Transcript of the interview for The Civil Left
KENJI: Hey, you're listening to The Civil Left. I'm your host, Kenji. My co-host Brian unfortunately isn't able to be with us today as he is out at Coachella enjoying some awesome bands. We were going to have a guest today, Professor Almerindo Ojeda, the coordinator of the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas at UCD but it looks like he hasn't been able to - Oh, here is now. Okay, we'll get started in a second, but, um - Yeah, so Professor Ojeda is the coordinator for the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas at UC Davis, which is a recently formed center, and they are hosting Amy Goodman at Freeborn Hall this weekend, Friday May 5, and that will be at 7pm until 9pm. So Professor Ojeda, let me turn your mike up here.
KENJI: Hi. So, okay. Let me get my questions here, sorry. So why don't you tell us a little bit about how the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas got formed. What is that idea all about, how did it originate?
OJEDA: Yeah, the Center got formed about a year ago these days, and we wanted to inject some dynamism in a center that already existed, namely the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas, by looking at an issue that has affected the Americas for a number of years, and more dramatically lately, since the 70's and so on, which is human rights, or human rights violations. So we applied for a seed grant to the Office of Research here at the University, and it was granted to us. So once we got that, we figured out we needed to find a focus for our efforts, and we thought that what better topic than Guantanamo?
KENJI: So the Center is focused on Guantanamo specifically, or...?
OJEDA: At this time it is. It's going to be the focus of our efforts. More broadly it works on human rights in the Americas, but in order to focus our efforts since we're a small fledgling group, it would be better to concentrate our energies on one particular area.
KENJI: And where does the Center draw its membership from?
OJEDA: Well, we're a group of faculty, lecturers, students, broadly connected to human rights, be it through social sciences, history, women's studies, culture studies... And myself, well, I'm in linguistics, not a field that's normally related to human rights, even though there are some connections.
KENJI: Yeah, I kind of wondered about that. Are there any connections, or how did you get into the idea -
OJEDA: Well, I've always been concerned about human rights through my life. I've worked for Amnesty International in my student years, focusing on Peru, which is the old country for me. I also had firsthand knowledge of problems in Central America. I was a close friend of one of the Jesuits that was killed in El Salvador. He baptised one of my daughters. We were fellow students at Chicago once. And I also had a very major influence by one of my teachers, Professor Lerner in Peru, that ended up being the director of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in Peru, that went through a very bloody period fighting the insurgency of the Shining Path. So there were atrocities committed on both sides of the... civil war, maybe we should call it. And after that he headed up a very important commission to try and find out what happened and what to do next. And I met him once and he was very influential in inspiring me in getting into this stuff.
KENJI: So do you see any connection between your linguistics work and this, or are they kind of just -
OJEDA: Well, there are some interesting connections. Not very deep ones, but interesting ones. The use of language, for example, in this whole War on Terror.
KENJI: And your specialty is semantics, right?
OJEDA: Correct, I work on a much-maligned field that's usually thought of as being how to pull the wool in front of people's eyes, or split differences that are not really there -
KENJI: "That's just semantics".
OJEDA: Yeah, "that's just semantics". But in fact, semantics is about meaning, which is the purpose of language, right? We don't speak just to produce funny noises or create complicated structures but to convey meanings. And semantics is the area of linguistics that focuses on that. So connected to that, there is interesting use of language connected, in all wars really, because basically what you need to do in a war is to superhumanise you and subhumanise the enemy. And that way you create all these expressions and turns of phrase to mask the obvious humanity of your enemy.
KENJI: We can think of things like "the Axis of Evil" or "unlawful combatant" -
OJEDA: Yeah, "enemy combatant" is one of my favorites. We deal with them in the same way we deal with regular enemy combatants in regular wars, but for all legal purposes they're not soldiers of wars. We contort words for torture, for war and peace, and it's something that linguists should look at.
KENJI: Do you see - I think a charge that's leveled against Guantanamo Bay and the torture practices by the US a lot is that they violate the Geneva Conventions which we are a signatory to, right?
OJEDA: That's right.
KENJI: What is the specific language in there that we're violating?
OJEDA: That's right. Well, it's again this "enemy combatant" language, right? We have managed to create a situation - It's an incredible, appalling situation, a place in the world where no law really applies. That is Guantanamo. So US law in principle doesn't apply, or that was what the government wanted at first to claim, that because it was outside of the mainland, the Constitution didn't apply. They got overturned on that, but the intent was that -
KENJI: What was the name of the case where they were overturned?
OJEDA: It was a case that was, let's see - I forget the exact name of the case, but it was led by Michael Ratner, who will be one of the participants here in our conversation on Friday. And what he managed to do was take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he argued successfully that the prisoners there have - That's another thing. They're called detainees rather than prisoners, so I make the point always of calling them prisoners. Anyway, he -
KENJI: What in your mind is the distinction, at least by those who use the terms "detainees", between -
OJEDA: Well, "prisoners" is too close to "prisoners of war". And that would bring in the Geneva Conventions, and...
