The Pew Research Center Forum on Religion & Public Life’s recent survey of the correlation between religious belief and support for the torture of “suspected terrorists” is itself an example of the pervasiveness of the torture of truth in America. Representatives of four major religious groups were asked, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” (“The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate,” PewForum, Apr. 29, 2009). The deeper issue is not the finding that people who attend church regularly (54 per cent) are more supportive of torturing “suspected terrorists” than people who never or rarely attend services (42 per cent). Nor is the finding that “more than six in 10” white evangelical Protestants support torture, whereas “only four in 10” persons unaffiliated with a religious group support it. (“Survey: Support for terror suspect torture differs among the faithful,” CNN.com/US, Apr. 30, 2009) The deeper issue is the extent to which human beings have been demonized as “terrorists” by our political leaders and mainstream media for opposing America’s exploitive and violent foreign policy. The fact that people who resist US imperialism can be so stereotyped as to show up as “suspected terrorists” in a reputable research center’s survey on religion and torture is an alarming revelation of the cancer dehumanizing the soul of America. “Suspected terrorists” have replaced “the Communist scare” as the needed bogeyman to justify America’s global domination.
“Suspected terrorists?” Or, as reported, people like the Afghanistan “villagers, crazed with grief [italics added] . . . collecting mangled bodies in blankets and shawls and piling them on three tractors . . . 113 bodies being buried, including those of many women and children” after “American airstrikes . . . had killed dozens and perhaps more than 100 civilians in western Afghanistan,” and “threaten to stiffen Afghan opposition to the war just as the Obama administration is sending 20,000 more troops to the country?” (The New York Times, May 7, 2009)
“Suspected terrorists?” Or human beings like the Afghan villagers who, the governor of Farah Province was quoted as saying, “brought two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies to his office to prove the casualties that had occurred,” with “everyone at the governor’s office . . . crying watching that shocking scene?” (Ibid)
“Suspected terrorists?” Or, as reported, fathers and brothers like “villagers reached by telephone [who] said many [civilians] were killed by aerial bombing?” (Ibid) “Terrorists?” Or people like the “villagers and Afghan lawmakers [who] disputed the initial American claims that Taliban grenades had caused the casualties?” Villagers like Muhammad Jan, who said, “Later, planes came and bombs fell, but by then no Taliban fighters were in the village?” He continued, “The bomb damage was so extensive that it could not have been caused by grenades. . . . Taliban have no strong weapon to bring these kind of casualties,” and added, “The Taliban did not throw grenades in to civilian homes.” (“The New York Times, May 8, 2009) This account was supported by a later, front-page, New York Times story captioned, “Afghans Recall Airstrike Horror, and Fault U.S.: Death Toll High—Taliban Had Left, Villagers Say.” May 15, 2009)
A few days later the New York Times published a story, headlined ”U.S. Counts Civilian Toll At Far Below Afghan Tally,” which reported, “The American military on Wednesday rejected a claim by the Afghan government that a recent aerial bombing had killed 140 civilians, but acknowledged that 20 to 30 civilians may have been killed.” (May 21, 2009) Two weeks later a front-page New York Times story, entitled “U.S. REPORT FINDS ERRORS IN AFGHAN DEATHS,” told a different story: “A military investigation has concluded that American personnel made significant errors in carrying out some of the airstrikes in western Afghanistan on May 4 that killed dozens of Afghan civilians, according to a senior American military official. . . . The report represents the clearest American acknowledgment of fault in connection with the attacks.” (June 3, 2009). Perceived American lies, about the killing of loved ones and other Afghan civilians, is believed to motivate and outrage civilians, “crazed with grief,” to join the mostly indigenous Afghan Taliban
“Suspected terrorists?” Or people like the “protestors,” for whom “Secretary [of Defense Robert M.] Gates’ remarks did little to relieve the anger?” Gates “accused the Taliban of using civilians as shields and of causing civilian casualties by hiding among noncombatants during attacks in a tactic to divide the population from the government and its American supporters.” (The New York Times, May 8, 2009)
“Suspected terrorists?” Or outraged citizens like those among the Afghan population? As reported, “The [United States Special Operations] forces have often been blamed for nighttime raids on villages, detentions and airstrikes that have brought the population in southern Afghanistan to the point of revolt.” (The New York Times, May 7, 2009).
“Suspected terrorists?” Or fathers and mothers like those reported by the Associated Press? “Civilians cowered in hospital beds and trapped residents struggled to feed their children yesterday as Pakistani war planes . . . encouraged by Washington [italics added] . . . pounded a Taliban-held valley . . . The offensive,” the story continued, “has prompted the flight of hundreds of thousands of terrified residents . . . “ (The Boston Globe, Mat 10, 2009) The number of displaced residents is now reported to be some three million. (The New York Times, June 5, 2009)
“Suspected terrorists?” Or people like poverty-and grief-stricken villagers who, as reported, “trekked to the provincial capital to receive condolence payments from the Afghan government?” How much is an Afghan person’s life worth in American dollars these days? “Relatives received a payment of about $2,000 for family members killed and $1,000 for those injured.” (The Boston Globe, May 13, 2009) The American-financed puppet Afghan government. The capitalistic underwriting of American tyranny, with its immoral mentality that money can fix anything, including the murder of innocent human beings. To devalue life and attempt to buy off grief is to create anti-American outrage.
