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Posted 15 July, 2009.

Mr President:

America seems to have multiple personalities. Some would turn the other cheek believing literally that the meek shall inherit the earth. At the opposite pole are those who see enemies everywhere, and being enemies, they must be destroyed. Most of us lie somewhere in between; we will fight when necessary. When war is justified, as in WW II, we win by dying. When it is not, we lose by dying in vain.

Our response to 9/11 was clearly justified; adopting our enemy's character in that response was not. Instead of becoming a model (prototype) democracy, Afghanistan and Iraq became graveyards for the knee-jerk response. Our leadership was at least ignorant of history, at worst criminal. Either way, the mess needs to be cleaned up if we are to survive with our self-respect intact--not to mention the respect of others. We have a cultural precedent: After WWII, Germany became a peaceful citizen among the nations of the world--a model even. We can recover in like manner; we have not far to go. As the sole remaining superpower and largest economy, we must tread carefully lest our sins come home to roost.

Politically, this is a most touchy of issues. The hard Right and hard Left are in opposite poles. Special interests each have their own axes to grind, their own politicians to convince, bribe, or compromise in their favor. So any resolution of this problem will take not only the highest order of statespersonship, but the highest orders of courage and dialogue as well.

Mr. President: We join the ten authors excerpted below in believing you and your team can do it. Eric Holder is the right person. We believe in him as we do you. We hope and expect him to soon appoint a special prosecutor modeled after the two of you, to investigate not just violations of laws, but the meaning of it all beyond the parochial to the whole of humanity. After all is said and done, amendments to the Constitution may be in order to guard against the next "Unitary President" becoming a dictator.

Amnesty International has collected some thoughts and opinions of observers on the human sides of the torture. Excerpts follow.

2009 Amnesty International USA


Sister Dianna Ortiz, U.S. citizen tortured in Guatemala

Founder, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC)

Dear Mr. President

On November 2, 1989, I was burned with cigarettes more than 111 times. I was raped over and over again--and this was only the beginning.

…Mr. President, on behalf of those who know this cruel subject so well, I ask you to act in service to the truth and to the principle that no matter how high the position held nor how much power accrues to it, its incumbent must be held accountable to the law. As I hope you will agree, sir, to do less is to betray the very idea of justice.

Thank you for reading my letter.

Matthew Alexander,

Former senior U.S. interrogator in Iraq

Dear Mr President,

Torture and abuse were authorized and encouraged by senior leaders in the previous administration, and senior military officers followed unlawful orders to use these interrogation tactics. ...On a pragmatic level, I witnessed with my own eyes, while supervising over a thousand interrogations, a majority of foreign fighters state that the number one reason they came to Iraq to fight was because of our policy that allowed torture and abuse to occur at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. ...Torture and abuse did not keep America safe. It cost us lives.

...Our tradition of honorable military service has been tarnished by those senior leaders who authorized and permitted torture and abuse. An independent investigation is an opportunity not for retaliation or punishment, but for renewing our expectation that future soldiers will adhere to the rule of law.

Very Respectfully,

Juma Al Dossari,

Former Guantanamo detainee

Dear President Obama:

In late 2001, I was handed over to the United States by Pakistani forces, probably for a bounty. American personnel blindfolded me and flew me with other detainees to the United States base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Upon our arrival we were thrown to the ground. Someone hit my head and put his boot into my mouth. For several weeks, I was in a tent that had nothing on the sides except for barbed wire, despite the freezing Afghanistan winter. I still have scars from my time in Kandahar. One resulted from a cigarette being extinguished on my wrist and the other from being pushed to a floor that was covered with broken glass. Soldiers came one night, cut off my clothes and put me in an orange suit. They put very tight goggles on me that I could not see through and put something over my ears so I could not hear. I was chained to the floor of a plane for what seemed like an eternity. When we landed, I had no idea where we were. It was Guantanamo.

… Physical brutality was not uncommon during that time. In Camp X-Ray soldiers beat me so badly that I spent three days in intensive care. My face and body were still swollen and covered in bruises when I left the hospital. During one interrogation, my questioner hit my head against the table. During other interrogations, I was shackled to the floor for hours, and once a female interrogator smeared my face with blood that she took from her private area.


Stephen King


Dear President Obama:

… I understand your reluctance to support an independent commission to investigate acts of torture committed by U.S. interrogators during the years since 9/11/01; there is a powerful urge to let indecent acts stay buried, lest they further besmirch our already tattered reputation in the court of world opinion. I think you yourself have said it's time to "turn the page."

