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Am I a Torturer?

Ben Allbright watches The Daily Show, worships Dave Eggers—and still wound up "softening up" prisoners in Iraq.

Five miles down from Cumberland, Cresaptown, home to the 372nd Military Police Company's headquarters, is little more than the junction of U.S. Highway 220 and Route 53. There's no town hall, the civic improvement center is shuttered, and old toys sit forgotten on the front porches of houses behind low wire fences. It's only a few steps from Pete's Tavern to the Big Claw bar and the Eagles Club, which a few years back launched a minor scandal by admitting a black man. ("He may be a nigger, but he's also a cop," one Pete's regular told me, "so they had to let him in.")

Driving down the hill into Cresaptown, the first thing you notice is the sweeping expanse of glimmering barbed wire and corrugated metal buildings that house the roughly 1,700 inmates and 500 employees of the Western Correctional Institution. The 161-acre property used to be the Celanese factory, where you could swim in the public pool for a quarter. Next door is the brand new $24.8 million prison, built by out-of-state contractors and lauded as a state-of-the-art maximum-security facility. The 372nd's inconspicuous brick building is down the road, past the Liberty Christian Fellowship, the technical high school (whose sign declares "teamwork" the word of the month), and the Boy Scout building.

On most afternoons you'll find John Kershner, a sergeant with the 372nd, sitting at the Big Claw smoking his usa brand menthols with his change lined up on the bar, ready for his next dollar-fifty Miller Lite. The night I was there "Sarge" was talking more than he had in a while, he admitted. He was polite in an old-time kind of way, making a point of taking off his well-worn Eagles Club hat indoors, revealing a balding shaved head. His light blue eyes were shielded behind his thick glasses. Sarge knows Darby well; he was the guy who hired him to work off the books at his self-storage-construction company after the two served together in Bosnia—though it was Darby who told me about this later, not Kershner. "People here feel more hurt by this whole thing than anything," Sarge whispered into my ear. "I just wish Darby would shut his mouth and let the rest of us move on."

Sarge had to sell his construction business when he deployed to Iraq. Now employers tell him he's either overqualified or, at a war-weathered 56, too old. He's been filing for his veterans benefits for two years now but continues to get the runaround. He knows what most everyone in the bar does for a living—he's a roofer, he's a pharmacist, she's a beautician. "I'm not saying that the photos were correct," one of the other patrons, his work boots still muddy, told me. "But our people had their heads cut off."

"Other countries can torture our men to death and it's okay, but if we drop one decimal dip below our standards, you have guys paying the price," Sarge said. "Now you need permission to even shoot back when you're under attack. You let them win there, and we'll be fighting here next."

There is a peace group in Cumberland. It's spearheaded by Larry Neumark, the Protestant chaplain at local Frostburg State University whose cardigan sweaters and soft voice conjure up Mr. Rogers. Early on in the war, the group—mostly composed of faculty from Frostburg and nearby community colleges, who clung to each other as a "lifeline"—struggled for attention. "You'll be accused of being unpatriotic and un-American if you speak up," said Neumark. A local college has rejected courses with "peace" in the title as unpatriotic. "But in the last six to seven months people have been more willing to talk."

When I first visited Cumberland in December 2006, Neumark told me that he had caught hell for inviting Ray McGovern, a retired cia officer, to speak on campus against the war. By last spring, he was having a hard time filling the pro-war slot on a panel discussion he was setting up. Torture, though, was another story. Neumark had proposed a discussion about the topic, but people were "very on edge" about it, as Daniel Hull, a member of the group, told me. Even the activists were split on whether they should "go in that direction."

Eventually Neumark did pull together his panel, featuring a man who had been tortured in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. About 100 students, many of them earning class credits, listened to him recall mock executions and solitary confinement. One student argued that the Geneva Conventions were outdated. "Has fear been used to effectively deaden our critical senses?" Neumark asked. An audience member stomped out. In the back someone snoozed. "Torture is a form of terrorism," offered Neumark. "Why do you think people aren't speaking out about this?" No one had an answer.

