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America's Dark Side That We Must Confront: Our Official Policy Is to Torture People

New Film 'Zero Dark Thirty' doesn't force us to confront one America's own private nightmare.
 
 
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If you look backward you see a nightmare. If you look forward you become the nightmare.

There’s one particular nightmare that Americans need to face: in the first decade of the twenty-first century we tortured people as national policy. One day, we’re going to have to confront the reality of what that meant, of what effect it had on its victims and on us, too, we who condoned, supported, or at least allowed it to happen, either passively or with guilty (or guiltless) gusto. If not, torture won’t go away. It can’t be disappeared like the body of a political prisoner, or conveniently deep-sixed simply by wishing it elsewhere or pretending it never happened or closing our bureaucratic eyes. After the fact, torture can only be dealt with by staring directly into the nightmare that changed us -- that, like it or not, helped make us who we now are.

The president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner,  has made it clear that no further investigations or inquiries will be made into America’s decade of torture. His Justice Department failed to prosecute  a single torturer or any of those who helped  cover up evidence of the torture practices.  But it did deliver a jail sentence to one  ex-CIA officer who refused to be trained to torture and was among the first at the CIA to publicly admit that the torture program was real.

At what passes for trials at our prison camp in Guantanamo, Cuba, disclosure of the details of torture is  forbidden, effectively preventing anyone from learning anything about what the CIA did with its victims. We are encouraged to do what’s best for America and, as Barack Obama  put it, “look forward, not backward,” with the same zeal as, after 9/11, we were encouraged to save America by  going shopping.

Looking into the Eyes of the Tortured

Torture does not leave its victims, nor does it leave a nation that condones it. As an act, it is all about pain, but even more about degradation and humiliation. It destroys its victims, but also demeans those who perpetrate it. I know, because in the course of my 24 years as a State Department officer, I spoke with two men who had been tortured, both by allies of the United States and with at least the tacit approval of Washington. While these men were tortured, Americans in a position to know chose to look the other way for reasons of politics. These men were not movie characters, but complex flesh-and-blood human beings. Meet just one of them once and, I assure you, you’ll never follow the president’s guidance and move forward trying to forget.

The Korean Poet

The first victim was a Korean poet. I was in Korea at the time as a visa officer working for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Persons with serious criminal records are normally ineligible to travel to the United States. There is, however, an exception in the law for political crimes. It was initially carved out for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War years. I spoke to the poet as he applied for a visa to determine if his arrest had indeed been “political” and so not a disqualification for his trip to the U.S.

Under the brutal military dictatorship of  Park Chung Hee, the poet was tortured for writing anti-government verse. To younger Americans, South Korea is the land of “Gangnam Style,” of fashionable clothing and cool, cool electronics. However, within  Psy’s lifetime, his nation was ruled by a series of military autocrats, supported by the United States in the interest of “national security.”

 
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