Earlier this week, we teamed up with PEN American Center to present Reckoning with Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the “War on Terror.” A crowd of around 700 people came out on Tuesday night to hear writers, artists, lawyers, a former CIA officer and a former military interrogator read from documents that detail the sadistic treatment of detainees in the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.”
The evening began with brief opening remarks by K. Anthony Appiah, the President of Pen American Center, and Jameel Jaffer, the Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, then moved into readings from declassified texts by prominent writers and artists as well as lawyers, a former military interrogator, and a former CIA agent. Readers included established literary heavyweights such as Don DeLillo, A.M. Holmes, Paul Auster, and Art Spiegelman as well as young writers of great acclaim such as Nell Freudenberger and Ishmael Beah. All of the readings were shocking for what they contained and how much remained classified and thus redacted. Eve Ensler’s vigorous reading of a speech delivered by President George W. Bush commemorating the United Nations Day in Support of Victims of Torture highlighted his administration’s hypocrisy; and Susana Moore’s compassionate delivery of a detainee’s response during a tribunal demonstrated how trumped up charges against some detainees were. To further support the baseless nature of numerous detentions and the scale of torture, never-before-seen video interviews with former wrongfully detained Guantanamo prisoners (a British national who moved to Kabul to open a school for girls, two childhood friends and British nationals that were detained while traveling in Afghanistan, a Libyan national and British resident who lost his right eye while being tortured) were interspersed between readings. In addition, a continuous loop of imagery by New York based artist Jenny Holzer in which altered, blotted out, and marked up handprints of detainees and American soldiers accused of crimes in Iraq played on three screens at the back of the stage.
And constitutional law professor, and a featured reader at our event, David Cole, blogged about the event for the New York Review of Books, writing:
The readings painted a chilling picture of a meticulously planned system of deliberate cruelty—devised by psychologists, sanctioned by lawyers, administered by contractors and CIA agents, overseen by doctors, and specifically authorized by members of Bush’s Cabinet. Indeed, it is in part because the system was administered by professionals that it is so well documented—but that of course makes it only more disturbing.
Many of the texts read on Tuesday night were uncovered through our lawsuit for information about treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Since 2004, we’ve been fighting under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to unearth government documents that would show the origins and the scope of the Bush administration’s torture program. So far, that litigation has yielded more than 130,000 pages of government documents related to the rendition, detention and interrogation program. Collectively, these documents – some of which were read aloud on Tuesday night – make undeniably clear that prisoners were tortured, abused, and in some cases even killed in U.S. custody, and that those at the very highest levels of our government authorized, encouraged or tolerated the mistreatment.
The United States has some reckoning to do. To restore the rule of law, we must condemn these violations of our Constitution, domestic and international law, and seek to hold accountable those who authorized the abuse and torture of prisoners in America’s name. We hope that the evening served as both an opportunity for profound reflection, and as a strong reminder that accountability for torture is a legal, political and moral imperative.
You can view photos from our event on Tuesday online here. To learn more about accountability for torture, read the documents and to take action today, visit the ACLU’s Accountability for Torture site.