Two years ago, if someone had suggested to me that I don an orange jumpsuit and a black hood and haul a cross down the street in opposition to torture, I would have laughed at them. Yet here I am at the end of 2010 having pulled that stunt, or something akin to it, more than 30 times in the past year.
Street protests in America today are far less common than they have been in years past, but they are particularly out of place in the relatively upscale business districts of West Des Moines, Iowa. There, week after week, a small, rotating group of ordinary people carry out the old tradition of holding signs inscribed with simple messages. These range in tone from straightforward pleas – “Shut down Guantanamo,” “No More Torture: Not Here, Not There, Nowhere” and “Free Shaker Aamer” – to sarcastic slogans – “USA: Torturing Our Way to World Peace” and “Don’t Worry, We’ll Tell You What to Confess!”
Note from the marketing department: if you are looking to convert strangers to your ideas, waving signs on a street corner is not your best bet. Nor is shouting through a megaphone, waving a corporate-logo-stamped American flag or acting unruly in general. We did all of these things on a regular basis in 2010, and all of it was greeted with predictable hostility from those who passed. We were threatened with violence repeatedly, told we were ungrateful for our freedom, accused of being anti-American and informed that we would soon burn in hell for defending the “terrorists” our brave soldiers had fought so hard to lock away.
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It was all of the things I had imagined it would be when street protesting was first proposed to me after a screening of the film “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”: counterproductive, antagonistic and mind-numbingly pointless were phrases that came to mind back then, and it seemed clear that friendlier modes of communication were abundant. After all, how is it that I learned what I know about torture? The books I’ve read are far more informative than a five-word slogan waved on posterboard, and a large number of them – written by people far more knowledgeable than I – are readily available to the general public.
For an American soldier’s perspective on torture, one could turn to “Inside the Wire” by Erik Saar and Viveca Novak, or “How to Break a Terrorist” by interrogator Matthew Alexander. To view US detention and interrogation policies from the eyes of innocent detainees, Moazzam Begg’s “Enemy Combatant” or Murat Kurnaz’s “Five Years of My Life” could be easily acquired. Or, to put the latest round of American torture in perspective, a copy of historian Alfred McCoy’s “A Question of Torture” or Darius Rejali’s “Torture and Democracy” would come in handy. Likewise, writings from lawyers, psychologists, scientists and journalists are no more than a few clicks away for anyone who is interested.
But the problem, of course, is that most people are not interested. Who wants to read a book about some of the most unpleasant things imaginable when you can just believe the brief summary on the evening news? Even the film screening I’d attended – a far less time-consuming affair than trudging through 400 pages of misery – was meagerly visited, drawing less than 20 people. No, I thought, if people are going to pay attention to this, the issue needs to be brought to a place in which they already gather.
Since we had been raised as Christians, my friend Kirk Brown and I figured that churches would be a prime space for this type of action. After all, one of Christ’s central commands was to “love your neighbor as yourself,” with specific emphasis on caring for the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned. Many innocent captives in the war on terror easily fit that description. So, over the course of a few months, we researched and wrote a presentation about two detainees: Dilawar of Yakubi, a 22-year-old peanut farmer who was tortured to death at Bagram Air Base, and Ahmed Errachidi, a London gourmet chef who was held in Guantanamo for five years before being released without charge. The potential for controversy over the project would be kept to a minimum as the US itself had declared both of these men completely blameless, while the risk of reactionary feelings of helplessness from audience members would be partially overcome by inviting them to pray for and write letters to torture survivors and their families.
But the project was a near-complete failure. After visiting more than one hundred churches throughout Des Moines, Johnston, Adel, Van Meter, Indianola and Waukee, and making dozens of follow-up calls and emails, we discovered that one thing was consistent across nearly every denomination: Guantanamo did not matter. Or, if it mattered, it was not important enough to even warrant reviewing our proposed presentation. The mere fact that it was centered on people who had at one time been labeled “the worst of the worst” was enough to scare pastors away. One of the more forthcoming leaders we spoke to told us that it was simply politically inconvenient. “I agree with you that torture is wrong,” he said, “but if you give this presentation, we will lose membership.” In the end, only one church agreed to let us present, and then only if we cut the script in half.
