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A Call for Direct Action

Torture: Old Hat or Open Wound?

by ANDREW WIMMER And MARK CHMIEL

"If our guys want to poke somebody in the chest to get the name of a bomb maker so they can save the lives of Americans, I’m for it I don’t need an investigation to tell me that there was no comprehensive or systematic use of inhumane tactics by the American military, because those guys and gals just wouldn’t do it."

– Sen. James M. Talent (R-MO) [1]

I.

On September 12, 1981, eyewitnesses saw men hustle Manfredo Velasquez, a Honduran schoolteacher and father of three, into an automobile in the marketplace of the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa. Despite public pleas to Honduran army chief General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, including a taped message from Manfredo’s seven-year-old son, Velasquez joined the ranks of the disappeared. "It was a state of terror. We were very afraid," declares his sister, Zenaida Velasquez Rodriguez, herself a political refugee now living in San Jose, Costa Rica. [2]

Álvarez created the Honduran Battalion 3-16 death squad, which was notorious for its disappearances and torture of civilians. Manfredo’s fate was one that was repeated thousands of times throughout the dirty wars of Central America in the 1980s. Such horrors were aided and abetted, financially and militarily, by the U.S. government but, perhaps most important, operated under diplomatic cover.

One U.S. citizen who played a crucial role in providing that cover was John Negroponte, our ambassador to Honduras from 1981-1985. Larry Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Concerns, says of Negroponte: "His mission was to convert Honduras into an unsinkable aircraft carrier to supply and maintain the Contra cause against the Sandinistas [A]lthough he had this patina of being a dignified career Foreign Service officer, he was a gunslinger for a hyper-Reagan administration policy of utilizing by every means-under the rubric of the end justifies the means-the advancement of the Contra cause in Nicaragua." [3]

In 1995 the Baltimore Sun published an investigative series laying bare some of the secrets of the previous decade. One former Honduran congressman, Efrain Diaz, told reporters that the attitude of Mr. Negroponte and other U.S. officials at the time was "one of tolerance and silence" vis-à-vis the Honduran murderers and torturers. Diaz articulated the clear U.S. realpolitik at work: "They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed." [4]

Reed Brody, special counsel for Human Rights Watch, summed it up neatly when he said of Negroponte: "He looked the other way when atrocities were occurring. He was the ostrich ambassador; he never saw anything wrong." [5]

Negroponte, however, in his own statement to the Baltimore Sun in 1995, averred, "At no time during my tenure in Honduras did the embassy condone or conceal human rights violations." [6]

Mrs. Negroponte herself felt obliged to make a public statement last year when her husband was nominated to serve as ambassador to Iraq. Protestors had been raising critical questions about Negroponte’s human rights record during his years in Honduras. She was blunt: "I want to say to those people, ‘Haven’t you moved on?’ To keep fighting all that is old hat." [7]

It is impossible, however, for Zenaida Velasquez Rodriguez to move on. She laments, "As of today, we don’t even have a vague idea of where his remains could be. It’s like having an open wound that is bleeding all the time." [8]

II.

Now, John Negroponte has been appointed to be Director of National Intelligence. President Bush must believe that the necessary tasks in the endless "war on terrorism"- extraordinary renditions to Egypt, Morocco, Syria; secret flights to Guantánamo; flagrant breaches of the Geneva Conventions-will all be served up with the flair of the "diplomat’s diplomat," as Negroponte has been called.

Since September 11 the Bush Administration has become quite brazen. George W. Bush has moved the dirty secret of United States-sponsored and sanctioned torture out of the shadows and into the public spotlight. Torture has been enshrined at the heart of our domestic and foreign policy. Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib are but two of the visible signs. Jonathan Schell writing recently in The Nation observed that "the war in Iraq has given birth to an issue that may one day be seen as more important than the war, the question of torture." [9] The just-war theory has a long history in Western societies. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of the articulation of its logical corollary, the just-torture theory.

