THINKING FOR OURSELVES: Columbine and Torture Memos

Columbine and Torture Memos
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, May 3, 2009

During this past week many people around the country recalled the school shootings in Columbine ten years ago. Even as reports come in of eight recent massacres at schools, social service centers and shopping malls, the deaths at Columbine continue to haunt us.

While the nation was remembering the tragedy and turmoil of that day, President Obama ordered the release of documents used by the Bush administration to authorize and direct the CIA’s brutal interrogation of prisoners. Called the “torture memos,” these clinical, dispassionate documents describe the systematic brutality against suspected terrorists by their interrogators. As soon as the documents were released, “torture apologists” began accusing President Obama of endangering the country by making them public. At the same time many of us were infuriated by the President’s assurance that no one would be prosecuted.

Now it seems that the Obama administration is at least considering some kind of action against the lawyers who developed the logic behind these acts, and a number of congressional committees and human rights groups are pledging to pursue the issue.

The narrative that is emerging goes like this. A few bad lawyers twisted legal arguments to allow some people in the CIA to do really bad things to other people. This was against core American values. So we should make sure that it does not happen again. The new administration does not support torture and will abide by the Geneva conventions.

This is a comforting narrative. But it is a dangerous story line to follow. It evades the disturbing question of how did we come to allow such violence to be inflicted on other human beings? It blames violence on a few misguided lawyers and rogue agents. It evades the reality that violence is woven into the fabric of our daily lives, as Columbine and subsequent killings so painfully remind us.

As I read through the descriptions of allowable techniques, I was struck not with their brutality, but with their familiarity. There was not a single physical action I have not witnessed. I have seen children and women subjected to the open hand slap in super markets and people thrown into walls again and again. Many high schools practice a form of water boarding, where some young people are dunked repeatedly into toilets. The practice is so common, it has a name, “swirlies.”

President Obama needs to prosecute these crimes against suspected terrorists not only because of what they reveal about a government out of control. He needs to help us understand that they emerged out of the fabric of our society. These were not the actions of a few rogues. Brutality infuses our most routine and intimate relationships.

These revelations of torture are an opportunity for us to look honestly not only at the specific actions for which people should be held accountable, but at the kind of relationships we have developed that provide a context for them.

More than 30 years ago the people of Nicaragua faced a similar situation. When the Sandinistas took power from a brutal dictator, they recognized that many of their people had not only been tortured but had themselves been torturers. Rather than simply reversing the tables, they called for a process of reconciliation, bringing victims and victimizers together to talk about why they did what they did and how to regain their humanity.

We need a similar truth and reconciliation process here. The agony caused by these practices erodes the humanity of the actual people involved. As our brothers and sisters in Nicaragua understood, you cannot move into the future until we find ways to heal the past.

Creating a process of reconciliation is the first step in a journey we have yet to take in confronting the violence that has become all too normal for us.



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