Talking about torture

On Sunday afternoon, I marched in downtown D.C. behind rows of black-hooded figures in orange jumpsuits, holding a sign that read, “Torture is always wrong.”  I was part of a procession commemorating the “National Week of Action Against Torture, Guantanamo, and the NDAA,” and the mock-prisoners walking ahead of me represented the many victims of torture who have suffered at the hands of the US military.

June 24, 2012

Torture is not a new phenomenon in war and conflict, but in recent years, its use by the US military and government has increased tremendously.  As a result of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military has built prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Afghanistan (e.g. Bagram), and Iraq, where many foreigners have been detained for years without trial and have little hope for release.  Even children, like Omar Khadr, an Afghan boy who was only fifteen when he was captured, have been imprisoned in Gitmo for the last ten years.

Despite promises that previous and current administrations have made to refrain from torture, those in Guantanamo and other US military facilities around the world have been subjected to electrocutions, beatings, sleep deprivation, and humiliation.

Murat Kurnaz, a German Turk studying in Pakistan who was detained by Americans at Bagram and eventually sent to Guantanamo, describes the torture techniques he endured after being interrogated about the “whereabouts of Osama bin Laden:”

During their interrogations, they dunked my head under water and punched me in the stomach; they don’t call this waterboarding but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.  At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be strung up again. The pain was unbearable. (NYT)

For many of us, the immorality of torture is unquestionable.  Harming another human being, through physical torture or coercion, is morally disgusting.

But despite the immorality of torture, we must wonder, is it effective?  Doesn’t torture work to get information that will protect our country from terrorism, and don’t the ends often justify the means?

Matthew Alexander, a former US interrogator in Iraq, answers this question in his must-read book, How to Break a Terrorist.  He writes how he used “brains, not brutality” while interrogating terror suspects in Iraq, and thus tracked down the most dangerous man in the country, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He describes the tension that existed among his fellow interrogators—one group was convinced that the old ways of intimidation and humiliation (asserting power over and breaking down one’s detainee) would succeed in producing information; the other group, Alexander’s, was convinced otherwise.  By building rapport with detainees, and showing respect for their culture, religion, and background, Alexander could establish trust, and was consequently able to more easily pry for information.

Not only does Alexander’s book argue successfully for the effectiveness of avoiding torture and coercion in interrogation, but he also reminds us that even those guilty of horrific crimes are people, full of contradictions.  One detainee, who ultimately confesses to building bombs for al-Qaeda, writes a love letter to his wife from prison.  “You will always be the first star in the night sky, my love.  I would endure ten thousand lashes to just to see your face again,” he wrote, “I am so sorry for everything that I have done” (Alexander, 130 – 131).

Alexander writes that while terrorists can’t be excused from the violence they committed—no matter the circumstances, their actions were wrong and punishable—, their motives for embracing terrorism are often complicated.  Many of the Iraqi detainees, Alexander describes, were motivated to join al-Qaeda not because they shared the group’s ideals and goals, but “out of economic need and out of fear” that their families would face reprisals if they did not join (220).

How to Break a Terrorist shows Americans what interrogation could look like if we abandon torture and coercion in dealing with foreign “enemies.”  I put the word “enemies” in quotations because not all those detained by the US military are enemies of America.  More often than not, detainees, like Murat Kurnaz, are the victims of bogus detainment operations, driven more by racism and sweeping capture policy than sound intelligence.

And, in recent years, the “enemies” that the US has detained haven’t simply been foreign ones.  Increasingly, US citizens have been detained without initial charge or trial and tortured. Many of the victims’ crimes seem to have simply been the exercising of free speech, or being a convenient scapegoat in a post-9/11 era defined by paranoia and fear.  Sami al-Arian and Ahmed Abu Ali, who have both experienced torture and indefinite detainment in the US, are two Ameircan citizens who have suffered US-sanctioned injustice often tinged with the influences of Islamophobia.

I’ve written about other American victims in the past, in my post “Why you should care about the National Defense Authorization Act” in which I describe in detail a problem that former President Jimmy Carter explains so succinctly:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the [Constitution]. (NYT)

At the time al-Arian and Abu Ali were detained, these practices were illegal—but that didn’t stop the government from using them.  The legalizing of them, then, likely means that more al-Arians and Abu Alis will be subjected to these injustices.  At the rally, we were marching for the repeal of the NDAA’s clauses that violate our constitutional guarantees and, more importantly, our collective American conscience.

To me, what is almost more appalling than the injustice itself, is that Americans are virtually ignorant of the problem.  As we passed tourists at the rally, one onlooker said to me: “It [torture] happens to us too, you know.”

Her short statement implied a few things: 1) that we, the protestors, were only concerned about foreign torture victims at the hands of the US, and not about our own, who have endured harsh treatment all over the world, in places like Vietnam; and 2) that we should meet torture with torture—“Why should we stop torturing, if our enemies will continue torturing our people?”

I wanted to answer her, “Yes, I know torture happens to us, as Americans, too, and that’s why we’re marching.”  She didn’t know that many, many Americans suffer torture at the hands of our own institutions, which should uphold the values they claim to possess.

