On Memorial Day Weekend, America Reckons with Torture

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Facing the truth is hard to do, especially the truth about ourselves. So Americans have been sorely pressed to come to terms with the fact that after 9/11 our government began to torture people, and did so in defiance of domestic and international law. Most of us haven’t come to terms with what that meant, or means today, but we must reckon with torture, the torture done in our name, allegedly for our safety.

It’s no secret such cruelty occurred; it’s just the truth we’d rather not think about. But Memorial Day is a good time to make the effort. Because if we really want to honor the Americans in uniform who gave their lives fighting for their country, we’ll redouble our efforts to make sure we’re worthy of their sacrifice; we’ll renew our commitment to the rule of law, for the rule of law is essential to any civilization worth dying for.

After 9/11, our government turned to torture, seeking information about the terrorists who committed the atrocity and others who might follow after them.  Senior officials ordered the torture of men at military bases and detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, in secret CIA prisons set up across the globe, and in other countries – including Libya and Egypt — where abusive regimes were asked to do Washington’s dirty work.

The best known of all the prisons remains Guantanamo on the southeast coast of Cuba.  For years, the United States naval base there seemed like an isolated vestige of the Cold War – defying the occasional threat from Fidel Castro to shut it down. But since 9/11, Guantanamo – Gitmo – has been a detention center, an extraterritorial island jail considered outside the jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts and rules of evidence. Like the notorious Room 101 of George Orwell’s 1984, the chamber that contains the thing each victim fears the most to make them confess, Guantanamo’s name has become synonymous with torture. Nearly 800 people have been held there. George W. Bush eventually released 500 of them, sometimes after years of confinement and cruelty.  Barack Obama has freed 67, but 169 remain, even though the president pledged to close the Guantanamo prison within a year of his inauguration. Now, forty-six are so dangerous, our government says, they will be held indefinitely, without trial.

In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reads a document during his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012.

In this photo of a sketch by courtroom artist Janet Hamlin and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Defense, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reads a document during his military hearing at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, Saturday, May 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Janet Hamlin)

We almost never see the detainees. Were it not for the work of human rights organizations and the forest of lawsuits that have arisen from our actions, the prisoners would be out of sight, out of mind. Five of the Guantanamo prisoners were recently arraigned before a military commission for their role in the attacks. One of them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who says he was the mastermind behind 9/11. He was waterboarded by interrogators 183 times. Pentagon officials predict it will be at least another year before the five go on trial.

Earlier this month,  lawyers for Mohammed al-Qahtani – the so-called “20th hijacker” who didn’t make it onto the planes — filed suit in New York federal court to make public what they described as “extremely disturbing” videotapes of his interrogations.  He was charged in 2008 with war crimes and murder, but the charges were dropped after the former convening authority for the Guantanamo military commissions, Susan Crawford, told journalist Bob Woodward that al-Qahtani’s treatment “met the legal definition of torture.”

He remains in indefinite detention, as does Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen alleged to have run terrorist training camps. He was waterboarded at least 83 times in a single month.  Just this week a federal appeals court refused to release information on the interrogation methods the CIA used on Abu Zubaydah and other terrorist suspects.

You may also have seen the flurry of action this month around a section of the new National Defense Authorization Act that allows the military to detain indefinitely not only members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” but anyone who has “substantially supported” them.  A federal court struck down that provision in response to journalists and advocates who believe it could be so broadly interpreted it would violate civil liberties.  Nonetheless, two days after the court’s decision, the House of Representatives reaffirmed the original provision.

The other day, eight members of the Bush Administration – including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld – were found guilty of torture and other war crimes by an unofficial tribunal meeting in Malaysia.  The story was played widely in parts of the world press, with reports that the judgment could lead the way to proceedings before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It received almost no mention here in the United States.

This summer, it’s believed that the United States Senate’s intelligence committee finally will release a report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that euphemistic phrase for what any reasonable person not employed by the government would call torture. The report has been three years in the making, with investigators examining millions of classified documents. The news service Reuters says the report will conclude that techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation do not yield worthwhile intelligence information.

So here we are, into our eleventh year after 9/11, still at war in Afghanistan, still at war with terrorists, still at war with our collective conscience as we grapple with how to protect our country from attack without violating the basic values of civilization — the rule of law, striving to achieve our aims without corrupting them, and restraint in the use of power over others, especially when exercised in secret.

In future days and years, how will we come to cope with the reality of what we have done in the name of security?  Many other societies do seem to try harder than we do to come to terms with horrendous behavior commissioned or condoned by a government. Beginning in 1996, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings at which whites and blacks struggled to confront the cruelty inflicted on human beings during apartheid.

