Karen J. Greenberg, who has written extensively about counterterrorism, national security, and civil liberties, introduced the recipient of The Ridenhour Book Prize, Ali H. Soufan, who she called "a national treasure and a national hero." She explained that his book, The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, has been heavily redacted, with one chapter almost entirely blacked out. That is the chapter that deals with Soufan's interrogation of al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, who the Bush administration used to justify the use of torture, of waterboarding. Yet Soufan, Greenberg explained, had already legally interrogated Zubaydah, and gotten "fact after fact about individuals...the plots they developed" before Zubaydah was whisked off to a CIA black site and subjected to torture. Soufan's book showed that their justification of torture had no basis in fact.
Soufan began by recounting a story about former Harvard University president James Conant. Conant used to keep a model of a turtle on his desk, under which was inscribed, "Behold the turtle. It makes progress when its neck is out."
Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, Soufan said, "were designed by bureaucrats with no experience with al-Qaeda, by people who had never met a terrorist, let alone interrogated one. Unsurprisingly, it ended with disaster. False leads were chased. And real opportunities were missed. And justice was never served. But, while those people may have escaped official censure, history has damned them. And it is the professionals inside our security agencies who stuck their neck out, who objected, and took their complaints to their Inspector Generals, and fought through other channels, it is them who won at the end. And history will applaud them."
The final introducer of the night was venerated newspaperman John Seigenthaler, who, while protecting Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s, had the distinction of being beaten half to death by a member of the Ku Klux Klan — a fate he shared with the final recipient of the night, winner of The Ridenhour Courage Prize, Rep. John Lewis.
Seigenthaler described what it was like for a young Lewis, a teenage seminarian, to come to his hometown, where everywhere signs dictated where he might or might not go. Rep. Lewis studied nonviolence and participated in sit-ins at segregated movie theaters and went on Freedom Rides.
There was not a day he demonstrated when the threat was not real, when his life was not in danger. I tell you, the blood he shed, the stain has long since faded from the sidewalks of my city, from the pavement of the bus terminal in Montgomery, Alabama, where he almost died, from the approach to the Edmond Pettis Bridge in Selma.
I will tell you, if his colleagues were here, they would say, whether their mentors pleaded with them, whether their parents pleaded with them, "Don't do it. Don't endanger yourself. Don't give up your life," I will tell you, it was John Lewis who said, "We will go. We will march."
Rep. John Lewis, Congressman from the fifth district of Georgia, was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.
Rep. Lewis, too, described those moments of resistance more than a half century ago. He said:
When I was growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, as a young child I saw those signs that said, "White men", "Colored men", "White women", "Colored women", "White waiting", "Colored waiting." I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents why. And they would say, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble."
But one day, in 1955 at the age of 15, I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. on our radio. And I was deeply inspired, deeply moved to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.
Rep. Lewis walked off the stage to a standing ovation, as did all the other prize winners. President of The Nation Institute Andy Breslau made closing remarks thanking the event's partners and remembering a former Book Prize winner, Anthony Shadid, who passed away this year.
On February 12th, 2012, Anthony Shadid, a member of the Ridenhour family, died in Syria while doing what he loved and what he felt was his calling. Anthony Shadid was our eyes and our ears, our critical intelligence, and our heart on the ground in some of the world's most dangerous and misunderstood places.... This was a man whose craft was only exceeded by that of his humanity.... It saddened us all and the Ridenhour family that such a voice so young is now stilled. We dedicate this year's Ridenhour Prizes to the memory of Anthony Shadid.
If you missed the event, you can watch it here. Click "Play" to begin.
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