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.
“They were taken from us alive! We want them back alive!” That’s the demand of the families and supporters of the missing young men from Ayotzinapa. But yesterday, newspapers around the world announced the first hard evidence that at least one of the 43 kidnapped Mexican campesino students had been murdered, his body burned and his bones scattered.
A laboratory in Austria confirmed yesterday that a fragment of one of those bones matched the DNA of Alexander Mora. According to the New York Times, Mora’s parents received the news from Argentine forensic scientists who have been working with the student’s families on the case.
As widely reported by witnesses, the students had been arrested by local police on orders of the corrupt Mayor of the town of Iguala, in the State of Guerrero, and his wife. They were then turned over to members of a drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos, who carried out the killings, and attempted to destroy the evidence of the crime by burning the students’ bodies. Despite their efforts, it’s possible that more remains may be identified in coming weeks.
The students were mostly crammed into the back of a cargo truck, piled atop one another (some others were forced into a smaller truck), and then driven to the Cocula municipal dump. According to the detained witnesses, some fifteen of the students were already dead by the time they arrived; several had been wounded during that night’s earlier attacks. The cartel gunmen interrogated those who were still alive about their identities and the reasons they had come to Iguala, and one after another the captives replied that they were students. Then the gunmen executed them…the fire burned for more than fourteen hours.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the state police and federal army units in Iguala had failed to intervene to protect the students, despite the fact that local human-rights activists had alerted the state government to the crime, and that the buses carrying the students when the police attacked them with gunfire were stopped a hundred metres from the military installation of the 27th Infantry Battalion [of the Mexican Army.]
The missing young men were students at a rural teacher training college, Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos, in the town of Ayotzinapa – a school noted for giving youth from impoverished rural backgrounds a chance at an education and careers as teachers. While it’s been reported that the students were in town to “borrow” buses to take them to a demonstration in Mexico City, this kind of behavior by student activists has gone on for years, and is tolerated by locals, rather than being seen as a criminal offense.
Apparently, the students’ real “crime” was that their activities upset the Mayor’s wife — who has family links to the drug cartel — by distracting attention from one of her public appearances. (Both the Mayor and his wife went into hiding after the public outcry over the murders, but have since been apprehended.)
It remains to be seen how Mexican justice will deal with those who gave the orders for the probable massacre, and those who carried it out. In the meantime, there have been massive, continuing protests in Guerrero, elsewhere in Mexico, and throughout the world. In the United States, on December 3rd, demonstrations held in a symbolic 43 cities expressed solidarity and grief over the killings, as well as recognizing the key role of U.S. drug policy in empowering Latin American cartels and promoting the militarization of Mexican society.
Mark Vallen is an activist/artist (or maybe the other way around) whose blog, Art for a Change, and newsletter regularly report on the intersections between those two realms. His latest post, Ayotzinapa: Between Pain and Hope, reports on the response to the kidnappings and disappearances by hundreds of Mexican artists who have been creating posters, each with the image, name, and age of one of the disappeared students.
Some of these images can be seen on Mark’s website, and many more on a Tumblr blog set up by the artists after the murders. In this post I’ve included several images of Alexander Mora, the first student proven to have been murdered.
Contact Mark if you’d like to receive his email newsletter, and see the sources below for more information about the Ayotzinapa disappearances. Thanks to my wife, Emily Achtenberg, for advice and research assistance on this post. Check out her blog, Rebel Currents, on the website of NACLA, the North American Congress on Latin America.
The links below represent a small sample of recent articles documenting and responding to the murders of the Ayotzinapa students:
Documentary Explores Contested History of Israeli-Palestinian Relations
Readers in Princeton, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, still have a chance to see a remarkable and important documentary about the birth of Israel and its impact on Palestinians – and to meet the producer while she is touring the United States. See the end of this post for information about dates and times.
Thanks to the Boston area Jewish Voice for Peace, I recently had a chance to see On the Side of the Road, Lia Tarachansky’s first feature length film, in which she explores Israeli attitudes about the state’s founding, and toward the Palestinians, for whom those same events represent what they call the nakba, or catastrophe. I’m not going to review the film without a second viewing but wanted to get this information out before Lia’s U.S. tour ends.
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Lia Tarachansky was born in the Soviet Union. Her parents moved with her to Israel when she was six, and she grew up in a West Bank settlement, never questioning the narrative of Israeli entitlement and Palestinian treachery. While in college, a chance encounter and growing friendship with a Palestinian woman her own age began to open her eyes to a different reality.
