National Debate Must Connect the Dots on Abuses in the USA

January 14, 2015

no blind eye to torture 2x1By Zack Michaelson

Our nation is currently in a debate about how to handle gross abuses of power by those tasked with defending us. In past weeks, we have learned more about the vast conspiracy of torture operated by the CIA, perpetrated on more than one hundred people. We have witnessed a run of recent incidents involving police using what appears to be unwarranted lethal force. The police violence around the country has also appeared to get inadequate investigation and accountability, angering many. These coincident events derive from shared issues, and now is the time for action for those who defend human rights.

In the debates on these events, there are those arguing against investigation and judicial processes. I contend that such opposition is a direct opposition to human rights and their advancement. As Amnesty International activists, opposing those who argue to keep killing and torture beyond the reach of judicial processes must be at the core of what we do.

When human rights are abused, our psyche naturally tries to distance us from the victims. To empathize too closely or believe that we ourselves could be victims is painful territory. So, as we read of people from other countries being tortured by our government officials, we distance ourselves.

But ask yourself, how you would react if it were revealed, for example, that the secret intelligence agency of a Middle Eastern or Central Asian country had been abducting Americans from the US, taking them abroad, and torturing them for years in secret detention centers? What if those abducted Americans were not charged with crimes, tortured, and dozens of times were acknowledged to be innocent and unrelated to any investigation? I think nearly all Americans would seethe with rage.

If it were another country’s intelligence agency, only the most measured of Americans would argue to allow that country to investigate torturers within its own government and bring them to justice on their own terms – or not at all.

Human rights advocates would doubtless be in a position of arguing for justice, while also arguing that military strikes would bring us further from the just and peaceful world we seek.

Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan, December 11, 2014. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Director of Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan on December 11, 2014 answering questions about the release of a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the CIA’s interrogation and detention programs. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Consider, then, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s statement to Senator Dianne Feinstein, then-Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, after the release of the recent torture report summary: “If Americans are killed as a result of this report, and they tell you that, I assume you would feel guilty.” He and others are trotting out the primary method used to get people to forfeit rights and justice – fear.

Instead, he should realize that the danger to Americans comes not from investigating and documenting crimes, but from being perceived as unwilling to do so. The risk to the American people comes if there is an impression that tacit acceptance of heinous crimes is widespread among the American people and government.

The safety of our people and democracy hinges upon our willingness to investigate, to prosecute, to tell the truth, to make reconciliation, and to seek reparations for victims. Those who try to menace those standing up for human rights are adding to our country’s shame and putting us all in danger. Our legacy and safety both hinge upon human rights activists raising our voices in unison to make clear that all Americans do not condone torture, and that Americans support those who investigate crimes, rather than menace them.

We grant our government a unique monopoly on violence. In a democracy, this tremendous power comes from the collective will of the people. Those granted with a license for violence act in our name, on our behalf, and with our collective support, only and explicitly so that they may defend our safety.

Demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri
Demonstrators hold signs as they protest the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 15, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. (AFP/Getty Images)

When they abuse that power to torture and kill, they have done so in our names and on our behalf, as well. As Senator John McCain said recently on the floor of the Senate, regarding those who committed such crimes, they “stained our national honor”.

Our message must be resounding that torture, killing, and abuse of power bring shame on all of us. Now is the time to proclaim loudly and publicly which side of this shame you fall on – for or against.

This is an issue we face with officials at all levels today. The Senate report on CIA torture and the killings at the hands of police are related. Where do we draw the line about the use of violence on our behalf to defend our safety? Where do we stand when that power is abused? Do we believe in the capacity of the justice system to investigate, prosecute, and make reparations? Do you say that this does not affect you, because you are not in Ferguson or Pakistan, or because local police will never even momentarily suspect you of a crime, and the CIA will never confuse your name with a terrorist’s?

We must hold firm to our belief in the power of justice and support the investigations and processes that enact justice for us. We must demand that we use our justice system to prosecute crimes. And we must powerfully oppose those who condone torture and who menace those who investigate it. They continue to bring shame on us all, threaten our safety, and darken the stain on our national honor.

Truth and reconciliation, prosecution, and reparation have been created all around the world following systemic human rights abuses. It can be done internationally or locally.

The city of Chicago is currently dealing with its terrible legacy of decades of torture by its police, led by former Commander Jon Burge. Though the torture of hundreds of Chicagoans occurred between 1972 and 1991, evidence suggests that the City of Chicago may have effectively condoned police torture first by failing to put an end to it, then trying to cover up the evidence of torture.

After years of inaction by the authorities, torture survivors and their family members worked with community organizers and activists to form the Campaign to Prosecute Police Torture. In 2002, they successfully petitioned a Circuit Court judge to appoint two special prosecutors. Four years later, the Special Prosecutors’ report confirmed that scores of suspects were tortured during their interrogations, but concluded that the statute of limitations meant that neither Burge nor others under his command or supervision could be prosecuted for torture.

In 2010, decades after the first reports of torture came to light, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for denying the torture he and others committed. He was sentenced to four and-a-half years in prison. No Chicago police officer or city official has been convicted for any acts of torture, despite indisputable evidence that torture occurred.

Now, decades after allegations of torture first came to light, Chicago can take a historic step forward by passing and enacting the Reparations Ordinance for Chicago Police Torture Survivors, currently pending in the Chicago City Council. After decades of impunity, the ordinance will ensure that survivors of torture under Jon Burge – and their families – are given the reparations that they need to heal.

Amnesty International recognizes the incredible work of organizations, like the People’s Law Office, who have not only worked to provide justice for the survivors of torture in Chicago but maintained a vocal proponent of passage of the Ordinance to provide reparations to the individual survivors and the larger community. Amnesty International USA’s Board of Directors recently sent a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city officials calling for passage of the ordinance, and tens of thousands of Amnesty International activists wrote similar letters as part of our Write-for-Rights campaign this December.

On December 16, torture survivors. Amnesty activists, and local Chicago organizers from Chicago Justice Torture Memorials, We Charge Genocide, and Project NIA marched to City Hall to deliver more than 40,000 signatures in support of the ordinance. As the marchers made their way up Michigan Avenue, Alderman Fioretti publicly declared his support for the ordinance, tipping the scales as the 27th member of City Council in favor of reparations – the number of votes needed to pass at a hearing.

Human progress is made up of gaining respect for human rights directly from experience and trying to right past injustices. Now is the time to demand that all these recent wrongs lead to the advancement of rights. Do not let others use fear to make you believe that justice is not worth the cost. Do not stand idly by. We are a nation of laws. Now is the time to use them. We are a nation of human rights defenders. Now is the time to prove it.

Zack Michaelson served on the Amnesty International USA Board of Directors from 2009-2013 and continues to serve on the organization’s Investment Committee.

Take action with Amnesty International USA in demanding justice and respect for human rights in the face of CIA torture, torture by Chicago police and excessive use of force by US law enforcement.