Seymour Hersh, the author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, speaking at Brown University recently noted, "The problem is that George Bush is convinced he’s doing the right thing At some level he thinks he’ll be vindicated. It doesn’t matter what we write, we can’t shape [Bush]. If you think it’s a little terrifying, it is. Other [presidents] felt the heat, this guy doesn’t." [10]

So, emboldened by their successes of the past several months, Bush and his bureaucratic henchmen-Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzales, Elliott Abrams, and John Negroponte-will dedicate themselves to their tasks with renewed fervor, fully expecting that the rest of us will keep quiet and move on.

They’d like us to forget such testimonies as the following from Abu Ghraib, involving our "guys and gals," that have slowly been making their way out:

They stripped me of all my clothes, even my underwear. They gave me woman’s underwear, that was rose color with flowers in it and they put the bag over my face. One of them whispered in my ear, "today I am going to fuck you," and he said this in Arabic I faced more harsh punishment He cuffed my hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to the point my feet were off the ground and I was hanging there, for about 5 hours just because I asked the time, because I wanted to pray. [11]

Torture is now our national open wound. Bleeding all the time. How many of us notice?

III.

The U.S. government has long considered itself above the law. [12] Such arrogance fused with power goes by an old biblical word-idolatry.

For the Christian community, Lent is the season for personal and communal repentance. So often, people in the United States divert this by focusing on ascetic renunciations involving such things as beer and chocolate. Too often, the churches and their official leadership encourage this navel-gazing and privatization of faith. Meanwhile, how many Catholics in the pews know anything about Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of the U.S. assault on Iraq? [13] How many bishops have preached in the time-honored spirit of "afflicting the comfortable"? [14] Rather than deal with the supreme national exigency of war, Catholics have been encouraged to engage in all of the traditional acts of charity that travel under the rubric of "supporting the troops." [15] And where is the ecclesial call for repentance to us as a nation for our role in one particularly heinous activity, torture? As Jonathan Schell has stated so simply, "Torture destroys the soul of the torturer even as it destroys the body of his victim. The boundary between humane treatment of prisoners and torture is perhaps the clearest boundary in existence between civilization and barbarism." [16]

A few years after the end of World War II, the French writer Albert Camus met with a group of French Dominican priests. In the course of their dialogue about the still unnamed Holocaust that had taken place in Europe, Camus was troubled that the Pope had not really addressed what had happened to the Jews. Camus acknowledged that some people said the Pope did speak out, but, Camus claimed "it was in the language of the encyclicals." That is to say, dense, dry, without passion. Camus then shared with his Catholic interlocutors a simple challenge that remains true to us today:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest [man or woman]. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of [men and women] resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. [17]

So, on Ash Wednesday about 20 of us decided to begin our season of Lenten repentance by meeting people heading to the St. Louis Catholic Cathedral for the ritual of ashes. We handed them prayer cards that were embossed with pictures of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo prisoners. We also held banners while several of us donned orange jump suits, pillow cases for hoods and handcuffs to bring to mind the images of our prisoners in Guantánamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We knelt in silence as passersby came and went from the church, perhaps ignoring us, or averting their eyes. In this public way, we simply wanted to cut through the denial that seems to have gripped many in the churches and in our country, such that Alberto Gonzales can be appointed Attorney General without a murmur of protest from the United State Catholic Bishops. Perhaps to them, Gonzales is an honorable man, being a member of Catholic Charities and an inspiring Hispanic example of the rise from rags to riches.

Yet, Gonzales is also the intellectual advocate for the Bush Administration’s renunciation of the Geneva Accords and the consequent unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the President. Jane Mayer, in her New Yorker story "Outsourcing Torture," makes clear the boundaries that the administration will continue to expand unless we push back:

[White House lawyer] John Yoo also argued that the Constitution granted the President plenary powers to override the U.N. Convention Against Torture when he is acting in the nation’s defense-a position that has drawn dissent from many scholars. As Yoo saw it, Congress doesn’t have the power to "tie the President’s hands in regard to torture as an interrogation technique." He continued, "It’s the core of the Commander-in-Chief function. They can’t prevent the President from ordering torture." If the President were to abuse his powers as Commander-in-Chief, Yoo said, the constitutional remedy was impeachment. He went on to suggest that President Bush’s victory in the 2004 election, along with the relatively mild challenge to Gonzales mounted by the Democrats in Congress, was "proof that the debate is over." He said, "The issue is dying out. The public has had its referendum." [18]

IV.

