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Torture, Lies and Denial

We may not be personally responsible for what happened in the past, but we are all responsible for what happens next.


It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s an American problem. It’s our problem. We bear some measure of responsibility for it because it goes forward in our names, by public and private actors and institutions who comprise much of the mainstream of civic life.

Torture isn’t perpetrated by rogue actors and “bad apples.” It is foundational to American policing, prisons, and military action.

Many people seek to justify torture, or the euphemisms that try to disguise its nature: “enhanced interrogation” and “special methods of questioning.” Others – most people – simply deny its existence or, if made uncomfortably aware of it, make frantic efforts to explain it away and cover up complicity in its authorization, administration, and human, ethical, and spiritual impact.

Politicians won’t make it stop. Professional advocates won’t make it stop. Religious leaders won’t make it stop. It can’t be arrested and jailed away; that’s part of the same mentality that produced it. Torture will only stop if we make it stop, through visionary as well as practical forms of movement building and community organizing that build unstoppable momentum, linking growing numbers of people across myriad constituencies and issues.

In light of several notable revelations concerning torture, Criminal Injustice is reprising an earlier post, with this new introduction.

On May 6, 2015, following decades of organizing, litigation, and journalism and, more recently, a concerted six-month grassroots campaign, the Chicago City Council passed an unprecedented reparations package for survivors of torture, administered by former Chicago Police Department commander Jon Burge and his “midnight crew” of detectives, and survivors’ families.

CI’s gratitude for this landmark victory goes to those who led the campaign –Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Project NIA, We Charge Genocide, and Amnesty International – USA, as well as to everyone who actively supported it. We also express gratitude and respect to the People’s Law Office, especially Joey Mogul and Flint Taylor, for more than a quarter century of tireless effort to bring the torture of over 110 African American men and women to light and obtain justice.

The reparations package includes a formal apology for the torture; specialized counseling services to the Burge torture survivors and their family members on the South Side; free enrollment and job training in City Colleges for survivors and family members (including grandchildren) as well as prioritized access to other City programs, including help with housing, transportation and senior care; a history lesson about the Burge torture cases taught in Chicago Public schools to 8th and 10th graders; and the construction of a permanent public memorial to the survivors. It also sets aside $5.5 million for a Reparations Fund for Burge Torture Victims that will allow those still living to receive some measure of financial compensation for the torture they endured.

For decades, many Chicago officials tried to minimize awareness of this violence and the extent of its harm. It is now our job to ensure that the Rahm Emmanuel and subsequent administrations are never permitted to view this package as a “fine” to be paid and forgotten while business as usual, in the form of police violence, continues. May this tangible acknowledgment serve to inspire us all to greater activism, to more urgent and sustained demands for accountability for violence administered not only by the state but with the active participation of professional individuals and organizations and corporations who reap benefits from their involvement.

And, as Joey Mogul rightly points out, “While the reparations for Burge survivors focus on a finite set of particularly egregious cases, they can serve as a model for what reparations might look like for systemic police abuse plaguing cities across the nation.”

Even as the police torture reparations victory was in the making in Chicago, it was confirmed through new disclosures of email communication that the prestigious American Psychological Association (APA) had secretly worked to bolster “a legal and ethical justification” for the post-9/11 “war on terror.” The APA, too has tried to deny this. But psychologists and other health care professionals play essential roles in implementing and providing cover for torture.

And torture was center stage in a court room in Boston, not under interrogation, but rather, as rationale for denying the death penalty. The “defense” attorneys for now convicted Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev opened their arguments in the penalty phase with an appeal to the jury for sentencing to a “punishment worse than death.” Tsarnaev would spend his life, they said, buried alive in the ADX Supermax at Florence, Colorado. His life should be spared, they argued, so he could be sentenced instead to the slow motion torture of this “living hell.”

Of course, this is the subtext of some resistance to capital punishment – it isn’t punishment enough. And yes, the defense in its’ contradictory everything but the kitchen sink approach to the penalty phase did call Sister Helen Prejean at last as a witness for mercy.

But the first and central defense argument was an open call to torture. And nothing can ever remove that stain.

