Let the Walls Speak: Collecting the Stories From the War on Terror

When I hear arguments against holding Bush administration
officials accountable for authorizing the use of torture and "enhanced
interrogation" techniques on men and women rounded up in the ill-defined
"war on terror," I think about how I spent my Thanksgiving
vacation: in Prague.

About an hour outside of Prague, one of Central
Europe's oldest and most beautiful cities, is a place called Terezin. It
was built in 1780 by Joseph II as a garrison town and it was named after his
mother. Terezin served as protection against invaders from the North. During
World War II, Terezin was turned into something very different: a place,
according to Nazi propaganda, where older Jews could escape from the stresses
of the war and live peaceably. Not quite.

Terezin had been home to some 5,000 Czechs before the War
began, yet at its height as a detention and transport camp, Terezin held over
55,000 Jews. In 1944, the excess prisoners were shipped out, and Terezin was
used as a showcase where the International Red Cross visited, proof that the
Nazis were not mistreating Jews. A propaganda film was produced showing a
soccer game, men and women tending vegetable and flower gardens, children
laughing, and residents amiably gossiping. Everyone who appeared in the film
was eventually killed. Almost 100,000 Jews, including 15,000 children, were
transported through Terezin to their deaths either there or at other
concentration camps.

There is another section of Terezin ironically called the
"Little Fortress." This is where political prisoners and Jews who
were considered a disciplinary threat were held, tortured for information and
obedience, or for no reason at all, often killed. Nearby there is a
crematorium and a vast cemetery with as many as sixty bodies in a single
grave. The conditions in the Fortress were hellish. The isolation cells are
dark and dank. Almost nothing grows in the courtyard of the "Little
Fortress." Less important prisoners, as many as fifty at a time, lived
in rooms no bigger than a modest living room. The only consolation was that in
the winter, the press of bodies kept the men warm enough to survive another
day.

When I entered the rooms where torture had been committed,
the walls screamed silently. The shadows whispered. The air is stale and
putrid although it's been nearly sixty years since these camps were
liberated. It was cold when I was at Terezin, with snow on the ground and a
gray sky. Inside the "Little Fortress," it was bone-chilling.

Starting back when George Washington commanded rebel troops
against the British, an American tradition began: to engage in war according to
rules. Those rules include fair treatment of prisoners of war. Yes, other
American presidents have kidnapped and asked other countries to do what our
laws have otherwise forbidden, but those instances were exceptional, and they
remained hidden and secret, because of the shame. What makes the Bush
administration unique to American history is its perverse use of legal analysis
to try to justify torture, something domestic and international law as well as
common decency forbids. Ratcheting up fear of among the population effectively
suppressed much dissent.

During his campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to end
torture and to close down Guantanamo Bay prison. What we haven't heard
is a promise to find out what happened inside the White House, Office of the
Vice President, Justice Department, and Pentagon that permitted the flagrant
and systematic use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques on men and women,
many of whom just so happened to be in the wrong place or to be enemies of the
wrong people. That so many of the victims of these techniques are innocent of
any crimes against the United States makes it more pressing that we find out
who, how, and why.

Many trial balloons are being launched to see what level of
inquiry might satisfy the American public. There is talk of presidential
pardons, "truth and reconciliation" type hearings like there were
in South Africa after apartheid, Congressional hearings with immunity, or just
moving on. Few people are talking about criminal investigations and
prosecutions under domestic law. That is what I propose.

There will be a time when visitors will walk through the
abandoned pens at Guantanamo Bay and hear the silent screams. There will be a
time when the men held there and in the secret prisons around the world will
have an opportunity to speak. Their stories need to be heard. For us to make
sense of those stories, we need a full accounting of who authorized such
treatment, how the orders were carried out and by whom, and we need to hold not
just individuals but the United States government accountable.