Mark Twain and the stain of U.S. torture
Mark Twain wouldn’t be caught dead at Guantanamo.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first Iraq bombing by U.S. forces. There are many lasting consequences of that attack; one is the Guantanamo prison.
February is also the anniversary of Samuel Clemens’ first use of the pen name “Mark Twain.” Yes, there’s a connection.
The notorious military prison has been operating about as long as Bush, Obama, and Trump have served in the White House.
The U.S. government twisted the principles of morality and international law in order to build the Guantanamo prison and keep it open. But that has only amplified the effect of prisoner suicides, kidnapping, and torture, there and at “black sites” around the world.
Just about everything that can be said about this unholy place has already been said. But here’s a story I guarantee you haven’t heard:
By the start of the 20th century, U.S. armed forces had seized Spanish colonies, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba, for our own empire-building project on the world stage.
Mark Twain was a steadfast critic of racist American adventurism. He wrote: “I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.” He was especially furious at the practice of water torture, which Filipino fighters were subjected to when captured by American soldiers.
Recently I was researching a related topic and came across a 2006 photo of a teacher who worked at the W.T. Sampson elementary school in Guantanamo. That’s where the children of U.S. military personnel attended classes, even as prisoners were being tortured nearby.
The teacher was on stage wearing a Mark Twain costume. He was entertaining the students with some of the famous Hartford author’s writings.
Is it possible that the irony of this performance escaped the scholar? He was dressed as our most famous anti-imperialist. In Cuba, a country “won” in the conflict with Spain. Walking distance from where human beings were being tortured. With the barbaric waterboarding method perfected by our military a century earlier.
The CIA created the torture program for foreign captives after 9/11. It hired two American psychologists who were paid $80 million to provide a menu of torture techniques. The secret agency carried them out, then lied about their use. New revelations of government-sanctioned torture are still being uncovered as trials of Guantanamo prisoners continue.
Mark Twain called the practice “ghastly additions to our history.” He and other Americans condemned “the torturing of Filipinos by the awful ‘water-cure,’ for instance, to make them confess — what? Truth? Or lies?”
History may rhyme, as the poet said, but sometimes it screams. Even the imaginative Twain would be astonished at his country’s depravity.
Steve Thornton writes for ShoeleatherHistoryProject. com. His latest book is Good Trouble: A Shoeleather History of Nonviolent Direct Action (Hard Ball Press).
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