"Can you find me a lawyer in the United States?" asked Aswad, an uneducated, poor farmer from a remote region of the Syrian countryside believes that in America, justice can be served. He believes that in America no one is above the law.
I met Aswad in a Damascus café in the fall of 2008 after learning of his story from a humanitarian aid worker. He confided in me the hell he had endured as a pawn in the "War on Terror" and convinced me of the necessity of holding those responsible accountable for their actions.
Aswad, a Syrian national, was abducted November 2003 in Mosul, Iraq by US military forces. Aswad claims he suffered physical, mental, and emotional cruelty at the hands of American interrogators in Iraq. Forced to stand hooded, naked, and shackled, he was beaten mercilessly for eight days. When he passed out from exhaustion and pain, he was doused with freezing water, and the "interrogation" resumed. When he provided answers that were unsatisfactory, he was tasered by his interrogators. Incarcerated for five years without charges, Aswad was released in the summer of 2008.
Try explaining to Aswad that we need not dwell on the mistakes of the past. Try telling Aswad's nine children who suffered from his absence that their suffering has no recourse. Physically incapacitated and with permanent eye damage due to his beatings, Aswad cannot return to the strenuous work that provided for his family and they continue to suffer.
Although the horrors of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers were overwhelming. The Bush administration consistently pointed to the fact that Saddam's torture chambers were silenced by our invasion of Iraq. If, in fact, human rights abuses are one pillar in our justification for war, we must demand accountability from our leaders when our government's human rights abuses are exposed.
The election of Barack Obama has generated a pervasive feeling of a new day dawning. How do we begin to heal, not only here but throughout the world? As a nation we are currently faced with many challenges that demand our immediate attention. But as any victim of abuse can tell you, turning the page is easier said than done, especially when the perpetrators of the abuse walk free, convinced they are above the law. President Obama has proclaimed, "We are ready to lead once again." He must begin by looking back. There can be no renewal without rehabilitation and reconciliation.
During President Obama's speech to Congress he emphatically stated, "We do not torture!" and Congress replied with thunderous cheering. President Bush made the same claim, even though documents continue to come to light that our recent past was filled with torture. Bush, in a final act of hubris, implicated himself in authorizing torture. In discussing the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on Fox News on Jan 11, 2009, Bush claimed, "...the techniques were necessary and are necessary to be used on a rare occasion to get information necessary to protect the American people... So I ask what tools are available for us to find information from him, and they give me a list of tools. And I said, 'are these tools deemed to be legal?' And so we got legal opinions before the decision was made." We know from previous admissions from the Pentagon that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was water-boarded.
Some Americans feel quite comfortable with these illegal policies. Those of us weaned on American exceptionalism are simply convinced that America always acts in the name of goodness, always acts in the name of "democracy and freedom" and therefore, our nation and leaders are above the law. This blind faith demands we never look back lest the façade of exceptionalism begins to crumble.
This moral blindness may be diminishing. As information continues to trickle out, Americans are appalled by the blatant disregard for the law exhibited by the members of the former Bush administration. A USA Today/ Gallop poll released on February 12th suggests that upwards of sixty percent of the American citizenry are now supportive of inquiries into Bush administration torture policies. Sen. Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI) are advocating a "Truth Commission" to investigate abuses and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is advocating support for John Conyers (D-MI) convening a panel into potential lawbreaking in the Bush administration. Now is the time for citizens to pressure lawmakers to act decisively.
In order for justice to be served investigations into torture and human rights abuses must begin and those responsible prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Officials at every level must be held accountable for crimes they committed.
Johnny Barber, as a member of a peace fellowship, traveled to Iraq, Israel, Occupied Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria to bear witness and document the suffering of people who are affected by war.