Clad in bright orange vests and wielding orange trash bags, N.C. Stop Torture Now returned to the Johnston County Airport on Saturday. Two dozen members of the group were on an official mission to "Clean Up Johnston County," specifically the 2 1/2-mile stretch of Swift Creek Road that runs past the airport and its notorious tenant, Aero Contractors.
Clever. In its continuing effort to make Aero come clean about its role in CIA rendition flights—rendition meaning to snatch a suspect in one country and transport him to another for interrogation—the group joined the Department of Transportation's Adopt-A-Highway program. Thus, they earned the prominently located "Stop Torture Now" sign at the intersection of Swift Creek Road and U.S. 70 Business in Smithfield.
So after renewing their call for state and local authorities to investigate Aero, volunteers with Stop Torture Now fanned out to clean the shoulders of Swift Creek Road. When they finished, there probably wasn't a more pristine byway in all of North Carolina.
Their work was recorded by several TV stations, a rare experience for a group accustomed to being ignored by the media. (The INDY honored Stop Torture Now with a Citizen Award in 2007.) For eight years, the group has pricked at the conscience of our society. Do we understand what torture is? Do we condemn it? Condone it?
When Stop Torture Now points at Aero, it's pointing at the tip of U.S. anti-terror policies that should cause us disgrace. But most of us look the other away.
T.D. Poole is 85. The Clayton resident enlisted in World War II. (He didn't fight; at 17, he was sent to Pearl Harbor as the war was winding down.) When I asked him why he was part of STN, he talked about the German concentration camps and the German people's studied ignorance about them.
Poole's revulsion caused him to pay attention when the U.S. ran torture camps in South Vietnam in the '60s as part of Operation Phoenix. And again when the U.S. sanctioned torture in Central American during the contra wars of the '80s. On his own, he traveled to Vietnam, twice. He went to Honduras and Nicaragua to learn what went on. He studied history.
Torture, he decided, is woven through human history in every part of the world. It's never been stamped out, and he doesn't think it will be. Yet his conscience demands that he stand against it. Aero's presence gives him the chance.
"This is what's here," Poole says in an even voice. "It's an opportunity to get seen. It's about all you can do." He adds, "If you can stop torture, that'd be a good damned thing. But it's never been done."
Christina Cowger, the group's leader in Raleigh, is more optimistic. Europe and Canada have renounced their support for U.S. torture programs, she notes. Ultimately, the U.S. will renounce torture, too, out of our need to rejoin the international community. "We cannot afford not to," Cowger adds. "We have to foster a more humane, more sensitive ethos in our society, because we've been so desensitized for so long to wars, guns, violence—and to torture."
The evidence about Aero, which operates in Smithfield from behind new barbed-wire fencing, was cataloged a year ago by researchers at the UNC School of Law. "From at least 2001 to 2006," their report states, "Aero aided in the kidnapping, rendition, secret detention and torture of a number of men, including Abou el-Kassim Britel, Mohamed Bashmilah, Binyam Mohamed, Bisher Al-Rawl and Khaled El-Masri." Given "the vast amount of information about Aero's role," the report concludes, the state should empanel a Commission of Inquiry to hold Aero accountable.
Aero has never responded to the evidence. The Johnston County Board of Commissioners, which operates the airport, is mum, as is N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Their refusal hasn't discouraged Allyson Caison, a Smithfield resident and STN leader, who attends the commissioners' meetings each month to remind them that it's their moral obligation to act.
Caison says she's acting on her religious faith, which tells her to speak "for the least of these"—the victims of torture. They're someone's children. "If my child was kidnapped," she adds, "I'd want a mom fighting it like I am."
The Washington Post last week reported that renditions continue under President Obama. Whether Aero is involved is unknown. The number of terror suspects tortured to death at U.S. hands since 2001 is more than 100, according to reliable accounts.
Under Obama, waterboarding and other torture techniques are outlawed. But torture may be giving way to something worse: drone strikes. Rather than capture terror suspects, the military and CIA are targeting them for execution using unmanned aircraft piloted from U.S. bases by officers with joysticks.
Meanwhile, Obama failed to deliver on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, leaving more than 100 supposedly high-value terror suspects in limbo, including many who were definitely tortured.
On Jan. 31, Stop Torture Now will host Morris Davis, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who served as the chief prosecutor for military trials at Guantanamo from 2005 to 2007. Davis resigned in protest when ordered to use what he considered unreliable evidence obtained by torturing suspects. He now teaches at Howard University Law School.
Davis decries the effect on U.S. troops of our unwillingness to renounce torture. Remember, he asks, how the Iraqi troops laid down their arms during the first Gulf War? They trusted Americans then to treat them with dignity. Because of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and the other American torture chambers revealed since 9/11, Davis says, today those same troops would fight us to the death.