Lies and Denial

“That’s not who we are.”

The phrase is repeated endlessly, like a mantra, in the wake of the release of the redacted 525-page executive summary of the post- 9/11 “torture report” – the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program [PDF]. Even President Obama uttered it.

It’s a reassuring phrase that seeks to (ever so) briefly acknowledge some expression of sadistic violence inflicted by powerful people on vulnerable others that somehow, inconveniently, enters public awareness. At the same time, it asserts this violence is an aberration, a temporary departure from American values of goodness, freedom, and democracy. Others take refuge in the idea that recent torture revelations are evidence that a once moral nation has “lost its way.”

More accurate phrases would be: “That’s not how we want to see ourselves,” or “That’s not who we wish we were.” Or even just “Blame somebody, anybody else, except me/us.”

But torture is who “we” are as a society, whether we want to believe it or not. It is not a case of unintentionally wandering astray, off some unambiguously moral and ethical path so designated by unambiguously good people. No amount of denial or distancing from that terrible and painful truth can change the reality that torture isn’t – and never was – primarily the province of evil others – “extremists,” psychopaths, crazed loners and misfits, depraved criminals, terrorists, and a handful of “bad apples.” The real culprits are much closer to home; often, they look, uncomfortably, just like you and me.

Hiding the Truth from Ourselves

In 1962, sociologist Everett C. Hughes identified broader forms of culpability in his essay “Good People and Dirty Work, in which he explored psychic mechanisms by which individuals and society keep “unpleasant or intolerable knowledge from consciousness.” (This is a subject Michael Bronski and I discuss at greater length in our forthcoming book Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Society.) So those who justify torture in the current discussion rely on sanitized phrases such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and appeal to our fears to qualm any possible ethical doubts. The United States explains to a U.N. Committee on Torture that there is/can be no torturous systematic use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons because we are a nation committed to the Americans With Disabilities Act and other legislation that forbids such discrimination and harm. And few white people want to talk about the profound intersection of structural racism and torture. The legal meaning of torture is finely sliced and diced so as to empty its definition of any substantive ethical and humanitarian meaning.

“The defenses are of two kinds, both as false as they are deeply felt. First, there is the truth that the C.I.A. interrogators were, for the most part, following orders and doing what they had been told they were authorized to do; to make them the prime villains is to clear the democratically elected politicians who allowed this to happen – and more important, to clear the democracy that elected those politicians. We are all implicated, not just those who drowned and froze and tormented prisoners.” – Adam Gopnik

Open acknowledgement and discussion of these things would threaten the good reputations of so many of us – not only those who do the torture, or know of and ignore it, but also those of us who deplore torture only selectively. Break through self-deception by showing that some of us are less committed to ending all torture than simply reversing who gets to use it. It would pitch us into a world of painful complexity and radical responsibility.

For one thing, such honesty would call all of us to see the dilemma of torture in its interdependent totality – the relation of structural racism to the torturous violence of policing and prisons to the creation of myriad systems of social control and domestic surveillance to the call to and conduct of war. After all, even those of us who rightly speak out against one arena in which torture occurs – in relation to the so-called War on Terror, for instance – may remain silent about torture occurring in other arenas.

This honesty would reveal the dimensions of that moral and ethical abyss where white supremacy, disdain and contempt for poor people, misogyny, the use of such code words as “criminals,” “terrorists,” and other notions that embody supremacist ideas and feelings of superiority all collide.

It would hold mirrors up to our faces, individually and collectively, showing us the myriad ways in which any of us might come to agree, if only tacitly, that some individuals and groups are “disposable” or “expendable” or simply not worthy of any notice at all.

It would challenge us to step out publicly to help name torture in its multiple manifestations, without privileging only one group. It would instruct us to work to end not only the violence subsumed under rubric of torture, but the mindset of supremacist ideology, fear, and desire for absolute domination and control that produces it.

It would demolish the sentimental story that before 9/11, America was a more ethical nation with regard to torture; that it was only the Bush/Cheney administration that set us on such a morally bankrupt path. It would shatter the assertion that torture is antithetical to fundamental “American values.” And it would put paid to the myth that legal prosecution of a few – say, Bush and Cheney – could unravel this unholy and inhumane history.

