By Barbara Zelter



Hello, out there!  It is a few weeks before the Nov. 8 election, and aren’t we all in head-spinning mode as we anticipate results?  So it is the perfect time for me to write about torture, right?

Well, actually, it is.  U.S. Senator Richard Burr, my federal representative, is up for reelection, and he is the man who in his Intelligence Committee role has refused to release the report that explains how my country has used torture as a tool in the so-called War on Terror. 

I write as a social worker, community organizer, former nonprofit director, Forward Together/ Moral Monday activist, regular over-busy person, mother, and now teacher of upcoming social workers and organizers.  I have been involved with NC Stop Torture Now (NCSTN) for a long time, and I am thrilled we now have a Commission of Inquiry on Torture in place.

The reasons I support the Commission have to do with the color YELLOW:  Yellow Ribbons, Yellow Politicians, and Yellow Sunshine.

Yellow Ribbons (and my nephew Chris):  Remember all those yellow ribbons on trees back during the first Gulf War, and on decals on cars? We support our troops! Will someone please tell me how my family member currently serving with the United States military is safer due to our use of torture against our “enemies?” Say my nephew Chris gets captured by someone whose friend, family member, or countryman was tortured at the hands of Americans.  Would the captors be more likely to question Chris by using the same horrific tribulations we used on them?  We have NO moral high ground to prevent torture against our own troops if we ourselves have violated the Geneva Convention rules of war.  Allowing a cover-up on our nation’s use of torture puts our troops and civilian workers in danger.  That yellow ribbon is a useless piece of cloth, a moral sham, unless we back it up with a loud and clear ban on torture by Americans.

Yellow Politicians:  I am beyond sick of the sheer yellow cowardice of a whole raft of NC legislators and other government and civic officials from localities right up to Washington, D.C., who have refused to deal with citizen concerns about using our tax dollars and NC facilities like the Smithfield airport for “torture taxi” operations.  Their arrogant refusal to admit involvement with illegal use of torture in our names is inexcusable. If they really believe torture is terrific, let them say so.  (A few actually do; one is running for president.)  Which brings us to…


Yellow Sunshine, AKA a Spotlight: We need a brighter spotlight shed on facts already known:  That torture is counterproductive, that innocent victims and their families are mentally ruined by nefarious interrogatory punishment, and that TORTURING OTHERS HARMS THOSE WHO DO IT… our own persons who perform torture suffer moral injury to their spirits and minds! I teach my students that progressive social change for equity and justice in American has ONLY occurred after everyday people persistently called for attention and action. Look what happened around clergy sex abuse when enough told their stories, came out into the light, and demanded action. The movie Spotlight told that story well.  Change is possible. Enough of torturing, enough.

Let North Carolina be a light of civil but insistent inquiry, a model for others, as you and I and all who care about human rights support the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT).



 Barbara Zelter, MSW, MA, is a professor of social work and long-time community organizer/activist for a variety of social justice causes in North Carolina.


America’s justification of torture: A Christian response


By Rev. W. Benjamin Boswell

I was an infantry officer in the United States Army on September 11, 2001, and it was a critical turning point in my life. After 9/11 the collective psyche of American society took off in one direction and I, along with what seemed like only a few others, went in the other. As the nation set off on a path of anger, hatred, xenophobia, nationalism, revenge and retaliation, I became increasingly disappointed with the response to 9/11 and the resulting change in American foreign policy. As a former officer, I can testify to you firsthand that American soldiers were not being trained to respect and uphold international law in combat situations. Instead, they were being taught to dehumanize and demonize the enemy as a part of their training for the purpose of making it easier for them to kill. We saw the consequences of this most vividly in the horrors of the Abu Ghraib Prison torture and abuse scandal.

Photo credit: Joe Mabel, 2008

Photo credit: Joe Mabel, 2008

There was once a time when it was not only permissible, but also respectful and ethical, to talk about the limits of American military power, or at least to talk about what was “just” in war.  Concepts from the Just War tradition like discrimination, proportionality, and fair treatment of prisoners were all widely discussed and accepted by most moral philosophers, theologians, religious leaders, lawmakers, and politicians. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

Since 9/11 we have been engaged in a long and seemingly unending war in the Middle East—Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria. Alongside our military presence in the Middle East, there has been a powerful resurgence of nationalism, a return of the concept of Manifest Destiny, the advent of a new aggressive form of colonialism masked as democracy and national security, as well as the emergence of a new doctrine commonly referred to as “American exceptionalism.” This new doctrine of exceptionalism has combined with American Civil Religion to create a latent, unacknowledged, yet well-understood belief we are in a Holy War with Islam.

The problem with concepts like Manifest Destiny, Nationalism, Colonialism, Exceptionalism, and Holy War is that when you believe these kinds of sacred and idolatrous ideas about America as a “chosen nation” or “Christian nation,” you can justify any practice including torture—even if it violates international law, treaties, conventions, morality, or human decency. So long as it is done out of a sense of preserving the security and/or way of life of the American people, then it magically becomes reasonable, ethical, and even a moral imperative.