KENJI: Do you think those who use the term "detainee" actually are trying to make any kind of qualitative distinction, or do you think it's just -
OJEDA: Well, it's a whole bureaucracy that deals with these things, right? The people who actually use it may not be aware of what reasoning goes and gets packed into each term. But the military being what it is, they give them very precise instructions as to how to refer to things, and that's how these things get set.
KENJI: Are there any circumstances - I mean, regarding torture, torture is kind of the main charge that people bring against Guantanamo Bay, saying we should not be torturing people and that's what we're doing in that center. Do you feel that -
OJEDA: That's right. That's another one. It gets masked under different terms, right. "Coercive techniques" or "pressure techniques" or "abuse" sometimes, instead of calling things by what they are.
KENJI: Do you feel there are any circumstances under which torture is appropriate?
OJEDA: No, not at all. I think that torture is like rape or domestic violence. I mean, there are no conditions those things should be condoned.
KENJI: How do you - Let's say you were the President or someone in a position of power. How would you deal with a situation where the nation is threatened by terrorism, you need to get information of some kind, these kinds of situations. What do you think is the appropriate way to deal with that?
OJEDA: Well, the irony of all this is that the military already faced this issue. It came up with something called the Uniform Code of Military Justice, that is very explicit about what can and cannot be done, for a number of reasons, the most mundane of which is self-interest, the idea being that if we torture them, then they can torture us. And there area also other reasons why you should not torture people. But it's all spelled out. And in this new war, the War on Terror, all that gets thrown out of the window. We get this contorted logic about what is torture and what isn't, and who is deserving of protection against torture and who isn't, forgetting that we are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which downright prohibits torture. And it's universal.
KENJI: And in what terms does that declaration define torture?
OJEDA: Oh, any purposeful application of pain to people. It's not... It's left clear.
KENJI: Does that exclude things like trying to kill someone in wartime?
OJEDA: Oh, that's different. Military conflict and hostile actions against the enemy are not considered torture.
KENJI: What's -
OJEDA: These are measures happening within detention, once people are being detained and kept. So there are explicit prohibitions against sustained interrogation, for example. Even that, let alone solitary confinement and beating and things that we now are pretty sure go on in Guantanamo on a daily basis.
KENJI: The argument that I hear raised in favor of Guantanamo by people who defend is something on the grounds of "We need to torture in order to get information to save lives of Americans from people who would threaten them". Do you regard that as in any way valid, or what do you think would be a more appropriate response?
OJEDA: Well no, frankly I'd rather die than be protected in that way. And I think that's the only ethical position to hold on this. It's not just mine. There was a UK - a British ambassador that was in Uzbekistan that was the one who came up with this very clear view. "I'd rather die than have somebody tortured to protect me."
KENJI: What do you - I kind of want to get into the philosophy of this if you don't mind, seeing as you're a scholar of semantics. What do you think is the origin of the idea of rights? Not historically speaking but more a justification. How do you determine in general terms "X has a right to Y"? Like "People have a right not to be tortured", any of these kinds of statements.
OJEDA: That's right. Well it's a painful process. It has gone through different versions through different ages. And essentially what happens is that more and more people get encompassed within the rule of law. And one perfect example of that was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that was passed in the 30's, and the idea is that it was universal. It's perhaps the first time that everybody had rights under this body of law. Unfortunately it's not legally binding. But the US and most other countries, if not all of them, are signatories to it. So it is at least morally binding. That's why we have to go through these contortions of saying "torture" or - calling things "torture" or "not torture". So in short, it's the growing realisation that we are all human that gives us rights.
KENJI: How does - I'm not sure I follow you there, what's - How do you arrive at a particular -
OJEDA: Well, at first we have the law of the family or the law of the tribe, and the law is good for us but not for people outside. Then eventually people decided that cities were the places where rights were administered.
KENJI: Right, but I'm not asking so much about the historical development of the concept of rights, but how do you justify it in kind of synchronic terms, like how do you come to that conclusion yourself: "X has a right to Y". "A person has a right not to be tortured", or anything that takes that form.
OJEDA: Well, I don't know. I guess it's the basic realisation of they are as human as you. And you would like to be treated in the same way. It's - If you want to do the philosophy of it, it's the same kind of arguments for the existence of other minds. How do you know I'm human, how do I know that you're human? Well, your behavior is such that it leads me to think that you are just like me.
KENJI: But I mean, these are descriptive statements, aren't they. I mean, do you think a statement regarding rights is a - contains descriptive content, like -
OJEDA: It presupposes descriptive content. It presupposes a basic commonality in nature. But then it goes beyond description into prescription, a set of do's and don'ts.
KENJI: And how do you bridge the - I mean, it's that gap really that I'm trying to get at here, so -
OJEDA: Uh huh! (laughs) Well, it's -
KENJI: I'm really talking about the is-ought problem basically.
OJEDA: Well, I guess it's part of our nature to draw behavioral consequences, practical consequences from understandings of the world. For all its value, understanding the world is not enough. We also have to act in it, and we try to derive our patterns of action from our understanding.
