Drawing a Line in a Time of Moral Decay: the Mission of William Alberts

William Alberts speaking at the 95th anniversary of the Community Church of Boston.

I learned early this week that my friend and longtime CounterPunch contributor Bill Alberts had died at the age of 94. Bill had been sick for a while with 4th stage kidney disease and colon cancer. Then he contracted COVID and was placed in hospice care, hoping, his wife Eva told me, to write one more essay for CounterPunch. Bill was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever encountered: kind, humane, fearless, and  funny. He was a clear thinker with a fierce moral sensibility and an undeviating passion for justice. I certainly mourn his loss, but he lived a rich and vast life, a life most of us would envy, despite its many hardships and challenges. A few years ago, Bill asked me to write the introduction to his book, The CounterPunching Minister Who Could Not be Preyed Away, and I was very honored to do so. What follows is a slightly modified version of that essay, originally written in 2014. Pace, Bill.  

Americans want to be loved, yet are feared almost everywhere in the world. Americans see themselves as just and righteous, yet daily countenance harrowing transgressions of international law and basic human rights.

We believe ourselves to be agents of freedom, yet most of us refuse to reflect on the ethical consequences of our imperial aggressions. We prefer not to know what is done in our name, not to see the mounds of corpses that litter the distant rims of the world from American missile and drone strikes. We don’t want to know, because such an inquiry threatens the essential tenets of our self-identity, undermines the comforting fabric of our beliefs, shatters the spectral illusion of our national psyche.

What does it take to excite America’s moral nerve endings?

Bombing kids with cluster bombs or shredding wedding parties with drone attacks doesn’t seem to do it any more. Nor does torture. Oh, sure, there was a collective gasp when lurid photos of American soldiers laughing as they prodded naked Iraqi captives with electrodes or threatened anguished prisoners with snarling German shepherds. But the outrage soon faded, the scenes soon acquiring the familiarity of a re-run of the Sopranos.

Torture, naturally, is nothing new. One of the darkest threads of US imperial history has been the CIA’s involvement with torture, as an instructor at the School of the Americas, as a practitioner, or a contractor to experienced hands in Egypt, South Africa or Honduras.

Since its inception the CIA has taken a keen interest in torture, avidly studying Nazi techniques and protecting exponents such as Klaus Barbie. The CIA’s official line is that torture is wrong and ineffective. It is indeed morally bankrupt. However, on numerous occasions it has proved diabolically effective.

In the months after the 9/11 attacks, “truth drugs” were hailed by some columnists, such as Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, for use in the war against al-Qaeda. This was an enthusiasm shared by the US Navy after the war on Hitler, when its intelligence officers got on the trail of Dr. Kurt Plotner’s research into “truth serums” at Dachau. Plotner gave Jewish and Russian prisoners high doses of mescaline and then observed their behavior, in which they expressed hatred for their guards and made confessional statements about their own psychological makeup.

As part of the MK-ULTRA project, the CIA gave money to Dr. Ewen Cameron at McGill University in Montreal. Cameron was a pioneer in sensory-deprivation techniques. The doctor once locked a woman in a small white box for thirty-five days, deprived of light, smell and sound. The CIA doctors were amazed by this “experiment.” The knew from their own “research” into sensory-deprivation tanks in 1955 that severe psychological reactions had been induced in less than forty hours. Start torturing, even in the name of “science,” and it’s easy to get carried away.

In 1968, the CIA got frustrated by its inability to break suspected leaders of Vietnam’s National Liberation Front by its usual methods of interrogation and torture. So the agency began to adopt more aggressive methods. In one instance it anesthetized three prisoners, opened their skulls and planted electrodes in their brains. They were revived, put in a room and given knives. The CIA psychologists then activated the electrodes, hoping the prisoners would attack each other. They didn’t. The electrodes were removed, the prisoners shot, and their bodies burned. (For a full account of these and similar atrocities see Douglas Valentine’s excellent book on the CIA in Vietnam The Phoenix Program.)

In recent years the United States has been charged by the UN and also human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International with tolerating torture in American prisons, by methods ranging from solitary, twenty-three-hours-a-day confinement in concrete boxes for years on end, to activating 50,000 volt shocks through a mandatory belt worn by prisoners. Many of the Military Police guards at Abu Ghraib and Bagram prisons earned their stripes working as guards in federal and state prisons, where official abuse is a daily occurrence almost unnoted by the corporate press. Indeed, Charles Granier, one of the chief abusers at Abu Ghraib and the lover of Lynndie England, the Trailer Park Torturer, worked as a guard at Pennsylvania’s notorious Greene Correctional Unit and after his tour in Iraq was over went back to work there before being arrest, tried and convicted for his sadistic activities in Iraq.

Then there is the story of Abu Wa’el Dhiab. Swept up during raids in Pakistan in 2002, Mr. Dhiab was brutally interrogated numerous times, shuttled from one CIA controlled prison to another, before being warehoused in the grim corridors of Guantanamo Bay. By that time any suspicions that Mr. Dhiab might be a terrorist had long been extinguished. In 2009, Mr. Dhiab was cleared for release, but the father of four remained locked his cell. He has never been charged or tried. Over his years of confinement, Mr. Dhiab’s health began to deteriorate. He ultimately became restricted to a wheelchair. With little hope going home and seeing his family again, Mr. Dhiab began a hunger strike in 2014. He said he’d rather die than continue to live such a confined and hopeless existence. A few days into his hunger strike, Gitmo guards entered his cell, removed him to a medical room, shacked him to a gurney, inserted feeding tubes in his nostrils and down his throat and began force-feeding him liquid nutrition against his will. The force-feeding process has been condemned by the UN Human Rights Commission and World Medical Association as a painful and humiliating form of torture.