I believe this particular political theory/moral philosophy of exceptionalism has its origins in the political theology of a German man named Carl Schmidt, who claimed that in an “emergency” situation or “extreme case,” the State can and should resort to extreme measures to maintain law, order, and security for its people. Schmidt was the crown jurist for the National Socialist party in Germany and his political theory helped to justify their practices of war, violence, torture, and genocide. Unwittingly, we have adopted the political philosophy of Nazi extremists in order to justify our practices of torture.

To find a specifically Christian perspective on the issue of torture, the best resource I’ve discovered is William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist (1998). Cavanaugh is a Catholic theologian; his book explores the use of torture by the regime of General Pinochet in Chile and the church’s response to that torture. In my opinion, this book is a case study for Christian views on the subject and is incredibly helpful in developing a specifically Christian response to the state-sponsored practice of torture.

Cavanaugh claims: “Torture is a kind of perverted liturgy, a ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious individuals.” In that way, the practice of torture is the exact opposite or inverse of the most important Christian practice—Communion or Eucharist where individuals are united together as the collective body of Christ by rehearsing the story of one who was tortured and executed by the state: i.e., Jesus. Christians follow a tortured prophet…one who was literally tortured by the State on charges of insurrection. Therefore, torture, biblically speaking, is a practice of those who are by definition anti-Christ, and Communion or Eucharist then is the act of those who are witnesses against torture.

One of the things Cavanaugh says that is particularly important for our conversation about North Carolina’s involvement in torture, where we are complicit as a state in the practice of extraordinary rendition, is this: “Torture works to discipline an entire society into an aggregate of fearful and mutually distrustful individuals…it does so by making bodies disappear and by torturing…the bodies of its victims.” Causing bodies of human beings to disappear is illegal and unjust (especially if it is done for the purpose of torture), and it is something that the church, Christians, people of faith, and Americans should resist.

In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault shows, “power is most powerful when it functions invisibly.” Therefore, the way to begin to confront and challenge unjust power is to bring it to light—illuminating, revealing, and exposing the injustice that is taking place. In addition, making the bodies of the victims visible again by remembering their names, telling their stories, and reminding society of who they are is another powerful way to combat the disappearances. 

Historically, torture was associated with the search for truth (see Torture and Truth by Page duBois, 1991). However, in studying medieval forms of torture, the French scholar Michel de Certeau remarks, “The goal of torture, in effect, is not to produce the truth but to produce acceptance of a State discourse, through confession.” (31) Torture in the modern era is not about seeking the truth, but a practice used by the State to discipline the enemy.

It is, therefore, critically important for Christians to help dispel the myth that torture is effective. In addition to being immoral, it is also an ineffective and detrimental practice:

…it does not gain accurate intelligence or information.

…it most often gains us inaccurate intelligence which is worse than no intelligence.

…as a practice it has severely damaged our credibility/image in the Middle East.

…it has become one of the most effective recruiting tools for terrorist organizations.

…it has made the world, especially the Middle East, a worse place both morally and practically.

…it endangers our own soldiers and makes them more susceptible to torture.

How Should a Christian Respond to Torture:

1.   Reveal/Shed Light On/Expose/Define Torture

2.  Describe the Practice of Torture as a Sin

3.  Confess our Involvement/Complicity in Torture

4.  Name the Victims of Torture in Public and in Prayer

5.  Participate in Practices of Resistance and Solidarity (SAMAT in Chile)

6.  Advocate for US Policy to Respect International Law & Treaties

7.  Give our financial support to organizations like the NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture.

Jose Aldunate, a Chilean Jesuit, says, “Torture is the most vehement attack against the body of Christ…it is Christ himself who is tortured again each time.”

Let us as Christians commit ourselves to have the courage to talk about the philosophies and theologies that are the underlying causes of torture, the willingness to expose to the world the truth about the immorality and ineffectiveness of this practice, the humbleness to repent of our complicity in these sinful actions our nation has taken, the compassion to name the victims of torture in public and in prayer, and the hope to continue working together to eliminate this practice from our nation. 


Rev. W. Benjamin Boswell is the Senior Minister at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC – a church affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and American Baptist Churches USA. He previously served as the pastor at Greenwood Forest Baptist Church in Cary, NC and Commonwealth Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. Ben earned a bachelor’s from Campbell University, a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School, did doctoral work in moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He currently serves on the board of the Alliance of Baptists and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. 

Clarifying torture as collective trauma demands shared moral responsibility


By Jeremy Rinker


When most people think deeply about the physical and psychological effects of torture on the individual human body, they shudder in revulsion. So why do we hear such raucous applause when Republican Presidential candidates talk tough about using torture against “terrorists”?

Regardless of the lack of specificity in the “terrorist” label, I believe this disconnect occurs because most Americans are too quick to misconstrue what English philosopher John Stuart Mill called utilitarianism. Mill’s  “Greatest Happiness Principle” assumes not only that we know and agree on what happiness is, but that the greater collective’s sense of happiness trumps any individual’s personal desires. While this sounds nicely communitarian, in America -- the most individualistic nation on earth -- the interpretation of utilitarian ethics gets skewed. Let me explain.