“The film is an exploration of the power of denial. It questions what Israelis learn, know, and sometimes choose not to know about the 1948 war. That fateful year led to the birth of the state of Israel and displacement of two-thirds of the Palestinian people.” – from the film’s website
Lisa Goldman in The Daily Beast said “Tarachansky manages to show an upsetting reality without dehumanizing the people she interviews and films…[her] method is not to blame or even to teach. It is to examine, narrate and let others speak for themselves.”
To order a copy of On the Side of the Road contact Lia through the project website; she’ll let you know when they are available.
Below is the latest information I was able to obtain about Lia’s remaining screenings in the United States. Check to see if any more info may have been added on her Facebook page.
Monday, December 1, 2014 | 7:00pm | Princeton University, NJ—Location to be determined Wednesday, December 3, 2014 | 6:30pm | New York, NY — Kimmel Center, NYU, 60 Washington Square South, Rosenthal Pavilion 10th Floor Thursday, December 4, 2014 | 7:00pm | Philadelphia, PA — Friends Center, 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia Friday, December 5, 2014 | 6:00pm | Baltimore, MD — Hodson Building, Room 213, John Hopkins University Sunday, December 7, 2014 | 7:00pm | Baltimore, MD — 2640 St. Paul’s Tuesday, December 9, 2014 | 7:00pm | Washington DC — Nyumburu Cultural Center, University of Maryland, College Park (contact firstname.lastname@example.org) Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | USA | 12:00pm | Washington DC — The Palestine Center, 2425 Virginia Avenue, NW Wednesday, December 10, 2014 | 5:30pm | Washington DC — Abramson Family Founders Room, SIS Building, American University Saturday, December 13, 2014 | 7:00pm | Washington DC — Emergence Community Arts Collective – 733 Euclid St. NW
Note: I’m not going to post on the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — they’re being exhaustively covered by both the mainstream and progressive media and I have no insights to add. But see my post of earlier this month, “Black, Brown…and Targeted by Police,” on a New York group dedicated to keeping things like this from happening in the first place.
Communities United for Police Reform Communities United for Police Reform is an impressive, grassroots organizing group, focused on what it describes as “an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York City.” They use the well-chosen acronym “CPR” for their work, which is indeed life-saving. The organization aims “to help build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and policing practices based on respect for the rights and dignity of all New Yorkers.” Among the concerns being addressed by CPR:
Excessive “stop and frisk” practices: almost 700,000 in 2011, almost 90% of which did not lead to arrest or summons.
Arrests were for minor offenses and/or did not lead to convictions, but in many cases did lead to loss of jobs and evictions.
Policing which “aggressively targets low-income communities of color,” as well as women, immigrants, people with disabilities, the young, homeless, and LGBT individuals.
At a recent presentation to Boston-area supporters Yul-San Liem, one of CPR’s founders spoke, and introduced one of the group’s members and activists, Constance Malcolm, who struggled through tears to describe the shooting of her son Lamarley. The young man, though unarmed, was chased into his Bronx home and shot at short range by a New York City police officer. “There’s no accountability for an officer who breaks the law,” Malcolm said, “and they keep breaking the law over and over every day.” (The Ramarley Graham case was extensively covered by New York City media. Photo above from Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.)
Black, Brown & Targeted Black, Brown and Targeted is an initiative by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts exploring similar issues. Their report can be downloaded here. According to the ACLU, racially biased policing by the Boston Police Department is demonstrated by data from reports of 200,000+ encounters between BPD officers and civilians from 2007–2010. According to researchers, the data show that police targeted Blacks in 63.3% of encounters—while Blacks make up less than a quarter of Boston’s population. The bottom line, the report says, “is that race was a significant factor driving the BPD’s stop-and-frisk practices.”
“This racial disparity cannot be explained away by BPD efforts to target crime,” the ACLU researchers note, Their statistical analysis found that race “drove police-civilian encounters even after controlling for crime rates and other factors,” and that Blacks were more likely “to be subjected to repeat police-civilian encounters and to be frisked or searched, even after controlling for civilians’ alleged gang involvement and history of prior arrest.”
“If torture is a state secret,
impunity inevitably follows…”
Will we ever see the remaining torture photographs from Abu Ghraib and Bagram? In late October, federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein told White House lawyers that they have until December 12th to explain their rationale for keeping secret any of the roughly 2,100 photos showing “enhanced interrogation” (torture) of U.S. prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos in question have never been seen by the public and, according to The Guardian, “are said to be even more disturbing than the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs that sparked a global furor.”
