New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Reckoning with Torture

July 14, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Diane Lefer, Politics

Insisting on Responsibility and Justice

by Diane Lefer

Stephen F. Rohde, Chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, holds the distinction of having confronted John Yoo twice. As you’ll recall, Yoo was one of the torture apologists in the Bush administration who came up with tortured legal reasoning to justify the president’s violation of federal and international law. He became notorious for asserting that if the president felt it necessary, he could order a child’s testicles crushed in order to get the father to talk. The first time Rohde confronted him, giving Yoo the opportunity to amend his statement, the former Office of Legal Counsel mouthpiece still insisted torture was OK, as long as “limited to what is necessary.”

I’ll get to the second confrontation in a bit. And will also skip over all the evidence and expert opinion that torture doesn’t work if the goal is actionable intelligence, that it’s counterproductive in both the long and short term. Regimes — including the US — don’t torture in order to get information. Torture serves as an assertion of brute force and power. But in Los Angeles, on June 26, 2011 (UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture) at the “Reckoning with Torture” presentation organized by NRCAT (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture), the focus was on torture as evil, something that simply cannot and must not be allowed under any circumstances — even if in some as yet unknown universe it were to demonstrate actual utility.

With Rohde as moderator, almost 100 people met at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church where NRCAT board member Virginia Classick explained that the Senate Intelligence Committee is completing an exhaustive investigation and report on the US role in torture. As a first step to accountability, she said, the findings must be made public, and so Classick gathered signatures to take to the Senator’s office asking that the entire report be released.

NRCAT’s 10-minute video, Repairing the Brokenness: A Faithful Response to US-Sponsored Torture includes interviews with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders who offer the theological basis for demanding accountability when harm to others has been done.

A volunteer troupe of actors brought the fateful words of the torture enterprise to life as they read testimonies and documents: the outraged words of the JAG prosecutor at Guantanamo who switched sides and supported the habeas petition of a child who was mistreated throughout six years in detention though “there is no credible evidence or legal basis to hold him;” the memo in which Office of Legal Counsel Jay Bybee gives a clinically detailed account of  ten “techniques” he’s been asked to pass judgment on and he green lights each one, giving precise justifications for slamming a prisoner against the wall, confining him in a box too small for his body and then adding insects, and waterboarding him as long as it’s a “controlled acute episode;” the statement of Khalid al-Masri who was abducted by mistake, held and tortured in Afghanistan for five months, never received any explanation or apology and wrote “the policy of extraordinary rendition has a human face and it is my face;” excerpts from the autopsy reports of detainees who died in custody, with the same words and phrases repeated over and over, blunt force trauma, asphyxiation due to strangulation, asphyxiation due to smothering and chest compression, blunt force trauma, blunt force injuries, compromise of respiratory function, fractures, contusions, hemorrhage into intestines, blunt force trauma, multiple blunt force injuries, homicide, homicide, homicide.

“This is not a comfortable Sunday afternoon program,” said Rohde. “This is a call to action. We will be judged for what was done in our name.”

What was done in our name according to speaker Dr. Aryeh Cohen, professor at American Jewish University and on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights, desecrated not only the bodies of the detainees, but desecrated God. “We manifest God’s presence in the world by recognizing that God is the guarantor of every person’s humanity.”  For human beings to be created God’s image means “it is forbidden for anyone to demean or destroy the image. There are long-term consequences for the person, for the person’s humanity, when the divine image is erased.”

Julie Gutman knows about long-term consequences. As executive director of the Program for Torture Victims (PTV), she leads the nonprofit organization that has offered comprehensive services and a “compassionate community” to torture survivors for 30 years. Southern California has the greatest concentration of refugees and survivors in the country. In chronic pain and profound depression they arrive at PTV having lost everything, Gutman said — their country, their language, their family, their health. They arrive with no English and no money with “nothing but their physical and psychological scars of torture and their will to survive.” Though they come from at least 65 different countries and from many different cultures, “all share the history of unspeakable horror and the unshakeable desire to rebuild their lives.”