KENJI: Can you be more specific?
OJEDA: I'm not sure I can. (laughs)
KENJI: How do you - You mentioned that reasoning goes, like the reasoning for determining that someone else has a mind like you do and is human, how do you go from "Someone else has the same desires or similar desires to me" from "I ought to" or "They have a right to be treated in a similar fashion as I do", or...
OJEDA: Well, for me it's just a projection of what I would like me, my family, my fellow citizens to have a right to.
KENJI: Does that change if the other party doesn't extend the same courtesy to you?
OJEDA: Oh, not at all. Not at all, I think it's... We don't rape rapists, we don't... By the same token I don't think we should terrorise terrorists or torture torturers, I mean that's... I think Senator McCain put it best. He said "It's not about who they are but about who we are".
KENJI: Senator McCain himself a victim of torture during the Vietnam War.
OJEDA: Right, that's correct.
KENJI: So why don't you run through - You work for the Center for the Study of Human Rights on a daily basis, or is this something you do kind of on a...
OJEDA: Well, I try to wear several hats. My major obligations are of course with the Linguistics Department, where I teach my classes in Semantics, as you said. I'm also graduate advisor there, and since last year I've been trying to put together the Center, and we need to do some grant-writing to justify the seed grants we received, and we'll see how that works out. So that takes some time, writing grants. We are creating a web site, which people should visit. It's humanrights.ucdavis.edu.
KENJI: You can also find information there for the event on -
OJEDA: For the event on Friday, correct, and how to get tickets. And we can talk about that too, later on.
OJEDA: But lately it's that event that has been consuming all my Center-related efforts.
KENJI: What kind of work are you doing on that, just getting - I mean, you have the venue already, so what's the -
OJEDA: Well, what we're doing in addition to the event and publicity for it - We have a little research group of students, mostly undergraduates, some graduate, and what we're trying to do - and we're already posting things on our web site - is trying to group testimonials on Guantanamo. And there's quite a few, about seven hundred and fifty people have passed or are being processed through Guantanamo, and about two hundred and fifty have been released, which is an appalling figure. We've been told that these are the "worst of the worst", and two hundred fifty of presumably the worst of the worst have already been released.
KENJI: And this is released without any kind of charges being filed, or -
OJEDA: Oh yeah, yeah. The idea is that they are no longer regarded as "enemy combatants".
KENJI: Is there any explanation for how that status changed?
OJEDA: Not that we know of. They just get captured and then get released. So -
KENJI: Is there any kind of pattern into what kind of individuals get released, like from a particular country or region?
OJEDA: Well, that remains to be seen. That's something that we would like to look into. So those people have started talking. Many of them have actually - take the government to court and have made depositions about it, so we have direct, firsthand information from the prisoners of their treatment there. Then there's also very interesting evidence from the inside. So James Yee, who will be one of the guests this Friday, used to be a chaplain at Guantanamo, Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo, through the US Army, until he was accused of sympathising too much with the enemy. And he himself got placed into solitary confinement.
KENJI: He was accused actually of a capital offense, wasn't he?
OJEDA: Capital offense, yes, of treason. And eventually all charges were dropped. They couldn't defend any of the charges they had made to them. But he wrote a book and many of the things he details. He had perhaps the closest access that anybody can have had to these prisoners, because part of his job was to talk to the prisoners and comfort them and minister to them. So he could have been a confidante -
KENJI: Seems kind of an odd thing for the Army to have such a person on staff -
OJEDA: Yeah, well, the whole thing of religions in the military is puzzling to me. But anyway, that's how it worked. And he wrote a book called "For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire" where he details many of the abuses that the same - the same abuses that the prisoners are committing - er, are reporting. So it's these kinds of patterns that the Center wants to bring together. So we have the testimonials of the prisoners that have been attacked in terms of they being al-Qaeda, they're experts at lying, and so on. But then this US military person comes out and says exactly the same thing about what's going on.
KENJI: But given the charge that was raised against him earlier, wouldn't it be easy for a skeptic of these charges to...
OJEDA: Sure, sure. So then you keep looking and then there's a translator that was present at the interrogations, and he too comes out with the very same charges. And then you look at FBI documents. There is through the Freedom of Information Act, a number of FBI documents have been made public, and they too reveal patterns of abuse. And you look at Department of Defense documents, that were used to process these people, and you see the charges and the counter-charges about why they were there. And then you see a pattern emerging. And of course you can question everything, you could question the Holocaust if you wanted to, right? But at one point the evidence becomes overwhelming. And I guess the obvious thing to do would be to send human rights groups to visit, or -
KENJI: And I understand there have been actually a few observers, haven't there?
OJEDA: Well, they haven't been granted full access - Well, the only ones who get full access to the prisoners are the Red Cross, and even for them there are some restrictions. The catch is that the conditions under which the Red Cross can go in and visit prisoners is that they cannot make public their findings. That's the general practice of the Red Cross. That's why they get access to prisoners.
KENJI: And what is the Red Cross going in for, then?
