Since — what? — 2004, I’ve read thousands of pages of declassified documents, internal investigations, ICRC accounts, survivor testimony and journalistic inquiry about the myriad and sprawling torture apparatus created after 9/11. I’ve written about it a bit. I’ve spent four days in Guantanamo Bay. I’ve seen a quasi-legal Administrative Review Board consider the case of a detainee at Guantanamo. I’ve walked around Disney Drive at Bagram Air Field and wondered if I would be able to even catch a glimpse of one of the detention facilities there. I’ve heard the halt in the voice of a terrified mother of a man detained without charge for 20 months in Saudi Arabia before being transfered to a federal courthouse to face charges of conspiracy to assassinate George W. Bush.
And nothing quite has the power of hearing the words contained in these documents read out loud.
So last night the ACLU (full disclosure: my girlfriend works for the ACLU, although you know from years of my work that I’ve been sympathetic to their efforts long before we met) staged a reading of critical documents from the torture era at Georgetown’s law school. I thought it would be mawkish torture-theater or a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. It turned out to be nauseatingly powerful. Rep. Bobby Scott read from the Bybee/Yoo “techniques” memo of August 2002 while Rep. Keith Ellison interjected with the account Abu Zubaydah provided to the ICRC in 2007 of what happened to him as the result of that memo. I’ve read both of those memos again and again. I wrote a piece in April piecing together those two accounts to pierce the euphemistic membrane that the memo calls “sleep deprivation.” But to hear these words read out loud before you — it has a different narrative power. As does Rep. John Conyers reading Bush’s 2004 speech commemorating United Nations Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
I won’t belabor the point, but I want to add something that rarely gets stated. We tend to speak of torture and indefinite detention as two different things. And it’s true that they’re notionally distinct. But imagine yourself placed into a cell for months or for years and abused, without anyone listening to your pleas to be brought before a judge and read the evidence against you, without any ability to contest or challenge what the interrogators tell you that you’ve done. And it drags on for years and years — just you and the guards and maybe the others imprisoned near you, the days counting down without anything changing. To have to find within you the remainder of your faith in something that will at least allow you to make sense of what has happened to you, if not actually set you free. That is, itself, torture.
It made me wonder, hearing these accounts: what if Jay Bybee or John Yoo or David Addington or John Rizzo or Jim Haynes or Alberto Gonzales or George Tenet or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney or George Bush had to taste what this was like? The weight of the apparatus they created, bearing down upon them? It should, of course, never happen, because the most important thing in this world is justice, and justice is no less necessary for the iniquitous than it is for the good. But would any American experience this for himself or herself and not immediately see how plainly evil — evil — it is to subject someone to this treatment, no matter who they are or what they’ve done?