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Let's Open the Gulag!

A People’s Mission to Guant?namo

by MARK CHMIEL And ANDREW WIMMER

A couple of winters ago, having already read more than enough, we became enraged at what the United States was doing to prisoners from the war on terrorism at Guantánamo Bay. We got a large piece of canvass, spray painted, “Stop Torture Now: Close Guantánamo,” and headed for the highway. We would hold the banner during rush hour traffic at a pedestrian overpass. Others from our Center for Theology and Social Analysis would join us at 7:30 in the morning or in the later afternoon, as the overpass was three minutes from our homes in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood in St. Louis.

Sometimes, irate drivers would call the police on their cell phones as they sped by, and, eventually, the cops would arrive to chase us off, though not until we had achieved some strategic stalling. Over time, we were gratified by the scattered honks of support from passersby, and we weren’t surprised by those who maniacally flipped us off. Perhaps in expressing their dissent from our message, they thought Guantánamo should stay open; or maybe they were just among those of our fellow citizens who unabashedly support the use of torture against any and all detainees.

Winter turned to spring. The stories and pictures of Abu Ghraib emerged, and our signs on the overpass morphed, “Abu Ghraib: America’s Shame.” And in the weeks and months since Abu Ghraib has become a near-household expression, continuous revelations have been coming out about rendition, secret prisons in Afghanistan, on-going mayhem in Iraq, and Guantánamo. And our banners morphed yet again, “Stop Torture Now: No Secret Prisons.”

Now, earlier this month, comes Amnesty International’s report for 2005, condemning the United States for its role in promoting torture. William Schultz, director of Amnesty USA, introducing the report said, “Tolerance for torture and ill treatment, signaled by a failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible, is the most effective encouragement for it to expand and grow.” While Amnesty International’s Irene Kahn added, "The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law," thus evoking associations of the notorious Soviet prison system described exhaustively by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his The Gulag Archipelago. White House press spokesperson Scott McClellan uttered the predictable response: Amnesty’s report was baseless and ridiculous. Over the course of the week, Bush (“absurd”), Cheney (“I just don’t take them seriously”), and Rumsfeld (“reprehensible”) all followed suit. In their worldview, like that of many Americans impervious to the facts, the U.S. can do no wrong. Well, yes, a few people may make mistakes, like the Abu Ghraib bad apples, Lynndie England and Charles Graener, but in our institutions of politics and economy, the US is incapable of illegality, much less immorality. Thus runs the self-evident, self-justifying, and seemingly incontrovertible theology of American Empire.

We have read Seymour Hersh’s book, Chain of Command. As we have Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, with his collected essays and government documents. Finally, we took notice of Karen Greenberg’s The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghrai, an even more capacious volume.

Of course, the vast majority of Americans aren’t going to pore over lengthy texts such as these. But in one of his essays, “The Logic of Torture,” Mark Danner offers a challenge to those of us who have read and who do know:

“The internal evidence of the abuse itself and the clear logical narrative they take on when set against what we know of the interrogation methods of the American military and intelligence agencies—is quite enough to show that what happened at Abu Ghraib, whatever it was, did not depend on the sadistic ingenuity of a few bad apples. This is what we know. The real question now, as so often, is not what we know but what we are prepared to do.”

What are we prepared to do?

We must publicly work to delegitimize the activities that are being carried out in our name. We need to ask our fellow citizens, “Is this who we want to be?” and then urge them into the streets.

The Nation editorialized recently,

“…Bush’s torture system and his obsession with secret executive authority are shaped by the contradictions of democracy: courts that won’t cooperate, legislators who ask questions, reporters who drag secrets into the light. Harnessing those forces—whether through Congressional committees, new legal actions or citizen protests—is today’s great task.”

We won’t hold our breath waiting for another Congressional or Pentagon committee, but we agree that we face the great task of awakening massive citizen protests around the country. We want to assume a good number of Americans—the overwhelming majority?—could be sympathetic to the struggle to delegitimize the use of torture by the U.S. We talked to quite a few of them during our banner-holding stints on the pedestrian overpass.

We propose a three-fold track in the months ahead to further this delegitimization: Haunting Officials, Initiating Dialogue and Engaging in Direct Action.

Haunting Officials

Amnesty has been taking a beating for its choice of words, but Bill Shultz, director of Amnesty International USA, stuck to the truth last Friday: "The U.S. is running an archipelago of detention facilities — many of them secret facilities — around the world and people in those are being disappeared into them … they are being held incommunicado."

