Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Just to be clear -- we at the Commission on Peace and Justice oppose it. Apparently, that puts us out of the mainstream of Catholic thinking, at least the thinking of the majority of people who call themselves Catholic. A story in the National Catholic Reporter last year noted:
Is the American public apathetic about charges its government uses and sponsors torture in its fight against terrorism?

Not apathetic, according to surveys. Fact is, a majority of Americans actually approve of the use of torture under some circumstances. What’s more, according to one survey, Catholics approve of its use by a wider margin than the general public.

The article contained results of a survey conducted by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press the previous year. You can read more here. Another issue of NCR carried an editorial on torture here.
In the popular imagination, patriotism is most often defined in military terms. It is about military heroes and their exploits, about glorifying war and despising anything and anyone who might be perceived as a threat to the homeland.

So it is particularly significant -- in this time of war when the president of the United States targets opponents of his ideas as threats to the country’s security -- that three U.S. senators of the president’s own party would summon the courage to stand up to him over the matter of rules governing the trials of detainees.

Sens. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona are to be applauded for their political bravery -- and profound patriotism -- in refusing to go along with President Bush’s proposals for bringing terrorist suspects to trial.

It is difficult to overestimate the value of such voices in times like these. And to those voices of courage add Colin L. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Bush’s former secretary of state. Powell reportedly has had serious reservations for some time over the administration’s proclivity for ignoring international law and the Geneva Conventions’ provisions for treatment of detainees.

In order to appreciate the importance of the stand by Warner and his partners in the Senate, it is necessary to recall the degree to which this administration is willing to undermine international law and ignore the norms of U.S. law.

Perhaps some of our leaders (and some of their followers) have been watching too much television.
Are American soldiers modeling themselves after Jack Bauer, the ruthless antiterrorism agent on the Fox TV series "24"? The U.S. military is increasingly worried that the popular show's use of torture as an essential tactic to fight terrorists is having a toxic effect on the training of real-life soldiers, Jane Mayer reports. But the show's creator insists he serves as a valuable conservative counterpoint to Hollywood's entrenched liberalism.

In "24," each high-voltage season traces a single day in which Bauer grapples with evil forces threatening to annihilate America. Bauer frequently faces a dilemma -- treat a suspect within the law, and risk allowing a terrorist plan to succeed, or torture a suspect in the hope of breaking a nefarious plot. He invariably opts for torture.

For the U.S. military, the drama glamorizes torture to an extent that some young soldiers have come to believe that illegal and immoral behavior is necessary, even patriotic. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the Military Academy at West Point, says the cadets he teaches ask, "If torture is wrong, what about '24'?"

Gary Solis, who taught law at West Point, says his students were impressed with a scene in which Jack Bauer compels a suspect to talk by shooting him in the leg. "In real life, [Jack Bauer] would be prosecuted," Mr. Solis says. "I tried to impress on [the students] that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill."

Last fall, Gen. Finnegan went to Los Angeles to voice his concerns with the creative team of "24." Absent from that meeting was Joel Surnow, the series' co-creator and executive producer. Mr. Surnow, whose political leanings Ms. Mayer traces to his facing financial difficulties in his childhood and in his early career, contributes money to conservative causes and feels the image of Sen. Joseph McCarthy has been unfairly maligned. Discussing the military's complaints about "24," he says, "They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that."

The link to that story is here.

Last month, The Evangelist ran this story on local opposition to torture:
Rev. Paul Smith, Catholic chaplain for three Albany colleges, opened a Bible and began to read from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."

Behind him stood a silent figure with bound hands, clad in the orange jumpsuit worn by detainees at the Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba and the black hood seen in photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Father Smith was one of a half-dozen speakers of various faiths, plus a representative of the New York State Civil Liberties Union, who joined last week at a recent press conference to call for an end to U.S. torture of prisoners under any circumstances.

The press conference, held Jan. 11 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany, coincided with the arrival five years ago of the first prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The Interfaith Alliance of New York State sponsored the conference.

"Torture is morally repugnant and contrary to the values upon which this nation was built," said Bernard Fleishman, president of the Interfaith Alliance.

He pointed out that torture also violates treaties about the fair treatment of prisoners, is unreliable as a source of accurate information and can spur enemies to feel justified in torturing U.S. prisoners.

Then there is this, from someone who served in the Army from 1995 to 2000 as an Arabic linguist and worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in early 2004.
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

Does torture work? The answer to that question (a resounding NO) is one reason so many oppose it. Somewhere we read about taking the idea of torture one step further, based on the often cited instance of a terrorist who plants a bomb in a large city and must be made to give up the location in order to save hundreds/thousands/millions of lives. The writer asked, why not bring in the bomber’s children and torture them to make the terrorist divulge the information wanted? Begin by lopping of a finger or two, then a hand or a foot. Or cut the ears and lips off the terrorist’s spouse/sweetheart? There is no end to the mayhem we could inflict. The question is, “Should we?” If the end justifies the means, then are not any means acceptable?

We think not.