Friday, May 25, 2012

Torture in Our Name: The Truth We'd Rather Not Think About

Memorial for America's Conscience


     On this holiday, Americans should confront a grim

     fact about our country: We are torturers


By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

May 24, 2012


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 US 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.


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 seventies 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."


Bill Moyers is managing editor of the new weekly public

affairs program, "Moyers & Company," airing on public

television. Check local airtimes or comment at


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company,

airing on public television.



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