Many aspects of the devastating war in Iraq have compelled our attention - we agonize over the rising body count among our own forces, we express our rage over the staggering reports of innocent Iraqi dead, we read between the lines of official statements to glean the larger motive behind the invasion.
Another less visible battleground in the Iraq war has been the American Constitution. Under the broad mantle of national security, the Bush Administration has claimed exemption from the protections enshrined in our Constitution and defined in International agreements. Prisoners continue to be detained for years without acknowledgment of their whereabouts, without counsel. They are subjected to extremes of deprivation and torture.
There is a growing consensus that the harrowing images of Abu Ghraib did great trauma to our national psyche - and was one of the steepest falls from grace in our nation's history.
Like everyone else, I had seen the images that came out of Abu Ghraib and was shocked and saddened by them. And like so many others, I wondered how could people, particularly Americans, treat others so inhumanely? I initially set out to do a documentary about why ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of evil. Were the people who committed these acts psychopaths? Or were they the sweet kids next door behaving badly in times of war?
But as I began to do research for a documentary film and get more and more access to the people on the front lines, the people who were at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003 when the majority of these abuses took place, (I ended up interviewing well over a dozen people who were involved in the abuse) I heard the same thing over and over again "We did it because we were told to do it by people up the chain of command." Indeed, despite the Administration's denials, and assertions that Abu Ghraib "was the work of nine bad apples on the night shift," my documentary film, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib makes it clear that responsibility for the abuses at the prison goes right to the top.
So I was not surprised last week when White House press secretary, Dana Perino, denied that secret memos in 2005 written by the Justice Department sanctioned torture. "Regardless of where we are, we do not torture anybody," Perino said.
The 2005 memos were, according to the New York Times, "an expansive endorsement of the harshest interrogation techniques ever used by the Central Intelligence Agency." But because the Bush administration claimed these methods approved for use by the CIA - extreme temperatures of heat and cold, water-boarding or simulated drownings, prolonged stress positions and isolation - were "not torture" they had the deniability they are still claiming. "U.S. policy is not to torture -- and we do not." (It didn't matter that other nations had been calling these same techniques torture for decades.)
The Bush administration's narrower definition, unrecognized anywhere else, defined torture as "severe physical or mental pain or suffering" that results in significant harm of significant duration, lasting "months or even years." Still, when pushed for specifics about what the White House considers allowable in "getting information" U. S. officials can't or won't say.
The CIA memos revealed last week are very consistent with the horrendous torture policies the Administration put into effect after 9/11, and these practices continue to protected by legislation such as the Military Commissions Act which denies military detainees rights to due process granted under habeas corpus and allows the president alone to define what is and what is not torture.
Just last Friday, President Bush said, "this government does not torture people . . . we stick to U.S. law and our international obligations." This is familiar rhetoric. We heard him say the same thing in the wake of Abu Ghraib. We shouldn't have believed him then, and we shouldn't trust him now.
I am saddened and angered that America's standing as a global leader in human rights and a country with a deep and abiding respect for the rule of law continues to be undermined by the pro-torture policies of the Bush Administration. And many Americans agree: an essential part of winning the war on terrorism and protecting our country for the future is safeguarding the ideals and principles that Americans hold dear: that torture is not acceptable and the law must be respected.
Unfortunately, as our bedrock principles have eroded, I believe our legislators have been compliant, the media timid, and the courts mostly rudderless and conflicted. We are left - as so often in times of national crisis - to depend on individuals who have the courage to speak out.
In order to change the tide, it is essential that people get involved. For my part, I have initiated the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib Campaign
The Campaign launches on October 17, 2007 - the one year anniversary of passage of the Military Commissions Act and little more than 12 months away from the next presidential election.
Of course, given the state of things and the actions, both past and present, of the current administration, the upcoming presidential race figures largely in the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib Campaign.
We are inviting our audiences to support the view that our next president must stand against torture in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Furthermore, we will demand that the Senate Judiciary Committee seek a commitment from the next Attorney General to reject torture and all the policies emanating from the Administration's opinions permitting it. Additionally, we will pressure Congress to act to ensure transparency relating to detainee treatment and that all U.S. personnel abide by a single standard of humane treatment.
The ACLU will use the film in roughly 1,000 key districts, not to push for any one candidate but to engage citizens to make torture a platform election issue. Amnesty International will kick off an 86-day campaign of organizing and protests starting with the anniversary of the Military Commissions Act and ending with anniversary of the first prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay. Human Rights First will screen Ghosts of Abu Ghraib in their "Elect to End Torture '08" campaign, which advocates the need for a president who won't allow torture to happen again in America's name. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is organizing faith-based action-centered screenings in over 1,000 congregations nationwide the week of October 26th.
It is my hope that the film and these targeted actions will help to eliminate the policies and legislation sanctioning torture, that this initiative will contribute to more humane treatment for military detainees and will help to restore America's standing as a country committed to human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.