Torture is much in the news these days. “We do not torture,” President George Bush declared last month, after the Washington Post revealed that the CIA maintains an international archipelago of covert prisons where it can torture terror suspects.
News of these secret torture chambers has added new ammunition to critics’ charges that the Bush administration condoned torture at Abu Ghraib, still condones it at Guantanamo Bay and outsources prisoners to nations where torture is a routine form of interrogation.
Some Americans are angered that critics dare to connect the Bush administration to torture. Other countries may torture people, they argue, but the United States is a nation that respects laws and human rights.
Well, I’m here to tell you that torture, like terrorism, is as American as apple pie.
The latest domestic example is Chicago, where for nearly two decades (from 1973 to 1991) the police department virtually condoned the torture of more than 100 black criminal suspects. Those illegal techniques led to the wrongful conviction of dozens of black men, and even prompted Amnesty International in 1990 to call for an inquiry into police torture in the city.
To be fair, Chicago cops did not widely practice these torture techniques. Investigators found that police district Area 2 was the focal point, and that police commander Jon Burge was the primary culprit. The city eventually fired Burge for his illegal interrogation techniques, but he has paid no legal price. His former colleagues periodically display continued support for him; some cops attempted to enter a pro-Burge float into the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Community outrage sank that float.
Even after former Illinois governor George Ryan granted four death row inmates pardons once he concluded their confessions were tortured from them by Burge and his men, Chicago officials failed to prosecute. The curious reluctance of elected officials to act on the Burge case prompted a Cook County Court judge to appoint a special prosecutor. But after two years of investigating, special prosecutor Edward Egan has done little but complain about police officers’ refusal to testify against colleagues. In early December, however, Egan granted immunity to three officers connected to Burge, and observers note it may mark a turning point in the probe.
Egan’s renewed attention in the case might well have been provoked by an October 14 hearing in Washington D.C., in which a group of Chicago lawyers and two Illinois Congress members brought the Burge case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is the human rights arm of the Organization of American States. Frustrated with Egan’s slow pace, an aggregation of community and human rights activists petitioned the international group for a hearing on police torture and the failure to prosecute Burge and his men.
“By taking this issue outside the boundaries of the United States, we thought we could bring a broader focus on the issues of police torture within the United States,” says Stan Willis, a Chicago attorney/activist who was among those presenting the case to the international group. Current headlines about far-flung CIA torture chambers, the Bush administration’s opposition to Sen. John McCain’s anti-torture legislation, and the U.S. refusal to allow U.N. human rights monitors one-to-one interviews with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay also offered an optimal opportunity to put Chicago torture in the global spotlight.
“We gave the panel a PowerPoint presentation on the Burge case,” Willis explained in an interview following the Washington hearing. “Our allegations are so well-documented and compelling, I’m sure the presentation was persuasive.”
Willis said his group clarified how prosecutions for torture would damage the careers of currently prominent officials. “Many of these incidents of police torture happened when Chicago mayor Richard Daley was States Attorney, and Dick Devine, the current States Attorney, was his assistant.” What’s more, Willis noted, Devine also worked for the law firm that represented Burge in fighting the torture charges.
The group alleges that these incestuous relationships have stymied the investigation, which so far has documented 139 cases of torture and abuse of African-American suspects. They were hoping the international notoriety might just be the spark that reinvigorates the special prosecutor — and with the expected testimony of three Burge associates, it appears their strategy was successful.
“We also want to use this issue to inform people and mobilize them to fight the increasing damage being done to the African-American community by this nation’s criminal punishment system,” Willis explained. What human rights groups condemn as torturous treatment was long considered routine punishment for black Americans, he said, “just as black Americans have been subjected to racist terrorism for hundreds of years before terrorism became a global issue.”
Willis wants to mobilize a movement, and he believes the racist biases that brutalize African-Americans are revealed more clearly through the prism of global human rights. When we understand that Guantanomo Bay is just a pale reflection of what happens right here on our shores, he is certain a movement will be irresistable.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and host of “The Salim Muwakkil Show” on radio station WVON-AM in Chicago. Muwakkil was also contributing columnist for both the Chicago Sun-Times (1993 – 1997) and the Chicago Tribune (1998 – 2005). He is also a co-founder of Pacifica News’ network daily “Democracy Now” program and served as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, University of Illinois, the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago’s Columbia College.