But there's another view, Mr. President, best articulated by George Santayana: "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it." We did things in the heat of our outrage that must not be repeated. We allowed frightened leaders to commit acts that will come back to haunt us if they are not examined. Until this boil of secrecy is lanced, the infection will remain. And the only thing infections do is spread and become worse. Please help the country by authorizing an examination of what went wrong, how it happened, and who was responsible. Then and only then can we move on.

Yours sincerely,

Martin Sheen

Author and Activist

Dear Mr. President ,

Like so many Americans, it has pained me immeasurably to learn that our country responded to the grave threat of terrorism in part by engaging in the practice of torture, a form of terror all its own. The very stability of the world is shaken with every new revelation of detainee abuse and with each credible report of torture carried out by U.S. personnel.

And while I can certainly understand the desire to move beyond that dark chapter, I don't believe we will be able to do so, or reassure the rest of the world that we have done so, until we have fully investigated the problem and brought those responsible to justice. We must demonstrate that the law, based on our collective principles, is strong enough to transcend the hierarchy of government and the politics of fear. Failure to uncover the truth and apply the law would be an ominous admission that power and expediency can trump justice.

Ariel Dorfman

Novelist, playwright, essayist


That's the word, the one word shared by the man who tortures and his victim--the one word that defines them both.

Because for the victim that moment of pain and degradation, those many moments, will never end. ...It continues to happen over and over.

And forever is also for the perpetrator. The hand does not switch on the current or slam the mouth into feces, the ears are not willing to hear the screams, unless there is the promise and certainty that there will be no accountability, that he is safe from justice, can live, yes, forever, in the timelessness of impunity.

In almost forty years of struggling, as a writer and a citizen, against the plague and banality of torture, that is the dirtiest secret of these acts of dread that I have discovered, Mr. President. That nobody tortures if they think they will be caught, if they think they will be exposed to public scrutiny. Nobody tortures if they know they will be laid out naked for everyone to see and judge, if they are sure that they will face in a court of law the men and women they stripped naked in some faraway, hidden room,

You are blessed, Mr. President, with the chance to cleanse the world. You have been given that chance because you happen to be the one person on this earth today who can modify history and proclaim to your country and to all of humanity that torture is not, after all, forever.

From one poet to another, and with great respect and hope and admiration,

Donald W. Goodrich

Father of Peter M. Goodrich

Dear President Obama,

Since September 11, 2001, I have read and thought a great deal about how we humans coexist on this planet. My son, Pete, was on United flight 175. The immediate causes of his death and the deaths of the others in the attacks that day were the acts of 19 men who had come to believe my son and the others were "infidels" and that they had a duty to terrorize and kill them to secure a better world. But those responsible were not the 19 men aboard the planes. These 19 men tormented and killed nearly 3,000 people with my son among them and died themselves at the direction of others.

When our agents tormented some thought by them to be among those "others" responsible for the September 11th attacks, they did much the same. They disregarded their humanity at the direction of another set of others: our "others." They assumed their victims were "terrorists" (our secular name for "infidels"),tormented them and awaited responses: what they wanted to hear. This makes me ask: Who is the ideological father of our "others"? And what are the "building blocks of our nation"? Here, I stumble.

You have said in past that "short cuts" like torture "corrode the character of a country." That is not enough for me. The character of our country has been corroded by those leaders in our country who authorized, instructed, directed, encouraged and condoned torture. They, our "others," are the ones who must be condemned. It is too passive to say that it is "short cuts" like "torture" that corrode the character of "a" country.

If we are to preserve the character of our nation we need to do more than simply condemn "torture" and convict people like Lynn die England. We need to have that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the character and conduct of those who crafted and implemented the policies that brought about the human abuses at Abu Ghraib, at Bagram, in destinations of extraordinary rendition and elsewhere. It is knowledge of these things written not in blood but with ink, that are the building blocks of our nation. Our liberty -- by that I mean our freedom to direct the course of our democracy -- cannot be preserved without this knowledge and "[b]e it remembered that liberty must at all hazard be supported."

We here must share some of that risk by setting an example to the rest of the world of the power and resolve of a civilian government to effect honest and full inquiry into the character and conduct of its leaders with credible reporting and real consequences. If we cannot show that it works for us, how can we expect others to believe it can work for them? We can't and it probably won't, producing more safe havens for Al Qaeda and its like and in the long run greater danger for us.

Please urge the Congress to establish a bipartisan commission with the resources and legal authority to fully investigate and report the abuses of those who came under our control after the September 11th attacks, the evolution of the policies that brought them about, what they were, who were responsible for them, and who implemented them. …

Very truly yours.