Americans often justify acts of torture by their government by arguing for a utilitarian ethics based on an ill-informed and myopic sense of the greatest happiness principle. The argument goes something like this: if torturing one evil person helps stop some good people from being injured or killed (and therefore unable to achieve happiness), then torture is justified. But this argument assumes a great deal. First, it posits an all-knowing government intelligence unit that can be certain the person being tortured possesses specific and actionable information. French Philosopher Michele Foucault called this ‘governmentality,’ and warned us against such blind trust in systems of knowledge-power. Second, this argument automatically positions people as either good or bad, when humans are actually much more complicated.

Third, and crucially, a strict focus on the common denominator of group rights as the primary vehicle for happiness stifles any critical appraisal of local and collective moral responsibility. Any harms bought in the service of the greater good (in this case the protection of the homeland) are ipso facto good. Put more simply, by focusing primarily on individuals and their group rights, we miss important collective obligations that we all have toward our fellow humans. In short, a focus on post-traumatic individual rights often misses the local obligations humans possess to uphold standards of collective moral responsibility. A focus on utilitarian ethics in a society in which individual rights are held sacrosanct blurs the true effects of trauma as a collective phenomenon.

When Americans think of trauma and other negative human experiences, they usually envision them as happening to a person. This individualistic and psychologized view of human suffering does little to broaden our sense of moral responsibility to others, much less provide collective definition for “happiness.” Our individualistic view of the world is one reason we see an increasing lack of confidence in our government institutions. Torture certainly delegitimizes the U.S. government in the eyes of the world, but just as importantly it leaves a legacy of trauma and suffering in its wake. This collective harm has sociological, even genetic, repercussions for our society.

When we think of rights and obligations, local and state governments may not be the first institutions that come to mind. But increasingly, this level of government has much power to control the status-quo narrative and/or shift the discourse of social change. One need look no further for evidence than the on-going controversy between North Carolina’s State government and the federal government over HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill”). Further, North Carolina’s invocation of states’ rights over the HB2 controversy is completely hypocritical: when it comes to taking responsibility for our state’s critical role in torture and rendition, North Carolina’s government is content to let the federal government control the discourse. Why the different responses? Our public officials fail to see that TOV (torture and organized violence) leaves a physical and psychological legacy of collective harm that has on-going local manifestations.  Regardless of who actually gave the orders that involved North Carolinians in torture, for us as a state this is now a question of collective moral responsibility, not just individual rights or political expedience.

What are the responsibilities of local governments when citizens can show evidence that they are culpable in systematic wrong-doing? This central question has been kept alive by a small number of anti-torture activists, and must continue to be asked of local and state leaders. You see, accountability assumes a shared understanding of moral responsibility. Local collective understanding of the duty to provide redress is crucial to overcoming fear and cycles of retaliation. But often we as Americans, or North Carolinians, fail to recognize the collective legacy of seemingly individual acts. Restoration after TOV can only be realized when collective social harms are acknowledged and discussed.

Photo Credit: Scott Langley, 2006

Photo Credit: Scott Langley, 2006

Central to activists’ calls for accountability is whether, in the wake of a TOV program, real reconciliation and repair are possible at all. I believe they are, but only if government officials, as representatives of the people, take formal responsibility for their past actions, only then can reconciliation and resilience begin.

Torture must be understood as a collective harm – you, our neighbors, and I have all suffered from our government’s use of it. Holding responsible those involved requires truth-telling at the local level as much as at the international level. As John Paul and Angela Lederach remind us “individual and social healing do not follow and are rarely experienced along ‘lines’ of phase-based progression.”[1] Truth-telling and accountability are the only avenue to both individual reconciliation and societal resilience to any future push to use torture.  Of course, we cannot prevent individual violence simply by acknowledging that structural violence, institutionalized racism, or ethnocentrism exist.  But grasping that torture is a collective social harm does allow change-makers to aim beyond individual rights and responsibilities and toward collective accountability and restoration.

While the collective legacies of trauma exist, they may not fully explain either the social impact of TOV or, even, the means to overcoming it.  However, acknowledging these collective legacies does allow us to envision and clarify our moral responsibilities and put to rest an understanding of torture based on fear and fed by pseudo-utilitarian norms.


Jeremy Rinker, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina, Greensboro’s (UNCG’s) Department of Peace and Conflict Studies where he researches the intersections between narrative, violent conflict, and nonviolent conflict transformation. Having previously taught at DePauw University and Guilford College, Jeremy brings a passion for critical liberal arts education to his teaching and writing on social justice and the legacy of injustice. Jeremy can be reached at

[1] John Paul Lederach and Angela Jill Lederach, When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys Through the Soundscape of Healing and Reconciliation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 45.

Cost of torture not worth benefits


By Chuck Fager


Let’s suppose that the last administration’s torture program actually did produce a tip that helped the SEALs hunt down Osama bin Laden. It seems unlikely, given all I’ve heard, but say it did.

Would that be the vindication the torture defenders want? Would it demolish the cavils of critics like me that even if torture “works,” the U.S. government and military shouldn’t use it?

