Sign at International Day To Shut Down Guantanamo Bay, Washington, DC. takomabibelot/Flickr. Some rights reserved.How is it possible that only 29 % of Americans, according to a Pew Research Center poll, believe that the interrogations carried out by the CIA and denounced as torture by the recent Senate Report are wrong? To what do we owe such moral bankruptcy?
A culture of fear still percolating from 9/11, yes; an incessant campaign to justify and misinform the public, certainly; but more crucially, a lack of leadership from those who govern the United States, beginning with the President.
Five and a half years ago, in July of 2009, I wrote an open letter about torture to President Obama. It had been composed at the request of the American Section of Amnesty International as part of a campaign to convince the President to investigate and, if warranted, prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity perpetrated under the previous administration since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Let me, painfully, transcribe now those warning words from the past:
Dear President Obama:
That’s the word I want to offer you, the one word shared by the man who tortures and his victim, the one word that defines them both.
Because for the victim that moment of pain and degradation, those many moments, will never end. Torture does not happen just that once but repeats itself in the mind and in the memory the body carries beyond the water in the lungs or the contingent fist in the face. It continues to happen over and over and over.
And forever also for the perpetrator. The hand does not switch on the current, slam the mouth into feces, the ears are not willing to hear the screams, unless there is the promise and certainty that there will be no accountability, that the victimizer is safe from justice, can live, yes, forever, in the timelessness of impunity.
In almost forty years of struggling, as a writer and a citizen, against the plague and banality of torture, this is the dirtiest secret of these acts of dread, Mr. President, that I have discovered. That nobody tortures if they think they will be caught, if they think they will be exposed to public scrutiny. Nobody tortures if they know they will be laid out naked for everyone to see and judge, if they are sure that they will face in a court of law the men and women they stripped naked in some faraway, hidden room. Forever is their horizon, their alibi, their guardian demon, the basic prerequisite that secures the violence they have inflicted or are about to inflict, it is that word forever that lets them sleep at night, caress their children, look in tomorrow’s mirror.
That is why the answer to the inferno of forever, both for the victim in need of healing and for the criminal who broke the law, the written law of his own land and the unspoken law of the common human bond that joins us all, that is why the answer must be the purgatorial words, perhaps heavenly words, Never Again.
They are words that the United States today needs desperately to hear. But you know well that those words, Never Again, are easy to pronounce and hard to enact. Those words require, first of all, as Amnesty International has demanded, a thorough, impartial and adequately funded investigation of the truth of how this country came to torture, how it became an international pariah. And then, those words, Never Again, require the prosecution of any and all those who ordered, condoned and engaged in these crimes against humanity.
To do anything less is to succumb to the very politics of fear that you have so eloquently identified as the primary condition facilitating this disastrous assault upon human rights. To do anything less is to invite a possible repetition of such acts of endless and corrupting pain if the future were to sadly bring once more terror to these shores.
You are blessed, Mr. President, with the chance to cleanse the world. You have been given that chance because you happen to be the one person on this earth today who can help us all modify history, because you are in the truly unique position of being able to proclaim to your country and to all of humanity that torture is not, after all, forever.
From one poet to another, and with great respect and hope and admiration.
When I signed my name to his letter, did I expect the President to respond?
To be frank, not at all. It was meant more as a way to educate the public rather than to really persuade the most powerful man in the nation.
And yet, there was, in the shadows of my heart, the faintest glimmer of hope that he would change his policy of closing the door on the past and demand accountability.
America is supposed to be the land of second chances.
Perhaps, then, the time for a change in the attitude toward torture has finally come. Perhaps President Obama, forced by the terrible glare of swift truth and honor, will find the wisdom and courage and conviction to purge our country of this stain upon its history, its image, its soul. And rescue his people from this ethical catastrophe.
Or is it already too late?