Filed under: Iraq | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, Human Rights, ICRS, listening to the people, Nonviolence, torture
The most terrifying condition in a culture where terror is practised is the disappearance of the suspect. The victim is at the mercy of the captors. The family is totally devoid of information and feels helpless. Responses from supporters range from outrage to violence or depression. Absolute uncertainty and raw fear fills the void created by the absence of information. A person may be tortured, molested, and killed and no one may know for a generation or forever.
State officials normally deny or claim an absence of information that the vanished person is in fact detained. The final days of Jesus life included attack on his spirit and body. We don’t know all the details. However, experiences with US and other foreign forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestic armies in Latin America help us fill in some of that detail. By tuning ourselves more closely to these tragedies we gain greater access to the core of the Jesus we read about in the gospels. According to a study by the Pew Research Center 62% of white American evangelical Christians polled said it is “often” or “sometimes” justified to engage in torture to gain information from suspected terrorists. Would a faith that fully understands Jesus’ last days lead contemporary Christians to a more confident life of nonviolent sacrifice?
In my work with Christian Peacemaker Teams I spent time in Baghdad in 2003, four months after the occupation began. Before I arrived in late July families had already begun to contact the team seeking help and information on disappeared family members who were snatched by American units. In our search for information on the status of disappeared persons we tried various tactics. One day we went to Abu Ghraib prison to seek entry and information.
When we arrived we were greeted by hundreds of family members of the disappeared who overwhelmed us with tragic stories. Because we stopped to listen to some of their appeals for help it took a long time to approach the gates of the prison. We were denied both entry or information. The anger and raw fear outside the gates was palatable. For several hours we listened. Some in our group took notes.
In explosive conditions like that day my conscience vacillates between two responses, don’t give false hope or delve deeply into each case. On the one hand I hesitate to listen too much because even listening is an indication of commitment to find information and create a strategy of intervention. At Abu Ghraib on that particular day my colleagues and I had no response method for individual cases except to publicize the trends through our church and human rights channels. This was not enough.
My second response was to lean more deeply into each individual case to follow through with specific actions and to accompany the fear stricken families to the few offices in the occupation administration that existed. We had tried that route before with no success. With hundreds screaming for help we were overwhelmed. In those days we could have set up a table for complaints outside of Abu Ghraib every day and we could have taken stories from sun up to sun down. Such a strategy would could have been dangerous but danger is inherent in authentic nonviolent work. We didn’t do that in part because we had so few ways to help the desperate family members. Maybe we should have.
On another day we went to Baghdad Airport to seek information about prisoners held there too. Once again we encountered hundreds of persons outside the gates who were beside themselves seeking information on disappeared family members. Again we were overwhelmed with stories. The American guards tried to help. A sargent even went to get his lieutenant to talk to us. He could not help. Finally, in desperation the sargent pleaded with us to go but promised to take the matter up with his colonel, the senior officer . We never heard anything and the disappearances continued as house raids increased throughout Baghdad. Later we went to military bases, holding areas and restricted offices set up to support Iraqis where we encountered more scenes of desperate people literally grasping for help and information. Only months later when a low level military person gave us access to a data base of detainees were we able to provide at least rudimentary information for some desperate families.
Each day before we departed on these missions of fact finding and intervention among foreign soldiers we gathered for prayer, reflection and strategizing. We were reminded of the efforts of Jesus’ followers and family to keep track of him during his interrogation, trial and execution. Little did we know that Jesus’ last days of torture were being reenacted inside the walls of the places that we visited. We saw his bold and pushy follower, Peter, in a new light. We remembered Peter’s denial as he sat in the courtyard around the fire with the religious leadership who instigated the arrest. But now we recognized the Peter within ourselves who went to the place of disappearance, interrogation and mocking to try to track Jesus’ treatment. Peter wanted to protect the disappearing one, but his own survival meant denial of association, a kind of quick interim ethic that shows its face among allies convinced they must help the targets of torture..