I’ll skip moral and legal angles here; let’s talk practicalities.

The waterboarding (or other torture) that maybe squeezed out an al-Qaida courier’s name in 2003 was not an isolated act. It was part of a larger program. And the killing of one man, Osama Bin Laden, in a mansion in Abbottabad in 2011 was not its only outcome.

Against that benefit of torture, it’s only fair, indeed imperative, to weigh the program’s costs.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili listed some of those costs to Congress in 2005. He said it “fostered greater animosity toward the United States, undermined our intelligence-gathering efforts, and added to the risks facing our troops serving around the world.”

This warning was reinforced by interrogator Matthew Alexander, who conducted over a thousand interrogations in Iraq, including those of many “high-value” detainees, but without torture.

“When I was in Iraq,” he said in an interview in 2011, “I oversaw the interrogations of foreign fighters. And those foreign fighters, the majority of them, said, time and time again, the reason they had come to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse of detainees at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

“And this is not (only) my opinion. The Department of Defense tracked these statistics. And they were briefed, every interrogator who arrived there, that torture and abuse was al-Qaeda’s number one recruiting tool.

“And remember,” he added, “these foreign fighters that came to Iraq, they made up 90 percent of the suicide bombers. They killed hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers.” 

Since then, many have turned up as part of ISIS. And is it an accident that in many ISIS videos, their executioners are wearing the orange jumpsuits that were part of the U.S. "uniform" for its torture victims? 

U.S. torture contributed directly to the deaths and wounding of thousands of U.S. troops, and many more Iraqis and Afghans.

So, to sum up: on the one side, a big prize – Osama bin Laden.

Yet on the other side, the torture program’s cost in lives and national security is undeniably vast and, facing ISIS and similar groups, is far from played out. Yet were these costs necessary?

A North Carolina Citizens Commission of Inquiry is taking shape to count these costs for this state. There are many connections here with the torture program, and all need to be surfaced and accounted for.

Let's hope the Commission gets underway before a new administration decides to bring torture back.


Chuck Fager is a writer, who was Director of Quaker House, a peace project near Fort Bragg, through the years of the "War On Terror."  While there he helped research the many military connections to the torture program, organized conferences on the issue, and published numerous articles calling for accountability. Chuck has also worked with NC Stop Torture Now since 2006. More of Chuck's writing can be found at his personal Blog:

Growing up with 9/11 and torture


By Isabel Gutenplan

I was sitting in my basement, watching on a black square television as one after another, the planes flew into the towers, and the city started to burn. I don’t remember my first four birthdays, and I don’t remember my first day of preschool. I don’t remember going to school that day, or watching my dad leave for work. My first memory was of September 11, 2001, with my mother shaking next to me.

I was living in the suburbs of New York City on 9/11, and I had just turned four years old. Perhaps if I was older, I would have been able to fully grasp the shift in culture that came from the event, as well as the fear that drove my country to action. I had barely lived in a world where the United States enforced an anti-torture policy, and I didn’t know it existed until fourteen years later, when I started learning about it at Duke University. Growing up, 9/11 marked a day each year when we remembered those who died, appreciated those who helped, and cursed those responsible. It meant shutting our eyes to what was happening behind closed doors, and accepting what is unpleasant to imagine as necessary for the greater good.

Sitting in my Introduction to Human Rights class, I came to realize just how misguided I was. Even if we discount human rights as a framework for judging it, torture should not be put into practice because it does not work. It is an archaic tool that should have fallen out of favor once professional and humane techniques  for obtaining information were developed. These techniques are based on rapport-building and cultural understanding, rather than coercion, and the professionals that use them are able to obtain credible and actionable information. Torture, on the other hand, can lead to a stream of confessions, but it is nearly impossible to figure out what is grounded in fact, and what was offered up simply to stop the pain. Logically, torture does not make sense. It’s clear to see that torture is an extreme abuse of human rights— both physically and psychologically it severely damages its victims, and its impact on those who carry it out should also be kept in mind. We need to take steps to ensure that torture is repudiated forever.

The prime rationale given by torture advocates is the “ticking time bomb” scenario. In this scenario a captured person is suspected of having key information that would stop the detonation of a bomb or the destruction of a city. It’s easy to latch onto this scenario, which in recent years was popularized by television shows like 24, a series that revolved around this premise. But when a popular fictional television series inaccurately portrays the efficacy of torture on a near weekly basis, the impression left on the the general public, and my generation in particular, needs to be reflected upon. Admittedly, when I think about torture, 24 is the first thing that comes to mind, since it is both entertaining and accessible. Of course, most viewers don’t watch such shows with the express purpose of gaining factual knowledge, but their ideas and values are formed by them nonetheless.

When I was thirteen years old and wanted to start watching Gossip Girl, my mom sat me down and told me I wasn’t allowed to watch it unless I understood that this was a work of fiction, and not an truthful portrayal of how people in the real world act and behave. Most of all, she stressed that my own conduct should not be based upon what I saw on the show. At thirteen, I was guided on how to differentiate between television and reality. So why are policy makers turning to a script from television when it comes to the issue of torture? One of the most troubling things that I learned when researching torture was that young soldiers were using techniques depicted in 24 on men and women who were being detained at Guantánamo Bay.

