Memorial For America’s Conscience

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.”