Monday, June 12, 2006

Torture Is Wrong

Artwork by Octavio Roth

It doesn't take much for me to get writer's block. What seemed to bring it on this time was an effort, Bloggers Against Torture an alliance of bloggers in support of Torture Awareness Month. More specifically a promise to do a post sometime in June about torture I made at the end of May. It didn't help that I composed a post and then my browser froze and I lost most of it and have to reconstruct it now.

I've had plenty of time to think, and I've collected more links than I know what to do with. Yet I still don't know what to write. I'm against torture. Torture is wrong. Thinking about torture makes my limbs weak and my stomach ache.

When I was a boy I changed schools in the fifth grade. Christ Church Episcopal School is a private school and most of the other students had started together in primer, so I was lowest on the pecking order.

The winds of change were stirring in the mid-sixties in the American South. Two summers before I was enrolled at the school my mother had taught a racially integrated class which was part of the earliest beginnings of Head Start. These classes were the first racially integrated public school classes in Greenville since the late 1800's. The year I was in fifth-grade the news was all about how the next year the public schools would implement a very feeble desegregation plan, which allowed students to choose the closest school to where they lived. A huge uproar ensued; the local paper fulminated against it. Just a few years earlier Greenville had shuttered its public library rather than allow it to become integrated.

The upshot of this was that the private school where I went had to make some decisions. The first decision was whether it was a racially segregated school. They answered, "no" and made plans to admit black students, but only beginning in the primmer class. The second decision was how the school would respond to enrollments for the most part that decision was answered by the first.

In hindsight the school's decisions seem quite tepid. The decisions could have gone the other way as hundreds of all-white "Christian" schools in the South attest. Greenville is also home to Bob Jones University, a determined advocate for racial segregation. Bob Jones is an important stop for political stump speeches for Republicans running for national office. The story goes that Bob Jones University has changed, but not so much.

With a year of school under my belt a few new students arrived for sixth grade, and one was from a Bob Jones family. The American South has many traditions and an essential tradition inculcating a "culture of honor" is bullying. I was bullied mercilessly throughout my fifth-grade year.

At the end of summer my mother told me that my father wanted me to play football--my brother had been a high school football star. Perhaps it had something to do with my being called every variation on the theme "faggot," but they had to know I hated football. In any case, I was dutifully suited up to play. In the locker room one day after practice the big boys started bullying the Bob Jones boy, who was very enthusiastic about football. I saw it as a chance to work my way up the pecking order and joined in. Students at that time took a bus from the school to the YMCA for physical education. On the bus back to school I felt sick over my great crime. I was sick about joining in the bullying for days. I never repaired my transgression with the boy, so now all I can do is to silently say his name and wish for forgiveness, as I've done many times over the years. He only lasted that one year at the school and as I think back mustn't have had a single friend the whole year. Still, I feel grateful for the experience because I learned that some things to gain acceptance by others weren't worth doing for the sake of ones own peace.

It's easy to imagine those who torture as "monsters," but the truth seems that we are all capable of torture as childhood cruelties attest. I don't have piercings and no tattoos for me. Of course I don't want to be tortured, nobody does. To hear about torture is quite distressing not just from the horror of the pain inflicted, but from the recognition of what it does to those who torture.

I thought of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and Haiti when contemplating torture. One of the troubling aspects current American notions of terrorism is that it's a single flavor which goes by the name Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately there are many more flavors than that and Duvalier reign offers a disturbing template of private armies, based on the previous example of Italian BLackshirts and German Brownshirts, funded by crime and extortion enforced by torture and terror layered with religious zealotry.

John Maxwell writes for the Jamaica Observer. He's been called many things, among them "a journalist's journalists" and is surely a wonderful essayist. At Chicken Bones: A Journal is a handy collection of his essays. If you're not already familiar with Chicken Bones click on Home and check it out. Maxwell frequently writes about Haiti. In a column a couple of years ago An Ozymandias Moment Maxwell is critical of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as policies toward Haiti. He makes an essential observation:
But, it is clear to me, that any government which is unable to recognise the essential human dignity of any human being is obviously not civilised.
President Bush has declared: "We do not torture." Alas, there is so much evidence to the contrary.

The list of American traditions, conventions and legal obligations against torture is long. In 2001 Richard Du Boff made a list of changes in American commitments to legal obligations of international law. This was prior to the Guantanemo Prison which has made our legal contortions even more extreme. It seems useful to consider that the novel claims of legal authority which the Bush administration have taken existed prior to the day that "changed everything." And with an interpretation of presidential authority existing above the law the charge to "take the gloves off" was an easy slide.

"We do not torture" but then again it's hard to know. The revised US Army Field Manual for Interrogation, previously a transparent public document, now contains ten secret pages. But we do know that the manual abandons a key component of the Geneva Conventions banning "humiliating and degrading treatment." Aparently for the president it all depends on the "meaning" of torture and the artful interpretation of the laws.