U.S. Senators don’t need to know any more. They’ve seen thousands of photographs. They’ve had access to videotapes. But they’re playing the denial game.

The game is over.

So, here’s one thing to do: haunt and harass.

Let’s haunt Bush and Company on their travels around the US with a simple message: STOP TORTURE NOW!

On June 2, we greeted George Bush on his trip to St. Louis with large banners: “We Agree with Amnesty International” and “Close U.S. Gulag, Arrest Bush.” We urge you to do likewise. As Bush continues to hopscotch across the country from one heavily fortified hotel ballroom to the next to appear before his wealthy patrons, bring an indictment.

Locally, we intend to haunt our friend, Senator James Talent, who said a couple of months ago that “our guys and gals just wouldn’t” commit torture. Perhaps he’s been Rip Van Winkle this past year. We intend to wake him up.

Initiating Dialogue

But what about everyone else? What are they thinking about torture? Are they thinking about torture? Well, we better find out. This coming Sunday, June 26, is U.N. International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors. Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) is holding a 24-hour vigil in Washington, D.C. In addition to other efforts on this day, we propose to get 10,000 people to initiate ten conversations and exchanges in this day about the U.S. use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo. On that day, let there arise 100,000 conversations on this issue of torture. Visit our website, and let us and others know that you are committed to this simple act of breaking the silence.

On September 11 we up the ante and aspire to get 100,000 of us to do the same: in face to face discussions, Instant Messenger, emails, whatever skillful means we can find, to speak to people not “in the choir” about the moral and practical consequences of the U.S. using torture. On that day let us generate one million conversations and so raise critical questions about the bad karma the U.S. government seems bound and determined to increase.

Direct Action

And we are beginning now to plan “Make a Racket Week.” We are forming an affinity group to travel to Guantánamo to make some noise. We are going to encourage internationals to join us to meet as close as possible to the military base to beat pots and pans, vigil, fast, offer lamentations, issue legal indictments on the basis of the ever-applicable Geneva Conventions. We would like you to join us. Let’s sit and stand in the hot sun. Let’s befriend the Cubans around us. Let’s let the State Department know we are going, come what may.

Forty-five years ago, when France was holding thousands of Algerians in its chain of prisons, several members of a French community working for nonviolent social change wrote to the French Home Minister, “As men, and Frenchmen, we feel deeply affected in our conscience, our honor, and dignity by the creation and development of internment camps in France. The fact that thousands of mere suspects are shut up in these camps for "official" reasons has taken all the enjoyment out of our freedom and made it meaningless.” They asked “to be considered also as suspects fit to be put on your blacklist.” Having protested at the gates of the Larzac Camp, they took a further step and wrote, “So, in order to share in the injustice being done to our Algerian brothers, we feel compelled to request our voluntary internment in that or any other camp or prison you care to choose.”

With their courageous stand as our guide, let our resolution for the next twelve months to be to protest and resist the U.S. practice and justification of torture. Like the thousands of people who gather in mid-November to express outrage at the “School of the Assassins” in Fort Benning, Georgia, let there be scores, no, hundreds of trained, cantankerous, courageous affinity groups willing to put our bodies on the line.

Bush prattles on about that famous U.S. transparency. Standing with European leaders on Monday, he invited members of the press to visit Guantánamo. “And so I would urge you to go down and take a look at Guantanamo,” he said. But let’s not wait for the press, or for our own presidential invitation. Let’s go take a look for ourselves and then open things up. Let’s start with Guantánamo and go from there. No more “legal black holes,” secret prisons, no man’s lands. Let’s go see the gulag, starting with Guantánamo and moving on to prisons in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Diego Garcia.

We rarely feel a need to quote Condoleezza Rice. But in this case, we will. “I want you to keep focused on what you are doing here,” Rice told the diplomats and troops who gathered in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. “This war came to us, not the other way around.” Let’s keep focused. Let’s take the resistance to them. Let the people open the gulag!

If you are interested in talking more about this, please email us at cuba@stoptorturenow.org.

Mark Chmiel and Andrew Wimmer teach at St. Louis University. They are members of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis (CTSA) in St. Louis. Members of CTSA are involved in solidarity work with Palestine, care for refugees and victims of war trauma newly arrived in St. Louis, direct action against torture, and neighborhood revitalization. See www.ctsastl.org.For background on the torture issue and suggested actions, and to learn more about participating in the Peoples’ Mission to Open the Gulag, see www.stoptorturenow.org. We will have additional information posted during the week of June 27.