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)
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