Moving Forward, Looking Backward
Ten years after the first detainees of America’s war on terrorism arrived at Guantanamo Bay, we must ask ourselves: What needs to be done to repair the damage caused by America’s post-9/11 torture program—damage that has extended beyond those who were abused to affect their families, the American servicemen and women who administered the abuse, and those who risked their careers trying to stop it. This damage now extends to our legacy, rendering us as a country that protests human rights violations worldwide yet falls silent when confronted with its own.
A packed crowd recently gathered in Cooper Union’s Rose Auditorium for a PEN-hosted panel moderated by Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Director of the ACLU and one of the architects of ACLU v. Department of Defense, a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that led to the release of the nearly one hundred forty-thousand documents relating to the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. The panelists included Joshua E.S. Phillips, a journalist and author of None of Us Were Like This Before, which examines the psychological pain experienced by members of a battalion responsible for administering abuse; Lisa Magarrell, Program Director of the International Center for Transitional Justice, where she has led initiatives to address issues of transitional justice and reparations internationally; Dr. Jack Saul, Director of Columbia University’s International Trauma Studies Program and a psychologist and therapist who has worked with families suffering from domestic, urban, and political violence; and Larry Siems, Director of PEN’s Freedom to Write and International Programs and author of The Torture Report, which mines the FOIA torture documents to create a narrative account of the Bush administration’s torture program.
The panel began with a phrase delivered by President Obama exactly two years ago on ABC’s This Week: “We need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.” For many in the human rights and literary communities, Obama’s declaration represented a disappointing unwillingness to address the truth behind our country’s mistakes. So on this night, despite the President’s advice, we looked back at our recent past and listened to the stories of detainees such as Jose Padilla, Abu Zubaydah, and Mohammed Al-Qahtani, all of whom figure prominently in The Torture Report.
In a video statement shown at the event, Estela Lebron describes the devastation she and her family have experienced following the arrest of her son Jose Padilla, an American citizen and accused “enemy combatant” who was held in complete isolation and subjected to abusive interrogations for almost two years. At one point, the camera zooms in on a photo of Padilla as a child, smiling amongst his siblings. “They presented him to the nation as a monster,” Estella says. Siems called this “monsterization” of Padilla “very calculated,” a way to further alienate and dehumanize the victims of torture.
Unlike Padilla, Abu Zubaydah and Mohammed Al-Qahtani remain in Guantanamo. They are among the detainees both Bush and Obama administration officials now publicly acknowledge were tortured, and yet, as Siems noted, the exclusive reason they still have not been released “is because they’ll tell their stories.”
Now that Obama has signed the National Defense Authorization Act, the incarcerations of individuals like Zubaydah and Qahtani could go on indefinitely, preventing them from seeking the remedies that are rightfully theirs under Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture. In many ways, the NDAA shutters its detainees underground, rendering them faceless and voiceless. “This idea of forgetting as an extension of torture suggests that writers have a special role to play in addressing the legacy of torture,” Jaffer said. Indeed, writers have fought to “move forward by looking backward” throughout history, and those that continue to tell the many stories of the “War on Terror” defend our fundamental right to know the truth.
Of his own role in addressing this legacy with The Torture Report, Siems said, “This was not a nightmare or a grueling two-year process; it was a process of constantly finding affirmation in the documents of heroic interventions, of principled people, of voices that represented the values that I understand our country to represent.”