Media has an incredibly powerful influence on younger populations. In a few short years some of these young people will be the ones drafting and executing policy in regard to whether torture should be ever be used or if it should remain outlawed completely. This is why in popular media accurate portrayals of torture and its efficacy is of vital importance; because at this time the most prominent sources of information we have about this issue are misleading works of fiction.

At four, I sat in my basement and watched the Twin Towers collapse in flames. That first memory will stay with me for the rest of my life. Our country will soon be led by those who never lived in a time when the U.S. held its own elected officials and personnel responsible for torture. It’s a scary thought, but it doesn’t have to be. If provided the right information and the will to do what is right, our country could soon be led by a generation that turns the United States into a human rights leader once again.


Isabel Gutenplan is in her freshman year at Duke University. She grew up in Chappaqua, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. At Duke, she is studying Political Science and Creative Writing, and is also hoping to fulfill the new Human Rights Certificate. Outside of class, Isabel is on the club lacrosse team and is a member of Duke University Union, which is the event-planning club on campus.

Progress on the issue of torture is not inevitable


By Trey Walk


When I was a kid, I spent nearly all my weekends at my Grandparents house. Nana and Papa’s place was a great getaway for me because I am the middle of five siblings and their house was the place for me to shine. I spent hours talking to them and eating way too much junk food. I carried on this tradition until my teenage years when I stopped escaping to their house to get attention and sugar, but instead began seeking out their stories and lessons.

One day I was talking to my grandmother and she began to tell me a story, like many of her other stories about how the civil rights movement impacted her life. My family has been in South Carolina for as far back as our living memory goes and this means we have a deep history and understanding of civil rights and human rights. After my grandmother told me this story, I asked her, “what kept you all going?” And she pulled out a book of prayers and read to me the Franciscan blessing which read:

May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace…

And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.


I have carried this blessing with me ever since I was a freshman in high school and I am constantly trying to think about how to apply these aspirations to my own life.

This semester at Duke, I am in a course on Human Rights and we recently began having conversations on torture. I knew vaguely that I disagreed with torture but I believe that I am not unlike many other Americans, particularly college students, in feeling like this issue didn’t have much to do with me. Other human rights topics such as race and gender feel more immediate. I have friends from the Middle East, African countries, and Latin America who talk to me about their perspective on the US and our ability to protect or violate human rights. All of these issues began to seem more relevant. However, torture still seemed too far removed.

Until I learned that part of the torture operation is happening out of own backyard.

In North Carolina, through the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, jets based at local airports and operated by local pilots transported detainees to and among secret prisons around the world for torture. In Smithfield and Kinston, jets operated by Aero Contractors were complicit in the disappearance and torture of at least 34 men, though flight logs suggest this number could be significantly higher. It is no longer possible to have a vague opinion on the issue or remain passive because this issue involves all of us.

When I was first learning about North Carolina’s links to torture, I did not feel a sense of urgency to get involved with the issue. I did not feel I could do anything to stop torture and I certainly didn’t feel I was allowing the torture system to exist. I was wrong. In this state and in our nation, we are all complicit in allowing torture, a human rights abuse, to occur.

The conscience of a nation is shaped by everyday citizens like you and me. It is far too easy to think that progress happens inevitably and that the positive changes we have seen happen over the past century in our nation happened because of time. It is incorrect to assume that time guarantees positive changes. No, this change happens because people demand it. Rights are never given, they are framed and won. Just as this has been the case throughout history (civil rights movement, women’s liberation movement, movement for gay marriage and equality), the same logic holds true to this day. Change will not happen unless we create it.

Torture will continue to be carried out by our nation, using our state, unless each of us realizes that we are allowing it to exist. Are we okay with this? Our passivity has allowed hundreds to suffer human rights abuses in the name of U.S. security. However, there is significant evidence to suggest that torture does not always achieve the aims of keeping us safer.

Republican Senator John McCain said, “Torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

Senator McCain is right. Torture is a reflection of who we are as a nation. It is one of the clearest violations of the values that we fight to protect. I believe we must reclaim our state and nation. In order to do so, everyday citizens must begin to stand up and create the state and nation we want to live in. We decide our values, we decide what rights are protected, and we are the ones responsible for shaping the conscience of our government.

My grandparents have both long been my “moral guides”. I go to them for advice on many issues and I know that they will always have sound advice. I began to think about what my Nana and Papa would say about the issue of torture and I believe they would point me to the Franciscan blessing. They would remind me to believe that I can do what others claim cannot be done and bring justice and kindness to this world.

That is my cry to you, North Carolina. Believe that you have the power to change this situation. Contact your legislators. Make your voice heard through voting. Take whatever actions are necessary to stop these violations that undermine our deepest held values. We are the ones who allow these systems to exist and we are the ones with the power to stop them… should we choose to do so.


