Torture. By the United States of America. It's an idea most people won't even consider. Or if they do, "they can't get their arms around it, because it's such an offensive thing, and they don't want to think about it except in the empty cowboy catchphrases that the Bush administration uses about terrorism."
So says Walt Caison, a psychologist who learned this lesson as a leader in the North Carolina Stop Torture Now coalition. "It's been a long, hard drive getting it in people's awareness" that our government could be complicit in torture at all, Caison says, let alone doing it right under our noses in North Carolina.
Even longtime peace activists were stunned when the first stories about Aero Contractors, a private air carrier based at the Johnston County Airport, appeared in The New York Times in mid-2005. Aero was allegedly involved in a CIA program of kidnap-and-torture known as "extraordinary rendition": Victims were "rendered" to foreign countries where torture was practiced.
Soon it was confirmed that, while specific "renditions" were shrouded in government secrecy, the CIA did indeed have such a program, and Aero was a longtime CIA contractor whose planes—and three pilots—had been named in a criminal indictment in Germany.
In 2003, German citizen Khaled El-Masri was snatched in Macedonia, flown to Afghanistan, tortured to force him to reveal terrorist secrets, and held for five months even after the CIA realized its agents had grabbed the wrong man. El-Masri is suing Aero and the CIA in federal court.
That's when a handful of activists like Walt and Allyson Caison, who live near the airport in Smithfield, took up the gauntlet. Christina Cowger of Raleigh became the spokesperson. Josh McIntyre and Linda S. Barnes, members of Raleigh's Amnesty International chapter, signed on, as did Mia Scoggins-Austin, Stephanie Eriksen and Roger Ehrlich of Raleigh. Chuck Fager and Wendy Michener from Quaker House in Fayetteville organized a Cumberland County contingent.
They had in common their conviction, as people of faith from various denominations, that torture is morally wrong as well as constitutionally forbidden and practically useless. "The torture of another human being, by anyone, for any reason, diminishes us all," says Scoggins-Austin, "and chips away at our humanity."
The group staged its first protest at the Johnston County Airport in Smithfield two years ago. They've been back a dozen times since, and held many protests and informational meetings in Raleigh. Their ranks have swelled: On Oct. 27, they mounted their biggest rally, with 300 people coming from throughout North Carolina and nearby states. The event was notable, too, for its solemn purposefulness.
One new recruit was John Heuer, a Chapel Hill peace activist. "This group," Heuer said of STN, "has a reputation of having the strongest spiritual base" of any in the region. "And they do the hardest work, because torture as a subject is so painful to address."
The STN coalition has two goals, Cowger says. One is convincing state and federal authorities that the charges against Aero warrant investigation. The second: End the rendition program itself. "Our larger goal," she says, "is to educate the public and create the kind of mass political revulsion against torture, rendition and North Carolina sponsoring this aviation service for torture taxis that eventually the pressure is enough to end it as a part of U.S. policy."
The airport protests are its most visible tool, but not the only one. In fact, it's a point of frustration that the news media has virtually ignored their picketing except on the two occasions when some members pushed onto the tarmac and were arrested for trespassing. (Both times, the charges were dropped, denying the defendants a jury trial—and more publicity.)
To jumpstart investigations, members have lobbied in Washington with the state's congressional delegation, so far to no effect, says Barnes. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has introduced a bill, but it has no North Carolina co-sponsors.
At the state level, STN members have gone to the governor's office, the Johnston County Board of Commissioners and the state-supported Global Transpark in Kinston, where Aero also has a hangar, to question the use of public facilities by a company allegedly involved in kidnapping.
Those efforts, too, have yet to bear fruit. But STN has made headway in one place: the statehouse. In October, 12 North Carolina House members, all Democrats, wrote to the State Bureau of Investigation asking for a probe of Aero. "It appears," their letter said, "that Aero Contractors, in flying suspects to overseas torture sites, violated North Carolina and federal laws concerning conspiracy to commit torture." The signers included Reps. Linda Coleman, Deborah Ross and Jennifer Weiss of Wake County and Paul Luebke of Durham.
When N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said he lacked authority to investigate the firm, the 12 lawmakers introduced House Bill 1682, calling for investigative state grand juries in cases of apparent or attempted "torture, kidnapping or the enforced disappearance of persons."
Ross, who chairs a House judiciary committee, helped move the bill forward to the N.C. Sentencing Commission, which makes recommendations about criminal statutes. It was a way to keep the bill alive for the short legislative session in '08, where Ross thinks it has a chance to be enacted.
"While the Bush administration is engaging in the unconscionable," Ross commented, "STN is raising our consciousness about our own responsibilities to the rule of law and to humanitarian international relations."
As STN members wait for the sentencing commission, they have embarked on a "listening tour" in Johnston County, surveying approximately 400 residents about their attitudes toward torture. The good news, Cowger says, is that once people open up about it, two-thirds—even in a conservative place like Johnston County—think torture is always wrong. They're also boning up on "plane-spotting"—how to track aircraft visually and on the Internet—so they can determine where Aero's planes are going.
Since STN started, investigative reports by the German media and the Los Angeles Times, along with a pair of books (Torture Taxi by Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson, and Ghost Plane by Stephen Grey), have added to what's known about Aero and a second rendition contractor allegedly based in Fayetteville.
It's all good news for STN members like Linda Barnes, who says her Raleigh friends, "all raging liberals," nonetheless doubted her sanity two years ago. "They all thought I had lost my mind to be involved with this. Now they're saying"—and she's laughing, and her STN cohort is laughing with her as she raises her voice an octave, "Oh, Linda, there's a movie coming out called Rendition, and that's what you're trying to stop!"
The next meeting is Sunday, Dec. 9, from 2-4 p.m. at Raleigh UUF, 3313 Wade Ave. Go to www.ncstoptorturenow.net or call 834-4478.