Tortured Confessions: The Rumpus Interview with Justine Sharrock

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Sharrock: A couple of things. I started it because I was interested in issues about prison rights, but then also America’s hypocrisy when it comes to our human rights record. So this was the perfect combination of those things.

My parents aren’t citizens, so a lot of the extreme patriotism that happened after 9/11 was a little bit foreign and fascinating to me.  I don’t want to sound like I’m unpatriotic, but this story was sort of a way to tap into some of that.

I was surprised because when I set off to report it, I thought I was sort of speaking with the devil, confronting this evil person, someone who would engage in torture. And then as I found out more of these guys’ stories, it was fascinating on their individual levels, and they were the complete opposite of what I had expected. On my first reporting trip down to Cumberland, a soldier who had worked at Abu Ghraib, who was actually caught in some of the photos but wasn’t prosecuted, warned me that “once you start reporting on this, you are going to become obsessed and you won’t be able to stop.” I just sort of laughed, but now looking back I realize he was right, just because there’s so much there.

Rumpus: And not that many people are willing to uncover it, because you are dealing with high powers in our government.

Sharrock: And it’s also just looking at the ramifications the war has had on our country, it’s sort of a larger story beyond the story about the military.

Rumpus: To your knowledge, is there still a big international disagreement on a definition of torture? What’s your definition of torture?

Sharrock: I use the definition for torture that is laid out in the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which is the universally accepted definition worldwide.

The US uses their own definition which is very similar.

In the infamous “Torture Memos” the Justice Department wrote out legal arguments that could provide loopholes within that definition, basically trying to see how far they could push things before they are considered torture. They focused on two parts of the US definition: #1, There has to be a specific intention to inflict pain and #2, That the pain has to be severe.  So they pulled apart the question of how bad does something have to be to be severe, and came up with the answer that it had to be equivalent to the pain of organ failure or even death.

These loopholes are the key to why they use the type of torture that they used [in Guantanamo and other prisons]. For example, if it could be argued that the soldiers weren’t intentionally inflicting severe pain– if they get soldiers to do so unwittingly by using methods of torture lite–they are off the hook. They also argued that if any medics or doctors are present, it automatically indicated that there is no intention to inflict pain.

I think that their legal arguments are highly faulty and I disagree with them (as do many). But that is where you get into sticky situations.

Rumpus: I am sure you you’ve been interested in whether there are instances of torture in Afghanistan, and why there hasn’t been much reform since Guantanamo. Have you found anything recently that is a continuation of all this?

Sharrock: When I was pitching the story to different editors, everyone was saying: this is fascinating, it’s really well written and researched, but torture is over. It’s an issue that’s going to be in the past by the time this comes out. And I was just like, you guys have to trust me, it’s not. This is going to keep going for a long time. And they’d say, well Guantanamo is supposed to close within a year and I’d respond, well what do you do with the detainees after that?

There are so many prisons besides Guantanamo. For instance, Bagram is still operating. And that was a place where there were even more abuses. Just because Guantanamo closes doesn’t mean it’s over.

Justine Sharrock

I’m working now on some stories about the individual acts of reconciliation between guards and detainees. And looking at the larger question of: should we do a truth commission? Should we do prosecutions? How do you not just try to address it for our own reasons, for setting precedence, but how to you amend and change the view of America? I think we will be tarnished in terms of our international reputation forever.

Rumpus: In your conclusion, you stress how America might not be the same as it used to be, how “the flag no longer represented” what it used to. Is there a chance it was never a completely upstanding place to begin with, that the military has been covertly using these tactics for many years?  Can you elaborate on what is so different now?


Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →