‘We can’t just move past what happened:’ NAU Speaker discusses consequences of torture

Abu Ghraib was attacked every night in the weeks Eric Fair was there. The shells fell all around the American soldiers and contractors whose temporary home was this Iraqi prison.

One morning after a particularly bad mortar attack, Fair, a veteran and interrogator, found himself in an interrogation room with an Iraqi insurgent who laughed about the attacks, bragging about how they assaulted the Americans without getting caught.

“He was the first person I used enhanced techniques on,” said Fair, describing the practice he now refers to as torture. “I threw him into a pushup position, I made him stand for long periods of time, I made him hold heavy books. All of that sounds very benign, but in the context of that horrific place, it was incredibly stressful for him.”

Fair, author of “Consequence: A Memoir,” was at Northern Arizona University Monday to speak about his experiences with war and torture and the necessary consequences that come with such actions. Bjorn Krondorfer, director of the Martin-Springer Institute and professor of religious studies, invited Fair to speak in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Since the Iraq War was the first time a democracy had sanctioned torture since the Holocaust, he felt it was a timely discussion.

“We’re talking about why democracy took the wrong path by giving free reign to this,” he said.

Fair’s story

Fair enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1995 as a way to get veteran’s preference at his local police department. Tests showed a capacity for languages, so he learned Arabic, was assigned to the 101st Airborne and “played war” for the next four years in the swamps of Kentucky. When his five years were up, in 2000, the Army had little need for Arabic speakers and he still wanted to be a policeman, so he got out.

Two things happened in the three years between leaving the Army and going to Iraq – the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 led to the war in Iraq, creating a need for Arabic speakers, and Fair was diagnosed with a heart condition that precluded him from being in law enforcement or the military. Unwilling to lose the community, he applied for a job with a contracting company and was hired.

In January 2004, Fair was an interrogator in Baghdad. He’d worked with interrogators in his job as military intelligence in the Army, so he thought he knew what he was getting into: interviewing enemy combatants about the types of weapons and uniforms the army had, what morale was like and what the strategy was.

Instead, he found himself transferred to Abu Ghraib, in rooms with Iraqi men arrested on suspicion of anti-coalition activities, demanding to know where the chemical weapons were. The enhanced interrogation techniques, while not used on every prisoner, were used by all the interrogators. They filled out the appropriate paperwork each time. The first time Fair used it, on the mocking insurgent, he didn’t worry at all about legal repercussions.

“But I knew right then that I had crossed a moral boundary,” he said. “I knew I had gone to a place where it was going to be difficult to get back from.”

A couple months later, he went to Fallujah—one of the hardest-hit cities in Iraq. The Army decided instead of bringing insurgents to interrogators, they would bring the interrogators to insurgents. During Fair’s last night in the city, another interrogator asked him for some help—he was using sleep deprivation on a prisoner, and could Fair continue the process?

Sleep deprivation, Fair added, is the worst torture technique, even worse than waterboarding. A prisoner is kept in a completely dark room and left to sleep. In an hour, 45 minutes, half an hour, the interrogator comes in and wakes him. Twenty minutes later, he lets the prisoner go back to sleep, only be woken again a short while later. The process continues; the prisoner has no idea how long he’s slept.

“In the course of five or six hours you can make them think they’ve lived four or five days,” Fair said. “You can strip hope from them with very little effort. You can torture someone without ever laying a hand on him.”

Without thinking, Fair agreed to continue the sleep deprivation. The first time he went into the room and woke the man up, he told him to take off the robe he was wearing, not realizing the man was naked.

“I remember it was sort of a slap in the face for me,” he said. “This was a clear violation of another human being’s well-being. I told him to put his robe back on and let him go back to sleep for the rest of the night. That was my last participation in what I now call torture.”

A few weeks later, disillusioned by what he saw and what he’d become, Fair quit.

Turning on the spotlight

Fair had no intention of writing a book on his experiences. He didn’t want his family and friends to know what he’d done.

That resolve may have lasted if word of the torture hadn’t gotten out. Once the government denied its involvement, instead blaming a few soldiers who went rogue, he spoke out—not in judgment of others, Fair said, just to tell his own story.

He started with op-eds in local newspapers, then had a piece picked up by the Washington Post. He joined a writing group composed of other veterans and got connected with Human Rights First, a lobbying group. The book idea came during a short stint in the Princeton seminary, when he talked to a South African student about how a country and its people can’t just move from divisiveness to reconciliation.

“We can’t just move past what happened at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Fallujah and Bagram Airfield and just about every other interrogation facility,” he said. “There has to be a consequence.”

Fair continues to write op-eds and speak to a few groups. The Human Rights First lobbying likely will continue as well, since torture has returned to the national dialogue, he said. At each juncture, Fair struggles. Reliving these experiences don’t help him heal. At its most basic, however, the struggle is something else.

That’s largely because his feelings on torture remain conflicted. He knows it’s immoral and ineffective, but his time in Iraq exposed him to horrible events, brutal violence and the need to do something to combat that horror.

“I’m embarrassed to admit this, but there are days I feel like it’s justified,” he said. “I try to dismiss that; as soon as I feel it I recognize it’s wrong. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not conflicted.”

For a calendar of other events, visit nau.edu/martin-springer/.

NAU Communications