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Peter Jan Honigsberg

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The Defining Moment of the Decade

Posted: 09/07/11 06:00 PM ET

To many people, the defining moment of the first decade is the attacks on 9/11. But, of course, it is not the attacks that defined us as Americans. Our response defined us. When we look back at 9/11, we must look at who we were the day before the attacks -- when we adhered to the rule of law and human rights, and the world respected our moral stance. It is no secret that the United States slipped off its moral path after 9/11.

Our Witness to Guantanamo project (W2G) is documenting our nation's rule of law violations and human rights abuses post 9/11. To date, we have filmed interviews of 66 people in 11 countries. Thirty-four of the people are former detainees; the other voices include prison guards, chaplains, translators, medical personnel, habeas lawyers, prosecutors, high-ranking government officials, high-ranking military officials, JAG lawyers and FBI agents.

We have heard brutal stories of torture and mistreatment, both physical and psychological, beginning with the capture of men immediately following 9/11. One man was hung by his wrists for 5 days in Kandahar, passing out on day 3. Before he passed out, he watched another man die while hanging. Another former detainee was held isolated and incommunicado in the pitch-black, underground "Dark Prison" in Kabul, where he overturned his "honey bucket" while crawling to locate it. A man in Guantanamo was held up by his legs and forced to mop up his urine with his hair. Another man's face was partially paralyzed for months, after he was forced to lay down on the gravel in Guantanamo and a guard kneed his face.

Although physically brutal, Guantanamo was better understood as a psychological prison, designed to break the detainees. As one former detainee explained, "Look at me, you do not see any scars. You would think I was fine. But, I was psychologically tortured, and that is much harder to show."

Another man told us that he was placed in solitary for a year. He said to himself that he could handle it because he saw himself as a loner. However, after one year in solitary, "I broke," he admitted.

Men coped in their own, personal, ways. Many of the former detainees told us that their Muslim faith helped them accept their fate. Memories of wives, children and families also helped men endure. And one man told us how he often cried, which made him feel better.

We have also heard inspiring and life-affirming stories. One prison guard told us how he now friends on Facebook several of the former detainees he used to guard.

A prosecutor at Guantanamo told us how he had a question of conscience while prosecuting an illiterate juvenile who had allegedly signed a confession in a language he did not speak. The prosecutor entered a monastery for 3 days and consulted a priest. When the priest told him to do the right thing, he quit. The charges against the boy were dismissed. The prosecutor is now the director of a public defender office.

A former Chief Prosecutor of Guantanamo, appalled at the absence of due process in the legal system at the base, also quit. He is now the director of an organization dedicated to eradicating war crimes and torture.

A young medic who worked at the base handing out medications was so disturbed by the military's treatment of the detainees that he applied for conscientious objector status.

Through the voices of the people we are filming, the Witness to Guantanamo project is dedicated to educating people in America and the world on the human rights abuses and rule of law violations in Guantanamo. If President Obama and Congress listened to the stories we have filmed, they would shutter Guantanamo and forever eliminate its stain on our nation.

Former Chief Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, told us, "Without human rights, we are just another country." W2G is working to assure that the stories we have filmed will inspire Americans to return to the core values the Framers articulated in the Constitution over 200 years ago, and that we will not become just another country. Until 9/11, this nation had a powerful moral purpose. We must again become that pillar of human rights.

Sometime after 9/11, I remarked to a friend that I wish I had kept a copy of the newspaper describing the event. My friend looked at me and replied, "You should have held on to the newspaper from the day before."

Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project (Witness to Guantanamo project). He is the author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror (University of California Press, 2009) and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.