Many Americans, if pressed, would prefer to focus on the harm they do to us: killing, beheading and maiming. About what we, as Americans, do to them, the less said the better. This attitude controverts a famous exhortation from the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel: "Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out that splinter in your eye,’ when you cannot see the great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter in your brother’s eye." [19]

Torture and terror, American-style: the home-grown practice of lynching of black Americans, the CIA/SOA training of the torturers of the Latin American continent, the use of Tiger Cages in Vietnam, as well as the recent revelations about Bagram, Guantánamo, and Abu Ghraib. This is who we’ve been. Recall President Bush’s reaction after Abu Ghraib: "This isn’t the America I know." Many Americans might want to agree; it’s only those few unruly frat-boy-like soldiers run amok. Rush Limbaugh put it into words:

This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off? [20]

The ingrained American self-perception of virtue and rectitude can only be made by those who are amnesiac about our history.

When Seymour Hersh spoke in January at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City after receiving the Shalom Center’s Menorah Award for "bringing light into dark places," he cautioned that "Words mean nothing, nothing to George Bush. They are just utterances. They have no meaning. Bush can say again and again, ‘well, we don’t do torture.’ We know what happened. We know about Abu Ghraib. We know, we see anecdotally. We all understand in some profound way because so much has come out in the last few weeks, the I.C.R.C. The ACLU put out more papers, this is not an isolated incident what’s happened with the seven kids and the horrible photographs, Lynndie England They’re fall guys." [21]

And yet the government and its intellectual cheerleaders would like nothing more than for us to swallow the "few bad apples" bait and forget. On March 10, in the latest version of the Pentagon reviewing the Pentagon and finding the Pentagon to be without blame, Vice Admiral Albert T. Church told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his review of interrogation policy and detention operations did not place specific blame for the "confusing interrogation policies that migrated from Washington to the battlefield" and that "no high-level policy decisions directly led to the abuse." But, according to the Washington Post, "Church said he did not interview top officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, nor did he make conclusions about individual responsibility, saying it was not part of his mission. [22] How soothing his compartmentalized sense of curiosity must be to Rumsfeld.

V.

"Look," John Negroponte said, "any missing person is a human tragedy. For that person and their family. I’ve even met some of the people. My heart goes out to them. Yet, El Salvador would have more people missing in one week than occurred during the entire conflict in Honduras It’s a question of keeping things in perspective." [23] Who was backing the Salvadoran death squads is not something Negroponte might want to elaborate on. Zenaida Velasquez finally had a chance to meet with Negroponte. Her response to that meeting: "You know what? He doesn’t even look you in the eye. We were crying and desperate. I wanted to call him a liar. It was hard." [24]

Perhaps it is simplistic, but at least it would be in the simple spirit of the Nazarene who was himself tortured by the army of an occupying power: will we align ourselves on the side of the torturers or their victims?

Last month in St. Louis, delegates to the United for Peace and Justice Convocation, representing more than 1000 peace and justice organizations from across the country, unanimously endorsed a proposal calling for empowering direct action to confront torture. [25]

One place to confront it is at Congressional offices. There’s a recess from now until April 4, and senators and representatives will be in their home states and districts. We should pay them visits. For example, we could ask our own Missouri Senator James Talent why, if "our guys and gals just wouldn’t do it," there are thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of video footage from Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo that have been kept from the American public’s eyes. If our soliders are incapable of using "inhumane tactics," then why the reluctance to release the photos?

So our work is clear. Never forget. Resist. Keep talking. Make a nuisance of ourselves. Be a spectacle. Mobilize the choir. Shame those who stick their heads into the sand. Reach out to the mainstreamers who wonder what all our uproar is about. Challenge intellectual justifications for torture. Humanize our victims. Refuse to be silent. Do not go gentle into that great fog of blasé civic acceptance. Remember the millions of German bystanders and say, this time, "Not in our name."