Malcolm Wrightson Nance,

Counter-terror intelligence specialist and combat veteran

Dear Mr. President,

I am an American combat veteran; a witness and survivor of multiple al Qaeda suicide bombings in Iraq and the destruction of our Marine Barracks and Embassies in Lebanon; an eyewitness to genocide in Bosnia; and a rescuer at the Pentagon crash site on 9/11. My late father, another veteran of three wars, fought in WWII as a 15-year-old African American sailor. He survived numerous suicide attacks of the Japanese Kamikaze in the Pacific. My family has more than a century of combined naval service. We know the meaning of both courage and terror.

I am compelled to write you in the capacity of a technical expert and intelligence professional, and hopefully, as a Navy Chief Petty Officer is sworn to do--to provide a voice of reason and common sense.

A few short years ago, I was teaching members of the armed forces and intelligence community how to resist terrorist exploitation and captivity at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school in Coronado, California.


One core truth that I taught to more than 5,000 service members is that torture, stress and duress, fear and despair and the heartless brutality that is physical and psychological coercion do not work. There is no yardstick long enough to measure the failure of torturers. I can say to you quite assuredly that torture never works.

As a SERE instructor role playing an al-Qaeda Emir or Ba'athist Major, I have contorted men and women into horribly painful positions, slapped their faces until they openly weep, slammed them repeatedly against walls, played cruel and inhuman sounds until they clasped their ears and placed them in cold boxes the size of a dog kennel. I have performed or assisted in hundreds of waterboardings and was subject to all of these techniques myself.

It was my job to expose Americans to the most cruel and heartless behaviors of totalitarian governments and terrorists. We used examples of our enemies' methods as an inoculation to brutality in captivity--not to inflict pain, but to reach a learning objective.

We now find that this curriculum, designed by our enemies, was engineered into a torture program to make al-Qaeda captives "talk." Torture is effective only in eliciting false confessions. What the torturer wants to hear, he gets. This "intelligence," invariably unreliable, is easily spoiled by the captive.


…You and I have sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have risked my well-being time and again to live up to that oath. I vowed to safeguard this nation's honor with my life.

But our oath does not give us the luxury of dismissing violations of law. When a serviceman breaks the law, he is held to immediate and full account by military court martial. So it must be with civilians in government service, particularly in wartime.

There is no middle ground when it comes to the honor of the nation. There must be a public reaffirmation that we are a nation of laws, that we stand for justice and the dignity of human life as a model to enemies and allies alike.


I am proud of you as an American. I know you have the best interests of the nation in your heart.

If you find it hard to make the difficult choice to endorse this plea, just recall the equally difficult sacrifices that fill the allied cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer and those made daily at Buchenwald.

God bless you. Good luck.

Malcolm Wrightson Nance,

Alice Walker

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, short story writer and poet

Dear President Obama,

If word reached me that you were being tortured, I would instantly feel tortured myself, because I would be. Torture is something an entire society feels, whether or not we are within earshot of the screaming. People don't like to believe this, but there is no way human beings can remain unaffected by what is done to other human beings.

If I heard you were being tortured, I would do everything in my power to come to your aid, not simply because I know you to be rare and necessary to our planetary survival, but simply because you are a person, with feelings, aspirations, sorrows and dreams. And you have children. If I were a child and knew my parent was being tortured, day after day, what would I myself become?


… When we look at the destruction around the globe caused by prior leaders of our country, and we look at the White House today and see some of those folks still coming and going ... what can I say? It gives us pause.

Ringing in my ears is something I thought I heard you say: America does not torture. And if this is true, now, under your watch, this letter is unnecessary. I also thought I heard you say indefinite detention without charge was gone with the wind of George W. Bush's administration. Was I wrong? … I hope you are holding steady on these points, because if you are, you are right.


We are good people, too, for the most part. And even if we weren't, we could be improved by compassionate leadership with the fairness and decency to look at the whole story, the entire state of affairs, and not close off any portion of it. A leadership unafraid to hold accountable those responsible for torture and abuse is our only hope, actually, to begin to soothe a little of the sorrow in the world. It isn't a desire for vengeance, because we know vengeance, a karma, is created by Itself. It is instead a need to make things right and whole again by demonstrating to an injured and insulted world that we, as Americans, care about the harm other Americans, in our name, have done. We must show above all that we wish to understand our own madness in order not to continue growing and exporting it.


I applaud and deeply appreciate all the good work you are, in fact, doing. It is huge and beautiful. It has a beat. It has a heart.


With loving kindness, and despite the gravity of the subject, Joy,


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