In ben's two-bedroom apartment in a suburban complex, the shades are always down and the lights are dimmed. An Ikea rug covers the cheap wall-to-wall carpeting, Yellow Tail wine bottles line the mantle, Aristotle and Dostoevsky serve as toilet reading, and a large-screen TV with a PlayStation 2 dominates the living room. Ben shares the place with Brandon, who circumvented the postwar job problem by taking a civilian job at the nearby Army base. He seems more stereotypically military than Ben, with wide biceps, close-cropped hair, and a closetful of Army T-shirts. But he writes poetry and acoustic songs about things such as post-traumatic stress and how he almost reflexively hit his girlfriend one day and never regained her trust.

One afternoon, with a sitcom on TV and his dog skidding around the sofa, I grilled Ben about torture. After returning from Iraq, he studied the philosophical theories surrounding the issue to prepare for just these kinds of conversations—particularly in case he ever got to talk to Senator John McCain, to whom he'd written during the drafting of the Detainee Treatment Act. We discussed the ticking-time-bomb argument—the hypothetical challenge arguing the morality of torturing someone who knows where a bomb is hidden—which Ben called "total bullshit" since "we aren't living in some fantasy 24 kind of world where those sorts of situations occur." Besides, he said, torture will induce false confessions. And most of the detainees at Tiger didn't even have anything to confess; like 70 to 90 percent of those jailed across Iraq, according to a 2004 Red Cross report, they'd been arrested by mistake.

When the Abu Ghraib photos came out, Ben was on a trip around Europe. He pretended to be Canadian, and the whole thing pained him—because he's a patriot, and because the images brought back memories. "It was like a bad nostalgia," he said. "But it was also embarrassing. I just didn't want to be associated with it."

When I asked Ben if Brandon judged him for what he did in Iraq, he said they don't really talk about it. "It's two separate parts of our lives and we keep it that way," Ben explained. "It's like, 'Iraq sucked. Now get on with it.'" He said he doesn't talk about it to anyone close to him—he'd tell his mom, he said, but she has never asked and he doesn't want to bother her.

His girlfriend, Gretchen, flat out doesn't want to know. Gretchen trained Ben as a teller at the bank. She's gorgeous, with long dark hair and tall leather boots. Within a week, they were making out; six months later, she's sure he's the one. They seemed too young to be talking about marriage, until I saw their friends with kids, mortgages, and ex-spouses.

I asked Gretchen if we could have coffee. "It's not like I know anything about what happened over there," she said. "I probably should, but he doesn't talk about it, and I don't want to think about it." Gretchen blushed when she asked me what Abu Ghraib was. ("She doesn't know much about politics," commented Ben, "and that's to put it nicely.") "I realize I'm naive," she said. "I get upset about stuff that's sad on TV." She didn't have a "real opinion about the war. I figure the people in charge know more, so I trust them."

But Gretchen did know how Ben would "tear up" sometimes, like when he was fired from the bank, even though he said it was no big deal, or how he only stayed for five minutes when he visited his dad's grave, or how he used to wake up in the middle of the night shouting. She thought Ben liked her not being political because she didn't argue with him. I thought he liked the escape.

When i was in Little Rock in January 2007, Ben was chastising himself for not having spoken out more about the war. He had just bought a new Web domain,, to consolidate his blogs and had big plans for building his veterans site, Operation Comeback, into a full-on grassroots movement. Human Rights Watch had encouraged him to work for them, and he thought that was a great idea. But he was also excited about cheap properties in the area, and when he got upset by our conversations about Iraq, he told me he'd been trying to "block it out a little bit."

A year later, when I checked in with him again, he had bought a brand new three-bedroom house in Lonoke, the town where he'd grown up. Gretchen had moved in with him. He was working with the military as a communications expert—the "resident computer geek," as he put it—at the local base. He was up for a promotion to Warrant Officer candidate. His new website was blank and he hadn't posted on his blogs in months. And Senator McCain had never called.

"I'm told that I'm courageous for speaking out," he said. "But I wonder if I get blamed enough for the bad things I've done. Did I stand up enough? Using a situation to justify it, like I did, doesn't make it right. It's the sense of being helpless that still weighs heavily on my soul."

*Correction appended: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the findings of a Pew survey and several post-9/11 surveys, which we cited to show the percentage of Americans who would justify the use of torture. The language in the piece has been changed.

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