OJEDA: Just to ascertain that they're being treated in a humane way, and if they're not, then they go to the government, the holding government, and report to them, complain to them, and the government can do what they see fit. But the condition is that they cannot make public these things. Now some of them have been leaked, some of the reports of the Red Cross have been leaked, and they also confirm the same patterns of abuse, so... I think the evidence is overwhelming at this point that abuse has been committed, and there should be commissions of inquiry being granted access to - free and unrestricted to the prisoners. The UN was also sent in there, and - Sorry, the UN wanted to be sent in there, but they were not allowed free and unobstructed access to the prisoners. They were offered a tour of the facilities, which is a very different thing. They wouldn't be able to talk to the prisoners.
KENJI: Was that effort blocked like in UN proceedings, or just by the United States unilaterally?
OJEDA: Say that again?
KENJI: I mean, did the UN go through some kind of internal UN processing, "let's have this commission to go do this thing", or did they -
OJEDA: Well, there's a High Commissioner for Human Rights that does these kinds of things, and does these kinds of visits, and they were just offered a tour of the facilities, the same kind of tour that is offered to VIPs and congressmen here in the States, and not really what needs to happen. So it's a very simple request: Why don't human rights organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the same - UN, are allowed into the facilities and shed some light?
KENJI: What do you think it would take to get access for those organisations?
OJEDA: Oh, probably a sea change in public opinion. It's... The level of autonomy of this government is such that they are unaccountable to anybody except the people. The only way is to create a groundswell of opposition that would force them to -
KENJI: What recourse do you see if the majority of people in America are okay with torture, even if it could be - even if it's shown definitively to be occurring in Guantanamo?
OJEDA: Oh, I don't think that would happen. If that would happen, then we're in deep trouble. But I very much -
KENJI: Well, I mean I've heard that sentiment expressed, I mean Rush Limbaugh is notably the flag-carrier for that kind of sentiment, right? And he has plenty of followers.
OJEDA: Sure. But I don't think that's representative of what the general public feels. I mean, even in conservative circles, even within the Republican Party, Senator McCain for example, who is no liberal is very much against -
KENJI: But I think Senator McCain might be regarded as somewhat of a exception given his experience with torture himself.
OJEDA: Yeah, isn't that ironic. He should be the one to have more to say about this. I think the main problem is fear. I think people have been scared into thinking that torture saves, and not realising that it's quite the contrary. Because now us Americans will be under more danger because of this.
KENJI: Right, and that's an important point, I think, to make about this, because I hear a lot of conservative people who are not - don't object to Guantanamo really as much as maybe a more liberal person would saying things like "Well, liberals shouldn't be whining about torturing terrorists because the terrorists would do the same to us". But there is a practical side to this too, right?
OJEDA: That's one. And the other thing is, who decided they were terrorists? I mean, there has been a very interesting study of Department of Defense documents through the Freedom of Information Act, a bunch of files of - redacted by the Department of Defense, have come to light, where they are discussing the cases against these people, and they are things you wouldn't believe, that people - I have some figures here - about 55% of the people currently detained in Guantanamo have not been accused of any hostile act. 55%, that's more than half. 45% are the ones that have been accused of hostile acts, and the broadest of definitions of hostile acts, for example fleeing a position when it's being bombed is considered a hostile act. But even if you considered that way of counting things, only 45% have been declared -
KENJI: And what's the source of these classifications for hostile acts?
OJEDA: Well, this is a government document. These are all taken from the Department of Defense. You can go to our web site and look at them, Department of Defense files.
KENJI: And your web site is again...
OJEDA: It's humanrights.ucdavis.edu. Other incredible cases: evidence against prisoners having Casio watches, because apparently terrorists use Casio watches to plant bombs. And one prisoner was looking at a soldier and said "Hey, you too have a Casio watch!" Or cases of mistaken identity. I mean, the reason why we have the legal system we have developed in this country is precisely to prevent those kinds of things. When you have a lawyer defending somebody and you have to actually make a case that somebody has to be imprisoned, then all these things get washed away.
KENJI: And I hear also some allegations that various people in Afghanistan have been rounding up just random prisoners to give to the US for bounties. Is there any truth to that?
OJEDA: Well, there's some very interesting correlations. If you look at the number of people that have been detained - again, just following Department of Defense documents, this is not our interpretation - only 5% of the people - so, of the five hundred people, thereabouts, in Guantanamo now, only 5% were captured by the US forces. That means that 95% were captured by Pakistanis or Afghanis. And if you do a study, which has been done, as to what areas those people were captured at, they were precisely the areas that were leafleted by the US government offering literally millions of dollars for the detention - for the capture of al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants.
KENJI: Yeah. Prime circumstances for catching innocent men, huh?
OJEDA: That's right. So, it's - There's a reason why our legal system has developed the way it is. All the way from the thirteenth century with the writ of habeas corpus, whereby anybody that's detained has the right to question their detention under a court, and the right to trial.
