Albion Monitor /Commentary

Rudolph Giuliani's School For Torture

by Alexander Cockburn

Giving psychopaths the green light
Police who torture their captives don't merit sympathy, but if anything could make me feel some pity for New York police officer Justin Volpe, it's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Here's the man who's been amping up the cops year after year, mandating them to make life intolerable for vagrants, ambulant teens, black people. Here's the man screaming for results, exulting in the supposed revolution in policing inaugurated in his term, basking in all the glory-hallelujah articles in the press about the falling crime stats.

And now, when Giuliani's ravings over the years allow some pervert in Brooklyn's 70th Precinct to use For Export Only policing techniques as taught in the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., now we have the mayor announcing that "if you really understand what it means to be a police officer, if you really understand what it means to protect the lives of other people, then you will be among the most revulsed and repulsed by what happened here. If you don't understand that, then you really should leave the Police Department."

One of the cops torturing him -- one of New York's finest -- said, "This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time," as he shoved the plunger handle up the Haitian's rectum
Giuliani's antics remind me of the Pentagon's back when the massacre at My Lai surfaced and it turned out U.S. infantrymen had stood 550 Vietnamese men, women and children in a trench and machine-gunned them for four or five hours. The Pentagon put Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley on trial and called it a day, even though, through all those hours of killing, the high command who had ordered the massacre were circling the killing site at 1,500 feet.

They haven't found, thus far, the instrument used to torture Abner Louima, but if they ever do, you can be sure that the prints on the toilet plunger won't belong to the prime suspect, police officer Volpe. Police forces, like newspapers, reflect the values of the people who call the shots. In Los Angeles, those values, particularly in the pre-Rodney King era, came from the politicians campaigning on fear, terror and racism, who found the appropriate executives. In Los Angeles, this executive was most famously police chief Parker in the 1950s, who invented the patrol-car system and dreamed of a numbering system on the roof of every building in the city that would allow his helicopters (he saw them as the Great Eye) to swoop in.

So on the toilet plunger, you have Giuliani's dabs. You also have the prints of all those mad-dog criminologists, like James Q. Wilson or John DiIulio, who have been promoting "toughness" for decades. Giuliani was particularly edgy about Louima's memory that one of the cops torturing him -- one of New York's finest -- said, "This is Giuliani time, not Dinkins time," as he shoved the plunger handle up the Haitian's rectum.

Well, it was Giuliani time.

As the get-tough policy began to warm up, the stats soared. In 1993, there were 3,400 complaints of police brutality brought before the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York. In 1994, 4,900. In 1995, 5,612. In 1996, 5,592. That's a 60 percent increase in those years.

It's true the numbers went down 20 percent in the first six months of this year, but some argue this is because people, noting the toothlessness of the CCRB, have given up complaining. There's some evidence for that, too. Only 4.5 percent of complaints ever get substantiated, and only 1 percent of cops facing a substantiated complaint ever get disciplined. As for racism, we can note the fact that about half of all complainers are black, way above their demographic weight.

Are the cops stressed, some of them to the level that they become torturers? Of course they're stressed, by the demand they deliver the stats that will re-elect Giuliani. They have to process the poor off the streets, the same way UPS handlers and sorters have to handle up to 1,200 packages an hour. It's what the system -- Giuliani's system -- has demanded of them.

Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the other day he reckoned that maybe 6 percent of the 38,000 or so New York cops are "bad." Under certain conditions, 90 percent of any group can be bad. When Professor Philip Zimbardo set up a fake prison at Stanford in the 1960s, they had to suspend the experiment after three days because student "guards" had already started torturing student "prisoners."

Circumstances, stresses, not to mention direct orders and indirect exhortations, can create monsters. The day before the Louima case broke, The New York Times ran a story about an Argentinian military torturer being assaulted by some of his former victims who'd spied him walking the streets or in a nightclub. He and other officers in his cohort felt aggrieved, the Times story reported. After all, he and the other torturers had only been following orders. Why weren't their commanding officers catching the heat?

Those cops in Brooklyn were following orders, the same as Calley and his men. In the rhetoric of repression, an order is always a little more than an order. There are always some lines to read between, things the supervisor will not directly say, will always deny but which he expects to be done. All the way back to the murder of Thomas a Becket, world history is littered with the inquests, commissions of inquiry, war crime tribunals, courts-martial nervously picking at the questions: Who gave the orders? What did the orders mean?

No, of course, Giuliani didn't say, "Take a Haitian into the john and torture him." He just wanted a pacification program, the same way the instigators of My Lai did. And as always happens, the pacifiers, the latent perverts and threshold psychopaths knew they had the green light.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 31, 1997 (

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