merit, and her merit in modern Republican eyes is that she repels those who oppose Trump and even many of those who don’t. What a dilemma the Men of Trump have offered feminists. You want a woman? Here’s a woman.
And for once, they’re right. Women are precisely like men in that custom does not stale their infinite variety. We’re not better than men, absolutely not. Our best feature is that we tend to be less physically violent.
And then there’s Bloody Gina.
It is perhaps a triumph that a woman has outdone men in the ugliest arena of human life, and yes, it is only humans who torture. Animals don’t torture other animals. What a waste of energy that could profitably be spent eating the carcass, would be their thinking.
If and when she is confirmed, it will be as a human being. She is one of us.
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick