The goal of torture is in effect, not to produce the truth, but to produce the acceptance of State discourse through confession. — Michel de Certeau
In 2002, Gul Rahman, a refugee and wood merchant, was shipped to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan. Days into his ordeal, the CIA put him through 48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, isolation in complete darkness, slapping, punching and a prolonged icy shower. Then Mr. Rahman was left shackled in a painful stress position overnight, wearing only a sweatshirt in a near-freezing cell. The next morning, he was found dead of apparent hypothermia.
Mr. Rahman’s death was covered up until 2010. His wife and four daughters have never been officially notified, nor received his body for a dignified burial. The CIA officer who oversaw Mr. Rahman’s treatment was recommended for a cash award.
We learned of this horror because — in part thanks to people of faith — the Senate Intelligence Committee was convinced to release portions of its 6,000+-page report on the post-9/11 CIA torture program. Besides Mr. Rahman, the report acknowledged 118 others held for months or years in CIA custody, many of them subjected to the same and other gruesome abuses.
That was in December 2014. Our nation has never had the necessary debate about torture because our leaders wanted us to turn the page on this awful chapter. No one has been held to account. Guantanamo remains open, and lifetime imprisonment without trial is the planned fate of many of its inmates.
But systematic government detainee abuse cannot and must not be ignored; if it is, we very well may go farther down that road. Lately, we hear calls to bring back waterboarding “and a lot worse.” Key players in the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program are being appointed to high government posts.
Polls show that around half of Americans think our government must sometimes torture those suspected of terrorist involvement. But many Americans, including people of faith, remain eager for a complete reckoning with our nation’s torture legacy.
The attempt to whitewash the brutality and damage caused by the RDI program is being confronted in an unlikely place: my home state of North Carolina. Here, a citizen-led public truth commission has been established. I am honored to be one of 11 commissioners. Among us are retired military officers, academics, former government officials and legal experts. Our project, known as the North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture, is actively investigating. We are preparing to hold public hearings this fall on the role our state and perhaps our own tax dollars played in hosting a key player in the RDI program’s supply chain.
Why North Carolina? From 2001 to 2006, dozens of flights operated by North Carolina-based teams took off from our state’s public airports — dispatched to kidnap suspected terrorists abroad and transport them to CIA “black site” prisons in Asia and Eastern Europe, such as the one where Gul Rahman died. Some flights took prisoners to third countries like Egypt and Morocco which interrogated detainees at the CIA’s behest, using cruel tortures.
Thus far, we know of at least 44 human beings who were rendered by North Carolina-based “torture taxis.” This was the work of the CIA affiliate called Aero Contractors, registered to do business in North Carolina and hosted at our public airports in Smithfield and Kinston. These are facts that will forever stain our state’s history.
In his seminal work Torture and Eucharist, theologian William Cavanaugh claimed, “Torture is a kind of perverted liturgy … [that] works to discipline an entire society into an aggregate of fearful and mutually distrustful individuals by making bodies disappear.” Causing bodies to disappear for torture is an unjust and immoral practice that violates the sanctity of human life, and people of faith and good conscience should speak out in opposition.
As Michael Foucault argued, in Discipline and Punish, “power is most powerful when it functions invisibly.” Therefore, we must challenge power when it operates unjustly; bringing it to light — illuminating, revealing and exposing the injustice. We must strive to make the bodies of the victims visible again by remembering their names, telling their stories, and reminding society of who they are.
Redemption, in the spiritual and political realm, is not an inevitable outcome, but a process. It is the result of an enduring and unwavering commitment to seek the truth and pursue justice. The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) is a non-partisan, non-governmental effort to shine light on torture and its costs and consequences.True redemption for our state and nation will require us to squarely face the results of this and other investigations, and discern what they require of us. The road to redemption is a long and often hard one, but it starts with a single step in the right direction.