This column features reflections by UC Irvine assistant law professor Christiane Berlowitz, who earned a doctorate from UC Irvine and was hired by the FBI as a visiting faculty scholar from 2006 to 2008.
I took an independent thought experiment into a closet. I felt any questions about 9/11 should be answered through the lens of Islam, which to me makes sense given that the 9/11 attacks are believed to have been plotted on the World Trade Center in New York and, prior to that, at the Millennium Hilton Hotel in Chicago. But in the closet, I dropped the question of whether or not U.S. citizens could be singled out and targeted for torture.
Although America's interrogation and security policies are not without controversy, the American government is the only government that practices torture. The United States engages in practices at Guantanamo that few other countries dare to dream about. Our CIA, the FBI, and the Defense Department have sent men to waterboarding, wall-standing, and bagging so-called "low-level" suspects. Torture is part of the American way of life, as common as Halloween, holiday decorating, and barking dogs.
In the mindset of such policy, any question is a pretense for a demand for concession. America is willing to do "whatever it takes" if the means justify the ends. That means the government authorized the killing of an American citizen and dual citizen of another country without charge by a drone strike. This means that America tortured, in secret, the father of terrorism captured by American intelligence in Cuba who happened to be Khaled Sheik Mohammed, one of the masterminds of 9/11. America then provided Mohammed a lawyer, an attorney whose jurisdiction is limited by his client's un-American condition.
That is the defining conundrum for the United States in the post-9/11 world. Does the government torture, send men to waterboarding, wall-standing, and bagging, or is it the government that does the torture? What values are American leaders defending by choosing this path? What does "forgetting" a prisoner's lawyer while waterboarding and intimidating witnesses mean to us as a country? What legacy has this left for the country?
Once a writer, always a writer. For me, writing about human rights and international human rights issues reminds me that it is still human rights that are at stake. Just as in life, everybody falls down the road and I (along with other members of the United States Congress) can fall. The responsibility lies with the leaders of my country. Without leadership, without clear principles of right and wrong, punishment of wrongdoing is meaningless.
Often, controversy causes change. The Pakistan High Commission in Islamabad (later Pakistan's High Commission in London) did not want my book on Binyam Mohamed's torture in U.S. custody made public until seven years after its initial publication. Eventually, the High Commission relented. In the United States, an FBI agent was appointed in January 2008 to head the FBI-CIA detainee interrogation unit within the Department of Justice. The news of her new appointment was quickly hailed as the result of "an overdue push to change the way the FBI conducts interrogations of terrorism suspects."
Although the Bush administration's investigation of the CIA's torture of men in CIA custody made headlines in 2009, in the United States, many people (with the possible exception of the CIA) wanted the world to forget. If it didn't die out, the practice of rendition – that is, the transfer of terrorism suspects from one country to another – would continue as a favored practice of the Bush administration. Amnesty International, an organization founded in 1933 in response to the Nuremberg trials, was banned in 2002 as soon as it spoke out against torture.
Today, America still sits on a radioactive platform. Guantánamo Bay is still open. Journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras' "Citizenfour" is the top-grossing documentary in the world. But most critics of President Donald Trump worry that he will use the mechanism for domestic interrogations that under Bush have been condemned by the International Criminal Court. Perhaps the time has come for a revival of the Inquisition. Only then, of course, could we properly ask the question: "What is America for?"
Christine Berlowitz teaches in the UC Irvine School of Law and is a visiting associate professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law.