We remembered the women of Jesus’ life at the execution and seeking the body at the tomb in order to perform the rites of death and purification of the corpse. For them, disappearance of the corpse was shocking. Even the apparent appearance of two unexpected persons at the tomb did not overcome their terror until their memories were jolted about his earlier words. When they went to inform friends and supporters of Jesus’ absence from the tomb the story was treated as an idle tale. Belief, disbelief, rumours, depression, and urgent attempts to do something and keep the network informed, are all present in this story, a story that reflects the culture of the disappeared and their supporters today.
In the modern world we have two widely acknowledged resources to follow the disappeared. The International Committee for the Red Cross is charged by international customary law to make contact between prisoners and their families through letters. In August 2003 the Baghdad offices of the ICRC were bombed, severely curtailing the ability of the ICRC from doing its work in the unfolding emergency. Secondly, we have the widely established principal of habeas corpus in modern law, a writ ordering that the prisoner be brought before a judge in order to protect the prisoner from illegal imprisonment. Those rights were suspended for detainees in Iraq.
Disappeared (the word is now used as a verb) detainees is one of the most terrifying forms of control that political authorities engage in. According to the UN more than 70 countries have “disappeared” people since 1980. The story of the interweaving of the culture of fear surrounding the arrest of Jesus is one in the long history of the use of this tactic to control populations.
Among Peter and the women who were close to Jesus we see a very personal and moral response more akin to what families everywhere must do in their reach for information and hope. At Abu Ghraib I learned that our responses in those moments calling for urgent action are determined by a lifetime of preparation.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, counter insurgency, torture
Torture has been on my mind. I know that I need to push back its cover from where it dwells in the shadows. I know that my nation may refuse to do so when they use torture as a means of waging war as a path to peace. Lecturing others about torture comes more easily. I have learned in the last fifty years that laws preventing torture, and molestation will not stop it. But law will help. However, only a moral conversion will change things. People tell me human nature will never change. I believe change is always happening. It’s what we do with change that counts.
Six years ago this month I was in Baghdad where I talked to some of the earliest prisoners to be freed from detention after the American occupation began. I wanted a profile of what was happening and maybe some hints on how to intervene with protective actions. The interrogation routines reflected patterns, revolvers pointed at heads, loud sounds, sleeplessness, shouting, taunting, accusations and more. When these descriptions ended very often there was a sigh and the former detainee would look at me and say “and there were things about which I cannot talk”. I could not imagine what the unspeakable things might be until I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Then the unspeakable “things about which I cannot talk” took shape, sexual humiliation, nakedness, and molestation. Similar interrogation methods were described to me years earlier in Viet Nam, and the Philippines.
According to the record Jesus was flogged, a process designed to hurt and humiliate the prisoner. After Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers, themselves foreign occupiers, he was mocked, given a crown of thorns, dressed in courtly purple and taunted. The digital photos from Abu Ghraib may be the closest representation of what might have happened when Jesus was alone with soldiers, better even than Mel Gibson’s more macho representation in The Passion of Jesus. What would a hidden camera among the Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus have revealed that we don’t know from the existing record?
A crucifixion was an extreme formula of execution in Roman times. At first, under the Republic it was used for slaves, but under the empire its use was enlarged to include criminals and persons involved in revolts. Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and disgusting punishment” and the Apostle Paul talks of Jesus’ end, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) almost to suggest that there are all kinds of less humiliating, less painful and quicker ways to be put to death. Jesus may have been crucified naked as was often practised in crucifixion formulas of the time. The first century historian, Josephus called crucifixion, “the most pitiable of deaths”.
The response of the Obama administration which is to place torture at arms length with more study reflects an ambivalence about dealing with it now. The brave words heard in the campaign reflected a belief that we are better than the events of Abu Ghraib depict us to be, something we all want to believe about ourselves and our nation. But denial also has even wider cultural support. No leader can take on torture trials without using up considerable political capital and without exceptional support in the population. President Obama does not have that support because people like me take so long to uncover and admit the depth of our own revulsion.
When the photos from Abu Ghraib surfaced I was forced to look deeper into the interrogation process than I had before. The people who supported me now could believe me too because the media gave confirmation. But what if I could not depend upon media confirmation particularly in an era when being embedded with the military went largely unquestioned? What if a soldier had not leaked his digital photos for the world to see? How many more people would have been taunted, and betrayed, by state sponsored torture in Iraq because of my insistence upon evidence that would hold up with sceptics?
