On the bright Sunday, that was International Human Rights Day, December 10th, tourists and shoppers line up like any other day. Hundreds at a time stretched down Broadway and around the corner waiting for their chance to “ooooh” and “aaahh” at the famous Macy’s Christmas window displays. Piped in Christmas carols greeted the throngs as they streamed by with children on their shoulders, shopping bags in hand, and money to spend. Necks craned to catch a glimpse of the fancily wrapped gifts and twirling bespeckled tree in the window display.
Inevitably, inadvertently the shoppers’ eyes would drift from the display windows and catch hold of us. Across the sidewalk, a dozen of us crouched beneath black hoods. Bright orange jumpsuits, the trademark uniform of Guantanamo, set us apart from the crowd. Our hands were gripped behind our backs, as if cuffed. Unbeknownst to them, from behind the hoods that concealed our faces, we were watching their expressions change.
A young white woman’s face tightened as she grabbed for her boyfriend’s arm. “Wow,” she murmured, “that’s intense.” A group of immigrant friends slowed their Spanish and then stopped altogether, their conversation losing its relevance. Children cast their gaze upwards to parents for explanation but how do you explain to a child the living image of endless anguish and torture that is taking place in your name as you shop?
You do it like this: “Never mind them honey. They don’t like our President.”
Or like this: “They’re showing something that shouldn’t be happening. It’s good what they’re doing.”
Or like this, belted out by a young Black woman pushing a stroller for everyone to hear: “That’s right! We need to get his Bush’s stinkin’ ass out of there!!”
But no matter how it was explained, the children kept looking even as their parents tugged them away.
They weren’t the only ones. Many stood and stared back and forth between the two displays the one in the windows a shimmering alter to consumerism and the holiday spirit, those of us under the hoods a living replica of the human spirits being consumed by American inaction and acquiescence.
We were all told by George Bush that, “they hate us for our freedoms.” We were all told to go shopping, lest the “terrorists win.” It was remembering this while listening to the harrowing story of Khaled El-Masri on Democracy Now last week that sparked the idea of bringing the faceless hoods of American torture victims into the heart of New York’s holiday shopping, the home of the Miracle on 34th Street.
El-Masri, a German citizen, was rendered and tortured by the U.S. government at a secret C.I.A. prison. He was beaten, kicked and force-fed for months but told of even worse treatment for his fellow detainees: being hung from ceilings for days in extreme cold, simulated drowning, and having one’s limbs and teeth broken. He had received no hearing, no legal recourse, and even since his release the government has provided no reason for his detention or his release.
Judging by the faces which were transforming in front of us from holiday cheer, to double-take-confusion, to stern disturbance, while many have learned to push this out of their minds, it is not yet something they are at ease with.
But, as it says in the Call for the World Can’t Wait, “That which you will not resist and mobilize to stop, you will learn or be forced to accept.”
And there are those who have not only learned to accept, but to celebrate the barbarity of torture. These were the ones who yelled out, “If you hate America then you deserve it!” Or, “We’re gonna be there for four more years!!”
It would be nice to be able to dismiss this as the backwards howls of some beyond-the-pale fools, but it is this spirit and level of discourse that occupies much of the airwaves and halls of state power. It was the Vice President who called water-boarding a “dip” and a “no brainer.” It was in a public debate that John Yoo, the architect of George Bush’s torture programs, insisted that the President had the right to torture someone, “including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child.” It was the Commander-In-Chief who, when arguing for the passage of the Military Commissions act that disregards the Geneva Conventions, asked incredulously, “What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity’?”
But the ugly hostility of the men who cursed and condemned us only turned more of the faces our way, stirring others from their preferred indifference. Out came the cell-phone cameras and pocket-size video cams. Mouths formed the words on our signs, “Drive Out the Bush Regime,” and many nodded.
Over to my right, a voice pierced the din of traffic, cell phones, and banter. A young Middle Eastern man is flailed his arms and spoke bitterness, “I hate this President! I hate what he is doing! Look at this! Look what he is doing!” His two friends looked on in semi-amazement at the depth of his emotions; one was Latino, the other white. As he gestured, a larger knot of people stopped. Hands grabbed up the flyers we were distributing and hushed conversations broke out among families and friends.
I was not surprised by the depth of his emotions, but impressed by his courage to speak so boldly. There is nothing that could stop the government from grabbing him. Consider Dilawar, only 22-years-old and believed innocent by most of the U.S. military personnel who grabbed him as he drove his cab past their base in Bagram, Afghanistan. He weighed just 122 pounds, but was chained to the ceiling. Guards took turns striking his legs more than 100 times with such force that they would no longer bend, joking that each time they did because he would scream, “Allah.” After four days, still chained to the ceiling, he died. His autopsy described his trauma as comparable to being run over by a bus.
As we continued to crouch, our knees and backs began to ache and the people continued to stream by. There was recognition in the crowd and intensity even in the reaction of those who do not stop. We had no doubt that over dinner and coffee, over telephone lines and email messages, a conversation had been provoked that will travel home with the tourists and recur every time they open the newspaper to read another account, see another detainee in shackles, hear another rationalization about the necessities of torture.
Somewhere I heard the name Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen held for more than three years as an “enemy combatant” without charges. Recent footage of his captivity showed him shackled at the feet and the wrists and forced to wear sensory depriving goggles and earmuffs to prevent him from having any orientation or human interaction before he could be taken to the dentist. The punitive and premeditated nature of his torment precise enough to have impressed Heinrich Himmler. Already, our presence was bringing these horrors more to life for those around us.
As we were getting ready to wind down for the day, a woman dressed in all pink and white makes her way towards me. Her hair was feathered on top and she looks like the middle of America: mega-church, soccer-mom, mall-walker, you-name-it. She took me by the arms and cast her gaze where she suspected my eyes must’ve been and said, “I am from Houston and I am so proud of you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for doing this.”
She, like the Dixie Chicks, was ashamed that the President is from her home state. Her arms were still filled with Macy’s bags, her young ones still expecting gifts under the tree, but her soul was stirred and she listened and nodded as we insisted that there will be no end to the torture and immoral wars unless the regime responsible is driven from office. She gave her email and phone number and, grabbing my arms one more time before moving on, she said, “I don’t want to have to tell my kids I just let all this go on.”
As the torture continues, silence is complicity. It is not just the regime that must be challenged, but the people who dislike what is being done, but who are learning to live with it. There is still time to reach them, but not a lot of time. It is only us out here, who still have the ability to shop and to talk, to voluntarily hood ourselves or act in other ways who can challenge others to wake up and act in our millions to bring this to a halt.
As Ariel Dorfman wrote in the Washington Post as the Military Commissions Act was making torture the law of the lands, “Can’t the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the ‘intelligence’ that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?”