Reckoning with Torture

Stephen F. Rohde

Stephen F. Rohde

Stephen F. Rohde, Chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, holds the distinction of having confronted John Yoo twice. As you’ll recall, John 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 26th–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.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

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 Guantánamo 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.

Julie Gutman

Julie Gutman

“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 longterm 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.”

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