Paul Verhaeghen is Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology. His novel, Omega Minor, is published by Dalkey Archive Press.


Equipped with easel, flute and precision gun

The ice was already melting when Specialist Sabrina Harman posed for snapshots. She hunches low in the frame, her gloved right hand raised in a glorious thumbs-up; a radiant smile lights up her face. Inches from that beaming face: the mouth of a man, agape, stopped in mid-rattle, his eyes bandaged, coagulated blood streaking his cheeks. This man, she was told, had died of a heart attack. There was no way, she knew, this man had died of a heart attack. Still: her fabulous thumbs-up and her radiant smile. After the pictures were taken, Specialist Harman zipped up the body bag and walked away.

Manadel al-Jamadi had been arrested at his house in Baghdad early in the morning of November 4, 2003. According to eyewitnesses, Jamadi was conscious – walking, talking – when he was led into a shower room at Abu Ghraib for interrogation. Forty-five minutes later, Jamadi was dead. His interrogator had the prisoner hooded and his hands tied high behind his back, then shackled to a window bar. This position – known as Palestinian hanging, or strappado – crushes the ribs; the lungs and the diaphragm have only little room to expand. Put simply: Manadel al-Jamadi was crucified by the CIA. He died within thirty minutes. On his way home, the interrogator threw Jamadi's bloodied hood in the trash; the hood was never found.

When asked about the photographs, Specialist Harman said: "I guess we weren't really thinking, Hey, this guy was just murdered. I know it looks bad. But it was just – Hey, it's a dead guy, it'd be cool to get a photo."

We only know of Jamadi through Harman's photographs. His arrest and transfer were never recorded, let alone his death. Jamadi simply did not exist. His corpse was smuggled out of the prison on a stretcher, an IV in its arm. A local taxi-driver was paid to dispose of the body; the body was never found.

When questioned, his interrogator confirmed that no information was obtained from the prisoner.

In the Pathologie – the mortuary – of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, half an hour north of Berlin, a skull stands on the windowsill of the small, shared doctors' office. Tibetan monks use the skulls of their masters as bowls to drink milk from, but this is nothing like that. An electrical cord runs through a bullet hole in the back – one or the other handy surgeon had converted the skull to a lamp, light streaming out of the eyes and nostrils, seeping from between clenched teeth. Likely the owner of the skull was one of the thousands of Soviet POWs that passed through the camp during 1942. It was cheaper to kill the Soviet prisoners-of-war than to feed them. They entered the camp through Turm A; then they were marched directly to the crematory – Station Z. In the antechamber, an SS doctor told them to disrobe and took their vital signs. Then he showed them into the next room, where their height was to be measured. This room was double-walled. A gramophone blasted military marches. The prisoners put their heads against a set of slats with measurement marks; there were holes between the slats; behind the holes stood soldiers with their guns. No last words for these prisoners, no last look at their loved ones. Extinguished, just like that: a bullet through the brain stem and down they went. You could just picture some young internist marvelling at the neatness of the hole in this particular skull – dead centre and just the right diameter. Later, in 1943, a gas chamber was installed in Station Z. Much more efficient. Much cleaner. In case of attempted escape, there would be a public hanging in front of the assembled prisoners; strappado was the method of choice.

Sometime in March or April 1943, Stella Goldschlag stood at her window in the Sammellager – the former Jewish nursing home in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It was the early evening of a gorgeous spring day, and heaven knows those are rare in Berlin. From her window, she had a good view of the Jewish cemetery – right underneath was the tomb of Moses Mendelssohn, the great scholar and philosopher from the time of Frederick. Mendelssohn had been a big proponent of the integration of Jews and Germans; he had done the first Hebrew-to-German translation of the Torah, as a service to the gentiles. On an open space in that venerable cemetery with its picturesquely sunken monuments, Stella noted much laughter and merriment. A few of the guards had taken off their uniform jackets; they were playing soccer. Four jackets marked the goalposts. The ball they were using must be flat, Stella thought, it refuses to bounce. Then she looked more closely. The object that the guards kicked back and forth was not a soccer ball. It was a human skull.

Stella had a secret of her own. Stella was a Greifer, a catcher: each day she went into town and made her living pointing out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. For every person she brought in, the Gestapo paid her 20 Reichsmark. More importantly, for every person she brought in she could point out a prisoner – a friend, a family member – and that person would be spared. Except that they wouldn't. When Stella found out, she decided to keep up her gruesome business, if just to save her own life and that of her fellow-catcher boyfriend.

The very first person Stella denounced was her husband.

These stories add up. Because they are true – in many senses of the word. Because the world is not the same without them. These stories tell us who we are. Terror, torture, wanton executions – this is what humans do. Sure, we love. Sure, we paint and write and dance and sing. But this cavalcade of horror is not an aberration. We are built to play. And players like their toys. Need their toys. All you need to do is convince yourself that this human being is not at all like you, and he becomes your toy.

Holding another life in your hand is the ultimate possession. You carve a person's flesh. His mind, his identity, his future, his fate, rests in your hand, and yours alone. You can twist his very soul until it breaks and – oh yes – you will. For he is – wholly – yours, and how could you resist?

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