PTV provides complete assessment and help: medical attention, years of therapy for psychological wounds, legal assistance with asylum claims, help in reuniting families — whatever it takes “to empower them to reenter society and reclaim their identities.”

As people of conscience, she believes “one of the most profound contributions that we can make is help rebuild the lives of people who’ve sacrificed so much for the ideals we believe in, people at the forefront of the epic battle for human rights” such as the client from Ivory Coast who was tortured, saw his wife and brother killed before his eyes, all for the crime of wanting democracy in his country.

What about democracy in this country?

I think of the 200 men who were tortured in a Chicago police station; of Abner Louima, tortured by police in Brooklyn, NY; of at least 25,000 Americans (including Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning) held in long-term solitary confinement in our prisons and jails enduring such extreme sensory and social deprivation as to constitute torture.

Among the organizations present to offer information at the NRCAT event was School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), represented by Sandra and Ulis Williams, there to remind us that torture has a long history in the US thanks to the military training programs of the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation/WHINSEC after Congress was poised to cut off funding). The School has trained Latin American military officers for decades. While our government disputes whether torture was ever part of the actual curriculum, there’s no dispute that some of Latin America’s most notorious criminals not only graduated from SOA/WHINSEC but have been invited back as instructors.

Colonel Pablo Belmar of Chile returned to teach about human rights though he had been directly implicated in the torture and murder of a United Nations official. Colombian Juan José Alfonso Vacca Parilia was implicated in massacres and assassinations and then, one year after directing a torture center, was invited to the School as a guest instructor. After a US court found Gen. Hector Gramajo of Guatemala responsible for numerous war crimes including the genocide unleashed against the indigenous Maya population, he spoke at a School graduation ceremony as an “honored guest.”

The take-home message is that the US doesn’t just look the other way or condone crimes against humanity, we reward the perpetrators. It’s a lot to reckon with.

But when I think about these crimes in Latin America, I think of the people of Argentina and Brazil and Chile who have begun to see the killers and torturers of the military regimes held accountable. I think, too, of the people of Colombia and Mexico who still suffer, knowing that as long as the government and security forces enjoy impunity, killing and torture continue.

So we have to ask about impunity on the home front. US law makes torture (as well as cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment) illegal. The Geneva Conventions make it a war crime. At the start of this article, I said I’d tell you later about Stephen Rohde’s second confrontation with John Yoo. It happened when they debated at UC-Irvine.

“I reminded him that after the initial Nuremberg trials, Nazi lawyers and judges were charged,” Rohde told us. “I looked John Yoo in the face and said ‘Being a lawyer does not insulate you from being a war criminal.’”

But for now, this is what impunity looks like:

  • Dick Cheney, who bragged about going to the “dark side” trumpets the false claim that Osama bin Laden was tracked down thanks to torture;
  • John Yoo, who perverted the law for political purposes now teaches on the faculty of Boalt Hall, the law school of UC Berkeley;
  • Jay Bybee, who clinically recounted the details of torture before inventing justifications for these illegal acts now sits on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court to which eminently qualified Goodwin Liu, a jurist of integrity, could not be appointed because of Republican opposition.

And this is what impunity means: the evil practice may continue. David Petraeus, newly confirmed to lead the CIA, used euphemisms to affirm that torture may be useful in emergencies.

President Obama has said he doesn’t want to look back or cast blame. I admire the position of Obama the human being who lets go of recrimination and seeks reconciliation. But Obama the chief executive has a duty to enforce the law and assure the nation that offenders are held accountable.

In the NRCAT video, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Why? Because when we are aware of bad things that happen, we have a role in fixing them.

It’s up to us to insist on justice, repentance, and the firm commitment of “No more.”  For that, we are all responsible.

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. Lefer writes for LA Progressive, where this article originally appeared. More about her work can be found at:

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