It’s impossible for a part-time blogger to keep up with breaking news, and I generally don’t try. I started this post two days ago, when the humanitarian situation in Aleppo was already disastrous; now it’s beyond any words I can come up with. Here are a couple of quick quotes from dispatches over the past few hours:
From The Guardian: “By bus, by car, by walking, even crawling, we just want to get out. We have given up on our homes, our belongings, everything. Now we only want to get out…each bus can only take 50, and there are tens of thousands of us…It was so cold…people were slipping, falling into puddles, losing their luggage, even their families, it was like doomsday.”
From the BBC: “Thousands of cold and hungry civilians remain stranded in the rebel-held east of the city…Unicef says sick and wounded children are among the evacuees…hundreds of other vulnerable children, including orphans, remain trapped…the children are so hungry they are crying, they are freezing. Most of them are scared of a brutal end to the ceasefire. They are afraid that they will not be able to get out.”
Okay, right, those quotes could come out of any war, but this one is happening on our watch, and it’s on television.
Anyway, here’s the post I had started to write:
The least we can do is to pay attention…
It’s hard to read the news dispatches coming out of Syria, so I have to admit I sometimes just don’t…at least not in detail. I skim, and I think it can’t get any worse, and then it does. But I can’t remove myself completely, so I skim some more. But sometimes I’m stopped short by something that I can’t skim over.
A couple of days ago, it was a paragraph halfway through one of Anne Barnard’sreports from Syria for the New York Times. She was interviewing Hisham al-Skeif, a member of the rebel governing council, frustrated that international officials were talking to rebel leaders, but “no one appeared to be talking directly to the trapped civilians.”1
“We are about 1,000, including our families,” he said. “If the regime enters we will be slaughtered. Of course everybody is negotiating with those who are armed, but we are not armed. The armed can defend themselves, but we can’t.”2
If only we were armed…I’ve caught myself entertaining that fantasy myself – when I’ve heard about crimes in the neighborhood, for example, but I know it’s a fantasy. Such an appealing one, though – that if we only had bigger guns, or more guns, or tanks, or warplanes, we’d be safe. I can easily imagine myself in that father’s position and my heart breaks for him, but a gun in his hands will be no match for barrel bombs and napalm – or for the new Russian-supplied rocket which has been described as “one step down from a nuclear weapon.”
Addressing the United Nations, our ambassador, Samantha Power, asked: “Are you truly incapable of change? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin”?
Globe writer Thanassis Cambanis responded, “U.S. Ambassador Power is right to ask about shame. Ultimately, a great share of it will belong to her [our] government.”
For a time, the international community was a meaningful forum with a conscience, and it created new doctrines like the “responsibility to protect,” which held that any state that wantonly murders its citizens forsakes its sovereignty. New norms took root: War crimes still occurred but invited wider and wider condemnation…
We opposed torture and war crimes elsewhere because they’re dead wrong, but also because we don’t want out own citizens subjected to them. Today…we don’t stand against the leveling of Aleppo because we reserve the right not to be judged for similar crimes.
U.S. general says “It’s not our job”
According to Military.com, “The top U.S. general for Syria and Iraq said Wednesday the U.S. will do nothing militarily or on a humanitarian basis to hinder the Russian and Syrian regime onslaught against Aleppo or ease the plight of civilians seeking to flee. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said it’s not his job under current mandates to do anything about Aleppo, and nobody at the White House or in the Pentagon has told him otherwise.”I’ve watched Aleppo on TV; it’s horrible,” Townsend said, “but Aleppo is not in our charter here…I’m not responsible for what’s going on in Aleppo…I can’t really comment on the withdrawal, or the end is near, or any of that.”
Also according to the Globe, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said civilians in eastern Aleppo ‘‘who had a glimmer of hope that the attacks would stop and that aid would finally reach them are instead trapped in a new brutal air and ground attack.’’
Reading the outstanding on-the-ground coverage of this disaster by The Times, the Globe, and others reminded me again of how much we owe to reporters like Barnard, who risk their lives helping us confront realities we’d probably rather avoid. The very least we can do is to pay attention.
It’s a naturally occurring disease,
folks, not a left wing plot
Many on the so-called “alt-right” (and on the traditional right as well) want to blame today’s immigrants for bringing in “foreign” diseases, and Barack Obama for bringing in the immigrants. The disease accusation is one that’s been leveled at every wave of immigrants throughout our history. One of those disease threats is Chagas.
Chagas is a parasitic disease carried by a large and particularly nasty looking bug called Vinchuga (sometimes Vinchuca): scientific name: Triatoma infestans. It’s currently endemic in Latin America, especially in rural areas – my wife and I first learned about it when traveling in Bolivia – and has more recently been found in the United States, especially in the southwest.
Its habits are nasty, too. It bites its victims at night, while they are sleeping, and its saliva contains the Chagas parasite. The disease is particularly insidious, often causing few symptoms for many years, while the organisms multiply throughout the victim’s system. We were told by our Bolivian friends that the bug was not found in the United States. That was probably not true even then, but it’s definitely not true now. Chagas is expanding its range in the U.S. Southwest, and working its way north.
Some of those looking for reasons to oppose immigration have blamed immigrants and asylum seekers for bringing in the disease – and President Obama for bringing in the immigrants. That makes no sense: Chagas is not contagious from person to person, nor does the bug hang around on its victims like a flea. Some immigrants may have the disease, but there is no way that they can spread it others. The only “immigrants” to blame are the bugs themselves, expanding their range, almost certainly because of global climate warming – something conservatives may have a hard time accepting, but that’s what the science says.
Here’s just one of the fake news bulletins about Chagas from fantasy nightmare land. I’m not including the name of the site or any links as I usually do, since I’m not interested in helping these folks boost their hit count. (Note: the highlights were in the original, not added by me.).
“Obama’s legacy includes more than the recklessly irresponsible if not deliberate importation of Ebola and enterovirus D-68 into the USA. Let’s not forget Chagas disease: Barack Obama has brought 60,000 children from these countries into the U.S. in this year. Obama not only brought them in, almost certainly helping to coordinate their transport up through Mexico…He quickly distributed the potential vectors to all 50 states and even the US Virgin islands before they could be deported…Chagas disease – thanks Barack!”
Another site features a video showing someone in a grinning Obama mask wandering through a downtown neighborhood putting up posters that say “Halt flights from hot zones now! SECURE THE BORDER!” and a third site, headed “OBOLA,” warns that “Dogs are Dying After Eating THIS Bug That is Now Found in 28 States.” [I don't know if dogs eat Vinchugas, though I doubt it, but they get infected by being bitten.]
For the record, although the Right seems to be suggesting that Chagas has been a government secret until now, it’s been known about and publicly discussed for years. It was first described by Brazilian physician/epidemiologist, Carlos Chagas in 1909 and came to be seen as a major threat to public health in the 1960’s. More recently, The New York Times, Atlantic Magazine, and Science Magazine all carried articles about it in 2011 and 2012, which was when I started more seriously looking into it. (See also this later NYTimes article on “the new plague of poverty” which looks at several tropical diseases now endemic in the U.S.)
Though long thought to be a problem only in South and Central America, environmental writer Jennie Erin Smith writes that “Texas, along with much of the rest of the Southwest, has been an endemic Chagas region since people began looking. Local transmission has been documented since 1955…Still, the idea of Chagas as a foreign illness persisted for half a century.” Her article this month in The New Yorker’s “Elements” blog discusses the increasing spread of the Vinchuga bug in the U.S. Southwest, focusing on an outbreak of Chagas at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, among both soldiers and the dogs at the DOD’s canine school at the base. See also the outstanding coverage of this outbreak by the Dallas Morning News.
Immigrants didn’t cause the problem;
neither did Barack Obama,
…and insects are not the only parasites
responsible for the chagas crisis.
An article in The Atlantic a year ago noted: “After dropping $2 million on a Wu-Tang Clan album, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli has found a new project: making an essential treatment unaffordable for poor immigrants from Latin America…He’s now the CEO of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, which recently announced its plans to submit benznidazole, a treatment for Chagas disease…for Food and Drug Administration approval next year.”
In Latin America, a course of treatment currently costs from $60 to $100. U.S. patients can apply to the Center for Disease Control to receive it free. If approved by the FDA, Shkreli initially planned to price the same course of treatment at almost $100,000. Shortly after that, however, Shkreli was arrested for securities fraud and KaloBios went bankrupt. After emerging from bankruptcy since then, the company has announced that it still plans to acquire the drug, but will institute “a reasonable and transparent pricing policy.” What that will be remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, Shkreli “has sold his remaining stake in KaloBios Pharmaceuticals Inc., severing his ties with the company he once led, as the small drugmaker seeks to distance itself from its former chief executive,” Poor guy, he only got $5.9 million for what WSJ estimated was “a stake worth about $4.4 million” two months earlier.
