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

Hazel Weiser

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. 

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Hazel Weiser is the executive director of the Society of American Law Teachers, SALT.

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