As the debate ensues about the confirmation of Assistant CIA director Gina Haspel and her role in condoning torture, I’m again reminded of the role the US government and military has historically played in numerous human rights abuses abroad.
In 2015, I traveled to El Salvador as a Teaching Assistant with a group of outstanding undergraduate researchers and budding filmmakers in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies Task Force program. My role, as part of a digital media fellowship at the UW Center for Human Rights, was to lead a student team, under the direction of professor Angelina Godoy, in the production of two videos for Pro-Búsqueda, the indomitable Salvadoran Human Rights organization dedicated to reuniting surviving family members with their children who were forcibly disappeared by the Salvadoran army during the Civil War (1980-1992).
Evidence overwhelmingly indicates the US military trained and supported Salvadoran generals in counterinsurgency tactics that included torture. A policy of brutality and extermination, executed at the highest levels, resulted in countless human rights atrocities, including the forced disappearance of children.
During this trip, we heard dozens of stories of how children were literally taken from the arms of their parents–many of whom were tortured and murdered–and given up to adoption in the United States and abroad. Over many years Pro-Búsqueda has painstakingly followed fragmented trails of information and evidence, and against numerous threats, to find the whereabouts of these disappeared children. To date Pro Búsqueda has reunited or found closure in an astounding 435 cases.
In the recent Senate Intelligence committee hearings, Haspel remarked how, “The C.I.A. did extraordinary work to prevent another attack on this country, given the legal tools that we were authorized to use.”
Is torture ever be something subject to shifting public opinion or definitions of legality? While accountability for the various forms of torture should not lie squarely on Haspel’s shoulders–the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report extends culpability up the chain of command to President Bush–should we consider as director of the CIA someone who defers culpability to prevailing attitudes and legal authorization?
When it comes to questions of torture and one’s moral compass, the answer should be clear in the faces of those who have suffered under these policies.
To learn more about the Salvadoran Civil War from the account of survivors, visit the Unfinished Sentences’ Testimony Archive.