For those interested in this issue,
the links below may also be of interest: A while back, we heard about a new approach to fighting Chagas, especially in housing with adobe or unpainted wood walls. It uses an insecticide-containing paint and has apparently been very effective. As far as I know, it has not been adopted anywhere in the U.S. That may be because the inventor, Spanish Chemist Pilar Mateo, has declined to partner with a large drug company because, she says: “I didn’t want profit motives dictating how this important tool was brought to the world.” That’s a refreshing, but also depressing, contrast to Mr. Shkreli and the American pharmaceutical industry.
Anyway, don’t miss this important and moving recent New York Times series analyzing the experiences of several victims of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in U.S. prisons during our so-called “war on terror.” Their stories put human faces to what, for many, may have been an abstract debate. (Note: I referenced this series in my recent post, U.S. Elects Torturer in Chief, on the election of Donald Trump.)
Exploring the impact
of our resort to torture
CLICK ON THE TITLES BELOW TO READ THE FULL ARTICLES:
How U.S. Torture Left
a Legacy of Damaged Minds
“Government lawyers and intelligence officials…knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm. Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong…Beatings, sleep deprivation, menacing and other brutal tactics have led to persistent mental health problems among detainees held in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo.”
After Torture, Ex-Detainee is StillCaptive of ‘The Darkness’
As the Times article makes quite clear, Suleiman Abdullah Salim was probably seized by mistake. That made no difference at Guantánamo: “The Americans routinely hauled him from his cell to a room where, he said, they hanged him from chains, once for two days. They wrapped a collar around his neck and pulled it to slam him against a wall, he said. And they shaved his head, laid him on a plastic tarp and poured gallons of ice water on him, inducing a feeling of drowning. ‘A guy says to me, ‘Here the rain doesn’t finish,’ Mr. Salim recalled.” He later attempted to commit suicide.
Secret Documents Show
a Tortured Prisoner’s Descent Among the prisoners profiled in the Times series, Ramzi bin al-Shibh may possibly have been a legitimate subject of capture and interrogation. According to the Times account, anyway, he was an “admitted and unapologetic co-conspirator” in the 9/11 bombings.” Or maybe not. The tortures inflicted on him in our secret prisons in Romania and elsewhere (which, of course, are classified) may well have contributed to the delusions he displayed after his arrival at Guantánamo. His GTMO doctors noted:
“Mr. bin al-Shibh says he is unable to sleep ‘because of problems he had in the past at another facility. He begins to complain that the guards are sending smells, noises and subtle vibrations into his cell to torment him…Military psychiatrists find that he has ‘adjustment disorder with depressed mood’, which means he has developed marked sadness and hopelessness in response to recent stress…They fill out a form for ‘suspected detainee maltreatment.’ They cross off the word ‘suspected’ and write in ‘alleged.”
Where Even Nightmares Are Classified:
Psychiatric Care at Guantánamo “Doctors felt pressed to cross ethical boundaries” this article notes, but many if not most mental health professionals at GTMO did so anyway, despite their training. “Psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and technicians received little training for the assignment…Doctors felt pushed to cross ethical boundaries, and were warned that their actions, at an institution roiled by detainees’ organized resistance, could have political and national security implications.”
Lawsuite Aims to Hold 2 Contractors
Accountable for C.I.A. Torture
I discussed the legal case against psychologists James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, for their roles in designing and carrying out the “enhanced interrogation” program, in my earlier post A day in court for victims of CIA torture. The Times article looks at the case in the current context: “Legal experts say the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump could force the case’s dismissal on national security grounds…Mr Trump has endorsed the effectiveness of torture and said he would bring back waterboarding.”
Memories of a Secret C.I.A. Prison
Khaled al-Sharif, who was also mentioned in my prior post, was held for two years in a secret C.I.A. prison, after being accused of having ties to Al Qaeda. In this video interview, he describes “what happened there, and how the experience continues to affect him.” He also tells his story through a series of graphic drawings of the tortures he experienced.
This blog, and most of my work over the past several years, has dealt with the issue of torture: why, where, and when it happens; who’s responsible for it; who are its victims. My documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture, tells the stories of several torture survivors who have managed to make it to the United States, and some of the people – social workers, psychiatrists, physicians, and ordinary, caring citizens – who are devoting a good chunk of their lives to helping survivors recover from their trauma and make new lives here in the United States.
Right now, I wonder what those survivors are thinking.
Many of these men, women – and yes, children – have spent years in refugee camps abroad, waiting for admission to whatever country will welcome them. For one of the people interviewed in my film, a woman whose children had been murdered in front of her, it was nine years. Those who make it to the United States think they are the lucky ones. They don’t expect to have it easy, but they expect to be safe.
And now they’re treated to the spectacle of the new president of their country of refuge calling for some of them to be thrown out, and promising to build walls to keep others from coming in. He’s also announced that “Torture works, OK folks? and waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Trump was reportedly considering nominating Jose Rodriguez – one of the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program – to run the CIA. Instead, we’re getting Mike Pompeo (at right), who has called our prison at Guantánamo “a goldmine of intelligence,” where detainees “are treated exceptionally well.”
It’s going to be a very scary four years.
Below are links to a few sources of information
about refugees and the refugee resettlement process:
This is a quick post to help spread the word about an initiative I’ve just learned about. One of the physicians I interviewed during production of my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture, has asked me to help spread the word about this powerful statement of concern from a growing number of healthcare professionals and others.
From America’s Healers:
Framed as “a letter to our patients in the Trump era,” from America’s healers, the statement reflects the alarm felt by many of us following the Trump election, and our worries about what a right wing victory will mean for healthcare and mental health workers and – more importantly – the patients and clients who depend on them for care.
In this new and uncertain time in American history, we healthcare professionals feel a special responsibility….For our patients, poverty, violence, and marginalization are not mere abstractions but instead harsh realities. As a result, we feel compelled to act and advocate against any threat to our patients’ well-being. The policies proposed by the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump may pose just such a threat.
Among the eight beliefs affirmed by the statement, the final one is, “that torture and human rights violations have no place in American society…we stand firm in opposing all forms of torture or ‘enhanced interrogations’ no matter the setting or supposed justification.”Should any readers question whether this is a serious concern in the event of a Trump presidency, recall his statement during the Presidential debates: “I’d bring back waterboarding,” he said on February 7th, “and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
NOTE: I had to go out for a few hours before finishing this post. In that time, more than 500 additional people had signed on. The total as of midnight, November 17th stood at more than four thousand names.
Take a look at the statement, and if you’re in any way involved in healthcare, mental health work, or social services, please consider adding your signature and voice.
So…we are about to inaugurate a president who has openly and repeatedly announced that “we’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable. Torture works, OK, folks? But we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Even Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and war hero, had to take issue with that one. Torture’s “not the American way,” he said. McCain himself was tortured during the five years he was held in a North Vietnamese prison, but to Trump,“He’s not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured.”
But, “torture’s not the American way?” That’s not exactly – or even approximately – true. American use of waterboarding was documented at least as far back as our war in the Philippines, around 1901. But we only have to look a few years back, to the George W. Bush administration, for the seeds of our current ethical morass. Bush and his coterie did their best to make torture acceptable, but Donald Trump apparently aims to make it an American value.
In responding to Trump’s “torture works” comments, the first question would have to be, “works for what?” Virtually all reputable research indicates that torture rarely if ever yields worthwhile intelligence. To take just one example, Factcheck.org’s post, Trump on Torture, summarizes a recent article by researcher, Shane O’Mara, Torturing the Brain, which analyzes the “folk psychology…motivating enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques.”
“Solid scientific evidence of how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions,” he writes, “suggests that these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.” The use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, O’Mara writes “appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect.” (An abstract of O’Mara’s article is available online.)
The recent report by New York Times writers Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink and James Rizen, How U.S. Torture Left a Legacy of Damaged Minds, makes clear how very little the “enhanced interrogation” techniques inflicted on our prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere really had to do with intelligence gathering – and how very little intelligence they yielded. But maybe Trump has at least done us the favor of cutting through the bullshit over what torture is really about – he rarely makes any pretense that it has anything to do with intelligence gathering. And Trump makes no pretense at all that he has any concerns about humanitarian issues, international law, or world opinion either. (NY Times photo: Lutfi bin Ali. Drawing by Mohamed Ben Soud.)
