May 26, 2004
Torture and America
BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Recent Army reports, Red Cross prison visits, and investigations by other non-governmental organizations document widespread abuses committed by U.S. personnel dating back to the start of the so-called "war on terror." My military experience and conversations with other veterans leaves me no doubt that torturing prisoners -- from Guantanamo to Iraq to Afghanistan -- is systemic.
This state of affairs didnít begin in Baghdad with enlisted military police, a fact brought home to me when Army Private Lynndie England was interviewed about her involvement in the torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison.
Lynndie -- infamously photographed with a cigarette clamped in her mouth, thumbs up as Iraqi men were forced to masturbate in front of her -- is a small town girl, and I felt nothing but sorrow as the pathetic young woman in a drab summer dress told America she was only following orders, and that she felt no guilt about the crimes in Abu Ghraib.
I wondered, how could someone who seems like a decent human being find it acceptable to abuse, humiliate, rape, and torture other human beings? How could she find the orders of her superiors lawful? How could she witness such sadistic behavior and not object to it, as a couple of her comrades did?
Unfortunately, like Lynndie, far too many of my fellow Americans see nothing wrong with the atrocities in military jails like Abu Ghraib. So, the rationalizations rush like water from a spigot: These were pranks, blowing off steam, getting information, confronting terrorism, returning the favor, an eye for an eye, protecting freedom, bringing democracy, giving them what they deserve, itís what they do to us, treating Arabs in a way they understand.
Never mind that 70-90% of the detainees in Iraq were innocent of any crime according to their own tormentors. Never mind that those dismissing these abuses would call it torture if it were them -- or a family member -- who was raped, paraded naked, sodomized with a broom handle, or attacked by military dogs as cameras snapped away. Never mind that such treatment undermines every treaty we've ever signed and every value America ever claimed to stand for.
Iím overwhelmed not just by the accused culpritís lack of remorse about U.S. war crimes, but also by the lack of concern emanating from every segment of our society. The troopsí dishonorable behavior makes me feel ashamed to be a veteran, and Iím ashamed to be an American when I hear someone defend such indefensible acts.
A nation that engages in torture, or sends people to other countries that will torture them (as weíve done since 9/11), is not a nation worth respect. A government that refuses to stop such crimes and repent for them is on par with bloody regimes weíve long condemned. A society that rationalizes crimes against humanity with the excuse that "weíre not as bad as them" is at the brink of spiritual collapse.
To what are we as a nation setting our moral compass? Who sets the bar? I was taught growing up that we should live up to Americaís highest ideals, not lower ourselves to the level of criminals. If terrorists and tyrants become the standard for our conduct, what makes us better than them? And where will such a race to the bottom end?
As responsible as they are for their actions, Lynndie England and her fellow low-ranking service members shouldnít be scapegoats for an entire society that focuses on most problems through the lens of violence.
It begins with our political leaders. When they donít uphold the principles America is supposed to represent; when they send our youth to kill and die in illegal, unprovoked wars; when they manipulate us with lies and perverted logic; when they inspire us to violence by tweaking our fears and exploiting our prejudices; when they excuse war crimes committed in our name; then surely the fault doesnít start at the bottom.
Matters arenít helped when citizens cocoon their minds in the flag, contort the Bible, or blindly march in political lockstep to justify the unjust. Focused on the flag, the super-patriots forget the Constitution; our own religious extremists hardly differ in dogma from the repressive regimes and religious sects they wish to destroy; and political zealots parrot the soundbites of their leaders as they abandon critical thought and introspection.
The torture weíve inflicted and seem to condone shows that America is close to losing its soul. If we are to rescue it we must re-examine and embrace the values that make any society great and worthy of respect. We can begin by ending the occupation of Iraq. The longer it continues the more desensitized weíll become to the suffering and slaughter of more human beings.
If we donít radically change our course, if we donít start visualizing the world through a lens of nonviolence, America will fall much like the Roman Empire. We canít keep going in the same direction and expect to arrive at a different destination. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best when he said that our fate wasnít a choice between violence and nonviolence: itís a choice between nonviolence and nonexistence.
We must make that choice today.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Spokane resident Mike Kress is a Gulf veteran who left the Air Force
as a conscientious objector. He serves as vice chair on the Spokane Human
Rights Commission and sits on the steering committee of the Peace and
Justice Action League of Spokane. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Articles in the BuzzFlash Contributor section are posted as-is. Given the timeliness of some Contributor articles, BuzzFlash cannot verify or guarantee the accuracy of every word. We strive to correct inaccuracies when they are brought to our attention.