Jon Burge was arrested today on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
For those outside Chicago, some explanation is in order. Burge was first a detective and then the commanding officer of the Area Two Violent Crimes unit on Chicago's south side. While Burge served there, Andrew Wilson was arrested for the shooting of two police officers. He alleged he was tortured -- beaten, burned on a radiator, smothered with a plastic bags and given electronic shocks to the body, including his genitals. After he went public with his accusations, over a hundred black men came forward with similar stories of being tortured in Area Two and the neighboring Area Three by white police detectives. Burge was dismissed from the force in 1993, after a police board found him guilty of torturing Wilson to obtain a confession -- but the statute of limitations had run out on the original crimes and he retired to Florida with a full pension. His arrest today stems from written statements he made in a 2003 civil case denying his involvement in torture.
It's a story about the abuse of police power, corrupt machine politics, and race, but it's also a story about what happens when soldiers who torture during wartime come home. John Conroy (whose exhaustive reporting on the subject is worth a read) mapped out the connection in a 2005 Chicago Reader article:
Wilson said Burge wired him up to a black box and turned a crank that generated an electric shock. This technique bore a striking resemblance to what American troops in Vietnam called "the Bell telephone hour"--shocking prisoners by means of a hand-cranked army field phone. In defending himself against Wilson's suit he said he'd never seen a black box, and though he'd served as a military policeman in the Mekong delta in 1968 and '69 had never heard of field phone interrogations. He bristled at the suggestion that Americans in Vietnam had conducted them.
Burge's peers from the Ninth Military Police Company, however, remember such torture in considerable detail.
All of Conroy's writing on the subject is worth re-reading, particularly his 2001 book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, where he maps out occurrences of torture in three countries -- the United States, Israel, and Ireland. The United States is currently embroiled in two conflicts where we've already documented horrific abuses of military brutality toward prisoners. It's sobering to consider that culture of violence soldiers become accustomed to has effects that are likely to reverberate at home as well as abroad.
There's also a bittersweet sidenote here about the death of alt-weeklies. John Conroy, the reporter who put the Area Two scandal on the map, was let go by the Chicago Reader last December after they were purchased by Creative Loafing, Inc. To quote Michel Miner, the Reader's media columnist, "The first time Eason [CL's CEO] and I talked, just after Eason had bought the paper this summer, I said that Conroy was, in effect, the canary in the coal mine --- as long as he was OK readers would know the Reader was OK." Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy in September.
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