Wherever we can gather in public-on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, in shopping malls, at bus stops, in government buildings, on university campuses-let a thousand flowers of resistance bloom, from boisterous street theater to wearing messages on our bodies, from interrupting business as usual in the cantankerous style of the ancient prophets to the conscientious connecting the dots of oppression, from speaking up clearly to paying up personally. We encourage you to visit www.stoptorturenow.org. Learn more about empowering direct action. Let us know what you are doing and see what others have planned. Let’s stop torture now!

Andrew Wimmer (wimmera@slu.edu) and Mark Chmiel (markjchmiel@aol.com) are members of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis and teach at St. Louis University.

Notes

[1] Robert Burns, "Probe: Leaders Didn’t Order Prison Abuse," The Guardian, March 10, 2005.

[2-3] Wil Haygood, "Ambassador With Big Portfolio," The Washington Post, June 21, 2004.

[4-6] In 1995 The Baltimore Sun published a four-part series on Honduras by Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson:

"When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty," June 11, 1995

"Torturers’ confessions," June 13, 1995.

"A survivor tells her story," June 15, 1995.

"A carefully crafted deception," June 18, 1995.

[7] Duncan Campbell, "Veteran of dirty wars wins lead US spy role," The Guardian, February 18, 2005.

[8] David Corn, "Negroponte’s SinsOn Film, " Commondreams, March 2, 2005.

[9] Jonathan Schell, "What is wrong with torture," Commondreams, January 20, 2005.

[10] Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, "A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action, Commondreams, March 10, 2005.

[11] Karen J. Greenberg and Joshua L. Dratel, ed., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (New York, NY: Cambridge University press, 2005), p. 503.

[12] See Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003).

[13] Andrew Greeley, for example, writing in the Chicago Sun Times, wondered about the way in which the pope’s voice was ignored in the United States: "The papacy does not accept the theory of unilateral preventive war. It does not agree with the Bush administration’s foreign policy. It did not think that all possible grounds for a peaceful solution were exhausted before the American attack and, like most of Europe, it did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of weapons of mass destruction – and it turns out that they and not the Bush administration were right. It urged that nothing happen until the completion of the U.N. arms inspection – and it turns out that here again the pope was right and the president was wrong…. The teaching on the Iraq war is not "authoritative." Yet, ought not Catholic conservatives, who virtually worship the pope, at least listen to him respectfully on this subject?"

[14] We can think of one: Bishop Thomas Gumbleton. See his reflections at http://www.nationalcatholicreporter.org/peace/.

[15] The St. Louis Review, our local Catholic weekly, has regularly highlighted the prayers being offered by schools and parishes in support of the troops. Two years ago, as the invasion of Iraq was in full swing, a feature story began, "As the conflict in Iraq continues, local Catholic school students are devoting time to helping U.S. troops and their allies. Many of the schools are tying their efforts to Lenten prayer and service." http://www.stlreview.com/article.php?id=3675

[16] Jonathan Schell, "What is wrong with torture," Commondreams, January 20, 2005.

[17] Albert Camus, "The Unbeliever and Christians," in idem, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 71.

[18] Jane Mayer, "Outsourcing Torture," The New Yorker, February 14, 2005.

[19] Luke 6:41-42, The New Jerusalem Bible, Standard Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 1178.

[20] Rush Limbaugh’s May 4, 2004, broadcast cited by Media Matters. http://mediamatters.org/items/200405050003

[21] Seymour Hersh, "We’ve been taken over by a cult," Democracy Now, January 26, 2005.

[22] Josh White and Bradley Graham, "Senators question absence of blame in abuse report," The Washington Post, March 11, 2005.

[23-24] Wil Haygood, "Ambassador With Big Portfolio," The Washington Post, June 21, 2004.

[25] Visit the United for Peace and Justice website at http://www.unitedforpeace.org/ for details of the conference.