In fact, there is always shadow reality, for individuals, for communities, for the larger society, and for nation-states. And the reality is that we are capable of enormous generosity and goodness as well as terrible violence. The potential for these things exists in all of us. So does the capacity for silence in the face of great wrong and the courage, or potential for it, to speak out against it. If our own rage, fear, pain, and desire for supremacy or dominance is repeatedly stoked, and we are offered easy scapegoats for our pain and fear, any of us might refuse to see the intentional infliction of extraordinary psychological and physical pain on other beings. As it is, for many of us, the goodness and generosity we do possess is conditional, reserved only for some.

An All-American History

Imagine how “That’s not who we are” might sound to all of the black people who were enslaved and subjected to so many kinds of torture. Or to the prisoners held in early American penitentiaries – created by good people; by religious and politically progressive reformers ­– who were subjected to such complete isolation in extended solitary confinement that they went mad.

Imagine how it would sound to the black prisoners incarcerated in the post-Civil War era, made once again into de facto slaves through brutal prison practices and the convict lease system.

Imagine how that phrase would be received by the thousands of men and women who were publicly subjected to horrific forms of torture and mutilation prior to being lynched at the hands of elated white throngs. Those clusters and crowds of white people were not aberrant; through the late nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, the lynch mobs were made up of ordinary people who consider themselves, and were considered by others to be, decent and moral guardians of public safety and civic order. Even though these were extralegal murders, so often preceded by agonizing physical torture, local law enforcement typically supported lynching – at least tacitly, but sometimes openly.

The Torture of Clayton Lockett

It’s time to stop reading the growing number of gruesome stories of so-called “botched executions” as the result of some combination of simple incompetence, poor training, “disarray,” and pharmacological misadventure.

We should begin to view them through the lens of torture, as the intentional infliction of prolonged suffering through lethal injection.

In April 2014, Clayton D. Lockett was executed in Oklahoma by means of a prolonged and violent process the warden of the state prison where he was killed described as “a bloody mess.” It was all attributed to a regrettable initial failure to insert a catheter needle properly into the femoral artery, which did not deliver the drugs as intended; in fact, the drug supply ran out before Lockett died. Subsequently, multiple injections were attempted, over a period of time, including one directly into Lockett’s groin. Blood sprayed over Lockett and onto the doctor who later said that he wanted enough money to buy a new jacket to replace the one ruined by the explosive blood vessel.

Now, imagine that it is 1983 and you are a young black man in Chicago [PDF] being forced by police into a mock execution masquerading as a terrifying round of Russian roulette. You haven’t been tried or found guilty of any charge, but they are trying to coerce a confession. Even as they direct racial slurs at you, they are showing you a live shotgun shell, apparently loading it, and then forcing the barrel of a pump-action shotgun into your mouth. You are restrained. And then you hear the “click” of the trigger, accompanied by the expressed hope of other officers that the “n—r’s head” will be blown off. This is repeated. Later, they will restrain you while applying an electric cattle prod to your penis and testicles; when you scream and try to kick the officers, they will further physically abuse you and stick the cattle prod in your mouth. Eventually, you will be wrongfully convicted of murder, based on this coerced confession, and serve almost 24 years in prison, 9 in a supermax facility, before you are exonerated and released. Your eventual deliverance will come only as a result of relentlessly persistent litigation and community advocacy, but others who were also tortured have not yet had a chance to tell their stories. And Chicago police violence continues.

Chicago Police Torture

Darrell Cannon, whose experience is described above, in part, is one of more than 110 African American men in Chicago who, between 1972 and 1991, were subjected to torture [PDF] by Chicago police department commander Jon Burge and his officers in order to elicit confessions and false witness testimony. The methods of torture included beatings, sleep deprivation, genital torture, electric shock, “dry submarino” (near suffocation with a plastic bag), choking and near-strangulation, shackling to hot radiators, mock execution, death threats, and denial of food, water, and toilet facilities. Officers administering the torture often use racial slurs and epithets.