“Suspected terrorists?” Or human beings like those “crazed with grief,” whose terrible pain is made even more unbearable by the reported predictable apology of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton? “Washington,” she said “‘deeply, deeply’ regrets the loss of life, apparently [italics added] as a result of a bombing there on Monday. ‘Any loss of innocent life is particularly painful.’” (“Clinton Apologizes for Afghan Civilian Deaths,” Associated Press, Military.com, May 6, 2009) Words that comfort the aggrieved or cover the aggressor?.
“Apparently as a result of the bombing there on Monday.” A few days later Reuters reported, “The US military acknowledged yesterday that air strikes in western Afghanistan this week had killed civilians, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan put the death toll at up to 130.” The report continued: “If that toll was confirmed, it would be the deadliest incident affecting Afghan civilians since US-led forces started battling the Taliban in 2001.” (The Boston Globe, May 10, 2009)
“Suspected terrorists?” US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a “surprise visit to Iraq” on Mother’s Day. The “important thing” Pelosi wanted to tell the Iraqi people? Evidently not that they were the tragic victims of a criminal war based on lies. Nor apparently not the resulting deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians. Nor the deadly civil war between the Shiites and Sunnis triggered by the unnecessary war. Nor the uprooting of over four million Iraqi citizens. Nor the devastation of the country’s infrastructure. Protected from “suspected terrorists” in Baghdad’s American-fortified Green Zone, US House Speaker Pelosi was quoted as saying, “ ‘The important thing is that the people of Iraq know that their democracy is very important to the United States and to the world. . . . All of this struggle will be worth it in the end,’ she promised.” (“Pelosi makes surprise visit to Baghdad,” by Jack Dolan, McClatchy Newspapers, Kansas City Star, May 10, 2009)
“Worth it?” To Whom? The Iraqi dead? Their widows? The orphans? The dying? Their loved ones? The injured? Their loved ones? The thousands of US troops dying for a needless war based on lies, and the tens of thousands more wounded in body and mind? Their loved ones? Or the US military industrial complex? The big oil companies? Those now in power in Washington and in Baghdad? The US control of the Middle East?
President Obama engaged in the same torture of the truth during his recent “unannounced trip” to Iraq to visit US troops. A New York Times story reported that his arrival coincided with “a car bomb [that] exploded in Kadhimiya, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad,” killing eight people and wounding two dozen more. The story continued, “That attack was carried out a day after a series of six car bombings killed at least 33 people and wounded scores in an around Baghdad, one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year.” Obama was then reported to have referred to the attack as “this senseless violence.” (Apr. 8, 2009) “This senseless violence?” President Obama’s very “unannounced” presence in Iraq personifies the horrible “senseless violence” America unleashed against the whole country of Iraq.
In Cairo, President Obama remained in denial of the “senseless violence” perpetrated by the U.S. government in our name. Like former President Bush, Obama, predictably, made it “clear that America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam. “We will, however, confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security,” [Bush called them “terrorists.” “Change” you can believe in.] Then came Obama’s denial wrapped in religion [the repeated ploy of the former prayerful president]: “Because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.” (“President Obama Addresses Muslim World in Cairo,” CQ Transcriptwire, The Washington Post, June 4, 2009)
For President Obama, it is apparently about saying it right to cover not doing right. His moral blindspot: The killing– and maiming– of all those “innocent men, women, and children” in Iraq by our government in our name. And now, under his administration, the bombing and “killing of innocent men, women, and children” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the turning of over three million “innocent” Pakistani “men, women, and children” into refugees.
“Suspected terrorists?” What about President Obama? US House Speaker Pelosi? Secretary of State Clinton? Defense Secretary Gates? Washington? The United States Special Operation Forces? Former President George W. Bush? Former Vice President Dick Cheney? The mostly accommodating mainstream media? The 54 percent of regular Sunday churchgoers who support the torture of “suspected terrorists?” The “more than six in 10” white evangelical Protestants who also believe in torture rather than the Golden Rule?
Many professing Christians are oblivious to Jesus’ teaching, “Love your enemies. . . . that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5: 44,45) For these Christians, religion is about having the right belief, not doing right by loving their neighbor as themselves, as Jesus also taught. In fact, belief in torture goes to the theological heart of “right”-believing Christians, who profess: all who do not believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, and thus is their saviour, will suffer horrible torment in hell—forever.
“Taliban.” “Insurgents.” “Militants.” “al-Qaeda.” Violent Islamic forces.” “Islamic militants.” “Extremists.” “Miscreants.” “Antistate elements.” “Suspected terrorists.” Or, as Professor C. G. Estebrook has written, “It should be clear by now that– whether we call them al-Qaeda, Taliban, insurgents, terrorists, or militants—the people whom we are trying to kill in the Middle East are those who want us out of their countries and off their resources.” (“Minion of the Long War,” Counterpunch, May 1-3, 2009).
Our children and grandchildren will remain threatened by “suspected terrorists” until we Americans allow ourselves to see all people as human beings, who laugh and cry and love and hate and grieve and hope as we do. To see each other’s tears and to hear each other’s laughter is to experience each other’s humanness. Therein lies everyone’s security and fulfillment.
Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D. is a hospital chaplain, and a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and a United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics and religion. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.