So, once again, I want to reiterate a message that seems to constantly reappear in my writings: that ignorance of injustice is our biggest enemy.  I hope the few words I’ve provided here about torture and America’s complicity in it begin to chip away at that ignorance, which is the first enemy that must be broken.

Images from Iraq

Along with its series containing leaked information about the Iraq war, the New York Times published these two slideshows–one depicting civilian deaths and one illustrating detainee abuse by Iraqis (and overlooked by Americans.)

Civilian deaths: Watch the slideshow here. (Lynsey Adarrio for the NYT)
Prisoner abuse: click here to see the slideshow. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

If we saw these pictures of war every day on the news, I think wars would be much less frequent.  The carnage that they cause is immense, but it often hard to realize its scope when we don’t see the pictures everyday.

Though we as Americans are not exposed to these pictures, many are.  Middle Eastern media more frequently publishes these photos, no doubt causing anger and sadness and horror in viewers, and even more importantly contributing to their (often justifiable) negative view of the U.S.

In American media, which is influenced so heavily by politics and those who benefit from the enterprise of war, we don’t show these images.  This is a disservice to American citizens, who deserve to know as much as possible about the conflicts in which we engage.  I encourage the American media to be courageous and provide us the images we so desperately need to see.

 

Click here to see an interactive map of civilian and military deaths in Iraq from Al-Jazeera English.

Later this weekend or this upcoming week, I hope to post about this week’s Fast-a-thon at Georgetown, in addition to a reflection on the Prayer in Daily Life retreat I attended this week through Catholic Campus Ministry.  I also may post a reflection on the firing of NPR’s Juan Williams.

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.

A bit disappointed; Jon’s brilliance; and our Sufi allies

A bit disappointed with Brian, Harry, and Barack

A segment on tonight’s NBC Nightly News urked me a little bit.  The segment was about Obama’s statements regarding the construction of the Cordoba House in Lower Manhattan, and how Muslims have the same religious rights as anyone else.  When introducing the story, Brian Williams describes the situation as a “fight” into which Obama waded.  Why use this word?  True, combativeness does hike up ratings, butit does not help us to better understand the nuances and details of the situation.  It further perpetuates the simplified “us vs. them” mentality that infects important and complicated political, societal, and cultural debates happening within our country.

As the piece continues, the “mosque” in question is not referred to correctly.  It is not simply a mosque–and even if it was a mosque, big deal!  The Cordoba House (it is hardly referred to by its proper name) is a cultural and community center, dedicated to bringing people of all faiths together, as well as providing swimming pool, workout facilities, and a place of worship.  Basically, it is a beefed up YMCA or JCC open to anyone.

Major news outlets must begin referring to this place as the Cordoba House.  Generalizing the Corboda House as a “mosque” or “Islamic center” only mystifies it and allows people to place their own views or ideas onto it.

I am also sad to see that Harry Reid is against the Cordoba House.  Many Democrats look up to him for guidance about their political and social views, and his denouncement of the Cordoba House encourages more Americans to do the same.

I was initially thrilled with Obama’s remarks at the White House Iftaar this past weekend.  (An iftaar is the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.)  But since he expressed his support for the Cordoba House and received backlash from some politicians and pundits about it, he has moved backward on that statement of support.  Obama has tried before to distance himself from the Muslim community when conservatives claimed he was Muslim during the 2008 election.  That was an opportunity to have an important national discussion about Muslims in America, and he failed to take it.  Again, Obama is missing an opportunity to play a key part in a dialogue that must happen in our country.  I am disappointed by his choice to back-off his support of the Cordoba House, and I hope he chooses to reverse that position soon.  If he truly wants to see Americans’ religious rights protected, he must step in.

Jon’s brilliance

The Daily Show recently did an awesome segment about the opposition to mosque construction in the U.S.  I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Our Sufi allies

This op-ed contribution discusses how as Americans we must work with those within Islam, particularly those in the Sufi tradition, to fight extremism.  One of these Sufis is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Muslim whose initiative is building the Cordoba House. Sufism is a version of Islamic mysticism, not a separate religion.

16th-Century Miniature Painting Depicting Dancing Dervishes, Image by © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./CORBIS

This line of poetry, written by the famous Sufi saint, Rumi, is crucial for us to remember and implement during this time.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

In today’s America, those barriers are fear and misunderstanding.  Only when we recognize them can we begin understanding, befriending, and loving our neighbors.

NYT: American students study in the Middle East

Here’s an awesome NYT article about the increase in American students studying abroad in the Middle East.

Petra, Jordan

I’m hoping to study abroad in Jordan during the second semester of my junior year. Yeah, I do think it would be awesome to live in a country that shares my name and pay with Jordanian dinar (like Denari!) bills, but there are obviously more reasons to study abroad there.  Jordan is located between Palestine and Iraq, two places that will continue to require a lot of media coverage in the next several years.  Jordanian colloquial Arabic is very similar to both Palestinian and Iraqi Arabic, so learning that dialect will allow me to better communicate with many Arabic-speakers in my work as a journalist.  In Amman I can also live with a host family, which would be a great way to truly immerse in the culture.