The use of torture by our own government is a huge setback for human rights advocates and for the rule of the law around the world. . . . Truth does not come from breaking people. —Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of Centerfor Victims of Torture Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 26, 2005
You have a very hard job, because it is your job to put the soul back in the body.
—A client of the Center for Victims of Torture
June 26 was the 20th anniversary of the Center for Victims of Torture, which provides technical assistance and training to more than 30 torture treatment centers in the U.S. and 15 others on five continents. The center also works for worldwide abolition of torture.
When the center was founded in 1985 in Minneapolis, there were—as its director, Douglas A. Johnson, noted on June 26—”only two other treatment centers in the world and little research to guide us. . . . What CVT has learned about [victims of government-sponsored] torture is from the survivors, who have taken the risk to trust us and tell us their stories. . . . [But] today our clients’ belief in the safety and sanctity of their new home has been damaged. We are faced with our country’s attempt to rewrite the rules of human rights and try to redefine torture.”
On June 26, the center released letters to George W. Bush and to the Minnesota congressional delegation to further its mission to heal the wounds of torture and stop torture worldwide.
Bear in mind, before I quote from the letter, that as NYU law school’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice notes in its essential June 28 report, “Beyond Guantánamo: Transfers to Torture One Year After [the Supreme Court decision in] Rasul v. Bush,” (on March 6 The New York Times reported):
“[E]xtraordinary renditions [by the CIA] have been carried out pursuant to a classified directive signed by President Bush a few days after September 11, 2001, that purports to grant the C.I.A. an ‘unusually expansive authority’ [to send terrorism suspects to countries known for torturing their prisoners].”
Thus, the ultimate responsibility for this country’s continuous practice of torture stops at the White House.
The June 26 letter to the president—drafted by the CVT for signatures—begins by directly reminding Bush, “One year ago, you marked United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by declaring, ‘America stands against and will not tolerate torture.’ ”
Speaking for myself, not for the CVT, George W. Bush—having authorized torture in that directive he refuses to declassify—is a whited sepulchre.
The letter urges Bush to issue an executive order to stop the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions” and the repeated abuses of our prisoners in its and other interrogation centers. But since the president repeatedly, piously, insists that “we do not torture,” this letter will not move him to obey American and international law on torture.
Nor will he respond to the letter’s urging him “to support the creation of an independent commission with the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas to investigate all acts of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” (Emphasis added.)
How can George W. Bush insist on the formation of such a commission when, if it were to do its job, ultimate accountability for these crimes would ineluctably lead to the very top of the chain of command—the commander in chief?
The same demand for an independent commission is in the companion letter to Minnesota’s U.S. senators and representatives. Human rights organizations have loudly and futilely called for an independent investigative commission in their messages to Congress as a whole.
So did the American Bar Association and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (among other human rights and bar associations), on August 9, 2004.
Like the Center for Victims of Torture’s calls for an end to torture by American forces, the bar associations’ vigorous attempt to shed sunlight on our shame—for the president’s acts, however covert, are done in our name—has been almost entirely ignored by this nation’s media watchdogs of our liberties.
The press itself has also been shamed more fundamentally. As the American Bar Association report emphasizes, “The American public still has not been adequately informed of the extent to which prisoners have been abused, tortured, or rendered to foreign governments which are known to abuse and torture prisoners. [We] urge the U.S. government to stop the torture and abuse of detainees, investigate violations of the law and prosecute those who committed, authorized or condoned these violations. (Emphasis added.)
But until U.S. torture is stopped and there are unadulterated prosecutions, not only will tortures continue but the other torturing nations and terrorists will snicker when they hear our president “denounce” torture while this country allows it.
Only an aroused American people—or enough of them—can force this Republican-dominated Congress to stop this shame of these United States. And for that to happen, the opposition party must use its organizing and communication resources to raise the consciousness, beyond party lines, of the citizenry.
However, although there are some deeply concerned members of Congress, the public leadership of the Democratic Party is somnolent on this issue, as it is on the administration’s rewriting the rules of the Constitution.
What have you heard about torture from Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, and Harry Reid? The latter has even declared Alberto Gonzales qualified for a seat on the Supreme Court—the very same Gonzales who, as counsel to the president, orchestrated the “torture memos” that led to the acceleration and expansion of the American ways of torture.
How many Americans care enough to shame Congress and the one person who could stop torture right away? The man in the Oval Office.
See you in a month.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 18, 2005