KENJI: And we have those rights enshrined in our Constitution. But do those rights -
OJEDA: Well, that's what they're trying to say, that they don't apply. But then you get into all these things. Who decides they're terrorists? Who decides they're the worst of the worst? And if they're the worst of the worst, why do you release two hundred and fifty of them? It doesn't make any sense. It's the folly of trying to disregard eight hundred years of legal practice.
KENJI: Have you noticed anyone in the press trying to push these questions on the Administration or to get any kind of answers, in the corporate press?
OJEDA: Not in a sustained way, and that's really one of the reasons why we want to do this conversation on Guantanamo. We think that we need to have a way of shedding some light on these things and hoping that the media, like you and other responsible media outlets, would catch it. In fact, since we brought these people here, NPR is going to do a show on them on the Friday at 2pm, the local Sacramento station. Now, these people were available before our show. I mean, these are very high-profile people. They weren't interviewed. So it takes events of this kind -
KENJI: Amy Goodman, herself a journalist, covering this on her own show Democracy Now.
OJEDA: Amy Goodman is one of the few people to do this. So that's the idea, trying to raise awareness, to bring this into people's consciousness.
KENJI: What do you - I mean, Guantanamo Bay has at least been mentioned or at least talked about to some extent in the corporate media, right? Why do you think that that hasn't sparked any wide protest or wider inquiry into the matter?
OJEDA: Well, it's part of the scaring thing. I mean, Rumsfeld comes and says that these are the worst of the worst, that they would not hesitate in killing millions of people, millions of Americans. And then there's the scare that you'd be supporting them, right? Our President has said that you are either with him or with the terrorists. Not even against him, but with the terrorists! So those are two very big scare tactics. Be afraid of them, and be afraid of what we'll do to you if you continue doing this. So that's one thing.
KENJI: So the implication being that if you try to stand up for the rights of detainees or prisoners in Guantanamo -
OJEDA: You're a terrorist yourself, that's right.
KENJI: - materially aiding, a threat to the safety of people in America.
OJEDA: That's right. And you know, I've lived long enough to not be moved by those things. It was exactly the same kinds of things that happened in Peru when I was growing up, and then we all realised that it was a sham, that it was just the way to keep doing what they were doing and keep people out. Something that shouldn't happen in a democracy, we should be an open society. We should be able to go, maybe not ourselves personally, but through our representatives, or through people that we respect, like human rights organisations, and see the conditions under which people live there. Clear, complete access to these people. And give them trials. If they're guilty, we keep them in. If they're innocent, we let them go.
KENJI: Who should be the arbiter of those trials, though? I mean, you can't really get a jury of their peers as we are supposed to do in our civil trials domestically, right?
OJEDA: Right, well I don't know what the legalities would be, but I think the important thing would be to get testimonies of these people right on, right away. We should have lawyers defending them, for one thing, going and checking them out, going and having the UN and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, organisations that we would otherwise respect, except when they say things we don't like to hear. Very typical pattern in every country it's like this, and it saddens me to see that my own is like this too.
KENJI: What do you think the Administration's motives are in keeping these people? I mean, if they are, if the majority of them are in fact not terrorists, what benefit - even assuming that the Administration has the most evil of motives, what benefit could they gain?
OJEDA: Well, I guess their motives are to protect the American people. That's what they're trying to do. But they're doing it in such a counterproductive way that it's endangering us more than it is protecting us.
KENJI: It seems a little counterintuitive though, doesn't it, thinking that if a lot of these detainees or prisoners have been handed over by - I mean under the circumstances that are transparently obvious to you and me, you know, probably would have produced innocent as prisoners, shouldn't that be equally obvious to the Administration and to people in power over Guantanamo Bay? What benefit would they see in keeping these people?
OJEDA: One would think so. One would think that they would see the fact - I mean, if you look at how they handle domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing for example, it's in stark contrast with the way things are done in Guantanamo and the international War on Terror. All the people involved got trials, and presumably we got the guilty people, and only them -
KENJI: But they were all US citizens, right?
OJEDA: That's right. No, what I'm saying is, just looking at it from the practical point of view, what works and what doesn't work. You do a police work, then you bring that evidence to trial, try these people, and then perform their punishment as necessary, keep the dangerous people off the streets and so on. And this completely impractical and counterproductive approach - you are not keeping us safe, you are creating more terrorists that use Guantanamo as a fighting flag, and abusing human beings in the process.
KENJI: Why don't you talk a little about Friday's event? What can we expect to hear there?