The Obama administration had previously announced its intention to release the photos, but changed its mind, with Obama stating that release of the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion and…have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.” Think about that one for a moment: If we expose the military’s coverups of past misconduct, it will only make them more likely to cover up misconduct in the future. How would you feel if one of your kids tried that one on you?
According to Mr. Obama in a White House press briefing, “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.” Yet this is the President who has refused to authorize prosecution of any of the government officials responsible.
According to Jessica Schulberg in the New Republic, the United States was relatively slow to sign on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and Obama – despite early support for legislation that would outlaw U.S. torture of prisoners “regardless of their geographic location,” has signally failed to put this interpretation of the Convention into force. The New York Times, she points out, has reported that “Obama is considering…affirming Bush’s notion that the U.S. is only obligated to prevent torture within its own borders.” (This interpretation, of course, provides both the Bush and Obama administrations with the primary rationale for the establishment and continued use of the prison/interrogation facility at Guantánamo.)
Schulberg quotes a report from the organization Open the Government criticizing Obama’s position: “All of the violations of the Convention Against Torture…flow from a single source: the decision to allow the United States’ intelligence services to classify evidence of torture, even the victims’ memories of it. If torture is a state secret, impunity inevitably follows.”
Assuming that Hellerstein decides the Obama administration must release some photos to the public, and assuming that Obama decides to comply with the order, the judge has said that he will hold a hearing in January. It’s anticipated that the administration will seek to withhold as many as possible. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sought release of the photos for the past ten years, according to attorney Marcellene Hearn: “The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad…We will continue to press for release of the photos in the courts.”
Artwork: Justin Norman /cc/flickr, from Common Dreams: “An artist’s intepretation of prisoner mistreatment, because the real photos may never be released.” The image is called “Indefinite Detention,” and the subtitle reads “A reminder of those still being held indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and other detention centers around the globe.”
I’ve borrowed the headline above from the website of the invaluable educational resource Facing History and Ourselves. Nothing could better characterize the actions of the courageous Syrian dissident who risked his life, family, and future to bear witness to the brutality of the Assad regime.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will be hosting a small display of the devastating images taken by the anonymous Syrian military photographer who was assigned to take photographs of more than 10,000 tortured and murdered victims of President Bashar Assad – as described in my post of earlier this year, Code Name Caesar. At extraordinary risk, Caesar managed to escape with his family to Europe, taking with him more than 55,000 photos documenting the carnage. Some of the photos can be viewed on YouTube.
Interviewed by Brett Zongker for the Associated Press, Cameron Hudson, the director of the museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said that the twelve images selected “show dozens of bodies piled atop one another. Others show the effects of deprivation and torture, including electrocution, gouged out eyes and removed genitals…They show a side of the Syrian regime that hasn’t really been seen…When you’re confronted with these images, they’re impossible to ignore.”
“You don’t wither away and die like that on a battlefield” Hudson told the AP. “You don’t get that in a matter of days or weeks. Its months and months of deprivation that causes the human body to wither away like that.”
Perhaps anticipating the denial and disbelief that some viewers might have when confronted with such pictures, the reporter notes that “the museum relied on forensic examinations of the photographs conducted by the FBI and by former prosecutors and forensic experts of the International Criminal Court to verify the authenticity of the images.”
When my wife and I visited Chile last year, we were shown a number of sites where torture was carried out under the U.S.-supported Pinochet regime, as well as documentation on others. One of the things that surprised and shocked me – in addition to the sheer number – was the realization of how many torture centers were located in ordinary homes, in ordinary neighborhoods. It simply was not possible for people not to have known what was going on. I believe this is intentional: you are supposed to know.
In a Sunday New York Times article last year, Eric Lichtblau wrote that one of the things that had shocked even experienced scholars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the sheer number of Nazi “ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and killing factories” that researchers had been able to document, beyond the well-known names. In fact, he notes, there were some 42,500 such installations throughout Europe:
The documented camps include not only “killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex with German military personnel.
Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new research makes painfully clear.
As in Chile, there is no way that citizens of those countries could have been unaware of what was happening in their midst, and it is survivors like Caesar who bear that message from parts of the world that are less open to us.
