“Republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said after signing the Declaration of Independence more than 234 years ago, and now after 9/11, we Americans are losing our grasp of the term Republic, a point Jane Mayer emphasized during her Alworth Peace and Justice presentation on Feb. 22, in Mitchell Auditorium.
Mayer told a packed audience that students from kindergarten through college are taught about the great wars that America has won, yet few have read about the other times when glory eluded America, meaning Americans have a tenuous grasp of its complicated history.
Mayer’s grasp of that history was evident throughout her presentation. She informed the audience that her perspective has been shaped by her own education. “I am not a lawyer or a historian. I am a reporter,” Mayer said. Mayer studied American history at Oxford University and Yale University, and her grandfather was a historian who was also the chair for the history department at Columbia University.
Mayer recounted how she came to the topic of terrorism. “Focusing on these issues was not exactly what I expected when I joined the New Yorker magazine, people often think when you join the New Yorker its like Algonquin Round Table and you get live the life of endless life of witty cocktail parties and opening nights [on Broadway] and fashion shows, and you get edited by men in bow ties who look like Tom Morgan,” Mayer said.
Even as the war on terror drags on into its second decade, most Americans know only what the government wants us to know, Mayer explained.
As a nation we have not always lived up to the ideals upon which the country was founded, but we have led the world in trying to stop cruelty through armed combat, Mayer said.
After 9/11 America turned to the “dark side.” Instead of trying to stop torture, Americans demanded to see “terrorists” punished. “The new paradigm” was how President George Bush characterized what Americans were doing to terrorist suspects. They treated these individuals like they had no rights.
“The gap between my own reporting and the president’s statement was so huge. If nothing else I had an obligation to connect the dots between actions of the elected officials in Washington and the repercussion in filthy US sanction prisons around the world,” Mayer said.
Mayer explained that the Bush administration developed a rationale for justifying its own dealings with terrorist suspects. She quoted former Vice President Dick Cheney. “If it hadn't been to what we did with the respect to the terrorist surveillance program, or the enhanced interrogation techniques used for high valued prisoners, the Patriot Act and so forth, we would of been attacked again; those polices we put in place in my opinion were so crucial,” Cheney said.
Mayer said that former President Bush gave permission to water board prisoners even after others questioned its legality. Most Americans agreed that what the Bush administration did to terrorist suspects was okay in their eyes; that is one thing Bush has had over his predecessor Barack Obama. Americans say President Barack Obama cuddles prisoners by giving them all their rights.
A Minnesota lawyer who has defended a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay says torture is the new norm there. The details about what the military does to the prisoners at Guantanamo is bloody. People have been hung from the ceiling, heads smashed into walls, and have been drowned. There have even been reports of men crucified.
In 2005 Mayer interviewed Maher Arar, a 34-year-old Canadian citizen who was at JKF Airport in 2002 when he was taken into custody because he had co-signed a lease with a suspected terrorist in Canada.
Arar was a part of the “special removal,” which meant he was taken out of the country and handed to the brutal secret police in Syria, his native country. He would later be beaten with cables and put in a cell where cats had peed. He never had the chance for a lawyer or a trial, but was brainwashed into saying he was from Afghanistan and that he has trained with Al-Qaeda, which was totally false. He was later released without being charged because investigators could not find anything on him.
After Arar was released, President Bush went on television and stated that “we” do not torture and do not send prisoners to other countries to be tortured. Having interviewed Arrar, Mayer knew that the president was telling an outright lie to the American people on national television.
Mayer related that more than 50 such renditions have now been documented between 2001 and 2008. The prisoners have rarely received trials, and only one said he was never tortured. Eight out of the 16 that have been released said they were, and one died shortly after his release. Almost two dozen have never been heard from since; they just have disappeared. Not one rendition prisoner has seen a day in court.
President Obama has said that we will continue to rendition prisoners to third world countries, although we will monitor the treatment of the prisoner more closely than in the past.