After Mitchell and Jessen: Why the Truth of U.S. Torture Still Matters
by Rob Crawford published in the Seattle Times, page A9, Tuesday September 5, 2017 with the title “Put an end to the crime of torture”
The fight over civil war monuments reveals a crucial fact about our political culture: how we remember history matters. Unjust institutions and the ideologies that support them benefit from a distorted, forgotten or unknown history. White supremacy is Exhibit A. On the other side, every movement attempting to right past wrongs must engage in a struggle over how the past is represented.
The anti-torture movement, working to ensure that the torture regime put in place during the Bush-Cheney administration never happens again, faces similar challenges of memory and forgetting. In order to achieve our goal, we must tear down the edifices of denial, omission, and outright lies that have been constructed in defense of U.S. torture. Unless Americans know what actually happened and the consequences that followed, torture is almost guaranteed a rerun. Donald Trump’s threats to bring back torture should be warning enough that we have not put torture behind us.
The last significant breakthrough in getting to the truth was the Senate Torture Report, released in 2014. The full report, however, remains classified and powerful forces want all copies destroyed.
This September, in Spokane, a civil suit brought by the ACLU against two CIA contractors on behalf of torture victims promised to provide the public with three weeks of public testimony at an open trial. The trial would have been an opportunity to hear how torture destroys lives and has killed many of its victims. The defendants, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were the chief architects of the CIA’s torture program; and then they put their model of “learned helplessness” into practice in CIA prisons.
The settlement announced last week was an impressive achievement. Three victims of CIA torture– Suleiman Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud (both were later released when found to be blameless) and Gul Rahman who died chained to the ceiling, naked, in a Bagram Cold Cell–won legal recognition that they were tortured and suffered harm. The plaintiffs won undisclosed monetary damages. The ACLU’s lead attorney, Dror Ladin, said the settlement was “a clear warning for anyone who thinks they can torture with impunity.” The case set a new precedent in the ongoing struggle for accountability.
Yet, the opportunity of a public trial involving CIA torture, a first, has now been foreclosed. I fear that the forces of denial and forgetting will take advantage of this development. As far as I can tell, no public official, including Washington State Senators and Representatives, has chosen to comment on the settlement or the need for justice to be served interest of a torture-free country. Media coverage was extensive but fleeting.
The fact remains that no criminal charges have been brought against the key perpetrators of U.S. torture. Impunity remains a political reality, thereby creating the expectation that U.S. leaders, CIA officials, and military brass can and will get away with committing the crime of torture in the future.
Crucially, most people remain uninformed about what really happened when Dick Cheney announced he was taking the War on Terror to “the dark side.” They don’t know or, worse, don’t want to know, the horrific consequences of torture on its victims, knowledge about which leaves one with the anguished question, how could this have happened? Unless we muster the courage to ask critical questions about our country’s national security policies, we will have no idea of the harm inflicted on the nation by torture and others acts of unjustified violence. We will not be able to recognize how torture has made us less safe and less free.
The fight for truth will continue. Only when Americans call upon their conscience, look with eyes wide open at the dangers we face from those who claim to be our defenders, and act to demand a more just and peaceful government will there be an end to torture and unlawful state violence of all kinds. If torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.
Rob Crawford is a Professor Emeritus of the School of interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences University of Washington, Tacoma. Rob has been active in the Washington state Religious Campaign Against Torture http://www.wsrcat.org/ and is a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.