Our attempts to urgently yet politely point a spotlight on torture were struck down almost unanimously by those worshiping one of the most prominent torture victims in history. Likewise (and less surprisingly), blog posts I wrote were ignored, satirical podcasts that tackled the issue humorously were shrugged off and invitations to book studies were rejected. Finding myself at a loss to communicate this very important yet very overlooked issue to people, I turned to the method that I least wanted to participate in. Together with Kirk, I bought some black paint and a white board, stenciled the question “Torture for Liberty?” onto the board and perched myself atop a pile of snow by a shopping center in West Des Moines in February 2010.
For more than 30 weeks in 2010, that tradition has continued, looking far less tidy and polite than any of my preferred modes of communication. Security officers from the nearby mall accused us of trespassing, police threatened to arrest us for using a ten-watt bullhorn within a 50-watt sound ordinance, angry drivers fabricated stories about us running in and out of traffic in attempts to have us jailed and insults, racism, middle fingers and sodas were hurled at us time and again through both the steaming heat and the freezing cold.
Note from the marketing department: you catch more flies with honey – or so the saying goes. Yet one thing I have learned from all of this is that people will do nearly anything to avoid talking about victims and survivors of American torture, regardless of what method is employed to start a conversation. If it’s not complaints about political inconvenience, it’s whining about tone of voice, wording of slogans, not having all the facts or just plain looking like a lunatic. Indeed, many of those who comment on the videos and photographs I’ve posted documenting the vigils would rather focus on our lack of manners than the spotlighted subject matter, allowing the issue of our rudeness to trump the issue of the indefinite detention of hundreds of innocent men and children.
Despite the general unpleasantness of street protests, they do possess an inherent advantage that books, films and multimedia presentations do not: they cannot be easily ignored. For at least a few seconds between traffic lights, hundreds of drivers are jolted out of their normal routine and forced to reconnect with something their tax dollars are paying for. The image of a man in an orange jumpsuit lying on a cross is a visual reminder that Christ, much like many of those held in American detention centers today, was tortured by the “just doing my job” soldiers under the empire of his time. For a few hours each week, the sight of a hooded detainee is pulled from the shadows where victims have been deliberately hidden and thrust into the light of everyday life. It is, in short, working to force us to remember those whom the government works so hard to make us forget.
Of course, when it comes time to suit up and go out there next week, it will not sound that grandiose. It is nothing new, nothing profound, nothing all that exciting. It is a group of four or five people holding signs on a street corner, sharing gloves and conversation to keep from thinking about how damn cold it is outside.
Note from the marketing department: if you smile more, maybe people will actually listen to you. One common denominator of our critics is that they are almost never willing to do anything about the issue themselves. So, they raise a middle finger and drive off. They post a message online about how ineffective our methods are. They do anything they can think of to keep from focusing on the issue at hand, and they go about their days. They do these things because to them, it doesn’t matter that less than one percent of detainees have been convicted in the nine years of the Guantanamo detention center’s existence. Those are just passing statistics that, despite our financial connection to them, have no bearing on the average citizen’s world. No, sadly, facts do not matter, and neither does emotional resonance and neither does a kick in the teeth.
But it is no longer in the hope of successfully marketing ideas to people who don’t want to hear them that I continue to stand in protest. It is out of the desire to love my neighbors as myself, knowing that if I was locked away in a cell for years, one thing I could not tolerate was people discovering my situation but doing nothing about it. I do it because if my letters to detainees ever make it past the censors, perhaps somewhere in a dark cell, one of them will be reassured that they are not forgotten. Perhaps one of them will be encouraged that they are publicly remembered week after week, and that not all Americans are buying the lie of their universal guilt. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but it is better than voting for presidents and officials who don’t keep their word. In any case, if it was me in the cell and you on the street, I think I’d appreciate the lack of indifference.