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March 10, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 2, No. 41

  The price of our security can't be our integrity
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

Some conversations you never forget. One of mine falls under the category of "Things I did not want to believe."

I was in the oval office of Malacanang palace in Manila with the then president of the Philippines, Cory Aquino. We were just two women being women together. No reporters, no secretaries, no chiefs of protocol. The conversation shifted from one point to another, all of them interesting. She was teaching me, a slightly used history teacher, Filipino-American politics. "Ninoy (her assassinated husband) said," she explained, " 'Cory, if you ever work with the Americans, remember this. They have two human rights policies. One they apply inside the United States. The other they apply everywhere else in the world.' "

I remember frowning in disbelief. That couldn't be true. We wouldn't do outside the United States what we would not do within its borders. Yesterday, 16 years later, I discovered just how right she was. It's embarrassing to be in Europe these days.

People simply don't regard Americans the way they did before the invasion of Iraq. Before this, the United States of America -- whatever its reputation for guzzling the resources of the rest of the world, of smudging the atmosphere, of being nationally narcissistic and culturally insensitive -- had an aura of unimpeachable integrity. This was a nation people saw as fair, just, free and democratic. It confessed its sins at Mai Lai in public and repented them. It operated off a set of Boy and Girl Scout standards emulated by most of the rest of the world. Whatever else it may have been, the United States, the average European believed, was honest and decent and played by the rules.

But that's all changed now.

Two media pieces, published and broadcast within hours of one another, prove the point. In the United States, The New York Times ran a piece titled, "U.S. cites array of rights abuses by the Iraqi government in 2004" The report cited "reports of arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, impunity, poor prison conditions and arbitrary arrest and detention."

"What this shows," a senior State Department official said of the report, "is that we don't look the other way. There are countries we support and that are friends, and when they have practices that don't meet international standards, we don't hesitate to call a spade a spade."

No mention, of course, that the Iraqi government named in violation of human rights standards is the puppet government we put in place there. No mention either of Abu Ghraib Prison, which apparently missed the list of prisons not in compliance with such standards because the prisoners within it were ours rather than theirs. Whoever "theirs" is supposed to be in an environment where we toppled one government guilty of human rights offenses and then created another one of our own. Ironic, to say the least.

But the real irony of the piece lay in the fact that hours before the publication of the paper, British television's Channel 4, showed "Is Torture a Good Idea?" for their prime time "Choice" of the evening.

The show featured Clive Stafford-Smith, a human rights lawyer whose clients include prisoners from Guantanamo Bay.

Guantanamo Bay -- this administration's attempt to evade U.S. laws governing prisoner detention -- held over 500 prisoners, many of them in human kennels for most of the time. They were presumed guilty and held for three years. Without charging them with anything. Without access to lawyers. Without contact with home. Others were farmed out to client prisons in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, our "archipelago of prisons."

Worst of all, Stafford-Smith reported, many detainees were simply picked up in random street sweeps carried out by bands of Iraqi bounty hunters who were paid by the Americans $5000 a head to do so.

Then, the politics of fear -- torture -- took over. A middle-aged yogurt vendor, who looked numbly into the wall as he talked, spent three years in custody and had a stick stuck up his rectum to make him "talk." He was released without charge. "They never even apologized," he said.

A younger Iraqi man, Richard Belmar, was beaten with sticks until his skull fractured. He, too, was released -- epileptic and frightened.

Two of the returned men, Sandy Mitchell and James Cottle, were shackled and hung over a bar, their bare buttocks to their torturers who beat them until they passed out and then started over again, for five days, until they began to hallucinate. "You can't get a lawyer unless you plead guilty," an American naval lawyer explained. "And I did," one of the men explain. "There was nothing here worth dying for."

It's all being done on the grounds that as Tony Blair put it, "This is a different kind of war." But the torture methods being used are called "The Vietnam" -- which means it has been being done for a long, long time now.

It's all being done, too, on charges based on "secret" evidence -- the kind the accused never has a chance to refute.

It's being done, they tell us, "to keep America safe." But America is paying dearly for this security. And getting nothing out of it. What was once said of France at the time of the French Revolution, of the Tower of London and of the Stalinist era in Russia is now being said of the United States and Britain. The United States went so far in the Iraqi war as to redefine internationally recognized definitions of torture to argue that nothing but death or organ failure qualified. The shift in national integrity has not gone unnoticed.

From where I stand it's clear: Torture is ineffective. Torturers don't get the truth; they get only what they want to hear, which is how they know when to stop, apparently. As Mike Baker, an ex-CIA agent put it, "You can make anybody say anything. What you can't do is have any confidence in what they say." Ticking bomb or no ticking bomb.

More than that, torture is unjustified. It is itself terrorism.

Those who support torture argue that it is simply used to get information. The problem with the argument is that torturers have no idea whatsoever that a person has information to give. Unless, of course, they have already made up their minds without benefit of proof, of trial, or of just judgment. In which case they wouldn't need torture at all.

But what is even clearer is this: The real threat to this nation is not terrorism, it is the kind of nationalism that gives away what once made this nation worth defending.

By the way, they will be showing three more programs on British television this week about torture in American prisons, "Land of the free and home of the brave."

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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