Confronting the Truth about Torture

Confronting the Truth about Torture

Despite mounting evidence, Americans remain willfully blind to the government’s barbaric treatment of terror suspects. Now, human rights groups and religious organizations are using testimonies from victims to awaken moral revulsion at what is being done in our name.


It is when he reads about the repeated cuts–short, calculated incisions–that Moroccan authorities savagely inflicted on his brother’s genitals, that he begins to break down. We are listening to the brother of Binyam Mohamed–an Ethiopian national living in Britain “disappeared” in April 2002 and transferred among black-sites in Afghanistan and Morocco before descending on Guantánamo Bay, where he remains imprisoned. His brother (who requested anonymity) reads from Binyam’s diary, which managed to make its way from Guantánamo to his family. He gives voice to his brother’s words: “It was an agony, trying desperately to suppress my feelings. But I was screaming. There was blood all over…”

Human rights advocates estimate that since September 11, 2001 hundreds, possibly thousands, of others have been subjected to the system of detention and rendition–called collectively, extraordinary rendition– employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Binyam and a German citizen Khaled El-Masri, who was recently released after a five months of interrogation, torture, and isolation, make up the core of Outlawed. The film is the work of Witness, an American human rights group with national and international affiliates that uses video advocacy to reach and empower viewers around the world. Outlawed, released this June, is one of Witness’s latest efforts.

A couple of years ago, Americans may have claimed simply that they hadn’t known what the its government was doing in their names. But since 2004, evidence–both reported in the news media and in testimony from former detainees–has steadily mounted. Yet despite the indisputable facts of a blatantly immoral policy, the issue of extraordinary rendition has not seemed to generate widespread attention or outrage in the US.

“I’m surprised at how little traction the stories will get,” explained Aziz Huq, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Arar, El-Masri–these stories get little press. People tend to look at these stories and think ‘this is not us.'”

Gillian Caldwell, executive director of Witness, is mindful of precisely this phenomenon–the inability of the American public to identify with terror suspects brutalized by agents of its government. “We’re not getting a reaction to this story,” she said, speaking of the circumstances that motivated Witness to produce its recent documentary. “And I think the fact that [the victims] are not American and that they’re not speaking English…and that they’re not white,” she continued, has made their stories inaccessible to a public still preoccupied–downright obsessed–with pursuing national security at any and all costs.

What has become a characteristically American failure to engage with the impact of its government’s policy abroad seems even more dramatic when compared to the European community’s response to extraordinary rendition. In Europe, a combination of factors has propelled the issue to the forefront of the public and political dialogue. Swiss Senator Dick Marty recently released a report –the second of its kind–to the Council of Europe detailing the involvement of European countries that have colluded with the US in the secret imprisonment and torture of suspected terrorists. Witness released Outlawed to coincide with the June presentation of the Marty report.

One reason Europeans are more equipped to respond to US torture policy, suggests Huq, is that there tends to be a “livelier awareness of the international context” abroad–an awareness that affects both citizens’ and politicians’ approaches to human rights. That awareness, coupled with general unease felt by Europeans concerning the Bush Administration’s “war on terror,” has bred a spirit of skepticism and inquiry.

The issue abroad does not, of course, garner all of its attention purely because the European community is more attuned to human rights abuses. For European states, extraordinary rendition also begs the question of national sovereignty, and several countries have objected to the prospect of the United States intruding into domestic affairs to pursue a seemingly limitless campaign against terror.

The February 2003 abduction of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar in Milan set off a political firestorm when Italian intelligence accused the CIA of interfering with their own investigation. In addition to Italy–where a judge has called for the arrest of the three American agents charged with kidnapping Omar–prosecutors have led investigations in Germany, Sweden, and Spain to determine whether or not the US was in violation of local law by capturing suspects on foreign soil and subjecting them to abusive treatment in detention.

For a combination of reasons, then, both national and regional in nature, investigations are underway throughout Europe, in stark contrast to the dearth of similar action here in the US.

“These accusations are ones that European governments are going to be more likely to respond to by virtue of their voting populations,” says Jayne Huckerby, research director at NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. “That is a difference from the US, where some of these accusations are leveled and don’t seem to attract the same sort of outrage.”

The question for Witness, as it begins to promote and distribute its film, will be why.

According to Huckerby, the very premise of extraordinary rendition – the outsourcing of torture, as it’s been called–is predicated on secrecy and dislocation.

“The whole function of the system of detention and rendition…and Guantánamo,” Huckerby argues, “Has been to remove the practices from the purview of the American legal system, to literally put them out of sight, out of reach of particular (legal) mechanisms…That performs a very interesting role vis-a-vis the public. You don’t see these practices, you don’t see your neighbor disappearing one day, and returning five months later and talking about the experience to which he/she was subject. It’s just not part of your experience.”

The experiences of former captives–all of them non-American Muslim men–have, without question, failed to resonate with Americans. And while stories of abuse remain largely removed from the mainstream American mindset, there may also be a sense of resistance, an outright refusal to acknowledge the tragic dimensions of wrongful imprisonment and torture. The public may not only be unable to identify with victims, but it may also be willfully blind.

Ervin Staub, Professor of Psychology at UMASS Amherst and an expert on collective community responses to violence in wartime, maintains that Americans are lacking what he calls “a critical consciousness” when it comes to evaluating US policy. For Staub, the shortcomings of the country’s current consciousness have identifiable roots in the psychological history of American exceptionalism.

“Americans have a way of seeing themselves as a powerful and moral people. So how could this–[911 and terrorism]–be done to us? So a leader takes that kind of stance: ‘these people are evil’ so everyone who can be seen as involved is implicated in peoples’ minds. And so there’s an inability to extend caring, humane and moral values to others,” Staub said.

Staub faults US political leaders with missing the opportunity to use September 11 to encourage Americans to turn a critical eye on their own government. Instead, he explains, Americans have merely fortified themselves in their pre-existing beliefs. Outlawed is aimed at combating exactly this sort of complacency. When asked what, if any, criticisms she had received concerning the film, Caldwell said that a common frustration among skeptics is that the US, in the end, is a healthy democracy and that Witness should direct its attention elsewhere. “This is precisely why we need to be focusing our attention here, because this country is no longer perceived as a democracy,” she insisted.

Witness has recruited fourteen partners to help produce and distribute the film, advocacy groups capable of targeting specific audiences. These include human rights advocacy organizations like the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Brennan Center for Justice, but also communities of faith, such as the National Council of Churches (NCC). The NCC, alone, accounts for nearly 45 million mainline, evangelical and Orthodox Christians nationwide.

What makes the NCC a particularly promising partner for the film is its history of commitment to the issue of torture. The NCC took the lead in calling for accountability in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. It has also played a central role in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith group assembled to raise awareness of the issue in communities and in the media. Outlawed will be promoted by the interfaith advocacy group Faithful America–modeled on–and serving for a network of 150,000 activists.

Given Americans’ slowness to respond, the religious community has the potential to locate a moral center on the issue and convince people of various persuasions that torture – particularly of the sort practiced in complete isolation without any trial or legal recourse for the accused–is an immoral policy that needs to be stopped.

Tony Kireopoulos, associate general secretary for International Justice and Peace at the NCC, is confident that Outlawed can shock viewers into action.

“It brings a real human face to the problem. I will still say that people are willing to suspend judgment on torture policy because it’s not front and center,” he said. “From the faith-based community this gets at who we are as a people. This is a policy being carried out in our names.”

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