John Robb notes that as the news about what happened in Haditha "filters out" that it becomes plain that a paradox put forwar in Martin van Creveld's book The Transformation of War is in play. Robb helpfully provides and excerpt:
In other words, he who fights against the weak - and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed - and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force, however rich, however powerful, however advanced, however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat...
My horoscope in today's paper warned me against singing to the choir. My presumption is that the choir composed of people against torture must be very large indeed. But with news of Guantanemo, Abu Gharib and extraordinary rendition opposition to torture clearly has broad support. Also in the paper today right wing columnist, Ruth Ann Dailey excoriates the left for failing to celebrate the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I think Ruth Ann Dailey's contention that Zarqawi's death was met with silence on liberal and progressive blogs. But what her explicit condemnation of the left for not being on the side of civilization is a good example of how difficult the national conversation has become.

Being against torture ought not be a politically partisan issue. For the American right the "War on Terror" is a contest between civilizations. To the right in this contest no action can be too extreme in order to win.

Study by the Union of Concerned Scientist predict that the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the form of "bunker buster" bombs against suspected nuclear sites in Iran would result in one million deaths and an additional ten million affected by increased cancer risks. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PDF file) report that in one scenario using computer models the deaths were as many as three million. Yet when Seymor Hersh reported on planning against Iran's nuclear installations including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the dominate controversy was whether Hersh is with us or with them.

The illustration is of Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey envisions "civilization" as American Christian Empire over all and at the expense of all other human civilization, and she's hardly alone. I agree with John Maxwell that any government and anyone who doesn't recognize "the essential human dignity of any human person is obviously not civilized." My hope and prayer is that we can increase human civilization. Understanding that torture is wrong is essential to that movement.


pingting said...

What do I think of Western civilization? I think it would be a very good idea.
Mahatma Gandhi

this post is an amazing one. you are a craftsman with words + language.
the most interesting part for me is where you describe your childhood
experience with bullies and bullying. it seems to get at the heart of the matter.
today's bullies on the world stage were most likely bullied themselves,
and possibly they've not gotten over the pain or anger from these experiences.
i suggest that people who think it OK to torture one another, are for the most part tortured
souls themselves. this is a vicious cycle. luckily, as a child you had grace and sensitivity,
which enabled you to see and feel the pain of others, as you felt it yourself.
i think this is what buddhists refer to as compassion.
what christ meant when he said: love thine enemies. they become our greatest teachers.

yes, the world is a mess. it seems to me it has always been that way. the anxiety of the
modern condition is that we are bombarded with way too much bad horrible destructive news. the airwaves are filled
with mostly anger and rage and fear and it spreads like a cancer.
it just keeps multiplying like tiny cells of hate. hating republicans, hating democrats, hating moslems,
hating born agains, etc...i don't want to talk about politics and religion- i want to talk about love.
we are all mirrors to each other. mass media becomes our reflection. i don't like what i see either. i have chosen
to stop looking (at the TV news, magazines, the newspapers, the radio) in effort to keep myself centered in
my reality. my reality is what i can deal with. i try to be kind and gentle in the world each day. if i water the
plants around me, and tend to them, they will hopefully grow well and the bees will come and the flowers
will flourish and spread. we can "do" more (to help the world condition). it's hard to see, say sometimes. join the cause. react. fight back.
yes, more and more i've found my way of "doing" is simply "being". like gandhi says: become the peace you wish for the world.
i believe like a pebble in a pool it will radiate out. i see the subtle and profound effects this brings to the/this/my world around me.

it's funny because i make my living in the media, but really i want no part of it. i wish you would try to
remove yourself from the media for a while. try it for a week, and then try another. see what happens
or how your perception of it has changed after the experiment. maybe there is such a thing, but
i wish american's would institute a day without media.

yesterday a weekly magazine called time arrived at my door. there was a picture of zarqawi on the cover with
a bloody X across his face. it was a remake of the 1945 cover time did of hitler. i think they also ran a similar
cover when saddam hussein was captured. am i supposed to be happy about this murder? proud? less afraid now?
to me the news media now is entirely an entertainment. i'm not intrigued by this.
like going to the movies, which i stopped doing some years ago, because i found life much more
interesting than the movies. i can barely stand to sit through those violent previews.
enough torture.
peace dear friend.

phil jones said...

Agreed Pingting. But I think Kaunda's story is more interesting than simply "today's bullies on the world stage were most likely bullied themselves"

He's giving us clues as to how the mechanism might work. How you feel that you want to assert that someone else is *more* deserving of being targetted than you; how you want to show you are capable of being part of the aggressive group (and possibly implying that you are able to stand-up for yourself); how you want to show that you are a member of the in-group rather than the despised out-group.

To say "I could have been a torturer, given the right circumstances" is a powerful, honest and insightful message for a anti-torture post.