Trey Walk is a rising sophomore at Duke University planning to study Public Policy and History with a certificate in Human Rights. He is originally from Greenville, South Carolina but has fallen in love with Durham since moving here in the fall and hopes to get more involved around the city.

Torture, the Greater Good, and the American Government: What does it mean for your rights?


By Sonia Hernandez


According to Dick Cheney, it was necessary for the United States to cross “to the dark side” after 9/11 in order to prevent another terrorist attack and save American lives. As a result, the US government paid two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, over $80 million to create a torture program that promised to be tough and effective against al-Qaeda.

The psychologists based this program on the concept of “learned helplessness,” a theory developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in 1967.  Seligman tested his theory on dogs by shocking them repeatedly until the dogs no longer needed abuse in order to be submissive.  After being tortured repeatedly, they had “learned” submission -- the dogs lost any will of their own and submitted to Seligman’s desires without hesitation or rebellion.

Surprisingly, the US paid millions of dollars to test Seligman’s experiment on around 119 alleged terrorists by using methods more severe than electric shock, including waterboarding, “dry boarding,” stress positions, rectal “feeding,” sleep deprivation, auditory overload, and many more.[1] Learned helplessness implied that the tortured terrorists would provide any intelligence at the soldiers’ request. In secret detention facilities known as “black sites,” the United States used these techniques to torture detainees following 9/11.

After several years, new intelligence would reveal some of the detained to be innocent Muslims who never committed any crimes or had any connection to Al Qaeda. However, these innocents confessed to the crimes that they were accused of because they would do anything to deter the torture imposed on them. Upon recognizing the innocence of some detainees, American officials would release them, but without acknowledgement of their detention, reparations, or even a formal apology.[2] To this day, under President Obama, America admits to torturing people but has yet to apologize, still believing it did what was right to protect the greater good.        

But what are the consequences of establishing a notion of “the greater good” in policy? The minority is dehumanized, and the needs of the majority are defined as superior or more urgent. Although it may seem that the government only uses torture when absolutely necessary, the US has been extracting information through these methods, domestically and internationally, for years. On the domestic level, Jon Burge, a police chief in Chicago, wanted to make the city crime-free in order to protect the greater good, which was the majority of white citizens living there. As a result, he dehumanized black citizens in Chicago by torturing them for information on local crimes, many of which the suspects did not commit, in the police station along with other officers. In Homan Square, a secret black-site still operated by the Chicago police, records show that at least 7,531 people, again predominantly people of color, have been questioned without an attorney and subjected to violence. These methods that police continue to use domestically mirror the methods used by American personnel internationally. In the pursuit of intelligence, interrogators use abusive methods to coerce confessions out of civilians who are often innocent. In the past 40 years, 55 cases from Chicago were found to be wrongful convictions.[3] Although the falsely convicted American citizens have been provided reparations, the survivors of the “war on terror” torture program have yet to be compensated, and a group of them is suing the psychologists responsible for the program.  Both the Chicago police and US Government officials have yet to apologize to their victims, claiming that what they did was necessary for the safety of America.

How can ordinary Americans, like the Chicago police officers, support routine torture? In an atmosphere of fear and imbued with the notion of American exceptionalism, the government has convinced us there should be no limits to our actions when it comes to protecting the majority.  If this means dehumanizing black lives or Muslim lives, then it is necessary.

Evidence of how this dehumanization works comes from psychological theories about authority tested in the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments. In the Milgram experiment, subjects were asked to apply electric shocks to an unseen individual when that individual answered a question incorrectly.  As the shocks got more intense, the subjects hesitated, but always kept going at the prompting of the authoritarian researcher who told them they simply must continue. Of course, it wasn’t a real person behind the wall, but the results are still valid:  if authority, like the American government, orders subjects to do something, either to ensure their own protection or simply to keep an experiment going, the orders will be followed.

What kind of example does this set for the rest of the world? After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States committed thousands of human rights violations to “save American lives.” Clearly, the legitimacy of the United States as an international police force is severely diminished when it hypocritically resorts to torture. For example, last year, Obama promised to take military action against Syrian targets affiliated with the Assad regime, which tortures systematically.  But how can Obama, or any future President, condemn the actions of the Assad regime and other human rights violators when the American government utilizes torture methods both domestically and internationally? [4]

In a world where, in the name of the security of the majority, “anything goes,” international law is invalidated and human rights for everyone are always in danger of being forfeited. You never know when your ethnic or religious group will be the targeted minority; when national security is in danger, can you count on the American government to protect your rights?






Sonia Hernandez is a first-year student studying Biology and Computer Science at Duke University. She is interested in the politics of healthcare and public policy. This semester, she is taking a course in Human Rights, which analyzes issues of torture, the death penalty, and genocide.

North Carolina is bound to act on torture


By Deborah Weissman


It took more than a decade after the inauguration of the “War on Terror” for the United States to acknowledge egregious human rights violations through its torture and extraordinary rendition program.  Notwithstanding the admission, the failure of elected officials to hold individuals complicit in these programs accountable might suggest that the United States and the world have moved on. 