In a recent Nation Article, Sasha Abramsky asks what exactly Trump means by “much stronger” torture: “He never defines exactly what sorts of state-sponsored torture he is advocating, exactly what actions he seeks to make the courts, the military, and the general public complicit in. If history is any guide, however, when a powerful state embarks down this road of torture, things get ugly very quickly.” Abramsky concludes her piece by saying, “You’ll find the American people aren’t nearly as perverted as you take them to be.” I hope she’s right, but that remains to be proved.
What Trump’s talk of torture does do is to give displaced and disenfranchised working and middle class citizens – which is most of us – a false narrative about who is to blame for their loss of control over their lives, someone to blame for shuttered factories, deteriorating neighborhoods, chaotic schools, and the repo man. If we torture our prisoners in Guantánamo, we’re showing that we can’t be pushed around, that the losses of our young men and women in senseless wars overseas made sense after all. We’re showing that we’re still tough, still standing tall.
UPDATE: While I was in the middle of working on this post, The Intercept reportedthat Trump may appoint Jose Rodriguez as head of the CIA. Rodriguez was director of the National Clandestine Service under Bush II, and shared responsibility for for human rights abuses including the establishment of CIA “black sites,” where detainees were tortured. He’s most remembered, though, for having been responsible for the destruction of 92 videotapes documenting the torture by waterboarding (183 times) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. According to a declassified CIA email, Rodriguez thought that if the tapes were revealed to the public, the response would be “devastating.”
This is an interesting and authoritative perspective on how the use and acceptance of torture has damaged America’s sense of what it stands for, and its world reputation. The authors note that, while Congressional Democrats argued that U.S. use of torture during the “war on terror” had not produced unique or reliable intelligence, Republicans claimed the opposite. Both sides, they noted, “share one key assumption: that whether the torture was good or bad depends on whether or not it ‘worked.’”
Instead, the researchers found, “Washington’s use of torture greatly damaged national security. It incited extremism in the Middle East, hindered cooperation with U.S. allies, exposed American officials to legal repercussions, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and offered a convenient justification for other governments to commit human rights abuses…In the words of John Hutson, a retired U.S. navy rear admiral: ‘Torture is the technique of choice of the lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough.’ We can – we must – do better.”
“Leaving aside the very real human and legal consequences of torture, a truly comprehensive assessment would also explore…how it shaped the trajectory of the so-called war on terror, altered the relationship between the United States and its allies, and affected Washington’s pursuit of other key goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.” (From “The Strategic Costs of Torture”)
“Torture is the technique of choice of the
lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough”
Doug Johnson, now the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was formerly the Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minnesota, one of the sites featured in my film, Refuge. An interview with Johnson opens that film.
Also now at the Carr Center, Alberto Mora was a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and General Counsel to the USIA in the first Bush administration. During Bush II, as General Counsel of the Navy, he opposed the use of “harsh interrogation” at Guantánamo. Averell Schmidt is a fellow at the Carr Center, researching the costs and consequences of U.S. use of torture following 9/11.
I’ve just come home from watching a movie from my past – maybe yours too – 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk, by Rob Epstein. For those who don’t remember, or who weren’t born yet, the documentary tells the story of San Francisco’s first openly gay political leader and of his rise from community activist to become a city supervisor (councilor). But it’s also the story of his murder, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a disappointed office-seeker with a gun. Their attacker, Dan White, apparently intended to shoot several other officials as well.(1)
Then I came home, to pick up where I left off with this post on gun violence:
Maura Healey, the attorney general of my liberal state, Massachusetts, took a lot of flak recently for asking Congress to authorize the Centers for Disease Control to study the causes of gun deaths in the same way it studies deaths from auto accidents. She was joined in her appeal by the attorneys general of a dozen other states plus the District of Columbia.(2) They’re calling for repeal of the gun industry-sponsored 1996 amendment that blocks the CDC from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Even former Republican congressman Jay Dickey, the bill’s original sponsor, has acknowledged that the amendment was a mistake – and Dickey was a life member of the NRA.
In any case, it makes no sense that merely studying gun deaths would automatically lead to changes or restrictions that a majority of gun owners would object to. Even if such a study concluded – as many hope and expect it would – that some form of gun regulation would be a good idea, any proposals to change current laws would still be subject to public discussion, undoubtedly fierce debate, and the need for legislative action.
“As the chief civil or criminal law enforcement officers of our respective states,” Healey wrote, “we are charged with keeping our communities safe, and wee that is ravaging our families and communities.” Her statement to the Boston Globe pointed out that more than 33,000 people die from guns every year in the United States, roughly the same number as from car accid need better evidence-based strategies to combat the epidemic of gun violencents. Cars and drivers, of course, are already subject to regulations designed to promote public safety. Guns and their users are mostly not. If Harvey Milk’s assassin had been armed with a modern assault weapon he could have wiped out the entire San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a great many others as well.
Massachusetts’ 350 gun dealers immediately took advantage of the controversy, extending their hours and, in at least one case, announcing “Today is your LAST DAY to purchase a semi-automatic weapon in Massachusetts!”
Just for the record, I was a Junior NRA member in my teen years, and participated in shooting competitions with moderate success. I don’t hate guns and I don’t hate hunters or other reasonable gun owners (and, yes, I do still have my NRA medals, and my Boy Scout merit badge sash too.)
I do very much hate the climate of paranoia and hate that the NRA promotes.
In a Globe op-ed, Healey wrote, “Here in Massachusetts, 10,000 assault weapons were sold just in the last year – each one nearly identical to the rifle used to gun down 49 innocent people in Orlando. In the week after the Pulse nightclub massacre, sales of weapons strikingly similar to the Sig Sauer MCX used at Pulse jumped as high as 450 percent over the previous week – just in Massachusetts.”
“There are myriad issues underlying each of these tragedies,” Healey wrote, “fear, racism, mistrust, hate. These are critical issues that we, as a country, have an obligation to honestly and forthrightly address…But there’s one issue that can be addressed right now — the proliferation of guns, particularly assault weapons.” She pointed out that 10,000 assault-style rifles had been sold in Massachusetts in just the prior year. These weapons, she said, are “in the same category as weapons chosen by killers in Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino. These are not weapons of self defense. They are weapons used to commit mass murder. And they have no business being in civilian hands.”
No legislation with any hope of passing in the United States is going to prevent Americans from owning guns for hunting, target shooting, and home protection. Yet polling has also shown that most Americans – from 55% to 92% depending on the specific questions – are OK with the kinds of regulations, including those proposed by AG Healey, that are currently being discussed.
Healey has taken a courageous stance – one which few public officials have been willing to risk. It will be an uphill battle, yet change is possible. I recall, several decades ago, listening to a couple of radio talk-show hosts railing about the infringement on liberty that would result from requiring car makers to provide seat belts. A little later, when our son was young, my wife and I were kind of shocked to hear other parents complaining about the requirement for infant car seats.
Today we buckle up without much thinking about it, and so do our kids, and the quest for better and safer car seats has fueled an entire industry. You could say our freedom has been “infringed,” but most of us don’t feel that way, and we’re all safer and better off for it.
As Healey pointed out, more people in this country die from guns than from auto accidents.
What are we waiting for?
(1) For more information on Harvey Milk and his times, check out Randy Shilts’ book on the case, The Mayor of Castro Street. Sean Penn also starred in the film Milk “based on the true story,” but I’d suggest you stick with the documentary.
(2)California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington
Resources on Torture & War Crimes…
for survivors and those who work with them
When I first started working on this issue, there were not all that many organizations working with torture survivors, or on issues related to torture — and at least a couple of those have since gone out of business. I’m glad to say that that seems to have changed. Even so, we’re not anywhere near to keeping up with the need.
In any case, here’s a list of some organizations and resources on the issue. Some have been around quite a while, though a few are fairly new. At the bottom of the page are links to some earlier lists I’ve published.
Reclaiming Hope, Dignity and Respect
This 2015 report from the Center for Victims of Torture documents the organization’s work with Syrians and Iraqis fleeing the conflicts in their countries and currently living in Jordan. At the time of publication, CVT reported that there were “nearly 630,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, and increasing numbers of Iraqis.” The Center’s psychosocial counselors, physical therapists and social workers work with refugees and torture survivors in other areas of the Middle East and Africa as well.
“Interviewees rarely report being tortured to elicit information. Rather, the torture survivors believe that perpetrators wanted to intimidate and create pervasive fear…” Survivors reported “nightmares, trouble sleeping, constant paranoia, difficulty with concentration…fear of loud noises and planes, withdrawal and isolation.” Among the most important obstacles to recovery is their inability to work and provide for themselves, attend school and, maybe most critically, the long wait – typically a year or more – to find out when they might be referred for resettlement, after an application process that may itself take several years.
In addition to its international activities, the Center for Victims of Torture operates, in Minneapolis, the largest and longest-established treatment centers for torture survivors in the United States. (It’s one of the groups featured in my documentary, REFUGE.