And perhaps you caught something said the other day by the president of Brazil, Dilma Roussef.  During the early 70’s, she was held in prison and tortured repeatedly by the military dictators who ruled her country for nearly 25 years. The state of Rio de Janeiro has announced it will officially apologize to her. Earlier, when she swore in members of a commission investigating the dictatorship, President Roussef said: “We are not moved by revenge, hate or a desire to rewrite history. The need to know the full truth is what moves us.”

In other words, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

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  • Edie

    Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman former investigator for the Watergate Scandal  has a new book, ” Cheating Justice, How Bush and CheneyAttaked the Rule of Law and Plotted to Avoid Prosecution and What We Can Do About It.” She makes a case for prosecuting Bush and cheney and their staffs for serious criminal violations of our laws and currently it is not too late to do so despite their creating law changes to shield them from prosecution. She lays out the case in her book. I suggest to Bill Moyers that he have Elizabeth Holtzman and her co-author Cynthia  Cooper on his show to talk about their book. She calls for the appointment of an independent prosecuter with full authority  to investigate and prosecute Bush and Cheney and their accomplices.

  • Anonymous

    Torture is by no means confined to one party. And the Bush Admin by no means invented torture. Prisoners are being tortured today in Afghanistan, Bagdad and Somalia 

    Both parties, and the voters who support them, are complicit. While they rail at each other in front of the public, in private they both protect each other from accountability for war crimes.

    It’s past time to ‘Reckon With Torture.’ Let’s prove we are the country we say we are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Timothy-McDowell/100000141882688 Timothy McDowell

    And the truth shall make you free?  It would seem if that were true, millions of US citizens would be subjected to night sweats.  Our consciences would not let us rest.   But, I believe our modern materialistic, me oriented world has circumvented our consciences as well as our understanding of the Constitutional constraints against autocracy.   While our soldiers were off fighting against terrorism, or for freedom from fear, our consumptive society was using lier loans, and “hedge” funds and other mysterious gratuities to beguile the public into believing we are better than our enemies.   Once a teacher, I believed a high school should graduate citizens first, individuals second.   The citizen is among the community and the community’s health assimilates the citizen’s.   The individual, free from community, can disregard the community for his/her quest is selfish.  
    I sometimes wonder why there is so much post-traumatic stress disorder and night sweats among our returning soldiers.  I wonder how female, who should be more sensitive to any other women’s progeny, could not be concerned about the horrors of torture and the senseless death of innocents.   (How many times have you heard of a girl pulling the legs off a caterpillar, or de-winging a flying insect)?  I believe our mentally wounded soldiers do have consciences and much of their agony lies in the astonished, anguish symbolized by Munch’s  “The Scream.”
    I recall the picture of a uniformed Vietnamese soldiers standing next to his daughter.   That picture was left at the Wall of the Vietnam War Memorial.   An American soldier left it.   I posed the question to my high school history students:  “Whydid one of our soldiers leave a picture of ‘our’ enemy?”   “Why?”  Very few could contemplate a reason.   I left school that day, less hopeful for our country.  
    When I visit the fields of honor this Monday, I will still believe that they fought and died for all of our hopes, not just Americans.   For I do believe our “Founding Fathers” got it mostly right, but for the pragmatism that waylaid “all men are created equal,” they allowed their descendants to create that more perfect union.   Can we regain that majesty?

  • Egreyrose

    yes.  yes.  yes.

  • Sufyan ADi

    I second that, Bush and Cheney should not be above prosecution. I will get the book to read

  • Anonymous

    The truth belongs to us all!

  • Jaiia Earthschild-Techau

    My husband and I wrote a song: “Guantanamo Bay” – sung to the tune of “Guantanmera” the Cuban folk song – I paste it here in case any of you would like to sing it:

    F                                              C

    Guantanamo Bay / Forgive us Guantanamo Bay

    C       D C F G C                   A     
    EmDm  C

    Guantanamo Bay/ forgive us Guantanamo Bay



    I do not deserve incarceration

                     C                                  F

    For my religion my shawl or my book


    I long to return to my family

                    Dm  C                     Dm

    I long to be a free man once again



    Guantanamo Bay / Free us from Guantanamo Bay

    Guantanamo Bay Free us from Guantanamo Bay


    Gone the Geneva convention

     Out with the rule of law

     How long before all of our freedoms

     Are like those forgotten by all


    Guantanamo Bay / Free Them from Guantanamo Bay


    Guantanamo Bay Free them from Guantanamo Bay