When I returned from Guantanamo Bay in August 2005, I described that prison as “a cancer on our democracy” because I understood that the political, legal, and moral framework that allowed that institution to exist posed an existential threat to our nation. I did not understand then that the cancerous corruption of our American values had already metastasized to North Carolina.
We were a frightened, angry people in 2005, because our nation had been attacked. Three members of my congregation in New Jersey were in the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, and only two escaped with their lives. So I was invested in seeing the perpetrators of that despicable crime brought to justice. Having previously served in U.S. Army Intelligence, I grasped the challenge of that mission and gasped at the appalling miscalculations made by our leaders.
Neither of the two prisoners that I met in Guantanamo Bay had been captured near a battlefield and both claimed to have been abused in custody. I took their stories seriously, but with some skepticism.
The revolting abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq a year earlier had sparked national outrage. Eleven soldiers – mostly junior enlisted personnel – were subsequently scapegoated as “a few bad apples” in an otherwise healthy military system, and that shameful chapter of institutional abuse was closed.
Three months after I returned from Cuba, the first report appeared of a CIA “black site” at which prisoners were tortured. Having learned from the Abu Ghraib experience that Americans will not tolerate agents of our government torturing prisoners of war, our government defended the “enhanced interrogation of detainees,” as evidence was swiftly destroyed. Astonishingly enough, we, as a society, accepted this Orwellian doublespeak.
We know today that the torture culture was not some faraway phenomenon, but rather an active revenue stream into our state’s economy. The N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture has produced evidence that our state was indispensable in maintaining the worldwide network of secret CIA torture centers. By the time that I arrived in Guantanamo Bay, aircraft based at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield and the Global TransPark in Kinston had secretly transported at least 49 prisoners for “enhanced interrogation.”
The public response to the commission's incriminating revelations has been uncomfortable silence and awkward excuses. But the past 13 years have proved how apt an analogy cancer is for a sickness that has contributed to the slow deterioration of health in the American body politic. The Guantanamo prison is still operational, national leaders speak approvingly of torture, and the CIA is led by a former station chief who refuses to denounce as immoral the torture she oversaw.
Etched into the marble wall of the Central Intelligence Agency’s original Headquarters Building in Washington is a passage from the Gospel of John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a healthy democracy, freedom is secured by the truth and the mission of the intelligence community is to learn the truth. In a free and morally grounded society, the role of the clergy is to speak the truth, however unpopular, and call the people back to the moral high ground of their highest shared values.
Kidnapping, clandestine transports, secret imprisonment without trial, and torture were the tactics of totalitarian regimes that a generation of Americans fought to resist. The shameful truth is that our nation embraced all these reprehensible practices and used aircraft launched from North Carolina soil to do so.
As a nation, we have much for which to repent on June 26th, which is the United Nations Day for Victims of Torture. Willful ignorance does not equate to innocence. If we are ever to fully realize the ideals enshrined in our democracy’s founding documents, then we must confront the hard truth about the ways we have failed to uphold our own moral standards. Surely we have the courage to face this challenge; after all, we are Americans.