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.

Why I’m scared

In my last post, I said I’m not sure that America is beyond the kind of bigotry and intolerance that led to the internment of Japanese Americans several decades ago.  And I think the following video proves my point.

Last month, in Orange County, California, Muslim families were attending a dinner hosted by Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA in order to raise money to

Anti-Muslim protest outside Islamic organization fundraiser.

establish women’s shelters and fight hunger and homelessness in the area.  As they walked into the event, they were greeted by protestors who shouted bigoted and ignorant slurs, like “Go back home!” and “You beat up your wife, too?”  Earlier in the day, in the park across the way, a protest was held in which local and federal government officials made statements like “I know quite a few Marines who would be very happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise.”

(The video was compiled by the Council on American Islamic Relations, and features video from local news stations and Muslims attending the event.)

This video is beyond saddening, but it is only one example among many, I’m afraid.  This next video, which was filmed outside the White House, portrays protestors shouting at a Muslim man who prayed there.  The full details can be found in this Washington Post article.

I truly hope we can say “never again” to institutionalized hate in America.  But we can’t say it naively and passively, assuming that we’re too “advanced” or too “modern” or too “Westernized” to be intolerant.  As I wrote in a commentary while I was a reporter at Y-Press, we said “never again” to genocide while inaugurating the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. in 1993; but a year later, genocide occurred in Rwanda while the Western world looked on.

We must ensure by our words and our actions that we are actively creating an environment that is not conducive to hate.  Apathy and passivity is what allowed the institutionalization of hate in Nazi Germany and 1994 Rwanda.

Passivity allows for the scenes in this video to happen.  A few years ago, ABC’s “What Would You Do?” did this special on discrimination of Muslims in America.  When bystanders saw Muslims being discriminated against, many of them did nothing to stop it.

Sadly, hate against Muslims has become institutionalized in this country, and if passivity like the kind in the ABC special continues, institutionalized hate will only increase.  This past week, we witnessed the Congressional hearing that investigated “radicalization” in the Muslim American community, and in several states efforts are being made to ban sharia law.  Sharia law is greatly misunderstood in the West, and sadly has come to be synonymous with oppression and terror.  (I hope to do a post on sharia sometime in the near future.)

Apart from political institutionalization, hate has become most entrenched in the mainstream media.  It is possible for TV show hosts to make blatant lies about Islam on their shows, and yet no one holds them accountable for it.  Viewers often assume that because those on TV claim to be reporters or journalists or objective commentators, they are upholding journalistic ethics—being truthful, presenting all the information, and just plain being respectful.  This assumption is horribly naive.  Cable “news” programs especially, whether or not they are “liberal” or “conservative,” are more concerned with appealing to an already established base and shaping the political discourse in a way that profits to them.  We must question the news we receive and consciously seek to verify what we hear and see on TV.

In some of my blog posts I hope I’ve been able to provide some facts that will reveal how misguided the claims of cable hosts and guests can be.  Despite the fact that cable networks have 24 hours of time in which to present coverage, their treatment of “news” lacks the nuance and depth necessary to flesh out many of the complex issues related to Islam and the Muslim community.

What we need instead of talk-show hosts that demonize and protests that spew hate are things like this: the “Today, I am a Muslim Too” rally that took place in New York City last weekend.  This was a positive action taken with the intent of creating solidarity with and better understanding of Muslim Americans.

Christian pastor at the rally.

If we want to really say “never again,” and truly make institutionalized hate a part of our country’s past, then we must act—whether that means expanding our news sources, challenging a friend’s stereotypical comment, or visiting our local mosques (without signs).

We cannot sit idly by.

We know all too well the damage that passivity can do.

Japanese internment camp in Colorado

I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think America has become more Islamophobic?  If so, what evidence have you seen in your daily life, and what can we do to reverse this trend?  If not, why?  Do you think my criticism of the media is fair?

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In a few weeks, CNN will be airing a special called “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door.”  Below is the link to the promo video.  I will be interested to see how this issue of Islamophobia is covered.  As I alluded earlier, I am not always pleased by CNN’s coverage of Islam, so I am curious to watch this piece.

http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2011/03/09/unwelcome.the.muslims.next.door.cnn.html