Redress Torture Survivors Handbook
One of the immigrant survivors of torture that I interviewed for my documentary film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture told me about meeting, and unknowingly befriending, one of the men responsible for torturing him and his family in their home country. The Torture Survivors’ Handbook, from the London-based organizationRedress goes beyond the standard “welcome refugees” format to explore a range of such issues that may confront torture survivors, as well as the service providers who work with them. It’s primarily aimed at survivors and their supporters in the UK, though it could serve as a model for those working on the issue in other countries. In addition to issues likely to be covered in any such manual, it looks at such politically sensitive issues as: what if you have been tortured by someone from the very country in which you are seeking refuge?
NOTE: This and most publications on the Redress site are available in multiple languages. Some are difficult to access because they are in PDF format rather than web pages so, if you know the title, it may be easiest to just enter it in your search engine, e.g., for this one: “redress torture survivors handbook.”
Reprieve is another Britain-based legal services organization that focuses not just on the issue of torture, but on the death penalty, capital punishment, drone warfare, and secret prisons. Reprieve’s website states: “We provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people: British, European, and other nationals facing execution, and those victimized by states’ abusive counter-terror policies – rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and killing…our lawyers and investigators are supported by a community of people from around the world.”
The Association for the Prevention of Torturesays its work “is built on the insight that torture and forms of ill-treatment happen behind closed doors, out of public view. We therefore promote transparency in all places where people are deprived of liberty.” APT maintains a regularly-updated database on torture in 105 countries – most recent update: July 20, 2016.
One of those is verbal: we try to think and speak about people who have been tortured as survivors, not victims, emphasizing their resilience, and their futures, not just their pasts. That’s what I experienced myself while interviewing torture survivors and the people who work with them for my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture.
The men, women, and children who have been able to make it to the United States are remarkable, and we are lucky to have them as new citizens. But they are a tiny fraction of the millions of people throughout the world who are subjected to torture and violence every day, most of whom don’t have the personal or financial resources to escape.
There are a number of terrific organizations around the U.S. working directly with torture survivors, but it’s a regrettably small number – fewer than 40 the last time I checked – and most struggle for the finances to keep going. I’ve listed below the contact information for five of those that I worked with when making REFUGE. The sixth lost its local government funding and folded not long after we filmed there.
A longer list is available on the Refuge Media Project website. All of these groups could use your support. (Note: it’s been a while since I’ve been able to update this list, so please let me know if you spot any errors.)
Asylum Network, Physicians for Human RightsCambridge, Massachusetts. PHR’s Asylum Network mobilizes physicians and mental health professionals to conduct evaluations of asylum seekers in order to document the forensic evidence of torture and abuse.
Atlanta Asylum Network, Institute of Human RightsEmory University, Atlanta, Georgia. A student-founded organization of health professionals and student case managers who volunteer their time to assist survivors of torture seeking asylum in the United States.
Center for Victims of TortureMinneapolis, Minnesota. CVT works to heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities, and offers training to health care providers, educators and others. The Center also advocates for the investigation and abolition of torture worldwide.
Harvard Program in Refugee TraumaCambridge, Massachusetts. HPRT is a multi-disciplinary program that has been pioneering the health and mental health care of traumatized refugees and civilians in areas of conflict and natural disasters for over two decades.
CIA torture victims finally have their day in
court, but Gul Rahmann didn’t survive to see it…
I first started writing about renegade psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and the refusal of the American Psychological Association to censure them for their involvement in torture, quite a few years ago (see links at the end of this post.) I eventually burned out on the issue, since it seemed that neither the psychology profession, or the rest of the country for that matter, were interested in confronting the issue of U.S. complicity in torture. But maybe things have changed.
Mitchell and Jessen have so far escaped criminal prosecution for designing and helping to carry out the CIA’s torture program, but will now at least have to face a civil lawsuit (Salim v. Mitchell) brought by three of the program’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Suleiman Abdullah Salim (see his video interview below) and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud in the action, as well as the estate and family of Gul Rahman.
Rahman himself died – he essentially froze to death under CIA torture in 2002, “having been stripped naked from the waist down and shackled in a cell in which the temperature dipped to approximately 36 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Amy Goodman recently interviewed ACLU attorney Dror Ladin about the case, along with former intelligence officer Steven Kleinman, who had known Mitchell and Jessen from SERE training. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, and was a program developed to train U.S. military to resist torture in the event they were captured and interrogated. Mitchell and Jessen essentially “reverse engineered” what they had learned from SERE to craft tortures to be used on prisoners of the U.S. Despite the pretense that these techniques were meant to extract critical information, they were continued long after there was any real pretense that there was information to obtain.
According to Jenna McLaughlin’s columninThe Intercept last week, Federal judge Justin L. Quackenbush has refused the two psychologists’ request to throw out the suit, calling the case made by the plaintiffs “thorough, to say the least.” He noted that the suit alleges “not only aiding and abetting, but participation and complicity in the administration of this enhanced interrogation program.”
ACLU staff attorney Steven Watt called the judge’s ruling unprecedented. “This is the first step toward accountability,” he told The Intercept, pointing out that in past lawsuits seeking accountability for U.S. torture, “the government has invoked its special state-secrets privileges to purportedly protect national security.”
Jessica Schulberg, in Huffington Post, notes that although the pair’s attorneys are arguing that they “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program,” the promo material for Mitchell’s forthcoming book calls him “the creator of the CIA’s controversial Enhanced Interrogation Program,” offering “a dramatic firsthand account of the design implementation, flaws and aftermath of the program.”
While Mitchell and Jessen’s lawyers argued that their clients should not be held responsible, claiming that they did not personally participate in the victims’ capture, imprisonment, or interrogation, ACLU attorney Dror Ladin pointed out that not only did the two design and supervise the torture program, but they were well paid to do so. The pair’s company reportedly made in the vicinity of $81 million dollars under their CIA contract, but Mitchell argues that the money “was not income provided to me…That was a multi-year commercial contract that was provided to a company [Mitchell Jessen & Associates] that employed many people… I wasn’t living hand to mouth, but it wasn’t $81 million.” However, he reportedly earned “as much as $1,800 a day.” Whatever they were paid, given the fact that their “expertise” led to hardly any “actionable intelligence,” they were overpaid.
Mitchell and Jessen initially developed and taught “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape,” or SERE techniques for training U.S. troops to withstand brutal interrogation in the event of capture, but eventually found it more profitable to go over to the “dark side,” using their expertise to advise U.S. interrogators on the use of torture techniques against Afghan and Iraqi detainees. The documentary film, Doctors of the Dark Side, dramatizes some of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib and GITMO under the guidance of Mitchell and Jessen (trailer available on the film’s website.)
In this context, it’s interesting to take a look at some of Mitchell’s prior statements, for example from this 2014 interview with Vice News: “The whole point of the waterboard was to induce fear and panic…you have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room…The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape.” Mitchell acknowledges that “there were some abuses that occurred.” (NOTE: you can watch 25 minutes of Vice’s interview with Mitchell at the end of this post.)
As Huffington Post reporter, Jessica Schulberg, noted recently, attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen argue that the two psychologists (the autocorrect in my aging brain keeps wanting to type ‘psychopaths’) “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program.” Yet pre-publication promos for a new book by Mitchell call him the program’s “creator,” and brag that the book offers “a dramatic firsthand account of the program’s design and implementation.”
Mitchell’s forthcoming opus is entitled Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America – ironic since, as we now know, very few of the prisoners interrogated and tortured were in fact terrorists, or even combatants. Schulberg speculates that the ACLU might demand a copy of the book as part of pre-trial discovery, since it would no doubt give us a revealing look “inside the minds and motives” of Mitchell and Jessen themselves. As of May 2nd, however, the publisher told Huffington Post that the book’s release date has been postponed. They “declined to provide a future publication date.” Surprise…
Schulberg also notes that, in addition to their roughly $81 million CIA contract, the agency also gave the two psychologists “a multimillion-dollar indemnity deal covering potential legal fees,” which should substantially cushion the pain should they end up losing in court.
NOTE: At the end of this post I’ve included Vice News’ extended (25 minute) interview with Mitchell, in which he attempts to justify his work for the CIA.
American Psychological Association: Pay Any Price?
Mitchell (though not Jessen) belonged to the American Psychological Association, the professional group representing most psychologists in the United States. Roy Eidelson is also an APA member, but a critic of the organization’s positions condoning torture. He is one of the founders of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Eidelson has written extensively and persuasively about the APA’s complicity in the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, Guantánmo, and elsewhere, and its failure to discipline members involved in interrogations that included torture. Many of the allegations he and others have made against the organization over the years were definitively confirmed in 2014 when, as he and colleague Trudy Bond write, “the publication ofJames Risen’s, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, based on previously unavailable sources, put the American Psychological Association on the hot seat. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter alleged that, after 9/11, the APA’s leadership colluded with the Bush administration to craft ethics policies permitting psychologists to participate in coercive and abusive ‘war on terror’ detention and interrogation operations.”