OJEDA: Sure. Well, the guests are the following. One of them is Michael Ratner. He's a lawyer, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is the one who defended a now famous group of prisoners, the Tipton Four, in court. And he managed to win for the detainees the writ of habeas corpus. Amazing that it took him to go all the way to the Supreme Court to defend something that was settled in the courts eight hundred years ago. So he's written a book called "Guantanamo: What the World Should Know". And I should give you a scoop here: He's donated a copy of his book to every person that comes to the show - not to every people performing for you, but for all of you who come. You'll be receiving a copy of his book free of charge, thanks to the generosity of Michael Ratner. Then there'll be James Yee, and he's the Muslim chaplain I spoke about, and perhaps the prisoner with most - with the freest access to the Guantanamo prisoners, and he will be telling about his own experience as a witness and as a victim of the detention system. Then we have Al McCoy, who is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he's written a very interesting book on the history of interrogation techniques and the CIA from the Cold War to the present. And he's gonna make the case, I'm pretty sure, that what we're seeing in Guantanamo are not blips, they're not isolated incidents, but the result of a well-researched interrogation tactic. All this business with hooding, for example - the approach to sensory deprivation. He's tracing - he's traced the story, the history of these techniques. When he saw the famous picture of the hooded prisoner on the cardboard box with arms outstretched, he immediately saw all the features of "interrogation" techniques.
KENJI: And the hope there then is that if he can show that these are typical and really a program for the CIA and the military, that there'll be more public outrage about them, or... ?
OJEDA: Well, my approach here is to try to bring evidence from different sources, as we were talking before, try to bring the prisoners' view, the internal view by the chaplain, the view from history, and try to make as compelling a case as possible about what's going on. And he will be giving the historical perspective. And then the whole thing will be of course led by Amy Goodman, wonderful journalist, the "Exception to the Rulers" as she calls herself. And she - I think she's now in Rome, she'll be flying direct from Rome to Davis to do this show. You can check us out on her web site too, on democracynow.org. She's already mentioned us there.
KENJI: Let me just give the details here for getting tickets. If you go to humanrights.ucdavis.edu, you can find out more about the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas here at UC Davis. There's also a PDF file about this event, A Conversation Regarding Guantanamo Bay on Friday, May 5, and that'll be from 7 to 9 pm. Tickets are 10 dollars. It'll be at Freeborn Hall here on UC Davis campus. You can get tickets in three ways. You can go to tickets.com, or you can call by phone: 530.752.1915, once again 530.752.1915, or you can just go down to Freeborn Hall and buy tickets from the ticket office there.
OJEDA: It's cheaper if you buy them at Freeborn Hall. You don't get the service fee.
KENJI: Oh that's right, for online buying?
OJEDA: That's right.
KENJI: So this conversation is just gonna be between the panelists, or is it gonna be like a, audience participation type of thing?
OJEDA: At the end we'll have time for questions. But we need to hear these people out. They have really important things to say and they're not being heard.
KENJI: How did - Just to go back to your work at the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas, what is your - What do you see as the long-term goal of this organisation, what are you gonna be doing after this event, and... ?
OJEDA: Well, we - our job is to try and gather information about human rights in the Americas. One project we'd like to get engaged in very soon is to support the digitation, digitalisation I guess would be the term, of the reports of the Peruvian Truth Commission I spoke about before. They've done a wonderful job in recording seventeen thousand testimonies of mostly peasants in Peru that were witness to the violence on both sides of the conflict in the last decades of the twentieth century. But they just stand on flimsy pieces of paper within cardboard boxes, and we'd like to help preserve that testimony in digital fashion for protection reasons - if we make many copies it'll be safer, and also for dissemination purposes. So that's one of our goals, to try and gather and distribute information about human rights in the Americas. Another is to of course try to study and analyse these things, and that's why we're writing these grants, to try and bring people to the Center. Personally I'd be very interested, for example, in figuring out how exactly psychological torture works. The effects of sensory deprivation, for example, are extremely interesting, why it works. Because it does work. If you hear Senator McCain, he declared that he'd rather take the beating, the physical torture, than the psychological torture. The periods in isolation were gruesome and much worse than the actual -
KENJI: And that's just simply putting someone in a dark cell, leaving them alone, nothing more than that?
OJEDA: Well, yeah, it sounds harmless, but basically what you do is you cut all the access a person has to the external world. Eyes shut, ears shut, in some extreme cases they put some heavy gloves on them so you don't have any tactile contacts with the world. And the effect is that it turns people into psychotics. I'd love to understand exactly how that works.
KENJI: And this is permanent damage, it's not once you take them out -
OJEDA: It's recurring damage at least. It has the effects of post-traumatic syndrome. People keep coming back to those things. I think it has to do with something very deep about our survival. I think that when you go up in a mountain where you see the ocean, you get this sense of peace and tranquility, and it may be because in our evolutionary history, what happened is that we had perfect control of our surroundings, perfect access to our surroundings, and could see that predators weren't about to come. When we were becoming human, danger never came from the sea. But what you get under these sensory deprivation techniques is the exact opposite. You have no access to your immediate surroundings, no way to control where the danger might come from. And that seems to cut us out from our survival mechanisms in a very deep way. So that's what I would like to support with our grants, some psychologist, perhaps, coming and researching this. I don't know how they would do human experimentation with it, but certainly theoretical -
KENJI: It's pretty sobering to think of how these techniques were discovered or designed -
OJEDA: It was the hard work of research. This was not something that, you know, seven GIs in a bored evening can come up with. This is systematic. You see it from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo and beyond.
