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America Doesn’t Need Gina Haspel, It Needs a Debate on Torture

Will President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate confirmation hearings inadvertently open the door for Americans to confront the abuses perpetrated in their name after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

On Wednesday, during the confirmation hearings, senators are expected to pose crucial questions about the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program after the Sept. 11 attacks and the foreign “black sites,” where suspects were stealthily shipped by the Bush administration and subjected to torture to obtain “intelligence.”

More than 100 former senior United States military leaders have signed a letter addressed to the senators asking that Ms. Haspel not be confirmed as the next director of the C.I.A. “We are deeply troubled by the prospect of someone who appears to have been intimately involved in torture being elevated to one of the most important positions of leadership in the intelligence community,” the former military leaders wrote.

We will probably find out more about Ms. Haspel’s role in setting up and facilitating those secret prisons and her personal oversight of one of them in Thailand where a detainee, Abd al’Rahim al-Nashiri, was waterboarded. She also needs to explain her involvement in the destruction of 92 tapes of those “enhanced interrogations,” evidence that might have shocked public opinion far more than the Abu Ghraib photographs.

I wager that Ms. Haspel will say she was merely “following orders,” an excuse that the Nuremberg trials established cannot be accepted as legal justification for participating in atrocities.

A senior medical officer at Guantanamo Bay, gave a demonstration of the “force feeding” or “enteral feeding” chair that is used to administer meals to detainees that have embarked on hunger strikes to protest their imprisonment.

The Senate could restore a smidgen of honor to the tainted reputation of the United States by rejecting Ms. Haspel for the post. But she was just a cog in the wheel of repression and deceit. She could not have presided over such systematic violence if she had not been backed by policies vetted and approved by the Bush legal team and stridently defended by officials such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and current National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Regardless of Ms. Haspel’s fate, the United States needs a national conversation about the whole perverse architecture of complicity and impunity. The time for that conversation was at the start of President Barack Obama’s first term. Though Mr. Obama forbade, through an executive order on his second day in office, the interrogation techniques that had disgraced the United States, he preferred not to prosecute those crimes, choosing to “look forward, not backward.”

The problem is that turning the page on the errors of the past guarantees that they will be repeated. If another gang of terrorists was to attack the United States, if might be difficult to avoid the temptation to revive torture as a way of presumably keeping the nation safe and secure. Ominously, only a third of the American public, according to a recent poll, deems that Ms. Haspel’s supervision of a black site disqualifies her from heading the C.I.A.

Yet there is room for some cautious optimism. When those in power fail to lead, brave Americans show us how the abuses hidden from public view can be obdurately dragged out of the shadows and exposed.

A group of citizens in Raleigh, “North Carolina Stop Torture Now,” have set out, since 2005, to denounce Johnston Regional Airport, a small aviation facility in Smithfield, which was used to conduct secret flights carrying suspects to black sites around the world. A firm called Aero Contractors, covertly financed by the C.I.A., ran the operation.

Johnston Regional Airport is such an effective and exemplary target because it seems to be a modest and inoffensive place to those who pass its gates. My wife and I often drove by it for years without once suspecting that behind those discreet, unexceptional fences men had been kidnapped, blindfolded, shackled, humiliated, stripped, diapered, held without charges and thrown into a plane that would take them to clandestine prisons thousands of miles away where they would endure unspeakable pain.

It is that veil of secrecy that the North Carolina activists want to tear down by continuously reaching out to people of faith, military veterans, youth, civil libertarians, academics and community groups, asking them to take action.

They hope also to educate the public through protests at the airport and petition drives, the hosting of national and international expert speakers and the publication of op-eds and letters to the editor.

Most notably, they have met dozens of times with elected county, state and federal officials, demanding that authorities acknowledge publicly North Carolina’s role in these abductions and the specific individuals who have been harmed.

Above all they want the state to investigate Aero Contractors’ role in specific renditions. Thus far, according to Christina Cowger, the coordinator of “North Carolina Stop Torture Now,” “most elected N.C. officials have instead engaged in denial and buck-passing.” Some have even spoken of Aero Contractors as “good corporate citizens.” Nevertheless, the activists are undaunted and promise to keep demanding accountability.

At a time when the United States is overflowing with initiatives aimed at remembering a painful and unfair past — marking the places where lynchings occurred, where native lands were usurped, where Japanese-Americans were interned — installing some sort of monument at places like the Johnston Regional Airport would help to remind Americans of the suffering inflicted in their name at an ordinary place that is not remote from their everyday lives.

Such a memorialization does not depend on whether or not Ms. Haspel is confirmed as the head of the C.I.A. In front of the airport used by her agency to commit crimes against humanity, there should exist lasting proof of what transpired on those grounds, a challenge to Americans to never let it happen again.

This column originally appeared in the New York Times.

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