A relatively new President Obama had already announced that it was time to “look forward, not back” and that no one involved in the illegal and immoral torture and rendition programmes was to be prosecuted. As writer Mark Danner would later to explain to another theatre audience, “Torture is now a policy choice.” And, although, the new President had vowed to close Guantanamo, that prison remained open.
Six years later and in the midst of the most bizarre US presidential election campaign the nation has ever witnessed, we might say it is not only the justice system that has been broken by the US “war on terror,” but that the soul of the nation has been largely destroyed. Republican candidates vie with each other vowing to bring even more brutal torture back; they propose carpet bombing ISIL, banning refugees and other extreme responses to the perceived “threat”. The leading Democratic candidate calls her 2002 vote authorizing the illegal invasion of Iraq a mere “mistake”; describes the overthrow and brutal extra-judicial murder of Qaddafi she championed resulting in Libya’s failed state in the most glib terms possible, “we came, we saw, he died,” holds up the murder of Osama bin Laden as a supreme accomplishment, and is silent on the coup in Honduras she supported which has made that nation one of the most violent on the American continent. While some recoil from the blatant xenophobia and war mongering of the Republicans, few in the United States seem bothered by Hilary Clinton’s record as Senator or as Secretary of State for four years in the Obama Administration. Whoever wins the coming election we are virtually assured that the United States will continue to violate the laws of war and international human rights law with impunity — a grim prospect for the world. Bernie Sanders, who got my vote in the NYC primary he lost, was against the invasion of Iraq though he seems supportive of extrajudicial assassinations by drones. Despite being unlikely to initiate it himself, Sanders is the sole candidate who might be responsive to a populist voice calling for accountability for the creators of the US torture programme, including the two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchel, who sold the torture “protocol” to the CIA, oversaw some of the worst torture and made 81 million dollars violating the Hippocratic Oath. Yet first there would need to be a populist outcry.
In her previous book, Mainstreaming Torture, Rebecca Gordon forcefully made the point about American’s growing cowardice — our national willingness to commit torture, and under President Obama to ignore the crimes of the past while using drones to kill from the sky, both suspected “militants” and many, many civilians, even bombing hospitals and wedding parties — in order to keep ourselves “safe”. Few among us ask if we are “safer” now that much of the world reviles these policies or that our Iraq invasion and torture of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison has actually spawned the previously non-existent ISIL.
It is therefore left to Gordon, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco and a political activist, to nearly single-handedly set out to redeem the American soul.
We should and must create a citizen’s tribunal, modelled on the Nuremburg trial but also on the Russell Tribunal, named for Bertrand Russell, held in Europe during the Vietnam War to adjudicate in the court of public opinion the crimes the US committed. Otherwise, Gordon argues, injustice shall permanently triumph and crimes will continue to be committed in the name of national security.
A people’s tribunal, unable actually to sentence anyone, or even to call them into court, is nevertheless important for the survivors of our torture and our drone attacks. First and foremost on the road to healing and forgiveness from a heinous crime there must come acknowledgment on the part of the perpetrators that they have, indeed, committed criminal acts. According to international law, an apology must be offered and reparations paid. A citizen’s tribunal could at least offer acknowledgment of wrong-doing and a public apology to those who bear the scars of years of imprisonment in dark and festering places outside the reach of legal redress or of human comfort, to those who were from hung chains, anally raped, water-boarded, slammed into walls, held in stress positions, until willing to fabricate for their torturers whatever it was they wished to hear. Lies are the most frequent products of torture, not so-called actionable intelligence. A citizen’s tribunal could at least reprimand President Obama, his chief advisor, John Brennan, and others for their weekly Tuesday meetings during which they decide who shall be targeted for death from the air by US drones operated half a world away. According to a New America Foundation report Gordon quotes, in Pakistan alone (a nation with which we are not at war), “The Obama administration has ordered 351 strikes, killing between 1,864 and 3,066 civilians and between 1,581 and 2,634 ‘militants.” A citizen’s tribunal could apologise to surviving family members at the very least.
Sometimes while teaching my theatre and justice classes, I ask my students to imagine what might have happened had Osama bin Laden been turned over by the Taliban and put on trial at the International Criminal Court for his crimes against humanity on 9/11. The Taliban did indeed offer this in order to avoid the assault on Afghanistan. After all, the Greek tragic trilogy Aeschylus’ Oresteia celebrates creation of a court of law precisely as the only means to end the cycle of revenge. But my students, many of whom are veterans, will enter the armed forces or find work in the domestic criminal justice systems, are like all Americans. They have been so inculcated to believe in our mortal danger from a spectre of unknown persons they have learned to call “the terrorists” that they have difficulty even comprehending what I’m asking. A trial of bin Laden in the International Criminal Court, to which the US does not belong so that our own international crimes cannot be held accountable there, would have ruined the Bush administration’s justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and would have ended any chance to use the attacks of 9/11 to drum up, often by torture, the lies that led to and were intended to give credence to the invasion of Iraq.
One of the most chilling parts of Gordon’s carefully legally argued book is the trip she takes us on through the history of the heinous torture of “high value” detainees like Abu Zubayduh (no charges were ever brought against him and he languishes indefinitely in Guantanamo, unable to stand trial because “evidence” elicited by torture is not admissible in court). These “high value” “folks,” as President Obama would later call them were brutalised in order to force them to state the two lies supporting the Iraq war: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that Hussein and bin Laden were in cahoots, with Hussein training Al Qaeda operatives. As neither “justification” was true the detained victims of American foreign policy, many of whom had been sold for bounty to the Americans, had no real information to offer up. But as the invasion floundered, not liberating Iraq, but destroying it, the will to support the “reasons” behind the military assault grew more urgent, with torture to “get the truth” in the form of the confession of the desired lies from hapless detainees was “ramped up.”
Thus does illegality beget illegality and this is, of course, Gordon’s point. Without some form of justice, even a people’s tribunal that addresses crimes our government will not, such crimes will multiply. There has been a revolving door between US prisons and torture sites abroad, a personnel cycle between domestic and international detention centres for learning and sharing torture methods. American citizens meant to be protected by torture abroad if they are arrested domestically often end up becoming its victims. And the people of the United States devoid of any moral compass simply become quiescent and pliant consumers of political cant. We lose our abilities to reason, to think and also truly to act in our defence or in the defence of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for ourselves or for anyone else. We collude in the destruction of our own democracy — and thus will end our noble experiment in self-government. By forgetting the obvious fact on which civil society is built, that torture and cruel and inhuman punishment is illegal and immoral, we have become a disgrace to ourselves even as we remain a danger to the world at large. As Aeschylus has his people’s chorus chant in The Oresteia, “sing sorrow, sorrow, but let the good prevail.”
Only now from the Black Lives Matter movement have we begun to hear sustained public outrage over a domestic criminal justice system run amuck, that kills and often tortures with impunity. Gordon suggests that we might build on this growing awareness of domestic abuse to create a people’s movement against extrajudicial murder and torture leading to the creation of a people’s tribunal to address war crimes and crimes against human rights committed by individuals in our government.
Gordon has issued a call to our better natures, if only we can still hear. She asks us to stand and defend justice by calling to account the presidents and their men and women who violate basic tenets of rule by law. She has written an extraordinarily brave and necessary book. Would that her call be heeded.
Karen Malpede is a playwright and writer. Visit her website at www.theaterthreecollaborative.org
[ Image: An Afghan girl waits to receive clothing from U.S. Soldiers, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Boragay Village, Zabul province, Afghanistan(Photo by: Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez courtesy via www.flickr.com/photos/dvids ]