“By the end of April,” Eidelson and Bond note, “the heat under the APA was turned up another notch by the release and detailed analysis of several previously confidential emails obtained by Risen…Several emails involving one individual in particular – psychologist Kirk Hubbard – go a long way toward undermining the APA’s indignant protestations of innocence.”
“In 2003, Hubbard was a chief officer at the Operational Assessment Division of the CIA. In late 2001, he had introduced psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to the CIA. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell and Jessen reportedly went to work devising and administering the CIA’s brutal black site detainee torture regime… In 2005, Hubbard left the CIA to take a job consulting for his colleagues at Mitchell Jessen & Associates…After he resigned from the APA in 2006, Hubbard publicly acknowledged that he strongly supported the abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” deemed lawful by the Bush administration.”
Doing Special Things to Special People
Eidelson and Bond go on: “For most of us, this is probably not the kind of profile that would instill confidence when looking for someone to provide guidance about psychological ethics. But a review of the newly released emails shows that the APA considered Hubbard – with his connections to the CIA and to Mitchell and Jessen – to be a highly valued adviser.
“Following a July 2003 invitation-only “science of deception” workshop hosted by the APA and funded by the CIA, APA science policy director Geoff Mumford wanted feedback from the participants. Hubbard wrote to Mumford to say, ‘You won’t get any feedback from Mitchell or Jessen. They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available.”
Kevin Cullen is a Boston Globe columnist. He was part of the “Spotlight” team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of sexual predation by Catholic priests. Late in 2014 he interviewed former CIA agent Glenn Carle. Carle was aggressive, Cullen wrote, “He didn’t play patty-cake, but neither did he torture…He, like most CIA interrogators, knows that beyond being illegal and immoral, torture doesn’t work…Carle says James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen…were quacks, pushing unproven theories.”
Everybody [in the CIA] knew these guys were frauds. They had never done intelligence work. They had never done interrogations…Our government paid them $81 million and they gave the agency the cover the White House thought it needed.
A fish rots from the head down. Some people say we were winging it. The agency [CIA] does not wing it. You cannot even sneeze in the field without authorization. The authorization for this came from the White House. None of this would have happened had not an infinitesimally small number of neo-cons decided they had to be tough guys after 9/11.
“Carle grew ill,” Cullen says, “when he saw Dick Cheney…go on TV and dismiss the Senate report on torture while almost boasting he hadn’t even read it…Like other career CIA officers, Carle points to Cheney as epitomizing what went wrong:”
People can be Disappeared. So can the Truth…
While Mitchell and Jessen are of course free to publish their version of events, there’s a growing risk that the actual facts might be “disappeared.” Adam Klasfeld’s recent Courthouse News Service report warned that “Less than two years after the release of the Senate ‘torture report, ’the National Archives has alarmed dozens of human-rights and press advocates by refusing to call the report a ‘federal record’ requiring preservation.
“The Constitution Project and 30 other human-rights and media organizations said that they were “disturbed” by reports from two senators over the fate of the document. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a heavily redacted summary of its report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program in late 2014, but the full, 6,700-page study remains entirely classified…As a result, even President Barack Obama’s executive branch cannot read the full report, and the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]has stonewalled questions about whether it qualifies as a federal record…”In a four-page letter, the organizations reminded Ferriero that the CIA has destroyed “crucial video records of the torture program” more than a decade ago, “without NARA’s knowledge or authorization.”
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
SOME RESOURCES ON THESE CASES, AND THE ISSUES THEY RAISE:
Out of the Darkness: How two psychologists teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings, American Civil Liberties Association
RELATED BLOG POSTS FROM THE REFUGE MEDIA PROJECT:
Psychologists and Torture 7/14/2010 – The Center for Justice & Accountability, Harvard’s Human Rights Clinic & Northwestern University’s Justice Center call for action, but the APA – not so much.
A Soldier who Refused to Torture 9/17/2010 – a young trooper commits suicide after being disciplined for refusing to participate in interrogations in Iraq; the Army describes her death as being from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”
FOOTNOTE:I have been for many years a board member of the Ignacio-Martín Baró Fund for Mental Health & Human Rights, most of whose founders are psychologists (though I am not – I am primarily a filmmaker and writer.) The Fund is named in honor of one of the six Jesuit priests murdered by U.S. trained Salvadoran troops in 1989. For at least ten years the Fund and its supporters have confronted the American Psychological Association’s tacit approval of the involvement of psychologists in torture and other cruel and unusual treatment in U.S. detention facilities. As a recent MBF statement noted: “Finally the Martín-Baró Fund and other grassroots groups can declare at least partial victory. Last year, a membership referendum campaign led by activists both within and outside the American Psychological Association resulted in a new, clear policy barring psychologists from working in U.S. detention centers that violate the Constitution or international law unless they are working directly for the detainees themselves or for third-party human rights groups representing the interests of detainees”
Indigenous farmers are protecting both a
way of life and a vital resource for the future…
My wife, Emily, and I recently had the opportunity to visit a number of indigenous farming communities in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico, as part of a delegation from Grassroots International, a small foundation that supports these and other projects in a number of countries around the world, “advancing the human right to land, water and food.” The photos in this post were taken during that trip.
I hope that readers of this post won’t be put off by this deviation from my usual topics – the issues of torture and related human rights violations worldwide. I could probably make a legitimate argument that the stress imposed on these communities by their government – in collaboration with international (mostly U.S.) agri-business – amounts to torture, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Anyway, it’s my blog and I can write what I want.
A central focus of the trip was on the maintenance by these communities of native varieties of corn, a vital food crop which originated in Mexico, and was refined over almost 10,000 years by their ancestors. Indigenous Mesoamerican communities also developed themilpa system of planting maize (corn), squash, and beans together, which minimizes the need for fertilizer and pesticides. Today, as the research organization CGIAR notes, Maize is a major staple in developing countries around the world, “providing food for 900 million people earning less than US $2 per day.”
Yet the survival of the crucial genetic information encoded in these corn species – along with the indigenous communities themselves – is now threatened by the growing dominance of commercially promoted varieties (especially those marketed by the U.S. company, Monsanto) which have been genetically modified so that they do not self-reproduce. As a result, new seed corn must be purchased every year. (See this excellent NY Times article on the development of corn in Mexico. There are some other links on the subject below.)
Grassroots International works around the world to help small farmers and other small producers, indigenous peoples and women win resource rights: the human rights to land, water and food. In addition to Mexico, GRI is currently funding projects in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Middle East, and West Africa, A video introduction to the organization’s work can be found on its YouTube page.
Grassroots International: “We are a funder that supports community-led initiatives and movements worldwide, with special focus in Brazil, Haiti, Mesoamerica and the Middle East. We also partner with global networks like the Via Campesina, which includes more than 250 million small farmers and farm workers organizing in 71 nations.”
And in a (slightly) related story:Political cartoonist Rick Friday was recently fired from Iowa’s Farm News after working there for 21 years. His offense − a series of cartoons that “called out Monsanto and Big Agriculture” for excessive profits at the expense of U.S. farmers. Monsanto is the major supplier of the genetically “modified” and non-reproducing corn varieties that threaten the lives and livelihoods of indigenous Mexican farmers. Could there be a potential alliance brewing here?
An interesting piece in today’s Glasgow Evening Times points to a growing crisis in handling the influx of refugees and immigrants seeking asylum in Scotland. The United States, because of its geographic isolation, has not experienced the vast number of migrants now fleeing conflicts in the middle east, Asia and North Africa to seek refuge in Europe and the UK. Watching the, on the whole, remarkably welcoming response of those nations to the crisis presents a stark contrast with the recent anti-immigrant comments from some of our Presidential aspirants.
Glasgow GPs are “maxed out” due to escalating numbers of refugees and asylum seekers
GLASGOW doctors have demanded extra resources to cope with escalating numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, warning that practices are “maxed out.” GPs criticised a “bizarre conclusion” that people arriving in the UK – some fleeing torture with serious illnesses like Aids – would have “no additional health requirements.”
Doctors say they can’t offer patients, many of whom are coping with severe psychological trauma, adequate time in appointments. They criticized a decision to direct resources to social services and not health boards.
