The Ordeal Of James Yee
By Judy Andreas
"One of the ill effects of cruelty is that it makes the bystanders cruel."  
--Thomas Fowell Buxton
Last week, a huge group of concerned people gathered in the Ridgewood, New Jersey library to hear a talk by James Yee, a Muslim chaplain in the U.S. Army who had been arrested and investigated on suspicion of espionage and possible treason.
Mr. Yee was not new to New Jersey, for it was the state of his birth.   A third generation Chinese American who was raised in a Lutheran family, Yee graduated from the prestigious West Point Military Academy in 1990.  His father and brother also served in the U.S. military.
"Shortly after I graduated from West Point, I found myself in an interfaith dialogue," Yee told the audience.  In this dialogue, James Yee was challenged to compare Christianity with Islam.  It was then that he became aware of  how little he knew about the Islamic religion.
"The challenge was given to me and I realized that I could not judge something I knew nothing about."  Yee decided to learn about Islam.
"It's a simple doctrine of believing in one God.   Throughout history there have been a number of prophets chosen by God to teach that message."
James was attracted to the religion and eventually went to Damascus Syria to study.  It was there that he met his wife.
After the September 11th tragedy, Yee became a frequent government spokesman.  He helped to educate the soldiers about Islam and to build greater religious tolerance in the military.
In November of 2002, James Yee was selected to serve as the Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, where, at that time, 700 detainees were being held by the government for suspected terrorist activities.  The detainees had not been charged with anything nor had they been convicted of anything.  And yet, they were there in ongoing detention.  Yee was given unrestricted access to the detainees.
"We see these men in orange jumpsuit as objects," James said.   "But they are real. They are our brothers.  They are our fathers.  They are human beings. And yet, they are presumed guilty and are being held secretly."
Yee felt optimistic that he could make a difference.    He listened to the prisoners' stories.  He assessed their concerns.  He listened to their complaints.
"The prisoners told me what they were experiencing during their interrogations.  They told me what life was like in the blocks when I was not around."
Yee soon learned that the prisoners were being grossly mistreated.   Can anyone say the word "torture"?  The tensions were leading to prison riots, hunger strikes and suicide attempts.  The Holy Koran was being desecrated.  James heard stories about how the prisoners were put in the center of a satanic circle which was painted on the floor.   They were told "Satan is your God now".
James Yee instituted a policy that would correct the religious abuses.
"One of the most emotional things that I saw there was how the conditions deteriorated within the time frame that I was there.  I recall seeing two detainees permanently residing in the hospital, who had become so depressed that they could no longer eat and had to be force fed.  A tube was inserted through the nose into the stomach.  It was a very painful experience.   The prisoners had to be shackled down with handcuffs to both sides of the bed.  As the tub was inserted, you could hear the detainees scream out in pain."
In September 2003, the landscape of Yee's life changed abruptly.  He was on his way home to meet his wife and daughter for a two week leave.  He never arrived.   For on that trip, he was secretly arrested, accused of spying and of being an operative in a ring that aimed to pass secrets to al-Qaeda.  He was shackled in chains and thrown in the back of a truck with an armed guard.  Goggles were put on his eyes and industrial earmuffs were placed on his ears. 
James Yee was locked away in a navy prison where he spent 76 days in solitary confinement.  The military leaked information about the case to the press and the media went on a feeding frenzy.   Chaplain Yee was vilified on the airwaves and on the Internet   He was called a traitor to his country and was accused of being a mole inside of the Army.
"I feared for my life,"  Yee stated.  "It was a gross miscarriage of justice"
After months of investigation, the military's case began to unravel.  First the charges against Yee were reduced and eventually all criminal charges were dropped by the U.S. Government on March 19, 2004.  Yee was cleared and given an honorable discharge from the army.
James Yee was physically free, but can he ever free himself from the emotional scars of his experience?
This ordeal has cost the young man 1/4 of a million dollars in legal expenses.   Today he is deeply in debt.  His new book  For God And Country": Faith and Patriotism Under Fire,  recounts his nightmare ordeal.
Alfred W. McCoy is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror  and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In his book, McCoy talks about how psychological torture has far more lasting damage than physical torture.  He states that in 2002, Jeffrey Miller, as Chief at Guantanamo, turned Guantanamo into a torture lab.  Miller used cultural sensitivity, sensory disorientation and self inflicted pain.
Why has the public response been mute when these issues go to the very core of America's national identity?   Perhaps the Administration's unapologetic advocacy of torture has echoed subtly with the trauma of September 11, 2001.
"With the horrific reality of the Twin Towers attack still resonating and endless nuclear -bomb-in-Times-Square / ticking-bomb interrogation scenarios ricocheting around the media, torture seems to have gained an eerie emotional traction.  Polls taken over the last three years have confirmed this.  With a complex reality reduced to a few terribly simple, fantasy-ridden scenarios, torture in defense of the "homeland" had gained surprisingly wide acceptance, while the torture debate has been reframed-to the administration's great advantage-as a choice between public safety and the lives of millions or private morality and bleeding-heart qualms over a few slaps up the side of the head.   In this way, old fashioned morality has been made to seem short of immoral."
Copyright 2006                



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