Reckoning with Torture

St. Andrews

St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church

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?

ptvI 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 longterm 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.”

posterThe 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 (i.e. lie) 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.

diane leferPresident 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

Author Spotlight: Diane Lefer


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