Thursday, April 7, 2011

A New Stage in Local Work Against Torture

I've mentioned here before, I think, about how I've been visiting and bearing witness at the monthly Johnston County Commission meetings here in North Carolina, for more than two years now.

Their Johnston County airport is home to Aero Contractors, of "torture taxi" infamy. More on Aero here.
(The company is still going strong BTW.)

This is a very conservative area, and the Commissioners are all Republicans, who usually run without opposition.
Well, something remarkable has happened there, and it came into clear focus during and after last Monday's meeting with the Johnston County Commissioners (JCC).

A colleague who has been there often with me agreed that we seem to have reached a new stage there,
which should offer some new opportunities, and perhaps this "case study" could be of some use to other accountability workers in other parts of the country.

The nub of it is that after two-plus years of monthly visits and careful, polite but pointed colloquies, we appear to have established a high degree of rapport there. Such that when I came in last Monday, some of the commissioners smiled and called me by name, and made cordial small talk. And when the time came to speak, they were both interested and friendly. None seemed to bridle at my clear statements against torture and the JC connections to it.

At the end, it was as if we were leaving a party with old friends. (Actually, it was a bit dis-orienting.)

One Commissioner, who has in the past been very hostile, even said that he had decided the Afghan war was awful and the US should bring all the troops home now and that he was ready to "be a pacifist like Fager."

I think this comment was somewhat in jest (but not entirely: it was sparked by his mention of the awful killings in the wake of the Quran burning in Florida. He didn't seem able to decide which was more awful.) Yet this came from a former Commission Chairman who once told us torture was just fine (as long as the US did it), and that he loved to watch "24."

One other telling statement was from the current Chairman, that if "we gave them something they could do something about, they don't mind acting and doing."

I think this is important because they used to say they WOULDN'T do anything about this, period, no matter what. And while what the Chairman said could be partly another form of an old excuse, I think there's more involved: suppose some of them have heard our cries, and have come to feel that torture IS wrong, and something bad MIGHT be happening at their Johnston County airport?? What in practical terms could they do about it?

The answer is not as easy as it might seem from our perspective ("Investigate Aero!" has been our refrain.) That's because as a practical matter, the county airport largely runs itself, makes its own money. AND it deals with agencies (Aero/CIA) which dwarf the resources of the JCC, and could produce instant blowback if the JCC tried to mess with them directly.

So I sensed a certain subtext to the comment, almost a plea, maybe like this: "We really have much less power than you think, even in our own county; so what else might we do?"

Considering how effective the Torture Establishment has been in closing down the courts, stopping the White House from closing Gitmo or pursuing any accountability, etc., etc., such a sotto voce plea seems quite credible to me.

If some at JCC are starting to question the rightness of torture and Aero's involvement, they must also be feeling trapped: the power structure of which they are a relatively minor, low-level part, is committed, all the way to the top, to upholding the torture system. This is true informally as well as officially: the big local churches, the area banks, all their political cronies, the people they socialize with, have all accepted it. So if our two-plus years of preaching has sown any doubts, how do they get out of this web, this quicksand?

Please don't anybody think I am suggesting that we now give the JCC a pass because they have recently been cordial and friendly to me. Not at all. It's just that we're now at a place where it seems we could present ideas and get a real hearing, and have a real conversation about them. And we've been asked for some options to our traditional "investigate Aero" slogan; so let's step up. (And BTW, I'm still all FOR getting Aero investigated, one way or another.)

They have also shown that they can step outside the box, at least a little. Last month I was at the March JCC meeting, but did not get to speak, because the room and the hallway outside was jammed solid with NRA supporters, up in arms (figuratively, this time) because the JCC was considering a very minor restriction on how close to homes people could fire their weapons.

I stood outside and heard all the stuff about the Second Amendment and fighting crime and the first step toward tyranny, yada yada, some of it from some pretty creepy-looking folks. But after listening carefully and making some adjustments, the Commission faced them down and adopted the restriction unanimously.

During these two-plus years, the visits were often uncomfortable for me; the Commissioners were hostile for a long time. More than once I was angrily denounced by other local folks, and once came close to getting beat up.

That seems to have changed, at least with the Commission members. So in this more open environment, what else can we as accountability activists think of to suggest to them? It looks like a new opportunity is open. How do we make the most of it?

And are there other local authorities where some kind of ongoing witness of dialogue could be undertaken?