On Memorial Day Weekend, America Reckons with Torture


Written by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, Moyers & Company

Facing the truth is hard to do, especially the truth about ourselves. So Americans have been sorely pressed to come to terms with the fact that after 9/11 our government began to torture people, and did so in defiance of domestic and international law. Most of us haven’t come to terms with what that meant, or means today, but we must reckon with torture, the torture done in our name, allegedly for our safety.

It’s no secret such cruelty occurred; it’s just the truth we’d rather not think about. But Memorial Day is a good time to make the effort. Because if we really want to honor the Americans in uniform who gave their lives fighting for their country, we’ll redouble our efforts to make sure we’re worthy of their sacrifice; we’ll renew our commitment to the rule of law, for the rule of law is essential to any civilization worth dying for.

After 9/11, our government turned to torture, seeking information about the terrorists who committed the atrocity and others who might follow after them.  Senior officials ordered the torture of men at military bases and detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, in secret CIA prisons set up across the globe, and in other countries – including Libya and Egypt — where abusive regimes were asked to do Washington’s dirty work.

The best known of all the prisons remains Guantanamo on the southeast coast of Cuba.  For years, the United States naval base there seemed like an isolated vestige of the Cold War – defying the occasional threat from Fidel Castro to shut it down. But since 9/11, Guantanamo – Gitmo – has been a detention center, an extraterritorial island jail considered outside the jurisdiction of U.S. civilian courts and rules of evidence. Like the notorious Room 101 of George Orwell’s 1984, the chamber that contains the thing each victim fears the most to make them confess, Guantanamo’s name has become synonymous with torture. Nearly 800 people have been held there. George W. Bush eventually released 500 of them, sometimes after years of confinement and cruelty.  Barack Obama has freed 67, but 169 remain, even though the president pledged to close the Guantanamo prison within a year of his inauguration. Now, forty-six are so dangerous, our government says, they will be held indefinitely, without trial.

We almost never see the detainees. Were it not for the work of human rights organizations and the forest of lawsuits that have arisen from our actions, the prisoners would be out of sight, out of mind. Five of the Guantanamo prisoners were recently arraigned before a military commission for their role in the attacks. One of them is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who says he was the mastermind behind 9/11. He was waterboarded by interrogators 183 times. Pentagon officials predict it will be at least another year before the five go on trial.

Earlier this month,  lawyers for Mohammed al-Qahtani – the so-called “20th hijacker” who didn’t make it onto the planes — filed suit in New York federal court to make public what they described as “extremely disturbing” videotapes of his interrogations.  He was charged in 2008 with war crimes and murder, but the charges were dropped after the former convening authority for the Guantanamo military commissions, Susan Crawford, told journalist Bob Woodward that al-Qahtani’s treatment “met the legal definition of torture.”

He remains in indefinite detention, as does Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi citizen alleged to have run terrorist training camps. He was waterboarded at least 83 times in a single month.  Just this week a federal appeals court refused to release information on the interrogation methods the CIA used on Abu Zubaydah and other terrorist suspects.

You may also have seen the flurry of action this month around a section of the new National Defense Authorization Act that allows the military to detain indefinitely not only members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” but anyone who has “substantially supported” them.  A federal court struck down that provision in response to journalists and advocates who believe it could be so broadly interpreted it would violate civil liberties.  Nonetheless, two days after the court’s decision, the House of Representatives reaffirmed the original provision.

The other day, eight members of the Bush Administration – including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld – were found guilty of torture and other war crimes by an unofficial tribunal meeting in Malaysia.  The story was played widely in parts of the world press, with reports that the judgment could lead the way to proceedings before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It received almost no mention here in the United States.

This summer, it’s believed that the United States Senate’s intelligence committee finally will release a report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that euphemistic phrase for what any reasonable person not employed by the government would call torture. The report has been three years in the making, with investigators examining millions of classified documents. The news service Reuters says the report will conclude that techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation do not yield worthwhile intelligence information.

So here we are, into our eleventh year after 9/11, still at war in Afghanistan, still at war with terrorists, still at war with our collective conscience as we grapple with how to protect our country from attack without violating the basic values of civilization — the rule of law, striving to achieve our aims without corrupting them, and restraint in the use of power over others, especially when exercised in secret.

In future days and years, how will we come to cope with the reality of what we have done in the name of security?  Many other societies do seem to try harder than we do to come to terms with horrendous behavior commissioned or condoned by a government. Beginning in 1996, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings at which whites and blacks struggled to confront the cruelty inflicted on human beings during apartheid.

