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Examining U.S. ‘Torture Years’ In A Theatre, Not A Courtroom

BOSTON — When the U.S. was accused of torturing suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks, several Boston lawyers expressed their outrage by representing Guantanamo Bay detainees. But one longtime local civil rights attorney took a very different approach.

“I was really not after litigation. I was after trying to get under the skin of the public,” said Michael Meltsner, a law professor at Northeastern University.

Rather than take a legal route, he wrote a play. It’s called “In Our Name” and it’s based in part at Guantanamo. It was inspired by his horror at what he calls the “torture years.” WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Meltsner this week and asked why he turned to the theater instead of the courtroom.

Michael Meltsner: I was frustrated with what was going on in the Bush era. In large part I think we were in a state of denial, and we really never confronted exactly what we were doing. We were torturing people. And a play is a way of asking people to engage emotionally in an issue.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Early on in the play, an instructor is explicitly telling the guards that they cannot abuse prisoners. He tells them, “No heavy stuff.” But then, later, what is and isn’t abuse becomes very gray. Here’s a scene where the guards are in a training session and they start peppering their instructor with questions about what is permissible treatment:

STUDENT 1: How about spiders?

TEACHER: Spiders — let me see here. Spiders are approved but difficult to manage. Personally, I’d stick with dogs. These people are all scared of dogs. Doggies are dirty to them.

STUDENT 1: Muzzles?

TEACHER: Tell the handler to keep the muzzles on. But they can growl and bark.

STUDENT 2: What else have you got?

TEACHER: Let’s see. I’ve got an approved list. There’s something called cramped confinement, where you place the subject in a dark box. But if it’s a small box, no more than two hours. Says here that if the box is large enough, you can do it up to 18 hours.

What you see in the play is the movement from the original training approach, which was basically what we all think of as the Geneva rules, to an increasingly violent and abusive and powerfully degrading set of approaches.

Your script is based largely on public records. How much of the script is verbatim from documents versus your own creative license in terms of imagining scenes?

Well I think it’s a mixture of both, but it’s not aimed at being a documentary history in any way. And this play is not a lecture. It’s an opportunity to experience not only the events, but the justifications that were put forward.

Your play includes scenes that may be tough for some people to watch. In one, a detainee is waterboarded. In another, a female guard acts lewdly to a shackled prisoner, which for a Muslim man is intended to be humiliating. Here’s a scene in which a hooded prisoner is beaten:

DETAINEE: The heat is terrible! Please to take off the mask? Please?

GUARD: Complaining already! You desert rats. Here, friend.

(Screaming/sobbing of detainee, laughing of guards)

Hearing and seeing this, even a theatrical version, is obviously more intense than reading about it. What emotions do you want your audience to experience as they watch this?

The emotions they experience are their business. My goal is to give them an opportunity to fully experience what went on in their name and perhaps to draw the conclusions that this is something not only illegal, not only in violation of our national values, but something that is wrong. It’s hard to imagine what would be wrong if torture isn’t wrong.

For people who believe that torture is permissible in certain circumstances and dismiss you as a Boston academic, do you believe that in your play you’ve presented the other side of this argument fairly?

Well, that’s why we have theater critics and audiences. I’ve tried to do that. But I’m not going to deny my own point of view. I think art is one way in which you convey what happened and, I hope, get under people’s skin enough so that they think about things that they haven’t come to terms with.

“In Our Name” will be performed at the Boston Playwrights Theatre on March 27 and in New York City in May. After the Boston performance, a group of Boston lawyers who represented Guantanamo detainees will talk with the audience about their experiences.

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