Reading American Torture

The Water Torture — Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium, Antwerp, 1556

On October 13, a sold-out crowd at New York’s Cooper Union listened for an hour and a half to readings by such prominent writers as Art Spiegelman, Don DeLillo, Susanna Moore, Eve Ensler, A.M. Holmes, George Saunders, and Paul Auster. Convened by PEN American Center and the ACLU, these writers came together to read not their own work, but the words of CIA bureaucrats, FBI agents, torture victims, former President George W. Bush, Army interrogators, Guantanamo detainees, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, and coroners’ reports on the homicides of suspects killed in US military and CIA interrogations.

The novelist Susanna Moore, reading from a transcript of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantanamo, conveyed the bewildered frustration of a Bosnian Guantanamo detainee, Mustafa Ait Idr, as he attempted to respond to secret evidence and open-ended charges against him. George Saunders read Khaled al-Masri’s account of being rendered from Macedonia to Afghanistan, tortured, and then dropped in the middle of the night on an abandoned road in Albania, after the United States finally determined that it was a case of mistaken identity. Eve Ensler played George Bush, extolling his country for its commitment to human rights. And Jonathan Ames read from a series of incongruous FBI email dispatches from Guantanamo Bay, one heralding the prospect of sailing and a beach picnic, another describing and objecting to the military’s abusive interrogation tactics, and the next reporting how much the person sending the email enjoyed the film Bruce Almighty, which had been shown for the staff at the Guantanamo movie house.

The readings painted a chilling picture of a meticulously planned system of deliberate cruelty—devised by psychologists, sanctioned by lawyers, administered by contractors and CIA agents, overseen by doctors, and specifically authorized by members of Bush’s Cabinet. Indeed, it is in part because the system was administered by professionals that it is so well documented—but that of course makes it only more disturbing.

What is most troubling, however, is that it takes such a well-known group to draw attention to the fact that at the very highest levels of government, US officials were complicit in torture and other illegal brutality. The challenge going forward is to build support in a hostile political environment for holding accountable those who devised, ordered, and approved such abuse. The Republicans don’t want it, for obvious reasons. The Democrats don’t want it, either: They worry that it will divert attention from and undermine their other agenda items, such as healthcare. And they may be afraid that if they are seen fighting for accountability on torture, they will be portrayed as caring more about terrorists’ rights than about American security. Critics sometimes object that any review of the issue would be partisan. But in fact, this is one matter where both parties seem to be in agreement: there ought not be any real accountability.

Given these realities, an investigation of the role of top US officials in approving torture can only be launched if the American people get behind the idea. That’s why efforts like the PEN/ACLU reading are so important (Plans are in the works to repeat it, with different readers, in other parts of the country.) The ACLU has also begun a web-based initiative, The Torture Report, that will seek to make the documents the ACLU obtains from litigation over the torture policy widely available, and provide an ongoing, collectively updated narrative of the torture story—about which ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer notes “it’s remarkable how much information is still being withheld.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed civil damages suits for torture victims. Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First have pressed consistently for accountability. All these groups offer “Take Action” options on their Web sites to allow visitors to sign a petition or send a letter urging accountability on torture.

But more grassroots work needs to be done. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC), which sparked the national campaign several years ago in which more than 400 town and city councils adopted resolutions criticizing the civil liberties abuses in the Patriot Act, has just announced a new initiative on torture. The BORDC will mobilize local citizens to urge their town councils to adopt resolutions demanding that an independent commission be established to investigate and report on the United States’ use of coercive interrogation tactics in the wake of 9/11, and to recommend appropriate responses.

The struggle for accountability is likely to be a long one. But it is absolutely essential. As Senator John McCain wrote to President Bush in 2005, “This isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are.” And as my colleague David Luban argued in a recent forum at Georgetown Law School, we have only two options—either we insist on accountability and reject what was done in our name as illegal, or we do nothing and thereby offer our approval. The choice is ours.


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