5.09.2009

torture's other victims

Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor and Publisher, a trade publication, is quoted often in this blog. He was one of the lonely media voices opposing the invasion of Iraq from the very beginning. He helped expose how the mainstream media, telling lies, sold the war to the US public and covered up the theft of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Mitchell is also a steadfast voice in support of US servicepeople, exposing the shameful way their government treats them.

Here is a recent piece of his in Huffington Post. Please read.
With each new revelation on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo (and who, knows, probably elsewhere), I am reminded of the chilling story of Alyssa Peterson, who I have written about numerous times in the past three years but now with especially sad relevance. Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what we would call torture, she refused, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003.

Of course, we now know from the torture memos and the U.S. Senate committee probe and various new press reports, that the "Gitmo-izing" of Iraq was happening just at the time Alyssa got swept up in it.

Alyssa Peterson was one of the first female soldiers killed in Iraq. A cover-up, naturally, followed.

Peterson, 27, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native, served with C Company, 311th Military Intelligence BN, 101st Airborne. Peterson was an Arabic-speaking interrogator assigned to the prison at our air base in troubled Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq. According to official records, she died on Sept. 15, 2003, from a "non-hostile weapons discharge."

A "non-hostile weapons discharge" leading to death is not unusual in Iraq, often quite accidental, so this one apparently raised few eyebrows. The Arizona Republic, three days after her death, reported that Army officials "said that a number of possible scenarios are being considered, including Peterson's own weapon discharging, the weapon of another soldier discharging, or the accidental shooting of Peterson by an Iraqi civilian." And that might have ended it right there.

But in this case, a longtime radio and newspaper reporter named Kevin Elston, not satisfied with the public story, decided to probe deeper in 2005, "just on a hunch," he told me in late 2006 (there's a chapter about it in my book on Iraq and the media, So Wrong for So Long). He made "hundreds of phone calls" to the military and couldn't get anywhere, so he filed a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request. When the documents of the official investigation of her death arrived, they contained bombshell revelations. Here's what the Flagstaff public radio station, KNAU, where Elston worked, reported:

"Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed."

The official probe of her death would later note that earlier she had been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of the report, in fact, is this: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire."

She was then assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards, and sent to suicide prevention training. "But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle," the documents disclose.

The official report revealed that a notebook she had written in was found next to her body, but blacked out its contents.

The Army talked to some of Peterson's colleagues. Asked to summarize their comments, Elston told me: "The reactions to the suicide were that she was having a difficult time separating her personal feelings from her professional duties. That was the consistent point in the testimonies, that she objected to the interrogation techniques, without describing what those techniques were."

Elston said that the documents also refer to a suicide note found on her body, which suggested that she found it ironic that suicide prevention training had taught her how to commit suicide. He filed another FOIA request for a copy of the actual note. It did not emerge.

Peterson, a devout Mormon, had graduated from Flagstaff High School and earned a psychology degree from Northern Arizona University on a military scholarship. She was trained in interrogation techniques at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, and was sent to the Middle East in 2003.

A report in The Arizona Daily Sun of Flagstaff -- three years after Alyssa's death -- revealed that Spc. Peterson's mother, Bobbi Peterson, reached at her home in northern Arizona, said that neither she nor her husband Richard had received any official documents that contained information outlined in Elston's report.

In other words: Like the press and the public, even the parents had been kept in the dark.

Tomorrow I will write about Kayla Williams, a woman who served with Alyssa, who told me me that she talked to her about her problems shortly before she killed herself. Kayla also was forced to take part in torture interrogations, where she saw detainees punched. Another favorite technique: strip the prisoners and then remove their blindfolds so that the first thing they saw was Kayla Williams. She also opted out, but survived, and is haunted years later.

Here's what Williams told Soledad O'Brien of CNN : "I was asked to assist. And what I saw was that individuals who were doing interrogations had slipped over a line and were really doing things that were inappropriate. There were prisoners that were burned with lit cigarettes."

All of this only gains relevance in light of the current debate over whether those who were "just following orders" in torture routines should be held accountable today.

Part two here.

In every instance of torture, there are two victims: the tortured and the torturer. People who behave inhumanely lose a piece of their humanity not easily returned. Unless a person is mentally ill - unless there is actually something wrong with the conscience, that it is not merely buried or placed on hold or temporarily ignored - the torturer will suffer. Whether that suffering is expressed in alcoholism or drug addiction, violence against partners and children, or against oneself, or all of the above, the tortured conscience will surface.

Military resistance saves lives. US war resisters in Canada may have saved the lives of innocent people, may have saved anyone (who cares what they may have done) from torture, and may have saved their own lives by refusing to carry torture on their consciences.

5 comments:

Cornelia said...

I'm glad Kayla Williams didn't kill herself! She did right by refusing to be complice to torture and by writing her book and speaking out afterward. Of course, she could have done more but at least she did not participate in the detainee abuse. That would have been the wrong thing to do and she did not do this. I'm so sorry that Alyssa Patterson didn't survive, however.

Cornelia said...

Torture is awful in general and its repercussions are very, very hard to deal with at times. That much should be clear. But really, I think it's good that Kayla Williams refused to be complice to that and that she bears witness that these things are deadwrong in her book. At least she did that. We are all but human and sometimes we do think it would have been way better had we done more. The past cannot be cured, but for example, she can also join amnesty international or whatever she likes if she wants to do more.
Let those who did commit the crimes and those who ordered it bear due responsibility!!! It's them who are at fault.
Sorry. Hope that helps somehow. But some things are really so sad.

Cornelia said...

Laura, you wrote the offenders damage their own dignity, too and hurt their own integrity and humanity as well. Do you think the same applies to verbally abusive bullies and to domestic violence offenders, too? This is a point I really wonder about at times. Personally, I think to some degree, sure, it's kind of somehow similar.

L-girl said...

"Do you think the same applies to verbally abusive bullies and to domestic violence offenders, too?"

I do.

I'm not suggesting that the perpetrator suffers as much or as horribly as the victim/survivor. But I do think that people who relate to people by dominance, control and violence are damaged by it.

They are, in a sense, their own victims, and victims of the violence in their own lives that led to their own (their parents' violence, for example).

I don't say this to excuse them, of course.

Cornelia said...

Thanks so much, Laura. I thought about some bad stuff this evening and tried to figure some things out...So, it's good to be able to discuss some of it. Personally, I think: Neither an eternal victim nor an offender be, but keep aware that everybody's born equal and free.