Delegates at the BMA Scottish Local Medical Committees (LMC) conference yesterday called on the Scottish and UK governments to increase funding. Dr Patricia Moultrie, Glasgow LMC medical secretary, who works in practices across Glasgow, said: “We are looking for more resources directed into general practice to allow GPs to give this group of patients the time and the consultations that they require: The funding that comes in is directed to social service teams but we are at the frontline of care.
“They are a group of people with very complex physiological and psychological problems and it is difficult to deal with that within a short consultation. There are the undiagnosed medical conditions that have perhaps not been well managed as they were making their journey across. There is also the psychological trauma. The proportion of these people who have been victims of torture is extraordinarily significant, particularly from countries where rape is used as a form of torture. They need the opportunity to develop a sense of trust with their GP.”
An earlier Evening Times article interviewed Norma McKinnon, manager of the human rights group, Freedom From Torture, which runs five centers in the UK and Scotland. She noted that the stories they hear are both “harrowing and shockingly familiar…This has to stop.
“But when you are sitting with another human being and you are trying to follow their eyes, and they are describing something that is very painful for them…in a context that, for them, is shameful or humiliating…then you really engage.”
Photo above from Freedom From Torture, which welcomes and assists survivors at a number of centers in England and Scotland.
U.S. Army General Geoffrey Miller (retired) did not show up for questioning, as had been predicted by Benchellali’s attorney, William Bourdon, who noted that “U.S. civilian and military officials refuse to be held to account by [foreign] judges.” Though he will be requesting an arrest warrant for Miller, the warrant cannot be enforced unless the General enters France. The judge in the case has requested relevant documents regarding the plaintiff’s imprisonment at Guantánamo, but has not received a response from the United States.
In an email to The Intercept an attorney for the non-profit Center for Constitutional Rights said, “Miller’s absence speaks volumes about the Obama administration’s continued unwillingness to confront America’s torture legacy…The administration not only refuses to investigate U.S. officials like Miller for torture, it apparently remains unwilling to cooperate when other countries seek to uphold their international obligations to prosecute torturers.”
With this as a backdrop, here’s
some other recent news from GITMO:
Saudi citizen and British resident Shaker Aamer was picked up by bounty hunters and delivered to US forces in December 2001 during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, where he had been working. After his “rendition” to our prison at Guantanamo, Aamer was held without trial, despite repeated demands by the British government and others for his release. Though “approved for transfer” by both the Bush Administration (2007) and Obama’s (2009), Aamer was not freed until October 30th of last year – after more than 13 years without ever being charged. Because of his participation in protests against detention conditions, he had spent much of that time on hunger strikes and in solitary confinement, where he was said to have lost more than 40% of his body weight. At one point in 2011, his lawyer said, “I do not think it is stretching matters to say that he is gradually dying in Guantánamo Bay,” yet the US denied requests for an independent medical examination.
Tariq Ba Odah has not been so fortunate. As recounted in a recent Reuters article, Odah been has imprisoned at Guantánamo for almost 14 years, though he was cleared for release by U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials five years ago. Despite an agonizing campaign by the Obama administration and the State Department to arrange for his release, every effort by to arrange his transfer to another country has been blocked or delayed by the Pentagon.
Reuters goes into extensive and disturbing detail – on this case and a number of others – regarding the lengths to which the military have gone to frustrate administration efforts, as well as on its motives. “Partly as a result of the Pentagon’s maneuvers, it is increasingly doubtful that Obama will fulfill a pledge he made in the 2008 presidential election to close the detention center…Obama criticized President George W. Bush for having set up the prison for foreigners seized in the ‘War on Terror’ after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., and then keeping them for years without trial…Today, with little more than a year remaining in his presidency, it still holds 107 detainees.”
“Military officials…continue to make transfers more difficult and protracted than necessary, administration officials said. In particular, they cite General John F. Kelly, in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, which includes Guantánamo. They said that Kelly, whose son was killed fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, opposed the president’s policy of closing Guantánamo, and that he and his command have created obstacles for visiting delegations.”
…and a view from home:
In a recent column, Frida Berriganreflects on an item in her local, Connecticut, newspaper about the return of a local National Guard unit from the Guantánamo Naval Base: “One woman…told the reporter, ‘We have been apart for 10-and-a-half months. It’s been a really long year by myself, and we’re so excited to be back together finally.’ There were balloons, flowers, tears and children in adorable outfits…” Berrigan acknowledges that she has no way of knowing if any of these Guard members “had anything to do with the Muslim men who have been held there in extremis for 14 years.” Yet, she notes, “as the Connecticut guards were preparing to come home, three men were supposed to leave Guantánamo as well. But they were not welcomed home with flowers and balloons. They did not return to their home countries.”
She mentions Shaker Aamer: “At Guantánamo, he was beaten, tortured and almost asphyxiated. He was held in solitary confinement for 360 days at one point during his imprisonment…Aamer met his 13-year-old son Faris for the first time on October 31, 2015. His older children are now young adults. He told the BBC, “I left them when they were little tiny kids, hugging them, carrying them all the time. And now they are grown up…They look at me and they’re just trying to know who is this person?”
“Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah was born in Egypt and sent to Bosnia…Abdul Aziz Abdullah Ali al Suadi, a Yemeni, was resettled in Montenegro. They join a growing cadre of displaced former Guantánamo prisoners, trying to make a life for themselves in new and unfamiliar countries after more than a decade of imprisonment, torture and mistreatment…Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bwazir of Yemen was not told where he was going and according to his lawyer, John Chandler, was “frightened” to leave the prison headed to an unknown country, where he had no ties or connections…“Can you imagine being there for 14 years and going to a plane where you could finally leave, and saying, ‘No, take me back to my cell?’”
“Time. We can’t get it back. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The families embracing their returning fathers, sons and husbands after 10 months of separation in Connecticut know it. Shaker Aamer and his children…meeting almost as strangers after 13 years apart know it too….and so do those 91 men who remain at Guantánamo, while their families wait for them.”
“What to do or where to go I know not – I am surrounded by difficulty…I am enveloped in darkness; but still, strange to say, I live upon hope, the friend of man.”
This rather poignant complaint by a 19th century farmer to his wife might have reflected years of drought and crop failures, a plague of locusts, or the loss of a child. Actually, he was complaining about his difficulties in selling off a “coffle” of slaves that he had driven over a thousand miles – on foot – to market. As author Edward Ball comments, “It is peculiar that a man can pity himself for being unable to sell a roomful of teenagers he has known since their birth but…that’s what it was.”
It’s hard to get your mind around the casual wickedness that was the slave trade in the United States. In his recent Smithsonian article, “Slavery’s Trail of Tears,” Ball does it, in part, by juxtaposing the corporate-scale operations of Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, “the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade,” with the one-time human selling expedition, in 1847-48, of William Waller, the Virginia farmer quoted in my opening paragraph. Bell discovered Waller’s letters to his wife in the archives of the Virginia Historical society.
“Coffle,” Ball notes, is “a once-common word that, like so much of the vocabulary of slavery, has been effaced from the language.” It denotes a number of people – or animals – chained together in a line. Waller’s coffle consisted of roughly 20 slaves including at least four children, as well as Sarah, a young mother with a 2-year-old daughter. Sarah had been forcibly separated from her husband and mother, who were left behind on the farm. There were also three sisters, whose only hope was that they might be sold to the same master so as not to be separated.
“During the 50 years of the Slave Trail, perhaps half a million people born in the United States were sold in New Orleans, more than all the Africans brought to the country during two centuries of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. New Orleans, the biggest slave market in the country had about 50 people-selling companies in the 1840’s.”
—— Edward Ball, “Slavery’s Trail of Tears”
The greater part of Ball’s article focuses on the vastly larger-scale operations of Franklin & Armfield and professional slave traders like them (and like those who kidnapped and enslaved Solomon Northrup, whose memoir Twelve Years a Slave, was the basis of the 2013 film.) I think that I was myself more interested in William Waller’s story because it represents what Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, called “the banality of evil.” Waller comes across, in his letters, as an everyman figure – an ordinary farmer and family man, yet a man prepared to destroy the lives of those under his control to maintain his own economic status. He is a man, moreover, who knows that his peers will not only approve of his actions, but would no doubt think him strange if he did otherwise.
In his letters home, Waller describes his slaves as happy and “in fine spirits,” yet the 1847-48 trip took about six months, and it’s likely that they spent most if not all of that time chained together, under armed guard, beaten if they could not keep up the pace; the men perhaps handcuffed as well; beset by insects; sleeping on the ground in all weather – knowing that at the end of the trip they would likely be separated from everyone and everything they had ever known, and finally, at the end of the long journey, to be thrown on the mercy of unknown new masters.
Ball notes that it was typical for small traders headed for the slave markets of the deep south to sell one or two slaves along the way to pay their expenses, but the cotton market was down, so additional slaves were not in demand and Waller was unable to make any sales for much of the trip. It was then that he wrote of being “enveloped in darkness.”
