I joined our partners in NC Stop Torture Now Monday night to visit with the Johnston County Commissioners at their monthly meeting. Stop Torture NOW is a terrific group, which all concerned with this issue could well learn from.
Johnston County is home to Aero Contractors, the notorious CIA front company that has been linked to many of the "torture taxi" flights called "extraordinary rendition" in official euphemistic parlance.
The report in the March 3 edition of the Clayton NC Star-News makes it sound like our mission was a failure:
"Despite impassioned pleas and warnings of irreparable damage to Johnston County’s image, the county’s Board of Commissioners on Monday refused to ask for an investigation of a local company accused of participating in the kidnapping and transportation of suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogations that allegedly include torture . . . ."
This report was entirely accurate in a journalistic sense. Yet despite the board's official refusal to act on our proposal, I came away feeling almost triumphant. That's because I felt able to read between the factual lines, and somehow take the temperature of the group before us.
And what I think I read was an underlying nervousness and unease.
That's because, while they could easily say no to us last night, there's just no question that after so many years of a cozy connection to Aero and its shadowy patrons, which has yielded many millions of dollars of income for a poor county, the ground has suddenly shifted, the winds have changed.
The Clayton Star summed up this perception well:"Other speakers warned the commissioners that investigations currently being lobbied for in Congress could lead back to Johnston County, with dire results for this area’s public image in the rest of the nation and world. “The engine of accountability is gearing up in Washington,” Fayetteville resident Charles Fager said. “What we’re offering you is the opportunity to get out in front of that train before it runs you over.”
I'm almost certain that there were those among the Commissioners who have an increasingly ominous sense that just such unsettling changes are getting underway. In fact, a high county official approached me at the end of the session to express a kind of sotto voce agreement with this assessment.
Another hint of this came when the Chairman, Wade Stewart, who had earlier said he approved of waterboarding and thought that torture was often effective, agreed that he would take up the matter of possible future accountability actions with the U.S. Representative from that district, Robert "Bobby" Etheridge.
Members of Stop Torture Now have approached Etheridge on several occasions, trying to raise questions about Aero, and have been met with stonewalling and anger.
But if Etheridge responds to Commissioner Stewart (who said he talks with Etheridge "all the time"), the Congressman will speak of such items as:
>>the fact that the U.S. Senate is beginning hearings on a "Truth Commmission" (scheduled for Wednesday March 4);
>>the fact that the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, is also readying a plan for an investigation;
>>the fact that there is a growing stream of shocking public revelations about illegalities and torture being planned and carried out by previous high officials, many of which implicate such entities as Aero Contractors. And
>> last but hardly least, there is likely to be much more of this to come.
No one has spoken of this prospect more tellingly than U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a former prosecutor who is deeply involved in the burgeoning accountability work in Congress. Read this excerpt from his statement of February 25, 2009, announcing plans for the Senate investigation:
We also have to brace ourselves for the realistic possibility that as some of this conduct is exposed, we and the world will find it shameful, revolting. We may have to face the prospect of looking with horror at our own country's deeds. We are optimists, we Americans; we are proud of our country. Contrition comes hard to us.
But the path back from the dark side may lead us down some unfamiliar valleys of remorse and repugnance before we can return to the light. We may have to face our fellow Americans saying to us, "No, please, tell us that we did not do that, tell us that Americans did not do that" - and we will have to explain, somehow. This is no small thing, and not easy; this will not be comfortable or proud; but somehow it must be done.
The engine of accountability for torture is indeed gathering steam. And it will soon have in its sights what has gone on, not only at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, but also what has happened at Aero Contrators in Johnston County North Carolina.
I hope Bobby Etheridge will speak plainly to Wade Stewart about this. And for the good of the county they have in trust, I hope Stewart and his colleagues will reconsider and get out in front of of this process while there is still time.