JM Coetzee on Torture and Empire

Photo by Poster Boy | CC BY 2.0

As Gina Haspel goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee this week, I have been reading J. M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians.  Coetzee’s depiction of torture and empire is startlingly relevant to Haspel’s nomination to be the next Director of Central Intelligence.

Coetzee’s story takes place in a remote outpost of the British Empire.  The unnamed narrator is a low level functionary of the Empire, a “magistrate” who presides over a small settlement and attached garrison far from the capital. Although Coetzee does not say, the setting is presumably in Africa (Coetzee grew up in Apartheid-era South Africa).  The narrator’s uneventful life is interrupted by the appearance of Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard.  It is Colonel Joll’s duty to torture the indigenous population.

Gina Haspel is the Colonel Joll of the American Empire.  During her years at the CIA, Haspel has been a proponent of torture (excuse me, “enhanced interrogation”).  Haspel oversaw an illegal “black site” prison in Thailand where torture took place.  Later, she drafted a cable ordering that videotapes of torture sessions be destroyed.  Destroying the tapes defied court orders, White House Counsels, and CIA lawyers.  A 2011 CIA memorandum absolves Haspel of blame for the tapes’ destruction, saying that Haspel was following the orders of her then chief, Jose Rodriguez, Jr., who received an Agency…

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