* For a more thorough study of these themes read Prisoner Abuse: From Abu Ghraib to The Passion of Christ by David Tombs in Religion and the Politics of Peace and Conflict, ed. Linda Hogan and Dylan Lee Lehrke, Pickwick Publication, Eugene Oregon (Princeton Theological Monograph Series)
President George Bush
600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Dear Mr. President,
Waterboarding is on my mind. I know you have expressed firm convictions that it is necessary. I also understand that as a politician you need to show progress in your efforts to prevail against terrorism. Since we both claim to be Christians I thought I would tell you a story from my own faith history that may be helpful for your deliberations regarding the use of waterboarding and other methods of torture to eliminate the enemy all the way to the gates of hell.
My strand of Christians traces our history back to Jesus through hard times, suffering, and moments of great integrity of life and faith. Historians tell me that the practice of waterboarding can be traced to the Spanish Inquisition in the same time frame as the persecution of my faith ancestors the Anabaptists, by the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Practices like waterboarding were used to put down the Protestant Reformers, Jews, witches and other heretics.
My ancestors were tortured because they refused to accept infant baptism although they accepted and promoted baptism for adults who could make intelligent free choices about becoming followers of Jesus. As the movement away from infant baptism spread, the basic issue was their lack of allegiance to the political authorities as symbolised by infant baptism. Despite pockets of pacifism within the movement for almost a century, Anabaptists were considered lawless, insurrectionists and enemies of the state.
Authorities were convinced that torture would stem the tide of re-baptizing that was then spreading throughout Europe and was considered a threat to state power. King Ferdinand the ruler of the time based in Spain believed that drowning, another use of water for persecution of Anabaptists, was an acceptable state response to the heresy. His people called it the third baptism.
William Schweiker, Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and director of the Martin Marty Center writes, “In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of “water” in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians, Christ’s walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life, the practice takes on profound religious significance). Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism….”
For my people and many others the story of torture by water does not end with the inquisition although many people were killed and wounded. We are still here. We still believe that adults can be trusted to decide about their faith. Anabaptists were among the forerunners of democracy where the people decide for themselves. The fact that we still exist demonstrates that the instruments of torture failed to eradicate us. In my people’s reexamination of the gospel through those five hundred years we have come to the conviction that Jesus’ teachings about enemy loving is not a teaching that can be temporarily suspended for purposes of emergency public policy. Our refusal to take up arms has gotten some of my people killed too, even in this country over the last 300 years, but not as many as the dangerous idea of baptising adults 500 years ago.
This story from my past which was first told to me by my parents, but later substantiated by people with greater competence in history than my family, has serious implications for foreign and even domestic policy. The lesson is that people with deep convictions find a way to survive, pass on their ideas and grow. I have no doubt that some of my ancestors may have confessed, changed their ideas, or recanted in order to avoid further torture like waterboarding. To tell you the truth I don’t even know what I would do in that situation. I do know that when Chicago police got nasty with me I just became really quiet and practised the highest form of passive resistance. I only did this when I became scared that I would do or say what they wanted me to. Their meanness did not put me at the point of death but it got me a little closer to the territory of torture.
Torture like waterboarding was practised in the Philippines when I worked there in the late 1970s. In that case it was based on the experience of several hundred years of Spanish rule and the practice of torture during the American put down of the Philippine independence struggle at the turn of the century. It didn’t stop the government opponents there either. Nor did it work in Viet Nam where I taught and organized in the 1960s although in both of these situations there may have been persons who chose to cooperate because they just couldn’t stand the pain of torture. More importantly the practices earned a culture of permanent suspicion for the perpetrators of torture and much disrespect for the country you now rule. This growing disrespect is not about to be overcome with subtle or flashy public diplomacy. Some survivors continue to be in a state of traumatic stress until the present.
So now I appeal to you in the name of God and in the name of our country that seeks to be a light to the nations to cast off the vestiges of the Spanish Inquisition. I appeal to you to bring policy out of the shadows of torture into a place where humans can make adult decisions. Could we agree to just try not being a nation that practices torture for the next 100 years, and see if such a consistent public policy brings us closer to a culture of hope on our planet.
Box 1482, International Falls, MN 56649