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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

May 25, 2004
   Vol. 2, No. 7

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

The situation did not start in Abu Ghraib

By Joan Chittister,OSB

It's been a difficult month for the American psyche. First, the Boy Scout image that we like to give U.S. military activity around the world wound up tarnished a bit. Pictures of abused prisoners in Iraq's torture chamber at Abu Ghraib didn't belong to Saddam Hussein anymore. They belonged to us. But the real fear is that the situation did not start in Abu Ghraib.

When the young woman, a catechist from El Salvador, came into the room, I had no idea what to expect. It was in the early '80s. The civil wars in Latin America were raging out of control. The words "paramilitary" and "freedom fighters" had entered the U.S. vocabulary: The people called the civilian thugs sent to do official dirty work in unofficial ways "paramilitaries." Ronald Reagan called these forces armed by the U.S. in countries whose governments the U.S. wanted to overthrow "freedom fighters." Whatever the term, the tactics were all the same.

But the infection may be deeper than the military. Deeper than we like to believe. Maybe the infection starts here. With us.
"U.S. advisors come from the School of the Americas and teach them how to torture and kill us," the catechist told the group of church people. I was incredulous. Why kill catechists, of all people? Because the catechists were using the Gospel, she told us, to help people see that Jesus wanted the establishment to treat the peasants and the poor of society with compassion and justice.

She told of young boys recruited for the army, trained by U.S. "consultants" and then sent out to practice their "homework" by picking up people at random -- one time a 16-year-old boy on his way home from market with a chicken for his mother -- tearing off their fingernails or gouging out their eyes to make them "talk," then leaving them to die on the side of the road.

"Impossible," we said. "Americans wouldn't do that." But then, over the years, the pattern began to emerge: Massacres in Korea, massacres in My Lai and the Kuwaiti desert, paramilitaries in Chile and El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And now, this time, the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

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The pictures from Abu Ghraib are chilling displays of the objectification, the reduction to nothingness, of an enemy to the point that anything done to them -- rape, beatings, assault dog attacks, murder of the defenseless -- in the name of "freedom" is acceptable. Even necessary. Actually patriotic.

It's an image that smacks of stories about other countries, other dictators. Maybe Pinochet in Chile or Hitler in Germany. Botha in South Africa, perhaps, but never of us. Our pictures, the pictures we cherish in our American hearts, are of American troops handing out chocolate to German children, handing out food packages to Ethiopians, smiling as women throw flowers at our tanks. We topple dehumanizing governments; we don't imitate them. Well, not usually. At least not if someone is watching.

But the infection may be deeper than the military. Deeper than we like to believe. Maybe the infection starts right here. With us.

Two letters to the editor appeared in a daily paper in small-town U.S.A. this week. The headline the paper gave the first one -- "Apologize Later" -- was direct and to the point. The letter read:

Civilized warfare: An oxymoron if I ever heard one. President Bush is kowtowing to those who are appalled by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq when he should remind people that the number one rule of war is, there are no rules. War means that soldiers can justifiably kill our enemy. Since torture is a less violent act than murder, soldiers can torture prisoners to get valuable information that could save soldiers' lives and perhaps even save our country.

Maybe it's time to stop trying to clean up a naturally despicable act like war and send our soldiers the correct message.

Rip off their fingernails if that's what it takes to find and defeat the enemy, that they may never claw at us again.

Rip out their eyes if that's what it takes, that they may never set their sight on our destruction again.

Cut out their tongues if it helps us win that they may never spread hatred and contempt for America again.

Cut off their arms if that's what it takes to achieve victory that they may never lift another hand against us or their innocent citizens.

Survival at any cost must be our only objective.

There will be plenty of time to apologize after we win the war.

It's a well-written letter. If only it were a true one.

In the first place, the "enemy" we're torturing are average Iraqi citizens picked up on sweeps in the hope of garnering "information." Only 600 of the thousands held without charge in Abu Ghraib had any kind of either criminal or military record, and most of the others will now, finally, be released.

In the second place, American survival is not -- and never was -- threatened by Iraq, unless the hatred we leave behind is really the weapon of mass destruction we were looking for and had to create in order to find.

In the third place, Iraq had nothing to do with the fall of the Twin Towers. There is, then, whether we are ready to admit it or not, no justifiable argument in favor of the invasion of that entire country.

No wonder that in Cuba this week a million people paraded in the streets after our government announced its intention to destabilize Cuba now. They carried a poster of George Bush with a paintbrush mustache. That photo will probably never be seen in U.S. newspapers, but its message to the peoples in whose papers it is printed is only too clear.

The second letter to the editor in this same small newspaper that day purported to identify the real problem with the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib. This letter said, in part:

The true crime in this matter has been committed by the journalists who published the pictures. The First Amendment can and should be a right of every citizen, but it should be balanced by the reasoned reality that exercising the First Amendment should only be for the betterment of America, since the First Amendment is only applicable here. Imagine, if you will, that prisoner abuse goes on in every war and it is a dirty little secret. ... There is too much journalistic freedom today and, in some respects, it is hurting the country.

We kid ourselves into believing that our wars are glorious, our wars are good.
The abuse of prisoners of war, the disdain for international law, the shattering of American ideals, the disregard for civil rights, we are apparently intended to believe, is not hurting the country. At least not unless, of course, they are American prisoners and American rights. St. Augustine wrote once: "The sword with which we would kill the enemy must pass first through our own hearts." Maybe it already has.

From where I stand, it looks as if maybe it is really we who have died, we who have destroyed what we once thought was the American spirit, we who have become what we said we hated -- only bigger and better, meaner and leaner, tougher and more vile -- we who kid ourselves into believing that our wars are glorious, our wars are good. In which case, if we allow it to continue, it is we, not the soldiers, who must be held accountable, not for war's "dirty little secret" but for war's dirty little lie.

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