In fact, new developments have reset the starting point for obtaining accountability and reparations for torture.  In late 2014, the United States appeared before the UN Committee Against Torture, pledged unequivocally to uphold the Convention Against Torture, and agreed that no exceptions that could be claimed.  Indeed, torture is prohibited by the terms of the treaty; international law requires that accountability and reparations must be provided when the prohibition is violated.  Are we not to take the words of the government, given solemnly and unequivocally, as true?  These developments require us to press for the long-awaited accountability for the wrongdoings perpetrated by the torture program.


The landscape of accountability has shifted through the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee “Torture Report,” which corroborated what anti-torture advocates had claimed since the “War on Terror” began.  Despite its redactions, with the declassification of the factual account of the torture program, the government can no longer stand on its claim of state secrets in an attempt to deny torture victims the right to a remedy for the harms they have suffered.

There have also been important developments on a global level as human rights institutions continue to pursue transparency and remedy.  Decisions by international and foreign courts, especially in the UK and Australia—nations with which we share fundamental legal principles—have affirmed the obligations of nations to investigate torture and to hold accountable those responsible for such acts.  The European Court of Human Rights has issued decisions condemning torture and extraordinary rendition and proclaiming the rights of victims to obtain remedy and reparations.   These cases demonstrate that justice for victims of torture and extraordinary rendition is possible through adjudication, and negate the proposition that such adjudication endangers national security. 

The issue of torture and extraordinary rendition will persist until settled through compliance with the law.  That brings us to the responsibilities of North Carolina and its political subdivisions.  North Carolina has served as a hub for extraordinary rendition.  A report endorsed by international human rights experts revealed the ways in which North Carolina, its political subdivisions, and Aero Contractors, a corporation based in Johnston County, NC and housed at the Johnston County Airport, were directly and indirectly responsible for carrying out kidnapping and torture.  International law obliges North Carolina to investigate, hold those responsible for torture accountable for their acts, and provide reparation to the victims. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention Against Torture—the latter two treaties signed and ratified by the United States—prohibit extraordinary rendition and torture by any state, group, or person. 

Human rights treaties were written with the expectation that they would be implemented regionally and locally. They provide a set of standards to which local governments must adhere in administering their own laws and policies.  States and local governments are indispensable for the implementation of human rights treaties.  Where the United States has a formal obligation to comply with international law, the United States Constitution's Supremacy Clause states that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

North Carolina has not been prevented from acting because of the federal government’s refusal to act.   Officials have suggested that North Carolina can take no action in matters of foreign affairs.  However, extraordinary rendition and torture are unlawful acts that should not be confused with foreign policy within the purview of the federal government.  It is time for the state of North Carolina to comply with its human rights obligations.


Deborah Weissman is the Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law at University of North Carolina. There she was the Director of Clinical Programs at UNC School of Law from January 2001 through July 2010. Weissman serves as an Executive Committee member for The Consortium in Latin American Studies, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, and as a member of the Advisory Board with The Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina. In 2013, she received the Frank Porter Graham Award from the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union for outstanding civil rights work. With her students, Weissman published a report The North Carolina Connection to Extraordinary Rendition in 2012. She is also a member of the NCCIT Advisory Board.


On CIA torture, the President must take action


By John Kiriakou

John Kiriakou was interviewed Oct. 27, 2015, by WRAL journalist David Crabtree at University of North Carolina.  (Photo credit: © Jerry Markatos)

John Kiriakou was interviewed Oct. 27, 2015, by WRAL journalist David Crabtree at University of North Carolina.  (Photo credit: © Jerry Markatos)

It has been my personal experience that, with only one or two exceptions since the creation of the Church Committee in 1975, Congress has been generally loathe to challenge the CIA. There’s very little oversight, and, certainly, there are few, if any, examples of Congress telling the CIA “no.” 

That’s why the release last year of the Senate torture report was such a momentous event. Why was it momentous? Because the CIA’s torture program was worse than most Americans expected. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said that Agency officers used interrogation methods that had not been approved by either the Justice Department or by CIA Headquarters; the Agency actively impeded investigations and oversight of the program, not only by the White House and Congress, but even by its own Inspector General; and CIA officers tortured as many as 26 people who didn’t meet the legal standards for detention. Many were likely innocent of any ties to terrorism. 

There is no room for a middle ground response. There is still time for the President to order the Justice Department to prosecute violations of the law.

The CIA has admitted only to waterboarding three prisoners—Khalid Shaikh Muhammad, Abu Zubaydah, and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. But it took the Senate report to tell us about Ammar al-Baluchi, who was arrested in Pakistan and sent to a secret CIA prison, where he was repeatedly dunked in a tub of ice water.  Interrogators held his head under the water, beat him repeatedly with a truncheon-like object, and slammed his head against the wall.  Baluchi’s attorneys say he suffered head trauma during CIA interrogations. This was not authorized by the Justice Department. So why weren’t the perpetrators charged with a crime?

The SSCI’s chairwoman at the time of the report’s release, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said the report “exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation. It chronicles a stain on our history that must never be allowed to happen again.” She’s right. 