“I try and be satisfied…”
Through a friend who had moved to Raymond, Mississippi, Waller was able to sell several of his slaves there (Sarah and her daughter went for $800.) Receiving the news, his wife wrote back that she was “much pleased,” but added, “I wish you could have sold more of them.” Waller then moved on to New Orleans where he finally succeeded in selling the remainder for $8,000, He lamented to his wife that “I have not obtained as much as I expected, but I try and be satisfied.” His total sales came to $12,675, a little more than $6o0 each.
A Different Perspective on
our Overblown Prison System
I’ve written before about conditions in our nation’s prison system – particularly in relation to our deeply disturbing over-use of solitary confinement.
I wasn’t expecting to find a new angle on this problem in the magazine of the Sierra Club – a publication I might not be reading at all except that I get it as a contributor to the organization. But, as an article in a recent issue notes, in addition to locking up a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation, “our prisons are a continual source of environmental degradation.”
As prison populations increase – with many institutions criminally overcrowded (small pun here) problems resulting from the waste they generate have in some cases become overwhelming. In her Sierra article, Dashka Slater describes a 2005 hearing in Alabama, where citizens came to protest prison sewage releases that were degrading the rivers where they swam, boated and fished:
The source was the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, which held some 1,500 inmates even though it had been built to house fewer than half that many. “Rest assured that if any one of us was dumping raw sewage into the river, we would be heavily fined and locked up in the very prison we’re discussing,” observed Buddy Vines, described in the next day’s Birmingham News as “a lifelong resident of property along the river.”
Groups cited in the article who are responding to this issue include the Prison Ecology Project, whose director, Panagioti Tsolkas, says “In some ways a prison is a factory farm for humans and, sadly, it has the equivalent output.”
“In prison you don’t have any choice…”
In addition to looking at the polluting impact of prisons on their surroundings, the article cites a number of correctional institutions where inmates themselves are at risk from chemicals in nearby waste dumps, landfills and other sources. Dashka notes that “inmates in many of these facilities report health problems consistent with toxic exposure, but their options are limited.” She quotes Paul Wright, founder of the Prison Ecology Project’s parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, who says “They can’t say ‘Hey, I don’t like it here, so I’m going to move.’ In prison you don’t have any choice.”
Note: the Human Rights Defense Center publishes its own newsletter, Prison Legal News. Illustrations in this post are from the original Sierra article.
Navy nurse who refused to
force-feed prisoners may lose pension…
The case of the “Guantanamo Nurse” has faded from the headlines, but it’s not over. Despite widespread U.S. and international condemnation of the Navy’s practice of force-feeding prisoners who are on hunger strike, the sole prison staffer who has refused to participate in this controversial procedure remains at risk.
The nurse’s attorney, Ronald W. Meister, confirmed today that the Department of Defense has instituted proceedings to revoke the nurse’s security clearance, and is then expected to attempt to discharge him from the Navy. Meister noted that military pensions do not vest until twenty years of service, so If the military has its way, he could lose all of the pension benefits he has earned over almost nineteen years of loyal service.
Meister expects to submit the nurse’s response in October or November, for a decision by the DOD’s Consolidated Adjudication Facility. An adverse decision by that body could be appealed.
Asked whether other health care professionals at the prison have taken positions against force-feeding, the attorney indicated that he’s not aware of any such cases. “It was the practice in past years to allow physicians who objected to force-feeding to decline assignment to Guantanamo,” he noted, “and to allow nurses who objected to be assigned to other duties. Those policies apparently are no longer in effect.” Meister was himself a Lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Navy (which describes itself on its website as “the best law firm in the world”) so can claim some familiarity with and even sympathy for the legitimate needs of the military. He clearly feels it has overstepped in this case.
“The document makes for gruesome reading,” Nocera wrote. “The detainee shackled to a special chair (which looks like the electric chair); the head restraints if he resists; the tube pushed painfully down his nose; the half-hour or so of ingestion of nutritional supplements; the transfer of the detainee to a “dry cell,” where, if he vomits, he is strapped back into the chair until the food is digested. Detainees are also apparently given an anti-nausea drug called Reglan, which has a horrible potential side effect if given for more than three months: a disease called tardive dyskinesia, which causes twitching and other uncontrollable movements.”
As a long time supporter and chronicler of nurses’ crucial roles in the healthcare system, I was disappointed by the American Nurses Association’s public position on this case. Like the American Medical Association, the ANA focuses on the nurse’s right to refuse to participate in so-called enteral feeding. I would have hoped that nurses would feel not just a right but an obligation to refuse to feed an unwilling prisoner, and that the ANA would be prepared to back them up when they do so.
I was also disturbed by a sentence in the ANA statement that says “Individuals in critical care units, psychiatric settings, or who are incarcerated might have diminished capacity for decision-making…” Diminished capacity is a term usually applied to those with a cognitive or psychiatric disability, not the “disability” of being locked up in a military prison.
Guantanamo’s detainees do not have diminished capacity. They are in despair. Maybe they still have some vestige of hope that their protest will finally move us to demand their release, or maybe they’ve just given up.
No one can be entirely comfortable with the idea of someone starving him or herself to death for a principle.
“A powerful film, telling the stories of courageous survivors of unspeakable acts of torture from around the world, and of the doctors, psychiatrists, counselors and others in the United States doing their best to care for and help them…A ‘must see’ that will also help lawyers understand the experiences of clients who are torture survivors.” — Kevin R. Johnson, Dean, UC Davis School of Law Co-Editor of “ImmigrationProf” blog
“A true gift to viewers. This remarkable and useful documentary identifies refugee survivors as resilient, empowered, and organized communities rather than victims. State terrorism’s impacts on individuals, families, and communities come alive in the stories by survivors, their advocates, and clinicians…Despite the horrific stories, this is a calm film. Dignity is at the core.” — Gonzalo Bacigalupe, Professor of Counseling Director of Family Therapy Program, UMass-Boston
“First-hand accounts of the effects of torture, as told by men and women now living in the United States, deepen our understanding of the devastating effects of torture for the victims and their surviving families. A must-see for all who seek a greater awareness of the newcomers who arrive on our shores after having experienced the horrific trauma of torture.” — Nestor Rodriguez, Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin
“Beautifully highlights and humanizes the issues faced by both torture survivors and those treating them. We are reminded that a grant of asylum is only one step in a long journey of healing, and our healthcare system is woefully deficient in identifying victims and providing necessary and proper care..” — Christie Fujio, JD, MA, Physicians for Human Rights
It’s been quite a while since my last posts – I hope that some of you out there have been missing them. Actually, maybe I should just be hoping that there are some readers out there. Let me know. All feedback will be welcome!
One of the things that’s kept me preoccupied has been finding the right “home” (i.e., distributor) for my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture. As you may know, I have been handling the distribution of the film myself since it was completed toward the end of 2013. However, as a one-person, one-film operation, I simply haven’t had the time or resources to manage the level of outreach the film needs and deserves.
So, as of a few months ago, REFUGE is now represented by my old friends and distributor colleagues, John Hoskyns-Abrahall and Winnie Sherrer at BULLFROG FILMS.
(Please note also that the old Refuge Media Project website still offers a wealth of information and access to documents and other resources dealing with the issue of torture worldwide. My apologies for the fact that a few entries on that site may be out of date or no longer available.)
In the meantime, I’ve come across some intriguing resources that I want to pass along. Here’s one, and I’ll cite more in future posts:
Based at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice of New York University’s School of Law, Just Security describes itself as “an online forum for the rigorous analysis of U.S. national security law and policy. We aim to promote principled and pragmatic solutions to national security problems that decision-makers face.” Here are a few examples of articles relating to U.S. policy on torture:
Clearly intended primarily for human rights lawyers and law students, others (including me) may find it a bit difficult to browse within the site itself, but worthwhile if you know what you’re looking for. A good place to start is the comprehensive listing of article topics in the organization’s archives. Click on the link under “Archives by Topic” in the right-hand column.
Human Rights Photo Competition – August 15 Deadline Sorry for the late notice on this, but I just noticed it on the Center’s website. They’re holding a photo competition, Images of Inequality, “to explore the myriad ways in which people witness, interpret, and experience inequalities…illustrating through photographs the links between inequality and human rights.” For more information, click on the link above.
Historically, throughout much of the world, torture has been thought of as a perhaps regrettable but necessary form of interrogation and discipline. One of the most revolutionary aspects of the British Bill of Rights of 1689 – reaffirmed a century later in the U.S. Constitution – was its prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.” The reality is that torture was far from unusual then, and that both countries continue to be complicit in acts of torture today, both within and outside their borders.
