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.