KENJI: What do you think - How do you account for not only what torture does to a person but what torture does to - you know, not only to the victim but to the torturer, what happens to a person's mind to be able to design these techniques?
OJEDA: To the torturer, exactly. Exactly. That will be another interesting research project. It so dehumanises somebody that it breaks them down as well. It - Behind the stiff hard facade there is some dying going on in them as well, I'm pretty sure.
KENJI: How do you - Do you think there's any way to account for how someone could get themselves into a frame of mind where they could design these techniques, or -
OJEDA: Well one of the things that Al McCoy will probably say is that one of the results of the research from the Cold War to the present was the result that anybody can become torturer. One of the things that psychologists found out was that you could turn any human being into a torturer. It's quite a result. There were some experiments I think he might talk about, about how by selective distribution of punishment and reward you could turn somebody into someone who wouldn't hesitate to induce pain for some gain.
KENJI: But even on a higher level, how would someone get in the frame of mind where they would engage in that selective use of - I mean, who teaches the torturers - I mean, given - You're a researcher in linguistics, right? It's easy to understand, at least for some people the joy in that kind of research, right, or why you would be motivated to do it. On the other hand, how do we understand someone's motivation for getting into researching torture and designing these techniques?
OJEDA: Well, language plays a big role. So you never call it torture. You call it interrogation. And you may call it coercive interrogation. So there's some delusion going on. Then there is again the scare tactic: If we don't do it then they'll do it to us, something like that. And then there is patriotism: you're doing it for your country, this may be unsavory but somebody has to do it to keep the country safe. And I think also through repetition of the act... We had here in campus a couple of military people that came and - talking on a peace mission, actually, and I asked them about this exactly: How do you become so desensitised that you can shoot somebody point-blank? And he said, they said it was a progressive thing. It doesn't happen overnight. You keep going in that direction relentlessly, step by step, and at the end - And you try not to think about it, you try to block your rational -
KENJI: So there is on some level a consciousness that this wrong or some kind of emotional obstruction to it.
OJEDA: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I think that that's the way you start. I mean, there is this revulsion against inflicting pain on fellow human beings. So what you do is you dehumanise it and say that "Well, it's not really humans, so what we're doing is not really torture".
KENJI: Or in some way it's counterbalanced by some greater good.
OJEDA: Yeah, there's all these things. But all these things would be really interesting to research. How do you turn a normal individual into a -
KENJI: Do you know of any work being done or already done on that subject?
OJEDA: Um... The book of Al McCoy is - puts a lot together. His book is called "A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror". It's a pretty recent book, and he traces it a little bit there, and there's lots of references to follow in it.
KENJI: So these are the kinds of questions that you hope to get a wider - get the public looking at and thinking about with your work at the Center?
OJEDA: Well these are the questions that we'd like to explore as a research center in future. Our immediate goal with the event is to try and make public these situations, this situation in Guantanamo, hoping that we would get some kind of real inquiries into it.
KENJI: What do you think this event will accomplish, though, that - I mean, we've seen some, at least some discussion of the matter in the corporate media, if not maybe in as much detail as this event will provide, but -
OJEDA: Well it's contributing to raise the awareness, in Davis anyway, and beyond. We're hoping to get audiences all the way from the Bay Area to the foothills. Amy Goodman has her following.
KENJI: But it just seems to me like it has a very high probability of ending up just preaching to the choir given - I mean, Amy Goodman, people who listen to Democracy Now probably are already -
OJEDA: Well, I would say educating the choir. Even the choir needs to learn the songs.
KENJI: True. What kind of venues for advertising and publicity for this event have you taken?
OJEDA: Uh huh. Oh, and about the education thing - we're going to film the event and offer it to people who can't come, or even to people who can come and want to send it to their relatives, for a donation to the Center. So we'll be having a professional recording of the event done by We the Media in Sacramento who very generously donated their materials and their talent to recording the show, and we'll make it available to anyone who wants to donate $100 or more to our Center. We'll send them all this -
KENJI: And will there be details about how to get a copy of that on humanrights.ucdavis.edu?
OJEDA: Absolutely. We'll do that after we get the show on. We need to worry about that first.
KENJI: So what kind of - have you taken any measures to get news about this event to people who aren't already aware, or -
OJEDA: Oh yeah. Well, the University has been very good about this. They've supported us and helped us with press releases to the Sacramento Bee. They're going to do a little pre- and post-show writing. The Sacramento News and Review will do that, the NPR show I mentioned also, the Aggie I believe will do something. So we're trying to cover our bases here.
KENJI: Have you gotten any -
OJEDA: Your show.
KENJI: Well I mean, again, with our listener base, similar to Amy's with Democracy Now, I think it really is people who are already aware and concerned -
OJEDA: That's right. No, we are trying to go beyond the usual choir.
