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Honigsberg's Book Explores War on Terror

May 19, 2009

In his new book, Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror (UC Press, 2009), Professor Peter Jan Honigsberg recounts in vivid detail the stories of detainees in Guantanamo Bay and other prisons who have endured torturous interrogations and inhumane conditions.

Even after studying the so-called war on terror since 2001, Honigsberg says he still finds the stories shocking.

"What has surprised me most is the inhumane treatment of the individuals by our American government. I had heard so much in general terms about torture, but the stories of individual experiences are what grabbed me," Honigsberg said.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law who wrote the forward to the book, said Our Nation Unhinged puts a human face on the story of the United States’ response to 9/11 and is the only book to provide such a detailed analysis of constitutional law and international human rights in the context of the war on terror.

"Peter Jan Honigsberg has written a magnificent book telling the story of what has occurred since September 11, 2001, and how the Bush administration betrayed the most basic principles of constitutional law and international human rights protections," Chemerinsky wrote. "He tells the story of Guantanamo in moving, human terms, and he also shows how it related to other abuses."

Honigsberg’s work in this area began the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That day, he said, he approached Dean Jeffrey Brand and offered to teach a class on the topic. He first offered the seminar Legal Issues and Terrorism Post-9/11 in January 2002.

"That class led to a law review article on enemy combatants, but I felt the topic was much bigger and I really should tell the whole story. What the book does is take a sprawling topic and make it coherent," Honigsberg said.

The book begins with an examination of the term "enemy combatant," which was developed by the Bush Administration to bypass laws dictating treatment of war prisoners yet has no meaning in international law. The chapter also explains the torture memos, many written by UC Berkeley Professor John Yoo, who Honigsberg debated at USF in 2005.

The book goes on to detail lawless detentions in the United States and in Guantanamo and the responses by a courageous group of habeas lawyers who stepped forward to represent many of the detainees. It also discusses foreign prisons and CIA "black" sites as well as the stories of several detentions with due process.

"We must follow the rule of law consistently and not abandon it when times get tough," Honigsberg said.

With a new administration in Washington, Honigsberg said he is hopeful that the government will begin to change course. While he doesn’t believe Guantanamo will close within a year as President Barack Obama has promised, Honigsberg said the release of the additional torture memos is a positive sign.

Honigsberg is now working to establish the "Witness to Guantanamo" project, which he envisions to be in the spirit of a truth commission to document what happened to the hundreds of Guantanamo detainees. He will begin interviewing detainees this summer and is working with a filmmaker on a possible documentary.

Honigsberg says the United States can only repair its image by bringing charges against those members of the Bush administration who were responsible for the torture. "We need to make sure it does not happen again and it will happen again if we do not hold individuals responsible," he said.

Dean Jeffrey Brand saluted Our Nation Unhinged as a book that "lays bare the damage inflicted on the rule of law over the past eight years. It is a forceful reminder of the work that needs to be done in the future and of the critical role that we can all play."