Local groups try to 'turn up the volume' on U.S. torture

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For Jim Dickert, the spark came when he read a Bob Herbert column in the New York Times last April. For Jennifer Harbury, the spark came from discovering that her Guatemalan husband had been tortured and executed by military officers on the payroll of the CIA.

Both decided, "We Cannot Remain Silent," which is the title of the forum addressing U.S. involvement in torture being held June 12 at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., at 2:30 p.m.

The event is presented by the Friends of Third Unitarian Church and co-sponsored by Voices in the Wilderness, American Friends Service Committee, the Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Dominican University Students for Peace and Justice, the peace and justice committees of Ascension and St. Giles churches, and New Garden Community Church.

Dickert, a programmer with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and an Oak Park resident, is part of a men's discussion group at Third Unitarian. Last year, one of their members and a fellow Oak Parker, Tom Neumann, died of cancer from exposure to asbestos. The group decided to organize a series of social justice forums to honor his inquiring, active mind.

The first featured Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness, talking about her harrowing experiences in Iraq.

Dickert came up with the topic for the second one when he read the Herbert column, which mentioned two retired military JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyers who, in discussing the U.S. involvement in torture, got to the point where they said, "We can't go along with this any longer."

But it was the title of the Herbert column that he couldn't get out of his mind: "We can't remain silent."

"Torture is so obnoxious," he said, "but we feel so helpless. The way I see it, the only thing we can do is turn up the volume."

The group started looking around for speakers but didn't have to look far afield. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., has started a national campaign called STOP (Stop Torture Permanently). The director is this Sunday's speaker, Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer and thorn in the side of the U.S. government since 1992 when her husband, Guatemalan activist Efrain (Everardo) Bamaca Velasquez was captured by the Guatemalan military and tortured, then executed.

Harbury's subsequent investigation turned up the fact that the CIA was paying the officers responsible for her husband's death. She has written two books about her experiences, Searching for Everardo and Bridge of Courage, and is working on a third, detailing the CIA's involvement in torture from Latin America to the Middle East.

"We wanted to go public," said Dickert in explaining the choice of venue at the public library's Veterans Room.

"Some things are so incredibly obnoxious, you have to speak out," Dickert said. "The stories are gruesome and they've been documented. You read them and you're just dazed."

He doesn't know why there is so little outrage over U.S. involvement in torture. Even people he knows who understand what's happening aren't speaking out.

"Maybe they just feel helpless," he said. "They only thing to do is turn up the volume as much as you can and maybe someday something will happen."

Dickert was a child during World War II and remembers how we dehumanized our enemies with epithets like "Jap" and "Kraut." The same thing seems to be happening now with Muslims.

"If we can call them names, then somehow torture doesn't matter," he said. "It's in the papers every day. As a country we can't do this."

? For those interested in more information on the UU STOP campaign, email stoptorture@uusc.org.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's official position:

"The right to be free of torture is one of the most fundamental human rights recognized by the global community today. In the United States, torture has been deemed abhorrent to our values and legal principles since the framing of the Constitution. Patrick Henry himself spoke passionately on the subject, insisting that the rack and the screw were barbaric practices which must be left behind in the Old World 'or we are lost and undone.' It is the firm position of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee that any government-sponsored acts of torture under any circumstances are profoundly immoral, unjustified and illegal. This includes any such actions by the United States. We are committed to bringing such practices to an end."

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