And perhaps you caught something said the other day by the president of Brazil, Dilma Roussef.  During the early 70′s, she was held in prison and tortured repeatedly by the military dictators who ruled her country for nearly 25 years. The state of Rio de Janeiro has announced it will officially apologize to her. Earlier, when she swore in members of a commission investigating the dictatorship, President Roussef said: “We are not moved by revenge, hate or a desire to rewrite history. The need to know the full truth is what moves us.”

In other words, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

This post was originally published on BillMoyers.com.


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Photo from gnuru via flickr

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JAMES HOLLEY3 years ago

I had a couple of family members in Nam (uncle, brother, etc.), and several friends. One was a Navy Seal who was captured. And he was tortured. I have always taken pride in the fact that Christianity deplores such behavior, and at one time I took pride in our country as one that was Christian based and as such, also abhorred torture.

Bush and Cheny have destroyed that pride for me.

I say throw Bush and Cheny over to the European Rule of Law!!! Make them pay for lying to the well meaning Christians of this country by pretending to be Christians just to get a vote! Make them pay for dragging God's name through the mud by claiming that torture is okay and has a place in our world. Hey, is there anyway I can perform a citizen's arrest and deliver B&C personally?

Ernest R.
Ernest R.3 years ago

@ David N.. “A number of American soldiers were captured & tortured by the communist Vietnamese” Maybe. The US government took care to give that impression in spite of US soldiers taken prisoner and released who contradicted the government and said they were actually well treated. But “we do know what torture is and what it does to prisoners” because of atrocities committed by the US and its allies. Have you heard of the “tiger cages” or the imported Kuomintang torturers practice of putting piano wire between the arm bones and cranking it up ? Or of the field telephone attached to a prisoners testicles and cranked up ? Or a group of prisoners one by one thrown out of a helicopter to get somebody to talk ? Apart from getting information, I am sure you have heard of My Lai {not an isolated event}, although perhaps not about hand grenades blown up inside a woman’s vagina. Retaliation for these atrocities could be expected.

Ernest R.
Ernest R.3 years ago

Cheney approved the Gestapo type “enhanced interrogation” because the Gitmo prisoners were “the worst of the worst”. An example was the Muslim Canadian, already shot in the back, captured at the age of 15 and accused of throwing a grenade that killed one of the attacking US soldiers. Although his throwing a grenade was disputed by other soldiers in the attack, the US army’s kangaroo court gave him the choice of pleading guilty [of an act of self defence] or spending the rest of his life in Gitmo. Not really justice for all, is it ?

Ed G.
Ed G.3 years ago

I would suggest once a US Serviceman has undergone torture (by any one group) the very idea of torture will go out the window. Unfortunately it will take this to finally get the ass holes in Washington that OK'd this. The very idea of torturing is repugnant to any serviceman. I am distressed that any current (or former) serviceman participated in torture.

marc page
Marc P.3 years ago

What the government does to one group of people it will soon do to another. Funny thing about Civil Rights - One never needs them until they are in the basement of a police station.

Angela N.
Angela N.3 years ago

thanks :)

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V.3 years ago

Remember it is only TORTURE when used by the OTHER side. When WE do it, it is only “Enhanced Interrogation,” just ask Dick Cheney!!! When this started it was a few so called terrorist but NOW it has spread and American Citizens can be “Interrogated” in the “Enhanced” manner.

We can lie to ourselves all we want to but truth has a way of coming home to roost and I think that time is close at hand for America.

Nancy R.
Nancy R.3 years ago

One of the reasons that some Americans, whether government officials or ordinary citizens, either support or turn a blind eye to torture, the death penalty, and the ongoing rape of our civil liberties, is the feeling that revenge is just. Another reason is the way "patriotism" manifests itself, and is promoted, as a kind of religion, justifying everything without a thought to what it means. This type of blind "patriotism" or nationalism, and the extreme right-wing ideologues who pronounce "America" like a holy word, has led us down this very slippery slope - which leads to fascism.

Human rights are not the pronouncements of any god, but their existence and exercise connects us as human beings in the true sense - as what we CAN be, compassionate and connected individuals.

We can despise terrorists who murder with ideological zeal, but how can we show the world that respect for the rule of law is right if we do not respect it ourselves? The end does not justify the means; the means and the end are one and the same.

Judith H.
Judith H.3 years ago


Gloria H.
Gloria H.3 years ago

We never see the dark side of the moon, but we do see the dark side of our species, and it is us.