Editor’s note: Choudhry, 17, recently graduated as salutatorian from Elmont Memorial High School. She wrote the following during Hofstra University’s annual High School Summer Journalism Institute, which was held this year from July 23-28. She will attend Adelphi University to study computer engineering this fall.
When Michael Otterman turned in his graduate thesis in the early 2000s, he felt a rush of relief that all his hours of hard work had paid off. Never had he imagined that he would be called back and told that his work should be made into a book.
Otterman, now 37 and living in Manhattan, grew up in Merrick. He is the author of two non-fiction books on topics few would attempt to shed light on, including torture and the Iraq War. He asked questions while others kept silent. He investigated further to separate fact from fiction. He knew he couldn't let injustice prevail in a land that stood for democracy and equality.
Otterman started as a film major at Boston University in the late 1990s and experimented with the film elements he created. He earned his degree in journalism in 2003. Incorporating his experience with film and freelance writing, Otterman applied for the master's program in peace and conflict studies at the University of Sydney, which he finished in 2005. In this program, Otterman's interest in history and international relations increased, and he started asking questions about the events that were happening around him. When writing one of his final papers, he poured out his indignation for the Bush administration’s decision to pursue the war in Iraq in 2003, cataloging the wrongs that had occurred, including torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
"There can be no positive explanation as to why a person would possibly torture another," Otterman said. "Maybe desperation or fear, but it is without excuse."
In his writing, Otterman unleashed it all. Soon, his 2,000-word graduate thesis had become a 60,000-word book.
Otterman's motivation and passion for documenting the struggles of others, he said, came from his father, Bernard Otterman, who survived the Holocaust. Bernard was fortunate to live through World War II, and his son said he will forever hold his father’s life as inspiration to do the right thing and explain the wrongs done by the government.
Otterman realized that just knowing about problems isn't enough. It's through understanding the feelings and emotions of the people involved that you can truly grasp the weight of the issue.
"Without having the human element attached to it,” Otterman explained, “it’s hard to get into that understanding."
After his success with “American Torture,” Otterman's publisher suggested that he write a second book about how the Iraq War was prosecuted. Titled “Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage,” the book spoke out against how Iraqi refugees were treated. Otterman questioned the acts of the U.S. government, leaving the reader to think whether the refugees would have been treated as they were if they had been from western countries.
Despite the fact that he said planning ahead has never been his thing, he knows that he will not be a bystander. Otterman made it his mission to unveil the truth about the U.S. government and encouraged people to stand up against atrocities.
As to future plans, he spoke of building on the Bernard and Sandra Otterman Foundation, which his parents launched in 2007 to foster peace through education. He also knows that he wants to continue exploring deep topics through his writing, including, perhaps, through fiction writing. However, no matter what he does, he knows for sure that he cannot stop now.
To learn more about the Hofstra High School Summer Journalism Institute, click here.