In the early 1990s, as a result of dogged community activism and as more and more evidence began to surface, a unit within the Chicago Police Department looked into allegations, concluding that systematic abuse had occurred in methodological fashion, utilizing both psychological and physical techniques. But they declined to pursue the matter.

Many convictions were obtained on the basis of false confessions produced by torture; five men so convicted were sentenced to death. Some who were eventually exonerated served more than two decades in prison; one man was incarcerated for 31 years based on a torture-coerced confession. But others have been denied new criminal court hearings and remain in prison. More detailed history can be found here.

City officials refused to face up to this in any substantive way, but the torture cases resurfaced again and again, a result of two decades of litigation and extraordinary community organizing by legal advocates, torture survivors and their families, and dozens of advocacy groups.

Commander Jon Burge was fired in 1993; ultimately, he was the only police official prosecuted – but not for the torture and not by state officials. He was eventually convicted in federal court of perjury and obstruction of justice for denying any knowledge of the abuse and sentenced to four and one-half year years in prison When he was released in 2014, he claimed a $4,000 per month police pension.

Over the period that the torture occurred and came to public light, numerous law enforcement and city administrators, including two mayors and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office have been implicated in the abuse and its coverup. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent in litigation and financial settlements for a handful of survivors. Many others, because of the statute of limitations, have had no legal standing from which to claim financial redress.

Today, a landmark campaign for reparations for survivors of Burge police torture, has been won. And, utilizing political and cultural strategies, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials seeks to honor and seek justice for the survivors, their family members, and the African American communities affected by the torture.

But the larger questions remain. What would real accountability mean, not only for police and city officials, but also for community members who give approval – tacit or overt – to torture; who fail to speak out against it? How do we begin to change the mindset that not only permits torture, but ignores or denies it when evidence of systemic brutality surfaces?

Collective Responsibility, and Accountability

We won’t uproot or transform that mindset through a few selective prosecutions; that won’t change torture’s public and private structural resonance. The problem goes much deeper, with both conscious and unconscious dimensions.

In order to deliver a definitive judgment against it, to dismantle the mindset and practices that perpetuate it, we must acknowledge that, in different ways, to varying degrees, we are all implicated. Torture could not continue if we were collectively determined that it would not and organized to make certain it could not. Politicians will not provide the necessary leadership, and many faith leaders have abdicated responsibility as well, but mass movements can potentially provide both vision and leadership. And by becoming active in such movements, by speaking out, by withdrawing tacit acceptance of “business as usual,” we can begin to take up our own measure of responsibility.

As James Baldwin once said, in a conversation with Margaret Mead, we may not be personally responsible for what happened in the past, but we are all responsible for what happens next.

What happens next has to be about more than “stopping torture.” It has to be about a grander, more life-affirming vision of caring community that doesn’t rely on policing, torture, and imprisonment for its understanding of “safety” and civic goodness. And that doesn’t leave white supremacy and other structural supremacies intact. That isn’t so deeply cemented in a politics of fear.

The creation of new forms of collective responsibility and new visions of caring community rooted in unshakeable commitments to racial, gender, and economic justice can give rise to new understandings of accountability that are not so narrowly parsed by the legal system that they cease to have meaning.

And new understandings of accountability can ultimately transform reality – but only if we stop telling ourselves any version of The Lie; only if we take up our own share of responsibility for acknowledging the history of torture in America and changing what comes next.

“That’s not who we are” is the lie individuals and societies tells ourselves to avoid both responsibility and accountability. We tell that lie to avoid being implicated in the degradation and sadism of torture that stands on a secret (and sometimes not-so-secret) foundation of popular acceptance and is often state-sponsored. At some level, all of us know it’s a lie. But it is so easy to shift that responsibility elsewhere – to “not me.”

Transformation begins with recognizing “That [torture] is who we are” – or at least part of who we are as a society – and finally telling ourselves the painful but necessary truth.

And the truth is that even people who think of ourselves as good, and in many respects may actually do good things, are also capable of great violence – by our own actions or by permitting others to serve, without critical and enforceable oversight and accountability, as our proxies.

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