That’s the question Rebecca Gordon asks in The Nation, “Once upon a time, if a character on TV or in a movie tortured someone, it was a sure sign that he was a bad guy. Now, the torturers are the all-American heroes. From 24 to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s been the good guys who wielded the pliers and the waterboards.” (Gordon’s article was also published as “A Nation of Cowards,” by Tom Engelhardt.)
Gordon makes the case that, despite Barack Obama’s promises to end torture as we knew it under the Bush administration, “the infrastructure for, the capacity for, and the personnel to staff a system of institutionalized state torture remain in place, ready to bloom like a desert plant in a rain shower the next time fear shakes the United States.” As she points out, despite Obama’s executive order directing the CIA to close its detention centers, “no such orders were given…to the Joint Special Operations Command” which had run secret detention centers in Iraq. “JSOC is presently deployed on several continents…where gathering “intelligence” forms an important part of its duties.”
Gordon also reminds us that we have never received a full accounting of all the “War on Terror” torture programs, and possibly never will, and that no government officials have been held accountable. In fact, the only American ever to serve prison time in relation to those programs, John Kariakou, is presently serving time − not for participating in our illegal, immoral, and arguably pointless rendition and torture programs, but for blowing the whistle on them. We live, as she points out, not in a “brave” but in a “cowardly new world.”
“‘Safety’ and ‘security’ have become primary national concerns,” Gordon says. “There is a word for people whose first concern is always for their own safety and who will therefore permit anything to be done in their name as long as it keeps them secure. Such people are sometimes called cowards.” (Author photo: Art Illman, Metro West Daily News)
The study found that, in a majority of the countries studied, legitimate abuse victims who are seeking protection have had the evidence of their torture misread or ignored by immigration officers, and many were detained or deported.
NY Times’ apologizes for failure to
acknowledge torture…ten years too late
I never thought I had anything in common with Sarah Palin except a fondness for salmon, but when I read the New York Times’ recent defense of its decade-plus refusal to acknowledge torture by U.S. forces, “lamestream media” was the first (non-obscene) phrase that came to mind.
The paper’s Executive Editor, Dean Baquet, writes: “Over the past few months, reporters and editors of the Times have debated a subject that has come up regularly ever since the world learned of the CIA’s brutal questioning of terrorism suspects: whether to call the practices torture.” Over the past few months? Most of the rest of the world – including most of its media – have had little trouble identifying what was going on as torture. Did it really take more than ten years for the Times to figure it out?
And the phrase “mealy mouthed” is the only description I can come up with for the rest of Baquet’s column, in which he apologizes for his paper’s refusal to face reality until years after it might have made a difference in the national debate.
The Times’ abdication might not seem to matter much, but the reality is that if the nation’s “paper of record” had been willing to call out the Bush administration for what it was actually doing – even if only to use the word “torture” in its coverage – it might well have changed the nature and level of public discourse on the issue. It might have saved lives, and it might have helped save the soul of the nation.
This kind of reporting by the Times and other media might also have made it more dangerous, politically, for Obama to refuse to seek prosecutions of those who were responsible. After all, it’s one thing to let your predecessors off the hook if all they’re guilty of is authorizing “harsh interrogation methods,” rather than torture.
There’s something else missing from the Times’ “apology” too. It’s the part my parents taught me always had to be included: the part that goes “…and I won’t do it again.”
…and its shifting headlines of a few
weeks ago are equally disturbing
In its first online account of the killing, by Israeli rockets, of four boys playing on a Gaza beach, the New York Timesheadlined its story “Four Young Boys Killed on Gaza Beach,” and went on to say, “Gaza officials and witnesses said they were killed in an Israeli attack.” This was an accurate and restrained statement of the facts that were available at the time. By the time the story made it into the paper’s final, print edition, however, the headline had become “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and into Center of Mideast Strife.” What does that even mean?
I have no problem with the final Times article by Anne Barnard which appeared under that headline and is a relatively objective account of the facts as they were known at the time of publication, but nothing in it explains its strange, bland title. (Note that the last part of the online address of the Barnard article, which often reflects a piece’s original or “working” title, is quite different. It reads: gaza-strip-beach-explosion-kills-children.html. It would be interesting to know who at the Times suggested, or ordered, the change.
Barnard’s article includes a map, which indicates that the first child was killed on what appears to be a sandspit or pier (possibly the “structure…used by Hamas” mentioned below, but the other three were killed roughly 30 seconds later, as they were running away across the beach, suggesting that they were specifically targeted by the naval attack.