These gratuitous cruelties were being inflicted for his own good, the government’s lawyers argued. In other words, Mr. Dhiab should have been grateful for this excruciating experience, he was the recipient of compassionate torture.

Thus does torture destroy the tortured and corrupt the society that sanctions it.

How much will we tolerate? At what point will Americans draw the line? What will it take to rouse us from our moral torpor? How is it that one of the world’s most self-consciously religious nations passively tolerates and rationalizes extreme violations of cherished codes of ethical conduct? When will we revolt at the horrors committed by our government and seek to reassert popular control over our fragmenting democracy? These are the core themes raised in the thinking, writing and ministering of Rev. William E. Alberts.

Few writers are better positioned to fashion these inquiries than Bill Alberts. A veteran of World War II, Alberts returned from the Pacific, and became motivated to work for peace and social justice, to minister to the poor and underprivileged. He received a Masters in Divinity at Wesley Theological Seminary (right next door to my alma mater, American University, in Washington, DC), followed by a doctorate in psychology and pastoral counseling at Boston University. In 1965 he was appointed co-minister of the Old West Church in the heart of Boston, where he directed its social programs.

It was a fraught time in Boston, as both the civil rights and anti-war movements were beginning to make things uncomfortable for the elites. Bill was right in the middle of it all, reporting on police violence against hippies camped out on Boston Common, participating in anti-war protests, providing sanctuary for the pro-Cuban Venecremos Brigade, facilitating a Conference-wide group calling for the investigation of racism alleged against a member of the Methodist Conference’s hierarchy itself, and writing articles on these issues, published in The Boston Globe.

In 1971, Alberts performed the same-sex marriage of two women at the Old West Church. Despite having the backing of the church’s Parish Relations Committee, the ceremony, like certain of his other involvements, unnerved the hierarchy of the Methodist Conference, who’s Book of Discipline admonishes that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Even so, two years later Alberts presided over the same-sex marriage of two male church members, both of whom had been students at the Boston University School of Theology. This marriage infuriated the bishop of the church and a few months later the Conference instituted proceedings to forcibly retire Alberts from his position, despite the fact that members of the Old West Church’s Council on Ministries had rallied to his defense.

That’s when matters turned ugly. Alberts’ bishop and other leaders of the Conference launched a vicious campaign of character assassination, meant to smear him, not just as a pastor of the church but as a man. The two church leaders tracked down Alberts’ former psychiatrist, induced him to breech the confidence of his psychiatric sessions and used these allegations to publicly brand Alberts as “mentally ill.” Alberts immediately countered this shocking betrayal of his privacy by offering himself up for examination by two other psychiatrists and a psychologist who pronounced him in sound mental and emotional health. These assessments were ignored by the bishop and Alberts was dismissed.

The story didn’t end there. Alberts sued, charging that the psychiatrist and the bishop had violated his privacy rights. After 12 years of hearings and appeals, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in Alberts’ favor, holding both the psychiatrist and the bishop liable for breeching his rights. The landmark ruling set a precedent; protecting the rights of workers and whistleblowers against unlawful incursions into their private affairs by bosses attempting to terminate their employment.

This dismal experience only hardened Alberts’ resolve. As minister at the non-sectarian Community Church of Boston, he helped lead the New England effort to provide sanctuary for Guatemalan refugees fleeing the US-sponsored death squads that were ravaging their country. In 1989, Bill was part of a team that went to El Salvador to investigate an army attack on a rebel field hospital, where 10 people were killed and two medical workers raped.

For nearly 20 years, Alberts also served as a hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, where he got a first-hand look at how trauma, illness and death can radically alter the lives of American families. Alberts wrote about his experiences there in his evocative memoir, A Hospital Chaplin at the Crossroads of Humanity, released in 2012.

I first encountered Bill in 2004, when a submission landed in my inbox at CounterPunch titled “Faith-Based Deceptions.” The essay was a calmly-worded, meticulously argued demolition of the false pieties of the Bush crowd, which was using the cover of religion to pursue a vicious imperialistic agenda abroad and cruel economic policies at home. Over the next ten years, the essays kept coming, one after another, on drones, war, torture, health care, economic inequality, bigotry. Alberts, a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of six, will soon be 88 years old, but his voice is as clear and resonant as ever.

Bill Alberts is a moralist, but never a moralizer. Alberts understands human weakness and failings. He’s seen it up close. He has tended to the wreckage. As a witness to the savage history of our generation, Alberts argues that weakness is not the enemy. Indifference to suffering is the real foe; indifference, lack of empathy, is what saps us of our moral footing.

The real struggle of our generation is to resist the machinations of a political system that renders people into a state of powerlessness, into mere objects of exploitation, into things. To abstain from this struggle is, in essence, to confirm the crimes that are being committed in our name. Our humanity accrues meaning only to the extent that we defend the humanity of others.

Booked Up
What I’m reading this week…

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity
Tony Ord

Autopsy of a Crime Lab: Exposing the Flaws in Forensics
Brandon L. Garrett
(University of California)

In the Jaws of the Crocodile: a Soviet Memoir
Emil Draitser
(University of Wisconsin)

Sound Grammar

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and London Symphony Orchestra
(Luaka Bop)

The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
Valerie June
(Concord / Fantasy)

sincerely, e
Elizabeth & the Catapult

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3