For black America, torture is not so foreign

Amendment IV: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Amendment VIII: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” – United States Constitution

Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when the beam is in your own eye? – Matthew 7:4

Whether or not we have actively or passively participated in the discussion on torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques”, for most Americans, the whole topic has felt a little removed from our everyday lives; but, not so for our Founding Fathers. Indeed, our Constitution has specific prohibitions against “unreasonable” violations of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects”; we are, in fact, protected under law against “cruel and unusual punishments inflicted” by those in whom we have vested the power to protect us.

Although those words were written and those sentiments conveyed more than two centuries ago, they still have power. They have instilled in Americans, and people the world over, a sense of entitlement to decent treatment and the belief that human rights are every being’s birthright.

Therefore, this nation, this “American Project”, has become a beacon unto all nations, a symbol of the best that is possible in the human experience. Perhaps this is the reason the torture debate in this country is so weighted, so significant. It speaks to who we were, are, and, maybe more importantly, where we are going.

The military prisons situated on the United States base on Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay as well as Iraq’s Abu Ghraib, are for most Americans scores, if not thousands, of miles away, both physically and philosophically. However, as the questions arise as to when to close Gitmo and where to place the prisoners, torture and its attendant issues become more personal.

Sadly, for many American families torture is already personal; it is concrete, not conceptual. Indeed, it is the domestic dimensions of this program which is one element that has been missing from this discussion; while the international ramifications of torture are corrosive to our global standing, the domestic practice corrupts our national character.

The case of former Chicago Police Lt. Commander Jon Burge, which, after a more than 20-year pursuit, is now before the court, is a tragic example. Allegations have coursed along charging that approximately 135 African-American men and women were arrested and tortured at the hands of Burge and officers under his command. But, this case and other torture cases, in Chicago alone, potentially have of victims numbering in the thousands; according to epidemiologists, for every single case of torture which is reported, 100 have not come forward.

According to the May 10 edition of the Chicago Tribune: “Special prosecutors have alleged that former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge led the torture of criminal suspects for two decades, coercing dozens of confessions with fists, kicks, radiator burns, guns to the mouth, bags over the head and electric shock to the genitals.”

It is one of the cruel ironies of this case that it was while in the US Army Reserve that Burge was trained for and served in the military police; in fact, it was at Fort Benning that he was trained in interrogation techniques. After having served tours in South Korea and Viet Nam, he returned to Chicago and joined the Police Department, and it was while serving on the Chicago Police Department that he taught these same techniques that he learned while serving our country.

He was a model police officer who seamlessly sailed through the ranks in units which solved all of their cases. But it is now is clear that something was amiss. It was during this same period, from 1972 to 1991 that, according to ABC 7, Chicago’s network affiliate: ”…Burge created a culture where police torture was condoned and protected.”

These are some of the crimes attributed to Lt. Commander Burge and his fellow officers. These cases, and more than 100 others, have been documented by the Peoples’ Law Office, headed by Attorney G. Flint Taylor, a man who, while virtually alone, has been an advocate for these men and women:

  • Ollie Hammonds, who was repeatedly beaten, threatened with electric shock on his penis and held incommunicado without food or bathroom for several days;
  • Rodney Benson, who was beaten with a piece of rubber with tape on both ends and with a flashlight on his groin, back, knee, chest and stomach, threatened with hanging as they had done to the other “niggers”;
  • Eric Smith, who was repeatedly beaten on his side, back and groin with a lead pipe encased in a rubber hose; and was repetitiously electric-shocked on his side and groin while naked and handcuffed: these actions yielded a false confession.

On a national level, who can forget Abner Louima, sodomized with a broken broom stick while in police custody…Or, Rodney King, beaten mercilessly by members of the Los Angeles Police Department…The list goes on and on, and breaches the confines of race or gender.

And while we find ourselves in the midst of this economic crisis, a crisis akin to that of the Great Depression, think of the costs. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Burge case has cost Chicago taxpayers “nearly $30 million in lawsuit settlements and legal fees paid by the city to numerous lawyers who have represented the police officers.”

The entanglements in this case have spun a web which ensnare the powerful: among them, sitting-Mayor Richard Daley, who was the Cook County state’s attorney when much of the alleged torture took place, as well as the current State’s attorney Richard Devine, whose office repeatedly rebuffed the torture allegations.

Interestingly, Lt. Commander Burge and his cohorts, following a lengthy and thorough investigation by a special Cook County prosecutor, were found to have forced dozens of confessions by means of torture. However, no one could be held liable because the statute of limitations for the abuses had expired. It was only after Burge testified falsely about the brutalities that he was arrested and charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. Let us be clear: former Lt. Commander Burge was not charged for the decades-old torture cases, just for lying about them.

On our own shores, we are far more tolerant and embracing of torture; and, we are, perhaps as a consequence, in many cases the recipients of torture, far more often than many of us might be willing to recognize or concede. In their post-Administration lives, former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Richard Cheney have been ardent defenders of this practice.

While it has recently been reported that Bush Administration Justice Department lawyers engaged in a sharp internal debate in 2005 over these interrogation techniques, even those who believed that the utilization of this practice was a serious mistake agreed on this fundamental point: the methods themselves were legal.

Chillingly, acceptance of torture and construction of its techniques has bled into the health care profession; the precise place where we are supposed to be able to seek solace, find safety and achieve healing. A series of exposes have revealed that psychologists have played key roles in crafting the CIA’s torture tactics; but, the venerable American Psychological Association, unlike their colleagues in the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, have refused to bar its members from participating in interrogations at CIA and military prisons. These examples demonstrate that even in the highest echelons of our society, torture has the patina of credibility, justification and respect.

So, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King asked us more than 40 years ago, “Where Do We Go From Here?” In his spirit and by his example, let us move. Forward. Fast. Naomi Wolf writes that ”(w)e’re all torturers… Lay the guilt where it belongs: on Congress; most particularly, and legally, on the leadership that directed this policy; and, emotionally and morally, on our complicit American selves.”

To be certain, our collective silence and incremental adjustments —”This has been happening to us ever since, ever since”— are all the consent necessary to allow these outrages to continue.