American Torture American Torrure by Michael Otterman

October 22, 2009
From ‘American Torture’ to ‘Erasing Iraq’
By Scott Brinton

I’d like to devote my 750 words this week to shamelessly promoting two books by a former colleague and good friend, Michael Otterman. They are “American Torture” (Melbourne University Publishing, 2007) and “Erasing Iraq: The Human Cost of Carnage,” to be published in 2010. 

First, a word or five on Michael. Midway through his undergraduate work at Boston University, where he studied journalism, Michael came to me looking for an internship. It must have been 2000, if I recall correctly. Michael was quiet, with an unassuming manner. I liked that quality in him. He reminded me of me. He was also clearly intelligent, sensitive and hardworking. As is the case with many Herald interns, he and I kept in touch while he was in college. 

In the fall of 2003, shortly after he finished at B.U., Michael, who grew up in Merrick, needed a reporting job while waiting to ship off to the University of Sydney in Australia. I needed a reporter. It was a perfect match.

Michael, reporter Hector Flores and I were soon hit with a national scandal to report on: the hazing and sexual torture of three Mepham High School freshmen football players by three of their older teammates at a camp in Pennsylvania. 

Michael, Hector and I dived into the story and became fast friends along the way. We spent a year reporting on the case. Our coverage garnered national and state honors. I knew at the time that Michael was destined for great things. He has never let me down. 
In Australia, while earning a master’s degree in peace studies, Michael wrote his thesis on the history of torture by the CIA and other American intelligence agencies. His professors liked it so much that soon it became a book, “American Torture,” and Michael was off on a worldwide tour to promote his 214-page text, sponsored, in part, by Amnesty International. The BBC interviewed him, and the four-minute session can be found on YouTube. I feel a little like a proud father every time I watch the interview. I know Michael’s own father, Bernard, a Holocaust survivor who witnessed mass murder at age 7, couldn’t have been prouder. 

Mind you, Michael is no radical spouting insane-sounding conspiracy theories. I’d like to think he learned at least some of his investigative techniques at the Herald. I always stress the need for documentation when doing investigative journalism. Michael based “American Torture” in large part on public documents obtained from the federal government. 

In the book, he chronicles the CIA’s excesses, wading through government-speak to get to the heart of the matter. “Sensory deprivation,” he notes again and again, is torture. No doubt, this book is a difficult but necessary read. 

Michael is always careful to balance his assessment of the federal government’s policies on torture. He continually reminds us that the FBI has been able to obtain huge amounts of information from detainees to keep the U.S. safe in the wake of 9/11, despite its hard-and-fast policy requiring only the use of nonviolent interrogation methods, in particular building detainees’ trust over time. 

To me, “American Torture” is a remarkably brave book. I know Michael’s next publication on the human cost of the Iraq war — from the Iraqi perspective — will be equally brave.

Now a human-rights consultant based in New York City, Michael has a simple but profound motto posted at the top of his Web site, michaelotterman.com: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights.” There you’ll also find his amazing photography from around the world — Bangkok, Amman, Jerusalem, Cairo, Sydney, Washington.

What I see in Michael is a remarkable symbol of hope. He’s a young man. He published “American Torture” while still a graduate student. So often I hear from the ’60s generation that young people aren’t built the way they used to be. They bemoan the apparent lack of activism these days. Where are all the protest marches? they wonder. What Michael shows in no uncertain terms — and what my Hofstra students continually remind me — is that young people are very much engaged in the world these days.

Today’s 20-somethings are media savvy and sophisticated in their global understanding. They’re not as showy as previous generations might have been. But make no mistake: They’re making a difference. 
Thanks, Mike.

Scott Brinton is senior editor of the Bellmore and Merrick Heralds and an adjunct professor for the Hofstra University Graduate Journalism Program. Comments? SBrinton@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203.