PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Torture: Trials of The Unspeakable by peaceprobe
September 10, 2009, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Detainees, Impunity, Iraq, Viet Nam | Tags: , ,

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.

The challenges of torture raised by Abu Ghraib (Iraq), Guantanamo (Cuba) and Bagram (Afghanistan) are particularly striking for Christians since at the heart of our faith is the memory of the flogging, taunting and execution of Jesus.  It takes courage to face the horror, overcome my silence and make an honest attempt to talk truth.  I  read the Bible, and only see the agony narratives as sanitized crucifixion drama that builds to resurrection.  I like Easter because it gets life moving again.  But resurrection invites me to look into the face of my species with both compassion and moral confrontation, two threads that are hard to carry simultaneously.  Resurrection is understood by admitting and looking at the whole story which includes frame-up, betrayal, torture, conviction and slow painful death.

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.

Torture and abuse by the modern state over the last century abounds.
These Abu Ghraib torture events happened in an Arab culture where nakedness and sexual innuendo is forbidden.   The pictures displayed sexual humiliation.  Before Abu Ghraib when I read the story of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and execution I failed to notice the deeper threads of similarity to modern practices of the politics of domination.  In the first century it was as culturally unconscionable to display someone naked, particularly a Jew in Palestine as it is in Iraq today.  Is it possible to read the arrest stories including Jesus’ stripping and disappearance for a time when he was turned over to the soldiers as a process that included sexual humiliation?  Did Jesus experience not only humiliation but actual sexual assault?*

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?

Torture touches people at the interface of culture, faith, and fear.  The context of torture creates space for sexual misconduct.  What may have begun as interrogation for fact finding turns into a ritual of dominance, penetration and molestation. Does torture open us to a reptilian side of our nature buried deep inside our brain? We don’t want to look, especially when it turns sexual.  Looking makes us ashamed.  Our shame awakens our lesser selves that we thought we had put away with the progress of history.  Some of us turn our heads in shock when we view the apparently acceptable government approved interrogation rituals on prime time TV.

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”.

If it happens, a nation’s recovery from a period of state torture takes decades.  In Latin America where state sponsored torture was rampant it took 15 years before Argentina and other sovereign states began to carry forward trials of perpetrators.  In the United States we are not yet far removed from Abu Ghraib.  Only recently have we learned of a pattern of sexual exhibitionism among State Department sponsored contractors in Afghanistan.

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.

As I learned of the torture of Iraqi citizens in the wake of the US occupation I had an internal debate.  One voice said it is better to be conservative, methodical and thorough in order to make the unfolding drama of suffering more believable to far away citizens, legislators and military personal some of whom had their own doubts.  The stories we heard from former detainees were compelling and were reported by enough former detainees that I was convinced of their authenticity.  But months went by without wider confirmation in any media with pictures.  Were there symbolic actions, or other things that we could have done to jolt people even without the “smoking gun” of a picture?

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?

In a world where the door has not been closed and locked forever on torture by moral conviction or law I know I have to find a new way through to the heart of truth each time.  The fact that a central figure in my faith walked into an Abu Ghraib type event 2000 years ago reminds me of the continuity of the experience of torture.  I wish his cohorts who responded with denial, betrayal, silence and fear would have been more gutsy. I wish I wasn’t so much like them. There are times when moral conviction is so strong that silence is impossible.


* 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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