This is a time of year when many Americans celebrate their Irish roots.
But the U.S. government doesn't want North Carolinians getting too close to at least one Irishman.
In the past, this would have been someone like Gerry Adams, the politician with ties to the Irish Republican Army. But Edward Horgan is no rebel; he was an officer in the Irish Defence Forces for 22 years. He served as a United Nations peacekeeper in Cyprus and the Sinai. Currently, he monitors elections in places like Ghana, Armenia, Zimbabwe, East Timor and Ukraine.
Last year, Horgan visited the United States to see family and attend the presidential inauguration. But this year, while observing elections in frigid Kiev, he learned that his 10-year, multiple-entry U.S. visa had been revoked.
The reason? No official will say, though Horgan is scheduled to attend an April conference at Duke University to speak about his opposition to extraordinary rendition.
Horgan co-founded Shannon Watch, a grass-roots group that protests the use of Ireland's main international airport as a stop for U.S. planes transporting terror suspects to secret sites. Human rights groups report that dozens of detainees have been tortured. Others have "disappeared," vanished without a trace.
In 2002, Binyam Mohamed was a legal resident of the U.K. when he was detained and tortured by U.S., British and Pakistani authorities in Pakistan. He was then "rendered" to Morocco, where he endured 18 months of truly medieval abuse - at the hands of the Moroccans, but at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was allegedly beaten severely and threatened with electrocution, rape and execution.
In 2004, Mohamed was rendered again, this time to Afghanistan. In the infamous "Dark Prison," he was held in almost complete darkness for 23 hours a day, and kept awake for days at a time with loud music and spooky recordings. He was then flown to Guantanamo. After four years, he was released without any charge - or a single day in court.
North Carolinians need to know that the pilots and crews that twice transported Mohamed are based in North Carolina. Many credible reports indicate that Smithfield-based Aero Contractors - working for the CIA - picks up detainees and flies them to sites where torture is commonplace. After making the Atlantic crossing, planes often refuel at Shannon, where Irish citizens like Horgan voice their non-violent protest of a serious human rights abuse.
Horgan has exercised his right to protest at Shannon for nearly a decade. What changed since he visited the U.S. as a tourist last year? Visa holders have undergone intense scrutiny since the attempted Christmas bombing. But this is quite another case. Does Washington want to shield us from prominent critics of extraordinary rendition?
That would be a daunting task, since the number of critics is growing. A 2007 Council of Europe report said the CIA operated secret prisons in Europe where terrorism suspects were interrogated and tortured. That same year, a German judge issued warrants for CIA agents and contractors, including three North Carolina-based pilots. Last year, an Italian judge convicted a CIA chief and 22 other Americans, almost all CIA operatives, of kidnapping a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003.
Two days after his inauguration, President Barack Obama took the overdue step of banning torture by U.S. officials, moving us away from the "dark side" advocated by our former vice president, Dick Cheney. Since then, however, Obama's record has been mixed.
Extraordinary rendition continues, with North Carolina as a likely hub. The Department of Justice continues to block torture survivors' civil lawsuits, arguing that a hearing would jeopardize state secrets - despite the fact that these are well-known international scandals.
At a minimum, we need to stop kidnapping people, holding them in secret prisons and torturing them. We won't move past this shameful legacy by muzzling critics or denying torture survivors a day in court. As Horgan says, he and many people around the world still look up to the United States as a symbol of freedom and the rule of law.
What many do not know about St. Patrick is that he was born in Britain and originally came to Ireland a slave. He escaped, but later had a vision that the Irish needed him, so returned. He fought to free other slaves before dying a revered old man near modern-day Belfast.
We have nothing to fear from critics like Horgan. To the contrary, such voices should be welcomed, since they may help us find our way back from the dark side.
Christina Cowger works with North Carolina Stop Torture Now. Robin Kirk directs the Duke Human Rights Center. Information about the April 8-10 conference is at http://www.accountabilityfortorturenc.org.