KENJI: Have you gotten any feedback or any correspondence from people saying something like, you know, "Gosh, I hadn't heard of this", or -
OJEDA: Oh yeah, there's lots of excitement about this. People recognise these names - Well they don't recognise the names, but when you tell them who they are - "Oh, the chaplain, yeah, I know", "Oh, Ratner, yeah, he was the lawyer", Amy Goodman almost everybody -
KENJI: But these are - Do you find people who aren't aware of the situation with Guantanamo Bay or aren't aware of it in enough detail to be outraged or to be concerned?
OJEDA: Well that's a hard question, because I'm afraid there's lots of people who'd rather not know. I just came back from Germany, and they've done a very interesting thing, a very interesting memorial in Berlin on the cells of the whole police state of the Nazis. They've uncovered - although during the Nuremberg trials, very few Germans actually attended the trials. It was mostly for the international community. And then they razed all the buildings. If you go, there are almost no traces - well, the Reichstag was burned, but just about all the police buildings were razed to the ground. But when they were trying to build some new buildings, they uncovered some torture cells and detention centers of the Nazi era. And they're preserving them and trying to build a museum of memory around them. And one of the things that became more or less obvious to me there was that Germans just didn't want to know, and even sadder, they'd rather not talk about it now. So that was something that they said they didn't know at the time that was happening, and that they'd rather not confront after the fact. And I can sort of understand why, and I'm afraid we're seeing some of that here as well.
KENJI: We talked earlier about people who think that the torture at Guantanamo is justified. How do you deal with people like that, or people who don't want to know, or the desire to avoid these kinds of difficult questions?
OJEDA: Well, I first try to appeal to their humanity, and try to mention these things about doing unto others. If that doesn't work, if they're sort of "sympathy-challenged", I try to appeal to their self-interest, and say that what we do to them they might well do to us therefore. And if that doesn't work, well, we just go by the books and say what the laws are. And it's pretty clear that torture is banned, not just by the Geneva Conventions but by the conventions against torture, about which there are several.
KENJI: And these are all one -
OJEDA: They make no distinctions about whether, you know, they're soldiers or enemy combatants. It's just universally -
KENJI: And these are all ones -
OJEDA: - against torture.
KENJI: - to which the United States is a signatory.
OJEDA: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
KENJI: Is this like a thing that is binding on the administration through US laws, that we have to abide by treaties, type of thing?
OJEDA: Yes. Well, the international law is supposed to be the law of the land. Everything we've signed, including the conventions against torture, of which there are several, and people should look them up in our web site: humanrights.ucdavis.edu. Torture is banned universally, unconditionally. There is none - I mean, the Geneva Conventions has this language about military people and civilians, and that's where our legal whizzes at the State Department are trying to grasp. But the convention against torture is very clear.
KENJI: When was that convention?
OJEDA: Mm, good question. I think - There's several, so it's sort of an ongoing thing. Probably 80's. 1980's.
KENJI: It seems - The argument, when I talk about these matters, people who defend Guantanamo typically appeal to something like, you know, "US sovereignty is the fundamental value and these treaties can't be permitted to interfere with the security of the nation", and that kind of thing.
OJEDA: Well, they're wrong. I mean, the international law signed by the US government are the law of the land, otherwise the whole international system breaks loose, right? What if Iran decides to invade Israel, for example, how do we stop that? Do we just bomb them or do we first go through the legal courts and say "Well, there's an international law you're breaking"? It's clear we go that way. That's what this government is doing, it's trying, at least, the diplomatic option. And only when that is exhausted, then you go to military force.
KENJI: But I mean, in cases like - The famous example for the United States is Nicaragua, right, where we were I think found against by the International Court of Justice. And there was no power to enforce there, nothing came of it. So what -
OJEDA: That's right. Yeah, as I said, the law is an ongoing project. Only in the 1930's we decided that the whole world was subject to one system of law, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is still not legally binding, and even if it were, there's no system to enforce it. The US refuses to recognise the International Court's authority, let alone punishments.
KENJI: Besides which the United Nations is not an autonomous body which enforces on nations but actually those nations themselves in a sort of conference, right?
OJEDA: Yeah, there's that too.
KENJI: And the United States having the veto power as a permanent Security Council member.
OJEDA: That's right. So we're a long way from a true worldwide democracy. But I think it would be a mistake to think that we should therefore brush everything away. I think democracy is an ongoing project. If you look at it how it was born from the Greeks to where it's come now, it's come a long way -
KENJI: Some would say for the worse in some ways.
OJEDA: - and still has a long way to come.
KENJI: We have a representative state for one thing, as compared to Athens
OJEDA: This is true. Well, in Athens not everybody could vote, women couldn't vote, you know, so we've made some progress.
KENJI: True. Okay. Well, everybody go to this event. It's on Friday May 5, 7-9pm, and it's at Freeborn Hall. A conversation about Guantanamo, led by Amy Goodman. Other participants are Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights; James Yee, former US Army Muslim chaplain; Alfred McCoy, who is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and again, Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, which we air here on KDRT. My guest today has been Professor Almerindo Ojeda from the UCD Department of Linguistics and coordinator for the Center for the Study of Human Rights in the Americas at UC Davis. You've been listening to The Civil Left on KDRT 101.5 in Davis, California.
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