Alon Ben-David, a well-sourced Israeli military affairs analyst, said on Israeli television that the first beach blast targeted a structure that Israel believed was used by Hamas. He said the second blast might have been aimed at the running children, perhaps mistaken for militants. He added that given the military’s technologically advanced surveillance equipment, “it is a little hard for me to understand this, because the images show that the figures are children.”
And now, as I’m wrapping up this article, the news is coming in that the Cairo peace talks have collapsed after Israeli delegates refused to lift the blockade. Three rockets were allegedly fired into Israel, and Israeli forces have resumed shelling Gaza.
Americans have way more guns,
but less vacation time…
An excellent resource paper from the Firearm & Injury Center at the University of Pennsylvania details the horrendous toll taken by firearms each year in this country, and looks at some of the causes and consequences of that fact for what we still refer to as American civilization.
There’s no doubt that one of the primary factors in the enormous toll taken by guns in this country each year is their sheer prevalence. With almost one gun per person (97.0 per hundred residents) the United States has almost twice as many as the next cluster of contenders, Serbia (58.2) and Yemen (54.8), and the numbers go down steeply from there. (Fourth place goes to Switzerland at 45.7, but note that most adult men there, as part of the national militia, are required to keep their government-issued rifles at home. However, they are forbidden to keep ammunition for the guns, which would only be issued in case of national emergency.)
Having just read Katie Johnston’s excellent Boston Globe article, “Vacation not Included,” over my breakfast coffee, I thought I’d go out on a limb and speculate that some of the free-floating aggression that seems to characterize the U.S., and feed into our high rates of firearm suicide and murder, might also have to do with the fact that the United States is alone among twenty-one of the world’s wealthiest nations in requiring no paid vacations – that’s none, zero, nada. And, no surprise, it primarily affects poor people. Johnston reports that, while 90% of the top quarter of U.S. earners receive paid vacations, only 49% of the bottom quarter do.
In this regard, the United States falls in line with India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, and a handful of island nations that don’t require employers to offer workers paid time off. France, on the other hand, mandates 30 paid vacation days a year for all workers; Scandinavian countries offer 25. US citizens in Puerto Rico get three weeks off a year.
I spent some time juggling the numbers, but I’m no statistician (any volunteers to help out?) Doesn’t it make sense, though, that the stress of having to work 52 weeks a year just to hang onto a job – and sometimes being unable to do even that – might make people a little bit hostile.
When paid vacation legislation has been proposed, Johnston notes, it has routinely been shot down: “Some conservative commentators have called the proposals socialism; others say they would create a nation of slackers: ‘From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization,’ said John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time.”
De Graaf has produced a short film on the disappearance of vacation time in the United States, The Great Vacation Squeeze, which can be previewed on YouTube. A Yosemite National Park ranger says in the film that 20 years ago, 80 percent of visitors stayed overnight, while today’s average visit is less than five hours. The complete documentary is available from Bullfrog Films.
New publication supports recovery
from gun violence-related disabilities
A new book available through the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala focuses on recovery from disabilities which result from gun violence. Transitions is an amazing grassroots group, based in Antigua, that I’ve supported for many years – since I first saw a film about their work in my film distributor days. Run almost entirely by people with disabilities themselves, it began as a project to modify first-world wheelchairs for third world conditions (dirt roads and cobblestone streets, no curb cuts – you get the picture) but has expanded into other disability-related issues as well.
While the disabilities of many of those Transitions serves are the result of accidents, congenital birth defects, and other causes, gun violence is a huge contributor. This is, of course, true not just in Latin America but in many areas throughout the world − not least the United States. You can order a new book, Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery from the Surviving Gun Violence Project. Proceeds from sales of the book go to the Transitions Foundation, but it’s a bit pricy, so you may want to see if your university or local library will make the purchase.
Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery “has chapters on victims’ rights, traumatic injuries, rehabilitation and recovery, social protection, and case studies on Canada, India, Guatemala, Somalia, and South Africa. Shorter pieces highlight spinal cord injury in Haiti, the 2011 victims’ law in Colombia, the plight of a South African prisoner with gunshot-related paralysis, gun violence and masculinity, and much more. Profiles of survivors are woven through the book. An annex details 56 international standards relevant to a rights-based approach to respond to survivors of armed violence.
“This resource is directly relevant to anyone working in violence reduction, human rights, trauma, rehabilitation, social protection, gender justice, development, post-war recovery and associated concerns.”
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.