I’m not sure if there was such a thing as a torture treatment movement before Helen Bamber. In a 2011 piece in the Toronto Star, Heather Mallick wrote that “interviewing Helen Bamber is like interviewing the 20th century, but only the worst bits …” She goes on to describe “the fresh cookies that Bamber, 86, serves me in her comfy office in London, where she counsels people who had electrodes attached to their tongues and spines and then convulsed and screamed for death.”
The anti-torture and torture treatment movements, as we know them today, arguably began during and after World War II, in the world’s revulsion at the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps, as well as the creation of huge numbers of displaced persons, many of them survivors of torture needing resettlement and relief.
“Bamber, who is Jewish, has spent her life listening to victims, thousands of them, and coping with the aftermath of human viciousness,” Mallick wrote. “As a 20-year-old aid volunteer in post-surrender Germany in 1945, she saw camps thick with fetid scraps of corpses and near-corpses and looked into the eyes of the Germans, all the while wearing a Jewish Relief Unit badge – not an easy thing when returning Jews were still being quietly murdered.”
After her return to Britain, in addition to helping to found Amnesty International, Bamber, who trained as a psychotherapist, formed the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (now known as the Freedom From Torture Foundation) and her own Helen Bamber Foundation, where she continued to offer therapy to clients almost until her death this past August. The most important thing, she was quoted as saying, was not to be one of those people who let torture happen as they watch. She swore “never to be a bystander.”
In her obituary in The London Economic, Ben Gelblum quotes holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott, one of 732 children cared for by Bamber after the end of the Second World War: “We had reached the limit of our endurance. We were liberated in a state of exhaustion and emaciation…The vast majority of us survivors had lost our parents and had nobody left. It was to Helen that we turned.”
“She helped the orphans of the Holocaust rebuild their lives, Gelblum wrote. “Then later, the tortured, broken survivors of Pinochet, the Argentinian junta, African and Middle Eastern conflicts, and of a modern British approach to refugees that ‘disbelieves, destitutes and detains’ them.”
Actor Emma Thompson, Bamber’s friend and now President of the Helen Bamber Foundation, said “Entering Bergen Belsen concentration camp with the allied forces that liberated it had a profound impact on Helen Bamber…She dedicated her life to the weakest, most vulnerable in society.”
Robert E. White: “A diplomat in opposition…”
“I was fired by the Nixon White House for opposing politicization of the Peace Corps, reprimanded by Henry Kissinger for speaking out on human rights, and finally, definitely dismissed by Alexander Haig for opposing a military solution in El Salvador.” That’s Robert E. White’s own quick summary of his diplomatic career. It’s humorous and not exactly inaccurate, but doesn’t do justice to his enormous accomplishments as a “diplomat in opposition.”
As his New York Times obituary noted, Robert E. White “lived just long enough to witness his criticism of the Cuban embargo vindicated, when President Obama announced on December 17 that it would be lifted.” “For a half-century,” he had written in anearlier Times op-ed, “our policies toward our southern neighbors have alternated between intervention and neglect, inappropriate meddling and missed opportunities.”
I had the opportunity to meet White when the Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund, of which I was then a board member, invited him to speak at our annual event commemorating the murders of six Jesuit Priests who were faculty members at the University of Central America, in El Salvador.
White’s career as a United States diplomat was cut short, at least in part as the result of two earlier political murders: Melvin A. Goodman writes in Counterpunch that, in early 1980, “Ambassador White informed the State Department that El Salvador’s leading right-wing politician, Roberto D’Aubuisson had ordered the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero…The CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, Robert Gates, suppressed all intelligence on the killing, part of the Agency’s effort to bury many of the truths of American policy toward Latin America in the 1980s.”
In December of that same year, Jean Donovan and Sister Dorothy Kazel, churchwomen working for human rights in the country, had been White’s guests at the American Embassy in San Salvador. The following day, they and two other nuns were kidnapped, and later found raped and murdered. White believed – accurately – that the Salvadoran death squads responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero had carried out these murders as well. “This time,” White was quoted as saying at their grave site, “the bastards won’t get away with it.” But the State Department refused to take action. Instead, when Reagan took office the following January, White was forced out of the Foreign Service.
“I regard it as an honor to join a small group of officers who have gone out of the service because they refused to betray their principles,” White said at the time. His suspicions of a cover-up were confirmed by declassified State Department documents, and he later testified in a suit brought by the Center for Justice and Accountability against two retired Salvadoran generals – by then living safely in Florida – who were accused of covering up the murders. (NOTE: See the CJA website for a listing of the organization’s many ongoing legal actions against the Salvadoran government and other violators of human rights. Also note The National Catholic Reporter’s moving tribute to White, in its January 21 edition.)
After leaving government, White continued to be a critic of government policy, serving as president of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. He died of cancer this past January at the age of eighty-eight.
Margaret Van Duyne: One With One
As I was finishing up this post, I happened to come across the obituary, in the Boston Globe, of Boston-area activist, Margaret Van Duyne, at 79.
As a filmmaker, I was interested – and may have felt a special kinship – when I read that she first became engaged in immigration issues through a filmmaking class, where she made a documentary, Room For All, on the problems new immigrants face in accessing services. She told the Boston Globe in a 1987 interview that the refugees she met while making the film were “thrilled to be here…but my film’s audiences were not thrilled to see them, even on film. I was unprepared for the prejudice.” A 1988 Globe editorial quoted Mrs. Van Duyne as saying many Americans believe “that because my grandparents had it tough, so should the new wave of immigrants.”
Her work is a reminder that, like Van Duyne, there is a small army of volunteers and non-profit staff workers around the country who have mobilized to supplement the pitifully inadequate support offered by our federal and state governments to survivors of torture and other immigrants. Her nonprofit, One With One, paired volunteer guides with nearly 2,000 immigrants from more than 70 countries and, according to the Globe, helped more than 500 immigrants to secure jobs. Self-sufficiency for immigrants was a central goal, and the group achieved, according to one of her associates, a 100 percent job placement rate. (NOTE: The Globe’s obituary was written by Kathleen McKenna, who can be reached at email@example.com)
As we approach the end of a truly harrowing year for race relations in the United States, it’s hard not to wonder whether we’ll be able to make it through the remaining two and a half weeks without more killings.
In an eye-opening piece in today’s edition of the online newsletter, Nation of Change, Andrew Emett offers a sobering list of sixteen unarmed black people killed by police so far this year. Most black victims were men or boys, but one woman and two children are included in this sad accounting. Also included are several unarmed people of other races (including a white teenager shot because he opened the door to a police officer while holding a Wii remote control.) The Nation of Change article doesn’t cite the race of the police officers involved in these cases.
The sixteen incidents described include the well-publicized cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but most of the others have received little attention outside of the localities where they occurred. Below is one sample from the report:
According to a Louisiana State Police press release, deputies with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a fight on the evening of March 2. After confronting Victor White III and searching him twice, Cpl. Justin Ortis allegedly found drugs in his pockets. Ortis placed White into custody, cuffed his hands behind his back, and put him in the backseat of a patrol car. Upon arriving at the Sheriff’s Office, White reportedly became uncooperative, pulled out a gun, and shot himself in the back. But according to the autopsy report, White had been shot in the chest with his hands cuffed behind his back and the coroner found lacerations on White’s face near his left eye. Witnesses stated White’s face had been unmarked before he was taken into custody.
What if Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson was black and Michael Brown was white? Does anyone have the slightest doubt that the mostly white grand jury would have brought in an indictment against Wilson? Keep in mind that an indictment is not even a finding of guilt. It’s only a finding that there are enough facts that the matter should go before a trial jury.
What if NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo was black and Eric Garner was white? Does anyone doubt that a Staten Island grand jury would have indicted Pantaleo for causing Garner’s death when he used an illegal chokehold on him — all of which was recorded on film?
Race matters. Black lives matter. In this country, though, it looks like they don’t matter nearly as much as white lives.
To explore another “counterfactual”: what if we should someday have reason to engage in another conflict in Europe? It’s not unthinkable; we fought two major wars there in the past century. Would some future Vice President Cheneyor CIA Director Jose Rodriguez be ready to authorize beatings, or waterboarding, or use of “stress positions” on British or German or Russian prisoners of war?
Mr. Cheney himself, of course, got five student deferments during Vietnam, the war of his own generation. He was quoted by the Washington Post as saying “I had other priorities in the 60′s than military service.”
Few of the black young men who did serve got to choose their own priorities.
The Refuge Media Project produced the film REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture. Producer/director Ben Achtenberg is currently researching other projects on immigration and related issues. Our website (www.refugemediaproject.org) offers a variety of resources on these subjects for professionals, students, and interested citizens.