Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 26: "Torture"

(Note to CCbloggers: The site is directing you to this post by mistake. My most recent post on Biocentrism is here.)

I have resisted writing about US government torture I suspect primarily because it is such an ugly, uncomfortable topic. Like most people, I’d just rather not look. It’s also a very complicated topic and, frankly, I just haven’t been sure I had anything worthwhile to say. The issue now seems to be coming to a head so that to not say anything itself makes a statement.

The recently released government memos, the Red Cross report, and the multiplying stories of investigative journalists make clear that in the years after 9/11 horrendous things occurred to persons in American custody, which were authorized by our government. No one is really disputing that. There have been basically four responses to these revelations: 1) what occurred was necessary to our safety and legally justified, 2) whether right or wrong it’s over and we need to focus all our energies on current problems, 3) it’s essential the full story be told through an official investigation, and 4) laws were broken and the guilty need to be prosecuted and punished no matter who they are.

Whenever things go badly wrong, in any area of our life, our natural inclination is to get past it as quickly as possible: a personal tragedy, the breakup of a relationship, a failed business endeavor. The event itself was difficult enough and dwelling on it or returning to it just reignites the pain. Nonetheless we know that often, return we must. Sometimes it is to tie off loose ends, sometimes it is to repay people who have been hurt by our mistakes, and sometimes it is to learn more in order to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

I believe that in this episode of government authorized torture, as painful as it might be (and it will be painful), return to it we must.

At this point I am not advocating any particular process. Rather, I am relying on a principle articulated in John’s gospel when Jesus says we must know the truth because the truth “will set you free”. I am convinced that this episode will be for the country a disease which, if not treated, will continue to fester and afflict us for years to come. We all know that painful episodes which we try to brush under the rug only return again and again, growing worse in the process. We need to go through this national surgery and take this tumor out.

There is no disputing that this is a complicated issue but that is all the more reason for this inquiry. We can’t be put off by its difficulty. Even more, we can’t be put off by the prospect of our own embarrassment. As with a member of our own family, our immediate reaction is to assume our country’s innocence and defend its behavior: “My country right or wrong.” And this is amplified in a democracy because at some level we the citizens are responsible for our government’s behavior. If our leaders do wrong, then we have done wrong because we put them in office and they govern on our behalf.

It’s always difficult to admit our mistakes but we know it is also mark of character and maturity. I have been watching a PBS series telling the story of American Indians, from the arrival of the Pilgrims onward. It is a very sad story, painful to watch, yet one that has important lessons to teach. In many ways it is not unlike the culture clashes we are experiencing now in this time of globalization. It is not only about greed and power but also fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. What the program makes evident is how much the whole country lost in the suppression and exploitation of the Indians and how deep a scar it left on our national character.

The saga of slavery is a very similar one and in both instances what has been important is for the nation to say at some point, “This is not us. A mistake was made. We must not let anything like it happen again.” That is the point we must come to in the story of the torturing of prisoners held in American custody. And we will only get to that point with a public airing of the whole story. As Sen. John McCain has said, “It's not about who they are. It's about who we are."

As I write this I am surprised to find tears coming into my eyes. The emotions behind this episode are apparently much stronger than I am aware, and I am probably not alone in that. I am angry, sad, embarrassed but I suspect most importantly, I am deeply ashamed. “This is my country, the country that I love. How could this have happened?” And so I understand completely FOX newsman Sid Fox literally pounding the table on air and saying, “"We are America! We do not fucking torture!"

And yet, we did.

Which brings up another, broader aspect of this episode: the increasing distance and alienation of Americans from their government. In the current financial crisis, we know that many millions of us did stupid things. However, we also are increasingly aware that the stage was set for all this by systems established with government sanction and bought and paid for by lobbyists and campaign contributors. The bailouts have been a continuation of this manipulation. Similarly, the decisions surrounding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were almost all made behind closed doors, including those of closed congressional committees.

Certainly secrecy is necessary at times but what has been the exception is increasingly becoming the norm. The slogans about the need for transparency and accountability are right and they must be made into reality. Allowing decision to be made secretly for expediency will only work as a policy when it is known that eventually, at a later date, “everything will be revealed”. Into this ugly scene we must bring the lamp out from under the bushel so that it will illuminate “all in the house”. We may not like what we see, but see it we must. Justice demands it and our future requires it.

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