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Last updateWed, 27 Aug 2014 10am

Know Your Neighbors

In the wake of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “Torture Report” on the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the Central Intelligence Agency in the wake of Sept. 11, I was reminded that I once had the privilege of meeting one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” at an event in San Diego sponsored by Survivors of Torture International.

I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t remember his name. However, I’ll never forget his story.

That lost boy of Sudan trekked barefoot almost 1,000 miles with his young sister to escape to a refugee camp after their parents had been slaughtered. He was then kidnapped and forced to soldier under horrendous and torturous conditions until he was rescued. He was only 10 when that journey began.

It’s challenging to even think about torture at a time of year when celebrations are focused on peace, love and giving. It seems so foreign to our real lives. But here in the Coachella Valley and surrounding areas, we have survivors of torture as our neighbors. This is a time for celebrating their bravery, determination and sheer will to live.

Even those who defend the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” generally acknowledge that torture is a bad thing; their position is that the United States didn’t really torture, because we were acting based on (questionable) legal approval from the Justice Department regarding actions that those within the George W. Bush administration wanted to be able to take without fear of future prosecution.

Apologists, like Republican strategist Karl Rove, say that waterboarding—the way we did it—couldn’t have been torture, because we raised the detainees’ feet so water wouldn’t automatically go into the lungs, and therefore, they wouldn’t really drown. That argument is logically flawed. The purpose of waterboarding is to frighten someone enough, with what feels like the immediate sensation of drowning, to get them to talk. Duh!

Based on dictionary definitions, the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which we are a signatory (and which we helped write), “torture” is when you deliberately inflict physical or psychological pain—done on behalf of or with the consent of a nation-state, or acting in an official capacity—on someone under your control and unable to defend against what you’re doing. The purpose is to get from the one you’re torturing—or perhaps a third party (“Tell us, or we’ll rape and kill your child right in front of you!”)—information or a confession.

Article 3 of the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, signed by President Reagan and finally ratified by Congress in 1994, says that “no state [nation] may permit or tolerate torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and “exceptional circumstances such as a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Emphasis added.)

Forget the political argument about whether “actionable intelligence” was obtained through the use of torture, because even the head of the CIA says that’s basically “unknowable.” The legally slippery area we relied upon is that terrorists, since they are neither nation-states nor acting under orders from legitimate government officials, don’t appear to be specifically covered by the prohibitions on torture. So it’s OK for us to torture them?

Can we all at least agree there’s a difference between what is legal and what is moral, and that one does not require the other? I’m sure that during the Holocaust, Germans convinced themselves they were acting within their view of what was legal to do during a war, yet we can’t possibly hold as moral the action of incarcerating, starving and killing people in concentration camps. Even outside the realm of torture, what is legal is not necessarily moral—think of Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, or legal prohibitions against equal treatment regarding who may marry.

Those of our elected representatives who wanted to keep the “Torture Report” secret say it will harm our image around the world and instigate retaliation against Americans. Besides, say the torture defenders, we’ve already known about all this (see Abu Ghraib), so why bring it up again? Other excuses: It must be just politics. It’s somebody’s agenda to shame the previous administration. We just did what everybody has always done. Or, per former Vice President Dick Cheney, it flat-out was not torture, and even if it was, “I would do it again in a minute!”

As a nation, we pride ourselves on modeling the behaviors we encourage others to emulate, and it’s repulsive to focus on what human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another. Our moral standing as a nation will surely take a big hit, but at least we can celebrate our willingness to expose the ugly underbelly of policies and recommit to never again using such tactics. 

Speaking of “Never again!”: We have a local resource that deserves more notice: The Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage. According to Director Melisse Banwer, we have about 80 Holocaust survivors living here in the Coachella Valley. These people are a direct resource for us regarding the horrors of torture, and a reminder that we must never let the systematic destruction of human rights or genocide happen again. The center provides access to history and memorabilia, educational materials and programs for students and adults, special exhibits, and free movies that are good entertainment with a positive message.

For that Lost Boy of Sudan, and for our neighbors, we have an obligation to commit to “Never again!” And this time, we need to mean it.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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