And there’s a precedent for how the government has confronted similar actions in the past. The Washington Post on January 21, 1968 published a photo of a U.S. soldier waterboarding a North Vietnamese prisoner. The Defense Department investigated, court-martialed the soldier, and convicted him of torture. It was wrong in 1968 to commit torture and it was wrong in 2002. It should still be wrong—and prosecutable—in 2015.

Some current and former CIA leaders will argue that they had the legal authority to carry out what they euphemistically call “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that torture allowed us to collect actionable intelligence that saved American lives. I was working in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at the same time they were and I can tell you that they’re lying. 

Torture may have made some of us feel better in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It may have made us feel that we were avenging our fallen compatriots who were killed that day. But there was no information gathered through torture that saved American lives. The report found that “the harsh interrogation methods did not succeed in exacting useful intelligence.”  That’s a categorical statement.  Torture didn’t work.  Period.

Useful intelligence, however, shouldn’t even be the criterion. The question isn’t really whether torture works. The question is whether it is right, whether it is moral.

After all, murder works. But we don’t murder people.  At least, we’re not supposed to. Rape works. But we don’t rape people. Beating children in front of their parents works. But we don’t do that. There has to be a red line. If we are to maintain our role as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, as a nation where human rights are respected, then we have to oppose torture absolutely. That begins with the President. And it’s past time for him to take action.


John Kiriakou is a former CIA Counterterrorism Officer and former Senior Investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To learn more about John Kiriakou, please visit his website.


Faith actions and opposing torture: acting out our faith


By Wes Hare, for the Church of Reconciliation and the New Hope Presbytery Peacemaking Committee


For years, many organizations in North Carolina have struggled with CIA detainees being transported by the U.S. government using aircraft and pilots based in Johnston County, NC.  People of faith in local churches and related action groups have established a new local initiative to bring this practice to light and seek justice.  Let’s celebrate and support this with our energy and resources.

First, a reminder of our nation’s continued denial of its torture legacy.  In a detailed report released Dec. 1, 2015, Human Rights Watch identifies a legal basis for prosecution of government officials.  In “No More Excuses: A Roadmap to Justice for CIA Torture,” HRW calls on the U.S. Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct criminal investigations of those responsible for post-9/11 torture. The report also calls for the release of the full Senate Torture Report, most of which remains classified.

Among those HRW calls on to be criminally investigated for their roles in authorizing torture are leading figures of the George W. Bush administration, including former CIA Director George Tenet, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — and Bush himself.

While chances for such an investigation are currently remote, there is a glimmer of hope:  the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT) and other groups won a big victory when President Obama signed into law a bill to permanently ban CIA torture.  The FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires CIA interrogations to follow humane standards spelled out in the Army Field Manual, and requires International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees.  It also creates a procedure for updating the Field Manual with our best understanding of effective, humane interrogation techniques that do not involve the use or threat of force. 

This permanent ban on CIA torture is an important moral step forward for the nation.  Crucially, it was bi-partisan.  A Republican Congress joined with a Democratic President to end CIA torture forever.  People like yourself, from many different faiths, led the way by calling, with one united voice, for an end to torture. 

Now onward to North Carolina.  Specifically, the rendition flights, many of which took off from Johnston County Airport, are of unique concern to us because the airport is within the bounds of our neighborhoods.  What is our leaders’ response to the Senate Torture Report?  Governor Pat McCrory, other NC political government leaders, and North Carolina’s U.S. Senators have refused to act for greater transparency or accountability.

Enter the new local approach.  The NC Commission of Inquiry on Torture (NCCIT) is a non-governmental initiative to create the transparency for North Carolina’s role in CIA torture that our state and local governments have refused to recognize and support.  NCCIT is drawing on local churches for action and financial support. 

One such local response comes from the Church of Reconciliation or “the Rec,” a local Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill.  The Session of the Rec has approved $3,000 as requested and prepared with Rec support, and led by Janie Lee Freeman and the Rec’s Justice and Peace Committee.  Janie has been the moving force behind years-long flying of the Rec’s anti-torture banner.  This NCRAT banner has delivered our Church’s position, and now the New Hope Presbytery Peacemaking Committee has sent NCCIT $3,000 in financial support at the Rec’s request.  

NCCIT has presented this challenge to all of us.  Now it is up to us to rally a broader range of local faith-based resources to NCCIT so all of us can exert more pressure and get commitments from North Carolina’s leadership to bring this out into the public.

It seems clear, but won’t be without a struggle….

"Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation . . . want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. [. . .]  Power concedes nothing without a demand.  It never did and it never will.  The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
          -   Frederick Douglass, August 3, 1857

"All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations."
          - President Barack Obama, January 12, 2011


Wes Hare is a member of the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, NC,  and Moderator of the New Hope Presbytery Peacemaking Committee in Raleigh, NC. He is also the Co-Chair of the “Rec’s” Justice & Peace Committee. Hare is retired, but works as a crossing guard at Rashkis Elementary School in Chapel Hill . He also walks & harvests abandoned Golf Balls and donates them to the area ALS Jim “Catfish” Hunter Chapter's annual “Catfish Classic Golf Tournament."