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LOCAL News :: Peace & War

Hundreds of Richmonders attend public forum on torture and the "War on Terror"

The 289-seat lecture hall overflowed with students and adults from across the generations Wednesday night. organizers estimate that well over 300 people attended the public forum on "Torture and the War on Terror", an event co-sponsored by Amnesty International and the Richmond Peace Education Center.
Attendees first witnessed a video clip featuring Abdullah Almalki, a Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a visit to Syria and tortured for nearly two years as a suspected terrorist. (Almaki in fact was completely innocent.) In the video clip, Almalki discussed some of the milder forms of torture he personally experienced.

The first live speaker was Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator in Iraq. Lagouranis reported on some of the interrogation practices he both utilized and witnessed while in Iraq. Lagouranis strongly feels that we should oppose torture on purely moral grounds, though he added that the practice of torture is helping inflame anti-American insurgents. He also stated that while some interrogators were gung-ho about torture, many others were not and that in general a policy change to clearly forbid torture and return to the Geneva Convention would be welcomed at the field level. Lagouranis comes across as a highly intelligent, principled person who clearly still is processing the significance both of his own past role in conducting interrogations and his new role as a leading whistle-blower and critic of current interrogation practices. He has a book coming out from Penguin Press in 2007 which is sure to be a must read.

The next speaker was Jameel Jaffer, a staff atorney in the New York offices of the ACLU. Jaffer is responsible, among other things, for getting some 100,000 pages of torture-related government documents publicly released under the Freedom of Information Act. Drawing on examples of these documents presented via Powerpoint, Jaffer provided a brilliant and compelling overview of the torture issue.

The dominant portrayal of the torture issue in the media and by government leaders relies on two narratives, argued Jaffer. The first narrative is that of an interrogation of a known terrorist who is known to have knowledge of an imminent attack on Americans or others; in this circumstance, it is suggested, failing to use any means necessary to get the information to stop the attack would be irresponsible. The second narrative is that Abu Ghraib-style torture is the work of lower-level rogue officers, has nothing to do with higher-level policy, and is confined in nature.

Both narratives are patently false, argued Jaffer. The vast majority of persons held for interrogation in Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan have no real intelligence value at all (an assessment strongly shared by Lagouranis), let alone the kind of detailed knowledge of an imminent attack that it is often argued torture can help us unearth. Lagouranis noted that most of those detained in Iraq weren’t guilty of anything at all.

Moreover, thousands of documents and scores of testimonies and eyewitness accounts from Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan suggest that abusive torture by U.S. interrogators is widespread, and that it is directly related to the Bush Adminstration’s insistence that the Geneva Convention ought not apply to non-U.S. citizens held in these settings.

These initial comments sparked a full hour of questioning from the audience, covering various legal, moral, and political aspects of the torture issue. A representative from Amnesty International and moderator Adria Scharf pitched in with ideas on how attendees could stay involved in the issue and help build a grassroots movement to eliminate the growing culture of torture in the U.S. military.

By any reasonable standard, this was a spectacularly successful and informative event on one of the weightiest issues of our time; I only wish the Richmond Times-Dispatch had been there to cover it.

[Posted originally on my blog, Richmond Talks Back, richmondtalksback.wordpress.com.]

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