Guest columnist: Truth and fiction about torture in North Carolina

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 03:23 PM

"The Buzzard Table" is Margaret Maron's newest Carolina murder mystery.

In it a pilot for CIA torture flights meets a grisly end, but goes unmourned, and unavenged.

Maron thereby hints at a dim view of some covert government goings-on at an airport in her fictional Colleton County.

"The Buzzard Table" is the 18th in Maron's series featuring District Judge Deborah Knott. Knott is 100 percent Tarheel, and her Colleton County looks and sounds a lot like the real Johnston County, which straddles Interstate 95 east of Raleigh.

One vivid parallel is that in the true-life Johnston County, the public airport has long been home to a company called Aero Contractors, identified by the New York Times and other reliable sources as a CIA front.

As in Maron's tale, the real Aero launched many so-called "extraordinary rendition" flights from its hangars near Smithfield. On them, blindfolded and shackled prisoners were taken from Guantanamo and other secret sites to torture and years of captivity without trial.

Also in fact, most of Aero's hapless passengers were later released without charge, and no more than a shrug: "Too bad about the torture and stuff, but y'all can go home now."

That "torture taxi" service was supposedly ended when a new president banned torture in early 2009.

But truth is stranger than Maron's fiction: Four years later, the real Aero is still going strong: its Johnston County digs are bigger, the security upgraded. Today it's both busier and more invisible. What, one wonders, is going on there now?

In Maron's book, an overeager, unstable local teenager sees the torture flights as a threat to the republic. He noisily protests them, but ends up looking like a fool, and in a coma. So much for activism.

But the youth was right: by both U.S. and international law, torture is a crime, and the actual flights are a continuing stain on the values of his state and nation.

So in the real Johnston County, peaceful protests have been going on since 2005. They have involved state legislators from Durham, UNC professors, ministers, and numerous other presumably respectable people.

And they show no sign of letting up. In "The Buzzard Table," the protest group is called PAT, for "Patriots Against Torture." That's a fine name, but the actual activists -- perhaps lacking a novelist's flair -- operate as North Carolina Stop Torture Now. They haven't let up because, they insist, accountability for torture today will help stop torture tomorrow.

In Maron's story, the main characters don't think much of all this.

That is, they don't much like it; and they don't think about it any more than necessary.

Partly that's because they're wrapped up in ordinary life. But it reflects resignation, too: if the flights are shameful, they're also, so far, untouchable.

Colleton County's sheriff admits this at one point, with evident exasperation: "We all know the CIA calls the shots out there at the airstrip," he says. "It stinks that they send men to be tortured overseas, but the state attorney general can't buck them any more than I can buck him."

True enough, in both Colleton and, so far, Johnston counties. Hence Maron's larger fictional focus is on the continuing saga of Judge Deborah Knott, her sprawling extended family, and recent marriage to Senior Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant. This should please her many fans.

But life, or rather death, pushes the airport's illicit traffic onto this cozy domestic horizon. The flights trouble Dwight Bryant, who was once in military intelligence himself.

He quit that work, though, for reasons he won't specify. When Deborah presses him about it after the CIA pilot's demise, his reply is both cryptic and revealing:

"Let's just say that I got to a level where I didn't like what I was seeing and I didn't want to do the things I was going to be asked to do."

In the real Johnston County, many of those unseen and unspeakable things have been asked for, and done. Its entanglement with torture is a true crime story, one on which the book is far from closed.

Thanks to Margaret Maron for "The Buzzard Table" and its timely reminder. The true mystery in this case is not “Who done it?” but: When will there be an accounting, to clear Johnston County's name, and America's?


Chuck Fager was director of Quaker House, a Quaker peace project in Fayetteville, from 2002 until the end of November, when he retired and moved to Durham.